Recently, a woman posed a question on Twitter wondering at whom Netflix’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is actually aimed. She reasoned pagans and Satanists are equally unimpressed with the show, never mind real-life witches. At the risk of stating the bleedin’ obvious, the hit reboot, a darker take on the Archie Comics’ story about a teenage witch fighting against a patriarchal system run by her own father alongside her no-nonsense aunts and a variety of other colorful, mostly female characters, is aimed squarely at feminists. And, in season 3, CAOS made that gloriously, unmistakably, unabashedly clear.
We open with our heroine hellbent (excuse the pun) on rescuing her charisma vacuum of a boyfriend, Nick, AKA Not Harvey, from the clutches of Satan/Papa. Although urged by her well-meaning but still strangely bland buddies to focus more on school, cheer-leading (’cause this show has Riverdale in its DNA, regardless of how much smarter and darker it is), and regular teen stuff, Sabrina can’t let it go. She subsequently lands herself in the depths of Hell, alongside the aforementioned friends. The well-realized and incredibly tactile underworld is where Sabrina will be spending much of her time this season, and more’s the pleasure for us — it’s a brilliantly designed and detailed set.
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This third go-round for the youngest Spellman finds her embracing her Morningstar side by somewhat reluctantly taking the throne of Hell so that a dastardly blonde named Caliban (Aussie newcomer Sam Corlett, oozing sexy menace), who’s intent on making Earth the tenth circle, cannot become king. This requires a scavenger hunt for three cursed objects, during which Sabrina tussles with the likes of King Herod (brilliantly brought to life in gooey makeup SFX) and Vlad the Impaler. As is typical with these kinds of things, it’s the journey more than the destination that matters with CAOS flexing its muscles for dark imagery and Buffy-style demonic battles.
Back at home, Aunts Hilda and Zelda are trying to pull the coven back together while running the academy in the wake of their betrayal of Father Blackwood. However, hot new couple Angus and Prudence are on his trail, tracking the excommunicated leader all the way to Loch Ness (by way of BC, unconvincingly standing in for the Scottish Highlands, though it matters little when the scenery is this resplendent) so his estranged daughter can kill him. Naturally, that doesn’t go to plan. Nothing does on this show, so when a group of nasty pagans start hanging around, threatening to replace Satan with their own, leafy god, it seems par for the course. Can’t poor Sabrina catch a break for a moment to do a fun dance routine to a Run-DMC song? (yes, she can, in truly one of this season’s most disturbing moments).
In spite of everything that’s going on, the third season of CAOS is also its most cohesive. Everybody has something to do and the characterization isn’t as one-note as it sometimes has been in the past. This is easily Hilda’s strongest season, especially as she gets engaged to her longtime partner, Dr. C (whose resemblance to Taika Waititi makes him even more lovable) and then transforms into a hideous spider monster (brilliant practical FX here too), such is the poor woman’s lot in life. Lucy Davis imbues Hilda with an inherent kindness and unflappable optimism, but season 3 sees her finally standing up to Zelda in a very real way. Likewise, we get a chance to see how much the elder Spellman values her sister when it seems Hilda is doomed.
Sabrina has plenty of opportunities to fight with her aunts, of course, but much of her season is spent battling other grown-ups — in particular, she has an energetic rapport with Lilith (Michelle Gomez, pulling double duty as the returned Mary Wardwell, and doing a remarkable job of it too), whom she fears but also clearly respects, and Satan himself. Watching this young woman holding her own amid a whole rogues gallery of demons and underlings, all of whom are eager to see her dethroned, is hugely empowering. Lead Kiernan Shipka’s diminutive stature and still-youthful looks (she just turned 20 back in November) put her at a visual disadvantage in virtually every situation, so her plucky enthusiasm and unwillingness to give in to pressure from above (below?) are incredibly infectious.
This season, even more than the other two, relishes in its overt feminism. Sabrina is, quite literally, tasked with leading Hell against a whole bunch of dudes while, back on Earth, her no-good boyfriend is threatened by how she won’t sleep with him or give him the messed up attention he so craves. And, in keeping with CAOS’ message of female empowerment, Sabrina doesn’t cave or submit to Nick. He may break her heart but she emerges stronger and more sure of herself than ever before. By the end, she doesn’t even want his friendship because, in the words of Bad Cop Bad Cop, with all this self respect, she’s lost her taste for bullsh*t. Meanwhile, although the dastardly Caliban momentarily tricks her by pretending to be nice, his romantic inclinations remain completely one-sided. This Sabrina doesn’t need a man to make her complete, whether it’s a boyfriend or the dark lord himself, whose reach she, along with her aunts, seeks to diminish.
The only man good enough for our heroine, in fact, is sweet ol’ Harvey. Although he ends the season with Roz, throughout these eight episodes, we watch as Harvey quietly yearns for his ex in the background. Ross Lynch is frequently shot looking longingly sideways as Sabrina gives a rousing speech, a subtle touch that drives the point home without signposting it. Although, clearly, these two are meant to be together, CAOS doesn’t tie itself up in knots keeping them apart. Harvey genuinely loves Roz, while Sabrina is so intent on doing right by her friends that she casts a spell to rid herself of those pesky left-over feelings (while Salem looks on worriedly). Theirs might be a Ross and Rachel style will they/won’t they, but the end isn’t quite neatly inevitable enough that it gets irritating to watch them with other people (aside from Nick, who is The Worst). Sabrina and Harvey’s soul mate status is compelling and believable, so watching them spend a little longer apart won’t kill us.
With everything Sabrina is dealing with this season, it’s remarkable that CAOS manages to be a compelling teen drama alongside all the supernatural madness. Theo is given a boyfriend (an ex star of Riverdale, natch) with dyed green hair and a secret of his own, Sabrina and Roz start cheer-leading so they can spend more quality time together, and Sabrina essentially gets an after school job when she starts chauffeuring souls to Hell. As always, the show juggles its CW-style dramatics with more outlandish, otherworldly elements. Hilariously, it manages to be less far fetched than Riverdale, even with demons popping up and spells being cast. It’s a testament to the strength of the writing and the commitment of the performances that scenes set in the netherworld sit just as nicely opposite those involving the kids lounging around chatting over milkshakes.
The styling remains on-point too, whether it’s Sabrina’s hairbands and deconstructed masculine wear (all printed dress shirts and structured skirts), the ideal mix of girly and strong for a teen witch looking to make her mark, Satan’s gaudy gold coat, Hilda’s fluffy woolens, Prudence’s Hitcher-lite blouse and leather pants combo (Prudence continues to be a bad ass this season, as though there were any doubt, though we definitely could’ve used more of her), or Lilith’s Xenomorph body harness, CAOS is loaded with drool-worthy costuming. Likewise, the set design is terrific and incredibly tactile. There was a sense, early on in the show, that the makeup design was a bit Buffy-esque — lumpy, stuck in the nineties, and not terribly convincing — but, as it rattles on, the designers are really finding their footing for what this show, and its many creatures, could and should look like. It never feels like actors playing dress up on a set, rather CAOS offers a glimpse into a dark underworld just barely hidden beneath our own. Where there is darkness and madness, there’s also fun and adventure. It’s aspirational rather than eye-rolling or nightmare-inducing.
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A warning at the beginning of each episode suggests this is a horror show by certain let’s say more normal people’s standards, but genre fanatics will find it lightweight in terms of scares. Still, CAOS earns its horror credentials effortlessly with buckets of blood and gore, plenty of spooky mystery, and as previously mentioned, by setting most of the action in literal Hell. More than anything else, though, this is a show about the horrors of being a teenage girl tasked with juggling two wildly disparate lives. Although Sabrina’s friends all know she’s a witch and are willing to help the cause in any way they can, in the end, she’s very much alone, which is why her final episode decision makes sense not just as a cliffhanger for season 4 but in the context of a young woman who simply wants to have it all.
It sounds crazy, but this fantastical little show about a plucky teenage witch is one of the most feminist around, in any genre. Simply seeing a majority female cast (many of whom are also women of color) on-screen makes my heart swell, but it’s more than just representation; the entire crux of CAOS is about dismantling a patriarchal institution and forging a path forward for women in their own right, hence why the coven inevitably turns their attention to worshiping a female god. Rather than diluting the message as the show has gained popularity, it’s growing more and more explicit, which is really wonderful to see. Sabrina isn’t a perfect saint either, often acting selfishly or doing the wrong thing in a moment of impulsiveness. She’s a great role model for young women trying to better understand their place in the world, but for those of us too old to follow a 20-year-old into battle, it’s fun watching her kick butt through ten circles of Hell. All hail the Queen.