With Penny Dreadful Gone, Salem Is the Gory, Empowering Alternate History We Deserve

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With <i>Penny Dreadful</i> Gone, <i>Salem</i> Is the Gory, Empowering Alternate History We Deserve

Salem, WGN’s first ever scripted TV show, has been going strong since 2014, offering up heavy gore alongside strong performances, breathing new life into the story of the Salem witch trials. While WGN has since gone on to greenlight an arguably more accomplished (read: “prestige”) show in Underground, Salem is certainly deserving of critical attention and weekly eyeballs. For all the pros and cons of “peak TV,” one of its more rewarding effects is the increased space being given to shows with a unique voice. In particular, genre shows seem to be growing in popularity, so much so that calling them “genre” shows, which implies some sort of niche appeal, doesn’t feel quite right.

While the popularity of, say, The Walking Dead might be an outlier of sorts, you don’t have to look very far to find more examples how of scripted television has found success by churning out genre shows and appealing to an audience hungry for something that embraces the tropes and style of genre filmmaking, fine-tuned for episodic television. From Cinemax’s pulpy, violent and surprisingly emotional Banshee, to Syfy’s slate of space assassins and feminist demon hunters in Killjoys and Wynonna Earp, to Showtime’s critical darling Penny Dreadful, if you have an interest in genre television, you have a bevy of options to choose from in 2016.

With Penny Dreadful leaving the air for good earlier this year, taking with it its 19th century Gothic feel and slew of great performances, there’s a gap in viewing that Salem deserves to fill. While there are plenty of horror shows to choose from while flipping through the channels, from the aforementioned The Walking Dead to the various iterations of American Horror Story and Robert Kirkman’s other ghastly cable show, Outcast, no series is as confident in its horror-indebted lunacy and thematic depth as Salem . Salem is everything you could want in a horror series: It doesn’t hold back when it comes to its gruesome images, and yet it balances out its bloody surface appeal with a depth in subtext, finding ways to use a familiar and overexposed story to subtly comment on issues related to gender, identity, and how history is shaped by those in a position to shape it.

The broad strokes of Salem will be familiar to anyone even vaguely familiar with the infamous witch trials. The key difference, of course, is that in Salem the witches are real, turning Cotton Mather’s proclamations about demons walking amongst the people into more than just the maniacal ramblings of a man easily prone to hysteria. But where The Walking Dead tends to dress up its pulpy story in the serious garb of prestige TV, Salem goes in a different direction. It leans into its ridiculousness, never once shying away from indulgent performances—casting Lucy Lawless in your show, be it Spartacus or Salem, is one way to assure your audience that your camp is going to be the best kind of camp—or from images that make you cringe before laughing with gruesome delight. In the first two seasons alone, a witch eats a man’s eyes and shoves a rat down her husband’s throat, while another scene sees a group of witches gather to chop off a man’s penis and replace it with a raven. For all its faults, Salem knows exactly what it is, flaunting its bold tone from one episode to the next.

With that said, delightfully gory horror and campy guest performances aren’t much of a reason for Penny Dreadful fans to tune into Salem. But much like Showtime’s monster mash, Salem’s true appeal is its attention to character work and the presence of mind to foreground some intriguing thematic explorations. Take the central conceit, for instance, which is that witches really do populate Salem in the 1600s. On the surface, it’s just a necessary gimmick to propel the show towards some intriguing narrative choices, creating conflict within Salem itself. Looking a bit deeper, though, it’s clear that having Salem literally populated by power-hungry witches does so much more.

What shifting the perspective does, first and foremost, is give some power back to the women in the story. The Salem witch trials were of course about women, but they were merely objects within a broader political and religious context. The accused and murdered women of the time were given no voice and no agency, and are often sidelined in historical retellings as well. In Salem though, the witches are the authority. They’re the ones calling the shots, even as men like Cotton Mather (Seth Gabel) and Little John (Oliver Bell), who’s understood to be the essence of Evil, believe they’re the ones in charge. This is the specific power of genre TV: It allows for the campy to be progressive and challenging as well. Our TV screens overflow with male antiheroes, and yet women rarely get to play similar roles—characters that are not only in charge, but also operate within a moral grey area. Mary Sibley (Janet Montgomery) is that character. She’s cruel and vindictive, but she’s also fighting for her life against a social structure that sent her true love, John Alden (Shane West), off to war, and seeks to oppress her and other women at every turn.

It’s no accident that the events of the first season are set in motion when Mary, who’s become pregnant out of wedlock, gives her unborn child over to the Devil, forging a pact with the Other Side in the process. In the show’s second season, that child returns as the very definition of Evil, and at the start of the third season he’s taken his place at the top of the food chain despite his small stature. As much as it’s a campy delight to watch an actual child speak in Gothic tongue and playact as the Devil, it’s the thematic underpinnings that elevate the narrative: In order to avoid the wrath of the Puritans, with their cruel, gendered mores, Mary’s only option is her deal with the Devil. In the world of Salem, that’s a pretty solid argument for a more progressive social contract, whether by accepting childbirth outside of marriage or offering access to safe abortions.

Salem contains all sorts of similar thematic subversions and musings. While the setting of Salem offers up its fair share of creepy imagery—the cinematography and candle-lit scenes create shadows and illusions throughout—it also presents ample opportunity to alter history, to use the tropes of Gothic literature to tackle themes of gender, power, and perspective. While the show certainly has its flaws—its generally positive depiction of Cotton Mather, a man many historical sources cite as key to the violent hysteria of the time, and its predominantly male writing and directing credits, to name the most troubling—it’s encouraging to see this particular story, with women at the center of it, play out in a subversive way.

The witches of Salem aren’t feminist icons, but complicated women. They kill, love and struggle with existential woes just like anyone else. That may not sound remarkable, but it’s important. Equality on our TV screens is, at least in part, about giving the same roles to both men and women. On Salem, the women aren’t the mostly silent sidekicks dealing with the swinging pendulum of morality that is the male antihero. Rather, they are the antiheroes. They’re the ones pushing the viewer to the limits of their empathy, finding ways to challenge how far along we’ll take this violent ride before we turn our backs on them. And much like Eva Green in Penny Dreadful, Janet Montgomery brings tremendous depth to Mary in the type of complicated antihero performance for which men are often awarded golden statues.

Salem doesn’t necessarily ask us to side with these witches as we watch them murder and manipulate to their heart’s content. But the show does ask us to consider the context within which they’re resorting to violence, and that context is one defined by an oppressive patriarchy. In Salem, every powerful woman is labeled “undesirable” by the male townsfolk; Mercy (Elise Eberle) speaks of her abusive father, and continually calls him an “oppressor”; and while the witches create a space for themselves in Salem, a small world that belongs only to them, they wonder at how they ever lived in “a world of predatory men.” In Season Three, a powerful demon child now leads those predatory men: It’s truly the devil these witches know.

Salem, which is every bit as gory, visually engrossing and suspenseful in its third season, is so much more than its premise suggests. It’s a show that uses its Gothic setting and historical subject matter to tell a story that feels meaningfully contemporary. Free thought and action reigns in Salem, as the witches work to overthrow the patriarchy that keeps them in a state of subservience. Salem is an alternate history, where women not only have a voice, but also the supernatural powers to make themselves heard and felt.

Salem Season Three premieres Wednesday, Nov. 2 at 9 p.m. on WGN America.

Kyle Fowle is a TV critic whose work has appeared at The A.V. Club, Entertainment Weekly and Esquire. You can always find him tweeting about TV and pro wrestling @kylefowle