As a Gen-Z cusper who grew up with older siblings and cable television, the image of Melissa Joan Hart bantering with an animatronic black cat on Sabrina the Teenage Witch has long been etched in my mind. In 2018, Netflix debuted a new Lovecraftian version of the platinum blonde protagonist’s story: Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. The brainchild of Archie Comics’ Chief Creative Officer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, CAOS, as the series is affectionately known by fans, is a stark departure from its clean-cut sitcom predecessor.
Half-mortal half-witch Sabrina Spellman, played by the delightful Kiernan Shipka, lives in the mystical world of Greendale, an unassuming town that happens to be home to witches, demons, and a doorway to Hell itself. Sabrina, an intrepid, spunky sixteen year old, grows up in an unjust world she feels compelled to fix. The story starts off with Sabrina splitting her time between her normal, teenage life at Baxter High—where she tries out for the cheerleading squad and stands up for social justice causes—and her magical life at the Academy of Unseen Arts—where she serves her ancestral coven of witches and fights the patriarchy of the Satanic Church of Night. As the seasons progress, the plot becomes increasingly vexed, following a “monster of the week”-type storyline. Sabrina must call upon her mortal friends and infernal allies to defeat supernatural threats and protect the town of Greendale.
From Sabrina's three hundred year old brainiac cousin Ambrose (Chance Perdomo) to her bad boy warlock boyfriend Nick (Gavin Leatherwood), the zany band of core characters is one of the show’s strengths. Yet the arc each character is assigned amounts to a serious show weakness: CAOS repeatedly fails to actually eliminate characters who have surpassed their narrative function. On several occasions, an hour-long episode is spent fussing over a character's untimely death only for them to be miraculously (or more likely, magically) resurrected in the following episode. Deaths thus feel weightless, insignificant, and the result is a bloated story with too many characters, all pushed into disappointing arcs.
Sabrina herself—her personality, character development, self-realization, and wardrobe—is the show’s greatest strength. With velvet headbands and acerbic wit, Sabrina brings big main character energy, constantly challenging antiquated traditions, bewitching high school mean girls, and bursting into choreographed dance. In many ways, Sabrina redeems the often misused “ambitious woman” archetype.
Pulled in too many directions by her mortal-magical duality, Sabrina wants to do it all: keep her family obligations, fulfill her duty to the coven, and live out a normal teenage life. As Sabrina’s power and responsibility in the infernal realm grow, so too do the importance of her relationships in the mortal world. Like ambitious women everywhere, Sabrina runs into the age old dilemma between her personal life and her vocational ambitions.
But Sabrina is headstrong (at times, infuriatingly so) and refuses to accept the damned female condition. To have it all, Sabrina tirelessly warps space and time, casting spells in order to spend time with her friends, help out her aunties, and maintain the cosmic balance between Hell and Earth.
Importantly, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina does not glorify female selflessness or romanticize a woman’s sacrifice for the sake of others. While Sabrina makes tough decisions in order to save her loved ones, she is no sacrificial lamb. Instead, she soldiers on, determined to balance the myriad of troubles and joys life throws at young women—true friendship, young love, heartbreak, death, disappointment, aspiration, and self-love. With playful commentary on misogyny and intersectional feminism, CAOS skillfully avoids presenting an unfair concession between feminine goodness and witchy power.
In July 2020, Netflix cancelled CAOS without warning or meaningful explanation. Early this year, after the show’s finale, social media buzzed with disappointment. While the final season was equally as dizzying as it was dissatisfying, the writers deserve the benefit of the doubt. There was simply no way the blindsided crew could neatly wrap up the show’s numerous subplots in eight final episodes. Instead, the final season did more of what the show always did best: embraced its inner camp and put Sabrina center stage.
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’s four quick seasons, cast of eccentric characters, and seamless blend of horror, fantasy, and flair make it one of the year’s most binge-worthy shows, despite its inability to let characters go. Somehow a family-friendly show about Satanic worship, CAOS’ lush, comic book-style aesthetic will pull you in, while its plucky, lovable lead girl will keep you clicking “Yes, Netflix, I’m still watching.”
Rating: I N D Y
Cat Haseman is a first year Masters student in Arab Studies.