Sabrina Spellman & The Curse Of World-Building

Warner Bros. Television / Archie Comics / Berlanti Productions

Riverdale is an absolutely insane television show. Every single character is a murderer, a cult member, or a fake nun, and of course they’re all sleeping together. Hell, at one point Archie beats up a bear! It’s utter madness, and it’s incredibly fun. A new version of Sabrina The Teenage Witch from Riverdale’s creative team, set in the Riverdale universe, should have been a slam dunk.

Instead, The Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina is a confused and disjointed mess. It’s the television equivalent of Michael Bay’s Transformers — entertaining enough, but it falls apart the second you stop to think about it even a little bit. It’s well-acted, the production values are high, and in some respects the writing is strong, but the end result is all sound & fury, signifying nothing. What happened? CAOS fails in a number of specific ways, but they all stem from the same root cause — an utter unwillingness to engage in consistent world building.

Let’s consider Sabrina herself. Orphaned at a young age, she was raised by her two aunts, both of whom were active, prominent & devout members of their Satanic church. Now, Sabrina was something of a special case — as her mother wasn’t a witch, Sabrina was allowed to grow up with one foot in the world of witches, and the other in the mortal world. That just seems to mean that she attended normal schools while being surrounded by magic at home. Despite this, Sabrina was deeply ignorant about her own religion. She had never heard of her faith’s regular festivals, and she didn’t even know very basic information about how her church was organized. However, Sabrina wasn’t completely in the dark — she could do magic, and she seemed to know various bits and pieces of information about Satanism.

Imagine a show about a Catholic teenager who had never heard of Easter or the Pope. You can’t do it, can you? So why did CAOS try to pull off the exact same thing? There’s actually a simple answer — Sabrina is meant to be an audience surrogate. She has to be ignorant about things so that someone can explain them to her, and therefore to the audience. That’s not a bad story-telling device. It works very effectively in stories as diverse as Harry Potter & Master And Commander. In those stories, however, the characters are ignorant about things that they would logically be ignorant about — of course Harry, raised in the Muggle world, doesn’t know anything about magic. Of course Stephen Maturin, trained as a physician, knows nothing about the sea. You can’t say the same thing about Sabrina — if she was raised in the Satanic church, she should probably know about it.

Was this an insurmountable obstacle for the show? Were the CAOS writers forced into this contradiction, or was there another option? It’s hard to say. They could have made a version of the show where Sabrina knew everything she logically should, but that would probably require making one of the other characters the audience surrogate, and possibly even the main character. That’s a huge change and it would have meant an entirely different show.

Could they have kept Sabrina as an audience surrogate without raising all sorts of unanswerable questions? It seems like there may have been a couple of different ways to do it. First and easiest, they could have expanded on the notion that witchcraft is an initiatory religion, like the mystery cults of Ancient Greece. If young witches were purposefully kept in the dark about their religion until they came of age, that would solve the problem at hand without any significant changes to the show. The Satanic church in CAOS is already halfway there, as children don’t become full members until the age of 16. The only real difference would be that Sabrina’s peers at magic school wouldn’t be more skilled or knowledgeable than her, which isn’t a huge issue.

Alternatively, they could written Sabrina’s backstory so that her parents only died shortly before the show began, rather than when she was a child. This would involve having Sabrina come to live with a pair of aunts she never met, and slowly discovering the world of magic. That would obviously result in a much different show — not only would Sabrina’s relationships all have to change, the show would have to explain how magic works as Sabrina learns it, and that’s brings us to the next problem.

CAOS, you see, has absolutely no interest in explaining how magic works. I’d like to be very clear about why that’s a problem — there’s an old story about a Star Trek fan writing a letter to the show & asking “how do the Heisenberg compensators work?” and getting the response “very well.” That’s not the kind of “explaining” I’m talking about. When I say that CAOS doesn’t explain magic, I don’t mean that it doesn’t explain the metaphysical or supernatural issues involved. I mean that the show doesn’t explain how magic is performed or what it can do. That actually causes two problems, which are both worth exploring in depth.

First, it deprives the show of a solid foundation. If you’re doing a show about magic, then that magic should follow some kind of consistent rules. If you were doing a show about lawyers, you’d have them follow a single legal code. That would obviously limit the kinds of stories you could tell, but it’s also vital if you want a world that makes sense. Law And Order wouldn’t have lasted this long if the characters normally operated under common law but occasionally used Napoleonic Code with little bits of Hammurabi’s Code thrown in. This is a particular problem given that a major early storyline involves Sabrina being recruited to & then attending a magic school, which would normally involve explaining magic to the students.

Second, if your characters face magical problems & use magic to solve those problems, a lack of magical rules or consistency means that the viewer never has any idea what the stakes are in any given situation. Is what’s happening a huge threat or a minor annoyance? How can the characters handle that situation? When you know the tools & capabilities a given character can use to deal with a problem, you can put yourself in their shoes. CAOS makes that impossible. In the first few episodes, one of Sabrina’s aunts routinely murders the other, who then comes back to life. That’s not explained or treated as unusual, so the viewer is left with the impression that it’s just a normal witchy thing. A little later we learn that it’s actually a product of a rare magical artifact that the aunts own. Without explaining things up front, you can get away with all sorts of after-the-fact explanations like that, which makes for easy storytelling, but consequence-free stories.

Is it possible to tell a good story that involves magic without any explanations about how it works? Yes, but it’s hard, and CAOS has a number of features that make it even harder. A story where the main character encounters some kind of mysterious magic that’s never fully explained isn’t too tricky to pull off. A story where the unexplained magic is all symbolic and tied to the plot is fine. A story where the main character does all sorts of relatively mundane magic that’s still never explained is like walking a tight-rope while blindfolded. As an example, Paul Gallico’s “The Man Who Was Magic” pulls this off. The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, sadly, does not.

All right, let’s pull back a little bit. The Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina is ultimately about Sabrina being pulled between two worlds — mundane existence and her Satanic faith. So what exactly is the Satanic church? It’s actually a pretty traditional Early Modern Catholic view of Satanism/witchcraft — an organized religion that spans the whole world, and which is made up of people who have sworn themselves to Satan in exchange for magical power, which they use for their own purposes & to advance Satan’s cause.

That may not be the most innovative idea, but it does have a lot of potential. After all, this church is a group of incredibly powerful people who reject standard morality — that’s a fascinating subject, and there are plenty of stories you could tell about it. CAOS isn’t particularly interested in doing that. Yes, their members have their own sexual morality, and their own ideas about human sacrifice, but in general they just sort of follow a vague kind of pseudo-Nietzschean morality. This is a fairly minor offense when it comes to world-building — it’s not an actual flaw, it’s just the least interesting, lowest-effort choice.

The real problem with CAOS’s Church of Satan is a product of two factors. First, CAOS’s Satan has a master plan : he wants to kill all of humanity, witches and mortals alike. That’s his entire goal. As far as I can tell, individual witches may or may not be aware of this. That isn’t a plot hole in and of itself — even if a given witch knew that their master wanted all witches dead, he wouldn’t necessarily do it in their lifetime — and potentially condemning some future generation to death in exchange for power here & now is a very realistic plot choice.

What this means for the overall story, though, is that Satan and his Church are fundamentally evil. They exist only to cause suffering and death. CAOS is all about Sabrina trying to choose between the Church & mundane life, but if the Church is evil, that’s like Sabrina trying to choose between a chocolate sundae & getting eaten alive by a cougar. When the central dilemma of your series has a clear and obvious answer, that’s a problem. What makes it worse is that CAOS doesn’t seem to realize that it has a problem — a number of plot lines have centered on attempts to reform the Church. That isn’t just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, it’s trying to make the Gestapo a less toxic workplace. When your organization is literally working to end humanity, efforts to make it a little less misogynistic are just absurd.

I almost never give up on a TV show. I find something I like and I stick with it, through thick and thin. Normally I only stop watching a show when it’s so intense or smart that I can’t give it the attention it deserves. CAOS is an exception. I made it through two and a half seasons, right up to the point where Sabrina is ruling Hell & someone challenges her for the throne. The Princes of Hell set up a contest to determine Hell’s true ruler — the first candidate to retrieve a certain number of sacred artifacts wins. The stakes are high — if Sabrina loses, Hell will invade Earth and kill everyone.

Sabrina recovers the first artifact, but instead of carrying it over the finishing line, she lends it to a friend to study for a few hours. Naturally, her rival seizes it and wins the first challenge. That was an incredibly stupid decision on Sabrina’s part, but it’s just barely plausible. What made me swear off CAOS forever was the next episode, which dropped the scavenger hunt story completely. It didn’t even get mentioned. Instead of looking for the other artifacts, which Sabrina has to recover ASAP in order to save humanity from imminent destruction, the show embarks on a completely different story. Was the contest put on hold? Is Sabrina’s rival out there looking for artifacts while Sabrina messes around? Who knows? Not me. I’m done.

In the world of Sabrina, there are no rules, there are no consequences, there isn’t even cause and effect. That means there’s no plausibility. It’s a fever dream of a show. There’s an old saying : “I’m willing to suspend my disbelief, but I’m not willing to hang it from the neck ’til it dies.” Sabrina crossed that line a long time ago.

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