(Editor’s note: The following review covers the first five episodes of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina‘s second season.)
The Pitch: After choosing to enroll full-time in the Academy of Unseen Arts in the wake of leaving Greendale’s Baxter High behind, budding witch Sabrina Spellman (Kiernan Shipka, Mad Men) leans even harder into her occult teachings, with the help of her aunts Zelda (Miranda Otto) and Hilda (Lucy Davis), as well as her warlock cousin Ambrose (Chance Perdomo). But she still finds herself drawn to her old friends at Baxter, including ex-boyfriend Harvey (Ross Lynch), close pal Roz (Jaz Sinclair), and newly-transitioning Theo (Lachlan Watson), who are still getting used to Sabrina’s magical world.
At the Academy, though, Sabrina is still poking holes in the witching orthodoxy, causing no small number of headaches for headmaster Faustus Blackwood (Richard Coyle), who has designs not only for Sabrina but Aunt Zelda as well. Not only that, but Sabrina still waits to find out what dark designs the Dark Lord, whose book she signed last season, has in wait for her — especially with Baxter High principal Miss Wardwell (a scenery-gnawing Michelle Gomez) having her own eyes on the young witch.
That Old Black Magic: With the Dark Lord storyline reaching something of a fixed point — Sabrina having fully made her decision to align with the Dark Lord — Part 2 flounders a bit in finding a consistent story to tell. Granted, Sabrina and its sister show Riverdale have always been gloriously fascinating messes, but this newest slate of episodes feels particularly unfocused. Much of the time, it feels like the audience is waiting just as eagerly for Sabrina to receive the Dark Lord’s instructions (or at least something meatier than her first test of stealing a pack of gum); otherwise, she’s stuck in an uninteresting love triangle between Harvey and new warlock beau Nicholas Scratch (Gavin Leatherwood).
And for a season that at one point features a compulsory witch orgy called the Lupercalia, one interrupted by a werewolf, the second frame of Chilling Adventures curiously lacks the simultaneous wink and bite of the show’s inaugural outing. The wackier, witchier moments of the show are treated with a droll straightforwardness that dulls a lot of their pop — when virtually every moment is shot, lit, and staged like a late-period Argento film, the crazier moments feel a bit less special after a while. Of course, the appeal of Sabrina is that it takes place in a world where people matter-of-factly teleport frogs into people’s throats for revenge, or evoke Satan in casual conversation (“oh, for Satan’s sake”). But on a long enough timeline, the novelty wears down, and Sabrina is quickly reaching the point where it needs to shake up its diabolic doldrums.
Ennui-tches: Shipka is still great as Sabrina, but the aloofness she brings to the character can sometimes clash with the more outsized world she inhabits, and Part 2’s increased emphasis on the supporting characters doesn’t help. When Sabrina focuses on Zelda, Hilda, or Ambrose, it continues to shine, but it’s difficult to care much about Roz, or the seemingly self-contained machinations of Miss Wardwell (despite Gomez being the most fun performer to watch). Theo’s transition story is compelling in concept, but most of the time it manifests in passive reactions to bullying, or fantasies about repairing his gender dysmorphia. The character himself isn’t afforded a great deal of agency.
Salem’s Lit: By the fourth and fifth episodes of Part 2, however, things start to pick up with a delightful high-concept episode framed around a series of tarot readings performed on the main characters by a mysterious fortune teller (Alien‘s Veronica Cartwright) who comes their way. Episode four is split into several vignettes depicting the grisly, ironic fates set to befall its characters: Sabrina’s trust in new beau Scratch gets her shot up into space to freeze to death, Theo’s desire to use magic to fully transition has some unexpected side effects, Roz’s potential church-funded operation to restore her eyesight comes at a dark cost, and so on. It’s the kind of Gothic playfulness that Sabrina does best, reflecting the wants and needs of its moody teens in the outre manner characteristic of the stories born from showrunner Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa‘s brain.
Episode five is where things really pick up, though, when horror legend Ray Wise shows up as the “Anti-Pope,” kicking off a murder mystery that moves even more of the chess pieces into place. With this stage set, the rest of Part 2 may well kick the show back into a faster and more compelling gear.
The Verdict: As The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina continues to find its footing, playing with its delicate balance of macabre horror and knowing camp, Part 2 feels like a deliberate shift toward the former. Its Riverdale roots are still strong, full of sexy teens filmed exclusively at neon-lit Dutch angles, but its bevy of love triangles and internecine witch politics take the forefront in the new season’s early episodes. Needless to say, this doesn’t bode well for those of us who just want to see some witch orgies, dammit. The world is still arch and fun (and Gomez is still having a Heaven of a good time), but Sabrina‘s latest adventures are just a little more chaste than chilling.
Where’s It Playing?: The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina: Part 2 will scare up some ghoulish teen witch orgies on Netflix starting April 5th.