Forbidden romances. Female rivalries. War. Witches. And that's just in the first episode of Motherland: Fort Salem, Freeform's befuddling new supernatural drama, which premieres Wednesday, March 18. Creator and showrunner Eliot Laurence tries to replicate the meaningful messiness of his previous series, Claws, with this darker, confounding attempt to subvert the traditional female witch narrative with one that gives them unflinching agency. It doesn't always land.
The premise sounds clear enough: Set in an alternate America, a trio of witches endure intense training to become powerful assets in the U.S. military as part of a deal to end their persecution over 300 years ago. But that is relegated to a distant subplot of several other constantly shifting plots woven throughout the series. Though the shoddily edited story makes it easy to forget that being in the American armed forces is even the witches' objective, the first episode does introduce us to our young heroines — Raelle Collar (Taylor Hickson), Abigail Bellweather (Ashley Nicole Williams), and Tally Craven (Jessica Sutton) — at the moment when they're about to leave their homes to serve their country.
Raelle is the boldly independent yet cautious witch following in the footsteps of her mother, who died doing the same thing she's now committed herself to do. Many of the witches on the series curiously don't have paternal figures that are spoken of (one of myriad questions about their background), so Raelle is virtually orphaned and used to fending for herself. She doesn't take kindly to people like Abigail, who hails from a long lineage of elite Bellweathers commanding the battlefield. Abigail assumes a steely authoritarian position, desperate to maintain the satisfaction of her mother who watches with a judgmental eye along with the other military witches.
Then there's Tally, the middle ground of the three. She enlisted despite her mother's concerns and is instantly thrown into a world where she is forced to utilize powers she once suppressed and harm others — at the demand of a drill sergeant, Annacostia (Demetria McKinney). She's also exposed to a space where sex is not only allowed but encouraged (more on that in a bit).
That's an already robust amount of storyline to keep up with. To his credit, Laurence does a decent job humanizing the essence of female witches who have been persecuted and vilified in pop culture since the dawn of time. It's profound to see a narrative that bothers to center them as young women dealing with their own insecurities, love, and fear at a time of much transition in their lives. That said, Motherland: Fort Salem has all the ingredients of a supernatural drama with the magic and mayhem of the Charmed reimagining, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, or even Supernatural in its twilight years. But its best potential lies in being a genuinely provocative coming-of-age series with an unapologetically female lens.
We see that with Tally's introduction to sex and romance in a mid-season interlude, when the sergeants embolden the young recruits to pursue their carnal desires — a powerful scene that counters past cinematic portrayals that stripped female witches (and women in general, actually) of their sensuality. Raelle must also contend with passion and heartache when she falls for Scylla (Amalia Holm), a duplicitous young witch instantly condemned by Abigail. The Raelle-Scylla affair certainly cranks up the drama throughout the season.
Meanwhile, Abigail's tough exterior proves to be a burden when she witnesses firsthand the atrocities of warfare in a much welcome confrontation of the strong black woman trope. These are all thoughtful storylines that a bevy of female directors — including Haifaa al-Mansour, Amanda Tapping, and M.J. Bassett — help bring to life along with Steven A. Adelson, who directs the pilot.
But those more pertinent narratives are nearly crushed inside the margins by shoehorned subplots such as a mishandled suicide storyline, necromancy, and pretty much anything regarding the elder witches in their command station. For the time that we spend with the high-ranking officers, led by General Sarah Alder (Lyne Renee), you'd think we should come away with something more substantial than the fact they are an all-women squad running this entire camp.
Though it's nice to see impactful nuances like a woman of color calling out Alder, who's white, for essentially not giving any other woman a chance to lead a feminist force in a way that also benefits them, it doesn't tell them much about their objective. That's not to say the intricacies of their mission aren't discussed ad nauseam (they are). It's just that the dialogue is so dense and muddled within all the various subplots that it makes it seem — even at its most critical — unimportant. For a show that is at its core about women in the military, treating this element so frivolously is its greatest disservice.
But that's part of the problem with Motherland: Fort Salem as a whole; it's packaged itself into so many different categories and attempts to tackle countless important topics concerning women — not limited to identity, race, and gender — that some of it is bound to get lost in translation. When the series is good, it's great. But you have to weed through a lot of extraneous stuff to get there.
TV Guide Rating: 2.5/5
Motherland: Fort Salem premieres Wednesday, March 18 at 9/8c on Freeform.