Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers from the first season of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.
There’s a piece of dialogue in the fourth episode of Netflix’s new series, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, that’s a lovely wink from the writers: It shows they fully understand the genre (teen drama) in which they are working.
In an attempt to assuage the fears that the titular half-witch (Kiernan Shipka) has about starting at a new school and beginning her official witchcraft training, her cousin, Ambrose (Chance Perdomo), offers her this reminder: “Cousin, you are on the precipice of a stupendous new adventure at the Academy of Unseen Arts. You will meet interesting witches and warlocks from all over the world. Some of them—a great deal many of them—will be hot.”
Indeed, one of the first characters Sabrina meets at the academy is Nicholas Scratch (Gavin Leatherwood). The brooding warlock’s obsession with her late father’s work in the dark arts—and, well, the fact that he’s a brooding warlock—means he’ll quickly become enamored of Sabrina. And because a teen warlock is obviously more interesting than a mortal, he’ll also make up the third point in Sabrina’s inevitable love triangle, which also includes her townie boyfriend, the sweet and loyal coalminer’s son, Harvey Kinkle (Ross Lynch), thus allowing Chilling Adventures of Sabrina to follow a path previously traveled by series like The CW’s The Vampire Diaries, WB and UPN’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and—with a much more adult / premium cable spin on the concept—HBO’s True Blood.
There are some specific character quirks that make Nick more progressive than his predecessors. Most importantly, he’s a genuinely good guy who can be trusted to do the right thing—even when it comes to Harvey. Nick’s respectful enough to let Harvey put down his suffering brother in the manner the latter sees fit, and returns at Sabrina’s behest to protect Harvey and his dad from a town-wide reckoning. Did we catch a glimpse of worry on his face when he saw Sabrina after she’d fully embraced her powers in the season finale?
“Nicholas was never intended to be an evil character—definitely more wicked and more mischievous, but never someone who wouldn’t be seen as ‘redeemable,’” Sabrina creator Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa tells Paste in an email.
Meanwhile, Leatherwood reminds us when Paste reaches him by phone that “no one is just kind of one thing, and that was really something I focused on in developing Nick.”
“I knew that he had this sort of charming nature about him, but I also wanted to show that he did have this big heart,” Leatherwood adds. “Sabrina’s really the catalyst for my character in that. She shows him this mortal side of her… this sort of loving side, [the] loving nature of a human being. It’s a very new concept to him.”
Leatherwood explains that he sees Nick as less of a supernatural bad boy and more like the male lead from another teen drama: Jess (Milo Ventimiglia) from the WB and CW’s Gilmore Girls. That character certainly had his faults—disappearing from Rory’s (Alexis Bledel) life without explanation being the major one—but he was, comparatively, a decent chap. Leatherwood says he was relieved to learn, upon reading the scripts, that his character wouldn’t be “this aggressive male figure in the community,” and instead would be inspired by a female character’s “boundless strength and power.”
“I feel that there [has] been this interesting push and pull between genders for a very long time and, yet, it’s beautiful to see a strong female character standing up for what she sees as right,” Leatherwood says. “Nick, being the guy that he is, sees that revolutionary quality in Sabrina and wants to help assist it and bring it to life. He really believes in her and that’s, ultimately, what guides his liking of her, too.”
Still, Nick is part of a trope that has regularly irked feminist fans of supernatural TV.
“It lacks nuance, and it often puts the female character in a place where they have to be in a moral center,” argues Princess Weekes, associate editor of genre-focused pop culture site The Mary Sue. She takes particular umbrage at The Vampire Dairies’ Damon Salvatore (Ian Somerhalder), a rapist, abuser and murderer the series treated as a swoon-worthy, undead dreamboat. (His brother, Stefan, played by Paul Wesley, wasn’t always a choirboy, either).
Weekes says that when female leads “choose one guy over the other or both, it’s really supposed to show a character development or character regression when they go from dating the good boy to the bad boy.”
“I think it’s very disappointing that we always frame it that women need to find other parts of themselves through male interaction,” she says.
Nick also adopts a more liberal viewpoint to courtship than his forebears’ more traditional all-or-nothing strategy. He’s into open relationships and dated the meddling Prudence (Tati Gabrielle) and her two adopted sisters. He’s also sexually adventurous and isn’t particularly fazed when Sabrina catches him participating in a teen witch and warlock orgy. Weekes says she’s concerned that these traits are “very queer-coded,” as if the series were saying, “Oh, he’s a free spirit and he’s sexually fluid! Therefore, he’s the bad boy.”
Should parents be concerned about a TV series addressed to and about teens treating the subject matter in this way?
“Nuance doesn’t come as easily to the adolescent brain… [as] they would like it to, or maybe as sometimes we would like it to,” says Steven Schlozman, the co-director of The Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, and an actual horror novelist.
He explains that the way teens figure it out is “by playing with these extremes” through “displacement” or “imagining what it would be like to date a warlock and make this warlock an interesting guy.” Still, he says, “I think teenagers are much more able to distinguish these things than we give them credit for and have fun with it… I think, as parents, the good thing to do is just talk about it.”
Plus, Schlozman argues that there’s another potential benefit to the trope, at least when it’s handled well: If a “bad” person develops a relationship with someone they really care about by doing good things, “that’s a pretty good incentive” to be a good person, he says.
Who says you can’t learn anything from TV?
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is now streaming on Netflix.