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Netflix's witchy drama is having a good time, but it's hollow
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is Riverdale turned inside out. Netflix's witchy drama, which returns for the second half of its first season on Friday (though you'd be forgiven for thinking of it as Season 2), shares a universe with The CW's angsty teen hit -- but the scope of the action is inverted, shrunk down until it's comically mundane. In Part 2, the devil himself comes to our heroine at night and tests her loyalty by asking her to steal a pack of gum. If Riverdale's central thesis is that forming a vigilante gang is normal small-town teen stuff, Sabrina pivots on the idea that stealing gum is normal Satanic cult stuff.
That's not a complaint. The most entertaining thing about Sabrina is its ability to go over-the-top precisely by keeping the story small -- much smaller than it logically should be. The series flirts around the possibility of a world-ending apocalypse, but the devil seems way more concerned with getting Sabrina Spellman (Kiernan Shipka) a better part in her school play. ("Dark Lord, I'm the understudy," Sabrina hisses, like she's talking to her overeager best friend in a '90s teen comedy.) Meanwhile, Madame Satan (Michelle Gomez) is trapped in the mortal public education system at Baxter High, where she is now principal because she ate the previous principal. Sabrina is a bad show that ate a hilarious show.
There's some campy fun to be had in Part 2, which finally dives into the fanciful occult realm Sabrina only dipped her toes into last season. Now that our young half-witch, half-mortal has signed her name in the Book of the Beast, she's ready to embrace her studies at the Academy of Unseen Arts, a magical boarding school with rich traditions, secret societies, and an open affinity for Red Riding Hood cosplay. The show is better when it's playing in this peculiar sandbox. Part 1 made a messy attempt to straddle the human world and the witch world without ever successfully defining right and wrong in either plane. By sending Sabrina down a darker path, the show has ironically found a degree of moral clarity, ditching those abstract ideas of good and evil in favor of the power dynamics between men and women in the magical realm. (Shocker: The dark side is hellishly sexist.) The new episodes find Sabrina pushing back against the Academy's regressive gender politics and defying Father Blackwood (Richard Coyle), the misogynistic dean. Blackwood, who spent the first part of the season leering ominously, is bumped up to flat-out villain this year, and he's got the full back tattoo to prove it.
Unfortunately, Sabrina remains as self-righteous as ever, and her feminism often gets boiled down to a kind of "hashtag resist" rallying cry. She'll bend over backwards to convince herself that what she most wants to do is also what's morally right; when she says "equal rights for students of all genders," she often just means "more rights for me, Sabrina Spellman." The show doesn't seem aware of the distinction. For a series that wants to be about fighting the patriarchy -- and it does, at times, successfully manage to replicate the crushing feeling of going up against a game that's been rigged in men's favor for centuries -- Sabrina is far too light on healthy relationships between women, especially adult women. Too much magic in Part 2 is rooted in women's jealousy, insecurity, and distrust for one another. It's as if the show started with the premise that Real Housewives spats would be funnier if the ladies had voodoo dolls and worked backward from there.
There is a way to pit female characters against each other in order to expose women who support the patriarchy for their own gain, but Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is not telling that story. It comes closest with Madame Satan, who begins to question what she's really getting out of her relationship with the devil right as she meets the bumbling mortal fiancé (Alexis Denisof, in his element) of the mousy teacher whose body she now inhabits. But Madame Satan's growing discontent is spurred by men; the show uses men, not other women, to inspire feminism. Sabrina's greatest ally in her fight is her warlock crush, Nick Scratch (Gavin Leatherwood), whose bad-boy edge has now been sanded down to the point of blandness. His suspiciously dreamy "woke boy" rebranding is enough to make Harvey (Ross Lynch) seem like the wild card in this love triangle, which becomes a love quadrangle early in Part 2 because why not?
A lot falls through the cracks while Sabrina, a teen who drinks absinthe in a men's club run by Dorian Gray, is agonizing over the moral implications of stealing gum. She fails to support her friend Roz (Jaz Sinclair) as she loses her eyesight -- which you'd think a budding witch would at least try to reverse with magic -- and neglects a trans friend (Lachlan Watson) whose dawning self-actualization is one of the most honest aspects of the season so far. In fact, the mortals in the show all seem to be going on more interesting journeys of self-discovery without Sabrina around to steal focus. Her witch relatives, on the other hand -- aunts Zelda (Miranda Otto) and Hilda (Lucy Davis) and cousin Ambrose (Chance Perdomo) -- flounder on the outskirts of the narrative, all of them defined only in relation to Sabrina.
Sabrina just doesn't understand its characters' inner lives. The problem is illuminated in Episode 4 of the new batch of episodes, which delves into everyone's fears as they each experience a vision during a Tarot reading. Like last year's sleep-demon fantasy, it's a stylishly macabre hour that wants to tap into genuine insights but has none to offer. And despite the gradual unspooling of Sabrina's family history, the show still can't be bothered to build a foundation for its mythology; it lacks anything resembling a signature vocabulary for its spells, much less a sense of when a budding witch can and cannot cast them. Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, like Sabrina herself, is having more fun in Part 2, but it remains too reliant on smoke and mirrors. Strip back that glossy gothic-horror surface, and the internal logic of the story turns to dust.
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Part 2 premieres on Netflix on April 5.