With Season One Wrapped, I Still Don’t Know What to Make of Motherland: Fort Salem
**Some spoilers for Motherland: Fort Salem ahead*
When we watch television shows, sometimes it takes a few episodes into a season for a series to really find its stride, reveal its mysteries or solidify its characters. When Motherland: Fort Salem debuted on Freeform, I kept waiting for that to happen and for something to help me decide if I even liked this show or if I could give up … and yet, now that the first season has wrapped, I still have absolutely no idea what to think about Motherland aside from “huh?”
As a witchy woman myself and a connoisseur of pop culture witches, both accurate and outlandish, I was the prime audience for Motherland: Fort Salem. The series has an awesome premise: in an alternate history, the Witches of Salem allied with early Americans and pledged to become their army. Witches fought in the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and more. Pentacles and matriarchy abound. The current president is a black woman and the witches are led by Sarah Alder (Lyne Renee), the woman who first brought witches into the military in Salem and who has used magic to extend her life. All cool!
The series follows three young cadets in basic training: Tally (Jessica Sutton) the idealist from a woman-only commune that chose the military, Abigail (Ashley Nicole Williams), the stuck-up “high Atlantic” from a long line of witches, and Raelle (Taylor Hickson), a “fixer” or healer from the Chippewa cession who uses vaguely Christian wording to do powerful magic. These girls really don’t get along or do well at basic until they do.
If all of that confused you, welcome to my world. The deluge of the unexplained above is what’s wrong with Motherland. These main characters are not very likable at first and consistently do foolish, illogical things for the sake of the plot and drama. The show in no way helps us to understand who they are, where they come from, or why they act or think the way they do. What does “high Atlantic” mean? I have no idea. What is the Chippewa cession? Hell if I know. What’s Raelle’s deal with her magic? I got nothing. Why are these girls consistently the worst yet the best witches? I don’t know!!!
The series also throws so many concepts and histories at the audience but explains none of them. Now, I’m not asking for a series to hold my hand and walk me through everything, but some exposition or explanation for literally anything would be nice. Maybe it would be easier to stomach all the gibberish if the lead characters seemed to care about it or be interested too, but alas, they spend so much time in conflict and making the worst possible decisions that I spent the whole series more confused by the characters and the mythology rather than invested.
The world the show has built is complex, drawing inspiration from actual pagan practice while layering on its own mythology—but not in a way that makes sense. Witches are women with specific vocal cords who can use their voices to do magic. I think. There are male witches but they serve basically as power sources for women accessed through … sex? Alder is kept alive by continuously sapping the life of a group of younger women that follow her everywhere but she’s the only one that can do this … for reasons? There are witches in every country but the American witches were somehow the first but they also want to learn the songs of a tribe of indigenous witches … somewhere?
And then there are the bad guys. The main villains of the series are a terrorist group of witches called The Spree. They are brutal and murderous and definitely not good. But they also stand up against the forced military service that all witches are bound too, and they stand against the military, who we learn throughout the show is also corrupt and murderous and brutal.
Our way into the Spree is Scylla (Amalia Holm), another cadet who’s secretly Spree whose mission is to recruit Raelle. She quickly managed to seduce Raelle, and their love story should be the saving grace of the show … but it happens so fast and with so much deception and weirdness that I don’t buy at all how much they truly fall for each other. And I don’t know if I’m rooting for or against Scylla throughout the season.
And that’s the problem with this show. I watched every episode and I still don’t know who the good guys are. Are the witches victims of an oppressive, exploitive system or are they empowered women? Are the Spree terrorists or are they fighting for a noble cause? Are the pagan witches good or does Raelle’s Christian-influence work imply that the key to winning will be in rejecting their goddess? And what’s the battle anyway?
I really want to like this show, because it feels like it’s made for people like me: it’s queer, it’s witchy, it’s political. But none of that matters when things aren’t executed in a way that makes sense or makes the audience care. I felt throughout the season that this was a show about women and witches written by someone who doesn’t truly understand any of those groups. And lo, the show is run by a man who seems to have read a bit about paganism and then gone wild.
Motherland: Fort Salem has been renewed for a second season and in the final episode of season one, the twists came fast and hard, but they weren’t earned at all. The big reveals, that characters who were part of evil organizations or had killed people were maybe not so bad felt … empty. And the final shock was yet another unexplained magical thing that we were just expected to go with.
I hope this show learns from the confusion and stumble of season one and lives up to its promise in season two, or at least explains things a bit more.
(image: Freeform/David Bukach)
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