When Chilling Adventures of Sabrina returns for Part 3 (let's call it Season 3) on Jan. 24, it'll be the same batsh** show fans know and love — but this time with emotional payoffs that are two long installments in the making. The series kicks off roughly a month after the events of the Part 2 finale. Lillith (Michelle Gomez) is ruling over Hell — but perhaps not for long — with Nick trapped there next to her. Poor Nick Scratch (Gavin Leatherwood) sacrificed himself for love and offered up his body and mind to trap Lucifer (Luke Cook), so while on the outside he's chained up like the cosmos' saddest jester, internally he's constantly fighting to keep the Devil restrained. With Lucifer missing from the throne, the coven is finally freed from the yoke of Hell's magic, but as always in CAOS, there's an unexpected wrench that makes everything worse instead of better.
The dethroning of Lucifer — a move meant to save Sabrina (Kiernan Shipka) from an eternity of ruling Hell by her father's side — immensely weakens the coven. In fact, every witch who prays to the Darkest of Lords is experiencing a peculiar lack of potency. As our crew soon discovers, that's because without Lucifer keeping a firm command of Hell, the entire cosmos is out of balance. From here the two main plotlines, packed into a tight eight episodes, spring forward.
First and foremost, Zelda (Miranda Otto) rallies what's left of the coven and reopens the Academy with Hilda's (Lucy Davis) help. As the coven tries to regain its former power without bowing to the Devil, a mysterious threat rolls up to Greendale. At first they look like knock-offs of American Horror Story: Freak Show, but this particular carnival, a family of pagans, introduces viewers not just to a cavalcade of witch history, but also an alternative path to accessing and harnessing magic.
Second, Sabrina — with the help of Harvey (Ross Lynch), Roz (Jaz Sinclair), and Theo (Lachlan Watson) — tries to find a way to rescue Nick from both Hell and the Devil, without freeing the Devil to enact his rage on his former acolytes. In the course of this, Sabrina inches ever closer to the destiny she narrowly dodged in Part 2's finale. Someone needs to restore balance to the three realms before all three of them are destroyed by the power imbalance. And Lillith, though both fearsome and clever, isn't going to cut it because Hell's court won't accept anyone but a true Hell-made royal.
But this season, there's a new character that fits that description just as well as Sabrina. Enter Prince Caliban (Sam Corlett), made from the clay of Pandemonium (because, honestly, why not?), who challenges the Morningstar line for the right to rule Hell. While that sounds like a perfect solution for Sabrina at first, Caliban's plans for the new improved Hell are going to have even worse ripples for Greendale than Lucifer's. (Also, Caliban is super hot, so obviously there are sparks that change up the central love triangle dynamics in a good way.) The tentative alliance that springs up between Lillith and Sabrina offers up some of the best scenes of Part 3, as do extended narratives set in Hell itself.
So finally, in Part 3 of CAOS, the core struggle of the series — will Sabrina chose to embrace her humanity or witchery? — comes to a head. Sabrina is torn between her family, friends, and the universe in ways that can't be zapped away with a convenient spell. The pressure cooker Part 3 puts her in forces her to make a choice. Will she choose to stand by the people who love her (but occasionally limit her) or will she stand for herself (and the ambitions she has about what the world could be)? This question comes to a head in an explosive season finale which legitimately changes the status quo of the series.
It not just Sabrina herself who changes in an irrevocable way, Sabrina's closest friends and family blossom in a way that's immensely satisfying for loyal viewers of the series. Theo, after a long and ongoing journey to self-acceptance, finds unexpected romance. Harvey and Roz get a chance to see if they can really make their relationship and their friendships work. Ambrose (Chance Perdomo), finally out of house arrest, finds new purpose when he joins Prudence (Tati Gabrielle) to hunt down Father Blackwood (Richard Coyle) who disappeared after last season's overthrow of the Devil. Hilda finds time to make space for her wants and desires in the face of her sister's ambition. Zelda steps into the position of power she's always wanted and proves to be a better leader for the coven than Blackwood ever was.
The character growth of Part 3 is simply put, delicious. The emotional payoffs of each journey keep the show from slipping into WTF!?! territory and firmly ground CAOS as a show with something to say outside of quippy one-liners. The stakes are high in Part 3, and there's no doubt that Part 4 will be fundamentally different than the show we've been watching. But as with everything Sabrina Spellman touches, the storm we'll have to weather to get there will be worth it in the end.
TV Guide Rating: 4/5
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Part 3 premieres Friday, Jan. 24 on Netflix.