witching hour with Sabrina

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Desi kids’ only memory of Sabrina is from the Archie comics. She was a page break for the far more exciting and glamorous hijinks of the Riverdale gang, and like Josie and The Pussycats and that tiny blonde imp Lil Jinx, a sideshow to the real deal. Unlike Josie and her bandmates, her life rarely intersected with Archie’s, cementing her position as filler and afterthought for decades’ worth of comics. This was a pity. Her universe held such promise. Two aunts- one testy, the other bumbling, both kind. A portly newspaper loving cousin. A magical feline for a pet. A doofus of a boyfriend, who Sabrina’s always saving from embarrassment. A whole town that’s blissfully unaware of the firepower in their midst. And yet, the Sabrina panels never went beyond lazy witchy imagery. All the spells and potions in the world couldn’t hide the fact that this was basic, milquetoast witchin’. 

 

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Netflix changes all that with Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, a luscious, dark, campy tribute to the comics. Relevant feminist themes and tropes clash and converge into a pacy montage of small town Americana. Shockingly topical conversations abound- the othering of the different, the crackdown on dissidents, the deliberate exclusion of women from positions of power, the ghettoisation of society, the burdening of minorities with loyalist, protectionist demands, majoritarian paranoia. Like the women in Sofia Coppola’s movies, the women in the series wield their bodies and their sexuality with the confidence of professional assassins. Feminine mystique becomes a subversive, do-good force in their exaggeratedly patriarchal ecosystem. Quite like real life, women negotiate the patriarchy in self- damaging ways, never quite managing to best their oppressors. They also perpetuate it for a bunch of relatable reasons- pride, fear, convenience, guilt. Blood and gore are over- present and only serve to emphasise the increasing normalisation of violence in the real world. The real horrors don’t lurk in the woods, waiting to serve bloody comeuppance. They lie in the hearts of small minded men and women capable of unspeakable evil. 

 

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I haven’t even come to my favourite bits yet. There are two. The first is how the show examines religion and its crushing primacy in the lives of its followers. Why are we so invested in authority figures? Why must religion control our private lives and innermost thoughts?  What gives one faith the right to deride another? Are the values of your faith entirely benign? Aren’t the followers of every faith equally corruptible? Do all faiths have more in common than they care to admit, like institutionalised narcissism, an intolerance for critique and debate, an appetite for tormenting women in so many heartbreaking ways, rituals that achieve the opposite of comfort- binding and intimidating? Why do concepts like choice and agency terrify those who represent their gods? My favorite professor from college and grade A human being Dr. Megha Anwer answered these for me a long time ago; she read John Milton’s Paradise Lost to and for us and made short work of the opacity all organised religion thrives on. Those were pleasant winters. The sun was warm and golden on the desks and walls of our cosy tutorial classrooms, yet I could only feel my stomach knot and sink. The revelation that both God and his nemesis operated at absurdly human levels of pettiness was too much to process.

My second favorite bit is how freely the show’s creators borrow, proving that borrowing, even when done unsubtly and in spades, can be a good thing. The show doesn’t pussyfoot around its extensive reliance on beloved book, TV and film hits for material. Harry Potter’s wizarding world, Terry Pratchett’s chaotically brilliant universe, Neil Gaiman’s mind- screwy inversions of the fairy tale, indulgent hyper- Christian fare like Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcism of Emily Rose and The Conjuring, Sofia Coppola’s unique brand of soft- lit, pastel feminine vengeance, even Netflix’s own breakaway hit Stranger Things– everything’s fair pickings. The Addam’s Family aesthetic takes the fun up several notches.

 

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Kiernan Shipka is a luminous and fresh faced Sabrina Spellman. I live for her structured waves, dark headband and wine stain-y lips. Lucy Davis and Miranda Otto do doting aunts and clever sisters Hilda and Zelda, and they are phenomenal. Their bits are an excellent study in sibling dynamics, switching dizzyingly from conflict to truce and back again to conflict, informed always by a mutual adoration and respect. When they’re fighting, I’m reminded of Sylvia Plath’s Lesbos 

Viciousness in the kitchen!
The potatoes hiss.
It is all Hollywood, windowless,
The fluorescent light wincing on and off like a terrible migraine.

I’m doped and thick from my last sleeping pill.
The smog of cooking, the smog of hell
Floats our heads, two venomous opposites.

Ambrose is a broodingly handsome exuder of nervous energy and Harvey is sweet and likeable in the way cows are, I don’t know. The show packs a fairly diverse cast and I’m happy with their choices. 

I can’t recommend it enough. It’s a love song to every woman who understands that the most radical act is to strive to feel comfortable in her skin. It is hope for the bitter and despondent among us, smarting from so many betrayals, craving a better life. A morbid but oddly life affirming Plath sums the substance of the show best in Lady Lazarus 

I have done it again. 
One year in every ten   
I manage it
A sort of walking miracle, my skin   
Bright as a Nazi lampshade,   
My right foot
A paperweight,
My face a featureless, fine   
Jew linen.
Peel off the napkin   
O my enemy.   
Do I terrify?
The nose, the eye pits, the full set of teeth?   
The sour breath
Will vanish in a day.
Soon, soon the flesh
The grave cave ate will be   
At home on me
And I a smiling woman.   
I am only thirty.
And like the cat I have nine times to die.
This is Number Three.   
What a trash
To annihilate each decade.
What a million filaments.   
The peanut-crunching crowd   
Shoves in to see
Them unwrap me hand and foot——
The big strip tease.   
Gentlemen, ladies
These are my hands   
My knees.
I may be skin and bone,
Nevertheless, I am the same, identical woman.   
The first time it happened I was ten.   
It was an accident.
The second time I meant
To last it out and not come back at all.   
I rocked shut
As a seashell.
They had to call and call
And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls.
Dying
Is an art, like everything else.   
I do it exceptionally well.
I do it so it feels like hell.   
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I’ve a call.
It’s easy enough to do it in a cell.
It’s easy enough to do it and stay put.   
It’s the theatrical
Comeback in broad day
To the same place, the same face, the same brute   
Amused shout:
‘A miracle!’
That knocks me out.   
There is a charge
For the eyeing of my scars, there is a charge   
For the hearing of my heart——
It really goes.
And there is a charge, a very large charge   
For a word or a touch   
Or a bit of blood
Or a piece of my hair or my clothes.   
So, so, Herr Doktor.   
So, Herr Enemy.
I am your opus,
I am your valuable,   
The pure gold baby
That melts to a shriek.   
I turn and burn.
Do not think I underestimate your great concern.
Ash, ash—
You poke and stir.
Flesh, bone, there is nothing there——
A cake of soap,   
A wedding ring,   
A gold filling.
Herr God, Herr Lucifer   
Beware
Beware.
Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair   
And I eat men like air.

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