The second episode in Netflix’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, ‘The Dark Baptism’, picks up minutes where the previous episode ends with teenage witch Sabrina Spellman (Kiernan Shipka) receiving a visit from the head of The Church of Night, Father Blackwood (Richard Coyle), in an attempt to convince her to consent to her ‘dark baptism’ and answer the many questions she has about signing her soul away to the Devil.
Richard Coyle is brilliant in the role of Blackwood, all disingenuous charm, but not unconvincing in his arguments. He claims that The Church of Night’s main philosophy is free-will and urges Sabrina to embrace the religion and sign her name in the Book of the Beast, so that she can reform the religion if she so wishes. Blackwood does have a point, Sabrina is obviously a modernising force in the archaic religion if she chooses to be.
It is clear that other characters have doubts about the tradition of witches their names over to Satan. Aunt Hilda (Lucy Davis) explains secretively to Sabrina that she also had her doubts when she was 16 but sadly remarks that ‘Us girls didn’t have any options back then.’ Hilda is killed by her own sister Zelda (Miranda Otto) for the transgression, which Zelda overhears by creepily and covertly hovering at the top of the ceiling of Sabrina’s bedroom in an image more nightmarish than anything we have seen in the series so far.
From then on the episode is fairly heavy going for a show that is potentially aimed at an adolescence audience with one scene showing bloodies Sabrina running through the woods in nothing but her underwear. The morality of the plot of ‘The Dark Baptism’ is a bit suspect. The humiliation of four footballers who have been torturing Susie (Lachlan Watson) is very disturbing. It is true that the footballers deserve to face the ramifications of their bullying but the revenge that Sabrina and the Weird Sisters enact on them raises all sorts of uncomfortable questions about sexual consent. If the situations were reversed and the witches were being molested, it is hard to see how the show could condone such behaviour. Father Blackwood says the witch world is not evil, but it does seem to be filled with witches doing evil things.
Sabrina is almost unbearably naive in the episode. Although this does essentially mean she is a good person who expects people to behave well, it is frustrating to watch her assume she can control the Weird Sisters and also to take stock in any of Blackwood’s assurances that she won’t be giving up her freedom in joining the Dark Church. Sabrina also fails to notice that her high school teacher Mrs Wardwell (a chilling and creepy Michelle Gomez) is obviously an evil witch, despite the woman practically screaming ‘Kill the boys!’ in Sabrina’s face and oozing dastardly ideas.
Perhaps Sabrina can be forgiven for ignoring the complete trustworthiness of those around her because she predominantly preoccupied with the dilemma she faces; give up the mortal world, her beloved friends and the sweet Harvey (Ross Lynch) and travel to the dark side which means power, long life and the ability to punish those who hurt her family and friends. Or stay in the mortal world, relinquish the Dark Church and spend a happy life among her human friends. We know which choice the audience wants her to make (who doesn’t want to see her fly eventually?!), but it does come at a cost. This is further emphasised by cousin Ambrose’s (Chance Perdomo) melancholy speech about living a long life devoid of contact with mortals. There is always the ever-present reminder that Sabina could become one of the Weird Sisters herself and watching the Sisters’ spells quickly descend in to violence and intimidation is both exciting and unpleasant.
If the morality of the story-line is somewhat murky, so too is the feminist themes. The Weird Sisters and Sabrina have the upper hand on the boys they frighten and Sabrina asserts her right to choose her own destiny all of which points to women being empowered in the series. The world of the witches offers women great power but Prudence (Tati Gabrielle), when asked why the Devil will not allow witches to have free will and power at the same time, says ‘He’s a man isn’t he?!’ There is a contradiction in female witches with great power essentially pledging their lives away to a male deity and patriarchal church.
As always the production values of the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina are excellent. Especially spectacular is a scene in which Sabrina’s white dress slowly turns black as she makes her way through the woods to her baptism ceremony. The use of music in the scenes in which the witches frighten the football players is eerie and effective and the acting, especially from Lucy Davis, whose Aunt Hilda is repeatedly killed and brought back to life by her own sister, is filled with pathos and comic tragedy.
The show cleverly balances the fantastical magical world with the seemingly normal one of school and small town life. Hilda and Zelda might be witches but their sibling rivalry is all too real and Sabrina’s struggles to figure out who she is will appeal to many teenagers. The story-lines of Harvey and Sabrina’s school friends are given equal weight to some of the more magical elements of the show and we suspect it won’t be too long before the two worlds collide in a dramatic fashion. This is great TV writing. Even by only episode two of the series, the viewer feels as if they have known these characters for an entire series. The chemistry between the actors and the acting is spot on, but credit must also go to the dialogue which is both witty and moving.
As ‘The Dark Baptism’ unfolds it becomes clear that earning magical powers comes at a terribly high price and it is this unbalanced trade and the lies that she has been told, that leads to Sabrina refusing to sign her name in the Devil’s book. It is great to see Sabrina, as a feisty female character, understand her own worth and fight for her own independence. Despite the dubious morality of some of her actions or the conflicted feminist themes of this episode, by the end of the hour, Sabrina is resolved to be a woman of both the witch and the mortal worlds, forging for the first time a third un-trodden path just for herself.