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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Motherland: Fort Salem squanders its early potential

Illustration for article titled iMotherland: Fort Salem /isquanders its early potential
Photo: David Bukach (Freeform)
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There is a moment in one of the early episodes of Motherland: Fort Salem that beautifully, and frustratingly, hints at the show’s great potential: Two young women, conscripted into an army of American witches learning combat magic at the titular facility, sneak away from the drudgery of basic training and into a moonlit wood. One of them, Scylla (Amalia Holm), is a bit savvier than the newest recruit, Raelle (Taylor Hickson), and she’s secreted away patches that, when applied to the skin, allow a witch to float upward in the air and propel herself in flight. The two women rise against a sky awash in a gorgeous lunar blue, buoyed by the drug and, most potently, by their attraction to each other. As their eyes fill with a rich, cloudlike whiteness and widen in an almost delirious pleasure, they glide toward each other in a sumptuous kiss. The moment is grandly romantic yet tinged with menace: Scylla harbors a secret, one that will devastate her lover.

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The moment’s beautiful imagery introduces the physical, lived reality of being a super-powered person—more than a little terrifying but equally exhilarating, every gesture filled with boundless potential that must still be wrangled into careful control. Yet it’s frustrating because it holds a complexity that the show too often forfeits as it attempts the blood-flecked froth of other baroque teen dramas like Riverdale. Just when the series seems poised to say something profound and uncomfortable about power and exploitation, it becomes disappointingly rote. Motherland: Fort Salem has a compelling premise: In its alternative history, the U.S. government makes a pact with the most powerful of the Salem witches to suspend the infamous witch trials—provided that the witches use their remarkable gifts to advance America’s military agenda. The only way for witches to survive is to kill and die for a country that, for all intents and purposes, would’ve been content to see them hang.

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By the time the series begins, the entire global military complex is powered by witchkind. There are “good” witches like our central trio, which is made up of Raelle Collar, the country girl with a chip on her shoulder after her beloved mother, an army medic, dies a spectacularly terrible death on a mission gone wrong; Abigail Bellweather (Ashley Nicole Williams), the proud daughter of a legendary military family, whose outsized arrogance barely veils her abiding sense of inadequacy; and Talley Craven (Jessica Sutton), the big-eyed, pure-hearted idealist who just wants to use her powers for the greater good. They answer their nation’s call on their 18th birthdays, swearing oaths to protect the innocent. “Bad” witches, like the terror group The Spree, raise the horrors of hell against the human world by murdering thousands of civilians in gruesome spectacles: In the first six episodes, members of The Spree enchant large groups of people so that they commit mass suicide, or freeze them alive in public swimming pools. These scenes are staged with an immaculately stylized cruelty that sickens and dazzles, like a glint of moonlight off a sharpened scythe.

Still, the show’s treatment of The Spree belies its two most significant weaknesses: It feints toward portraying the terrorist cell as something akin to X-Men’s Brotherhood of Mutants, using violence to defy and avenge decades of subjugation—and if they must kill thousands of civilians, all the better to make their point. But this portrayal remains surface-level, in a few tossed-off lines about a Spree-affiliated character’s rage at her conscientious objector parents being executed for desertion, or Raelle’s bitter observation that, for all the pomp and circumstance and “thank you for your service,” most of these witches are simply here to be cannon fodder. After all, the warrior matriarch of the Bellweather family, a woman renowned as one of the greatest generals in witchkind, was an enslaved woman, a point that the show glosses over. There’s an intricate, thorny bramble of a question here, of whether witches should violently rebel against a system that has, for generations, threatened them with torture or death for not defending it—yet the writing stays clear of all that, content to graze its finger on one of those thorns, and marvel at the thin trickle of blood drawn.

Related video: The cast of Motherland: Fort Salem on the series’ radical depiction of feminine power

Despite the savagery of Spree attacks, and the knowledge that soon our heroines will have to face them in combat, the series suffers from a surprising lack of urgency—we cycle through so many training montages that may initially serve as world-building and character-defining devices, demonstrating the witches’ full range of abilities and showing how they do or do not appreciate their own powers, but which soon become gratuitous. One middle episode is devoted to the witch equivalent of the prom, complete with an overlong musical number, and only the last several minutes advance the plot forward. This narrative bagginess swallows all the story’s oxygen and blows it out as stale air: It squanders precious opportunities to develop compelling antagonists—and that lack of complexity is even more unfortunate given that the three leads are so charismatic and well-cast.

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Each of the main characters aligns with some broader archetype that anyone who’s ever seen a war movie, or a teen drama, for that matter, will instantly recognize: the rebel, the golden child, and the naïf. Yet the actresses breathe depth and nuance into some of the thickest material. Sutton is adept at calibrating Talley’s puppyish enthusiasm (at one point, when enjoying alcohol for the first time, she drunkenly cries out that she loves “her witches”), making her slow maturation, which is spurred disappointments both petty and massively consequential, feel achingly real. Williams imbues what could easily be a garden-variety haughty hothead with a vulnerability that makes her eventual struggles with PTSD that much more heartrending.

The true standout is Hickson, whose Raelle is flinty and raw and convincingly conflicted about her power and how she wants to use it. During the scene where she first floats with her lover, she allows her face to open like some rare, exotic bud that only unfurls at night. Later, after Scylla goes missing, Raelle is forced to attend a basic training sequence where the witches must use this patch and learn to fly for combat. Raelle hovers dumbly in the air, simultaneously weightless and wrenched with pain, her face opening again in such stark longing before snapping shut again—and if she knew the truth about her beloved, that pain would only be amplified. It’s such a small scene, but so rich with genuine conflict and passion. If only the rest of the series were as good.

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