The most important thing to know about The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is that you will never be able to convince me that Patricia Clarkson didn’t play Zelda in Sabrina the Teenage Witch. This is something I deeply believed for years and was shocked, shocked!, to discover that it was a totally false memory.
No. The most important thing to know about The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is that I will always forever watch anything Kiernan Shipka is in (or any Mad Men alum).
The most important things to know about The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina are that it deals respectfully with a teenager’s perception of the world and also is willing to challenge that perception.
To begin with: perception. The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is a show aimed at teens. It’s main character is a teenager – by episode two she’s just (just) turned sixteen. It makes sense that the show would want to view the world through the prism of that age. For example: the first time we see Sabrina and her boyfriend Harvey they are absolutely head over heels in love, and continuously throughout the series assert this to each other. They end almost every Very Serious Mysterious Talk with promises that they love each other, and will always love each other, and would never ever lie or hurt the other, and boy, yes, they love each other. It’s a little exhausting and no doubt naive. At a bar last weekend celebrating fellow contributor Liza’s birthday (hey Liza!) I ended up defending the naivety of it to some of my fellow celebrants. Isn’t that how the world looks when you’re sixteen? We may wince at their eternal pledges, but I’m sure I knew some people at sixteen who were certain they were going to be in love forever and took every opportunity to affirm it. The show treats it as if it’s True Love, countered a friend, and yes, it does, but that’s because the show is invested in Sabrina’s emotional truth, not because it thinks that all sixteen year olds are absolutely correct about true love.
How do we know the show, while sympathetic and indulgent of Sabrina’s perspective, isn’t totally sold on it? It’s a difficult balancing act, and Sabrina pulls it off. For this I frequently to my thoughts on Rick and Morty – how do you construct a world that refutes some of your protagonist’s views without constantly punishing the protagonist? Rick and Morty doesn’t seem the find the balance, which is why so, so many people idolize Rick when the show’s creators have earnestly insisted he’s not meant as a role model. They punish him sometimes, yes, but the world of Rick and Morty does seem heartless and random, and as a result Rick seems like he’s right. Sabrina is far less “wrong” than Rick, but Sabrina affirms her beliefs less frequently than Rick and Morty does Rick’s.
Sabrina’s youthful vision of the world dictates that we can control it, that it is essentially fair and that good intentions coupled with her emerging power will allow her to bend it to her will. This is, after all, how the world looks like to most children, witch or not. Adults appear able to make things happen – the only reason children can’t is because they haven’t yet attained the tools to have an effect – they don’t yet have the agency. Sabrina is, of course, coming into more power than most teenagers, and as a result she concludes she will have more agency. Of course, when you actually grow up you discover the world is more complex, and that even your best efforts are sometimes thwarted.
Aunt Zelda, played expertly by Miranda Otto (she’s no Patricia Clarkson, but still) acts as a representation of that adult world. Zelda could almost, almost be considered an antagonist of the show, particularly in early outings, but in truth she’s trying to help Sabrina grow up. She’s a fierce protector (her “Never,” at the end of “Feast of Feasts” is heartbreakingly sincere) but she’s also more aware of the laws of the world than Sabrina. When Sabrina resurrects Harvey’s brother Tommy against Zelda’s orders not to Zelda assures her “everything comes at a price. Your father learned it, I learned, and now it’s time for you to learn it.” It may seem cruel, but it’s the truth, and Sabrina’s attempts to rectify the situation only make it worse. Zelda lets her fail, because the truth is that adults even more than children have to live with the consequences of their actions. The fact that it’s a resurrection is what makes it magical, but the fact that Sabrina is a young woman learning the scope of her powers is what makes it a coming-of-age story. It’s a story of parents and children, of mothers (or “Aunties”) who know the world teaching their daughter that personal agenda should be both encouraged and carefully considered. It’s heightened by fantastical spells and superbly executed soap opera dramatic turns, but the episode still ends with Zelda waiting for Sabrina to come home and then offering her a shoulder to sob on.
I also deeply respect the show’s commitment to it’s bizarrely bold strategy of making every scene look as if it was shot by a camera that has just woken up and can maybe focus on people but objects, extras, and backgrounds are still a little bleary.