And so season two of Salem continues, with a witch war (or three) brewing and the incest doubling. Just when you think Salem can’t get any crazier, “Blood Kiss” shows up and has Lucy Lawless monologue about the disgust she has for half-blood witches while Mary Sibley’s devil child (as I described him in the season finale, based solely on the deal made and not his behavior) proves that he is, in fact, a devil child in perhaps every sense of the phrase.
With Salem’s default setting being “pretty insane,” an episode like “Blood Kiss”—even if it is, in some ways, crazier than what precedes it—really is just business as usual. What most shows would be called out for in terms of “going to 11” is usually Salem’s one or two setting. That means the show has to throw out everything, plus the kitchen sink, and maybe even a toilet to truly break out of its version of the normal. The second season premiere had a literal bag of dicks, and yet it still didn’t reach the threshold of just what might possibly be peak Salem.
In “Blood Kiss,” the metaphorical bag of dicks come in the form of the episode’s different blood kisses. There’s the blood kiss in the form of a less than innocent kiss on the hand, leading to magically bloody nose. There’s the blood kiss in the form of a foreboding (yet, like most of Salem, oddly sexual) make-out session, with blood on the lips. Then, there is the blood kiss in the form of incest, both disturbingly welcomed and frighteningly forced.
What’s so impressive is how everything in Salem is taking place in such a short amount of time. “Cry Havoc” took place only four days after the season finale, and the story in “Blood Kiss” simply begins mere moments after Mercy declares war on Mary and Tituba. Breakneck pacing can work well for genre shows early on in their lives (see: the first two seasons of The Vampire Diaries), but the question at this point should probably be how long can Salem keep it up? As a dark, campy, fever dream type of a show, Salem appears to have something up its sleeve at all times. But this is still the series’ infancy. There have only been 15 episodes of this series. Will it be able to keep up the pace with the same quality in double that amount? In triple?
Luckily, there is no real need to have to answer those questions right now. Salem, while still rather under the radar, is getting the job done right now. It’s providing an interesting, balls to the wall approach to a somewhat tired (if not exhausted) facet of the genre. I touched on it in my review of “Cry Havoc,” but Salem really is pushing the envelope on what the most basic cable network can do in prime-time, and it’s doing so while also being one of the most surprisingly (and possibly contradictory) radically feminist shows on television.
Honestly, if there’s only one thing to take away from “Blood Kiss” (and Salem as a whole), it might have to be the fine line that the show walks walks between being extremely feminist and also being an avenue for the male gaze. That’s probably not exactly the type of thing you go into Salem considering, perhaps because of its network or even just its basic premise. But at this point, there are far too many scenes which sway in both of these directions for it to just be unintentional either way. In this episode alone, only a couple of scenes separated the ominous, yet sexually-charged, blood kiss between Anne and the Countess and the scene in which Mary and Dr. Wainwright have a frank conversation about the secret strength of women.
Dr. Wainwright, a man of science who is progressive in both his stances on gender roles and his approach to life, is even the one to go with the old standby of mentioning how different the world would be if it were men who had to give birth to children instead of women. And despite the flirtation between these two characters, every scene they have shared so far has also served as a reminder of either the benefits of having women in charge or simply just how strong women (specifically Mary) are. The scene is even buttoned with Mary straight-up saying that she doesn’t need a man to make it in the world and through her struggles: “My pain, like my body, is mine alone.”
This is all happening on a ridiculous, historically-inaccurate show about the Salem Witch Trials.
Mary Sibley is running the town of Salem, and “Blood Kiss” pretty much begins by continuing to confirm that terribly kept secret; she immediately takes control of the whole witch war situation by leading the townsmen to Mercy’s pit of death, and she has them do her dirty work and set fire to Mercy and all of her minions. It’s the type of moment that makes Mary’s leadership skills—whether it’s in the case of a town full of Puritans or the case of the witfch hive—unquestionable. The woman is a master manipulator and a fine political mind.
Her “weakness,” however, constantly rears its head in the form of her heart (which also makes her more than a clear cut villain), which is why she’s later not able to follow through on things like killing her childhood friend Isaac (as she determines he’s not a threat) or ever let go of her attachment to John Alden, no matter how much further down the rabbit hole she goes. It’s most likely the type of weakness the Countess will go after in due time, as the conversation “within” Anne’s soul shows her contempt for the “impure” witches in Salem and how—unlike herself—they were able to perform the Grand Rite.
Despite the horrible things Mary has done for whatever reasons she has done them, none of that will probably hold a candle to whatever evil her soulless (which is meant metaphorically but could very well mean literally, given time) son can think up. There’s a great contrast between the things Mary has done to George Sibley—a terrible man in his own right—and the random torture her son does to him in this episode (in what is almost a throwaway scene). Even under the argument that Mary’s treatment of George is completely villainous, there’s still the fact that she never shies away from explaining her reasons for doing any and all of it to him (like a James Bond villain). None of that reasoning is brought up in the case of John Jr.; the only thing we know is that it’s what he considers fun playtime. It’s very much another tale in Salem’s story about the evil that men do—after all, in no way are the Puritans the heroes of this story, even with the female witches’ blood rituals for the Devil—even though it’s in the form of a boy.
In all this talk of men and their place in Salem, it all has to lead back to the leading man in this series: John Alden. With this episode, John’s journey back to Salem to exact revenge on Mary, Tituba, and any witch he may come across is sadly the weakest “war” story of the bunch. Not even his fur coat can make his journey come across as more than slightly ill-advised. His plan moving forward appears to be “kill everyone,” whether they’re a witch or an innocent, and that’s really not a smart plan. It honestly bogs down the otherwise solid episode the longer it continues.
After the borderline offensive (though consistently entertaining) Native American acid trip he had in the season premiere, it’s a bit disappointing for John to fall back into the role of extraneous lovelorn guy, but it appears there’s really only so many places the show can go with him. He’s too much of a straight man to be played as slightly comical like Cotton, and he’s too much of a leading man to be played like the punching bag that is Isaac. Last season, his presence on the show felt off for many reasons—especially as the series began to embrace its more over-the-top nature—but “Cry Havoc” appeared to give his character a reason for being and for being kind of a badass. The question is no longer “Why is Shane West here?” as it is “What can the show do to best use Shane West?”
“Blood Kiss” is the next big move in this twisted game of high stakes chess (although not nearly as slow) known as Witch War. Right now, it’s still a little difficult to pinpoint where exactly this season will go. That’s mostly because Salem can often feel more like a series of vignettes and monologues than a straightforward television show. The episode ends with Mercy’s charred body rising from the dead and making a grand entrance, and it’s an excellent note to end on… but it’s also a reminder that the episode is sorely lacking in her flamboyant flare for power-seeking tantrums in the first place. Then there’s also the case of Anne’s backtracking on accepting Mary’s “help,” which feels like a step back into the character’s default naivete. Fortunately, her interactions with the Countess and Cotton Mather in this episode do bring hope of better days. That’s the big takeaway from this episode: hope for the future of this season. There are a lot more questions about where things may go because of this episode, but there should be no doubt that Salem will deliver when the times comes to answer them.
- Understandably, I was totally picking up what the Countess was laying down until she started the “half blood” talk. Turning a fun little witch war into an ethnic cleansing is enough to make me think that maybe a character is a bad person.
- Speaking of the Countess, she reveals herself to be Hecate, the Goddess of Witchcraft, in this episode. She also has her son right under her thumb, for lack of a much better, incest-related term.
- We need to talk about John Jr. (and that kiss he planted on Mary).
- Is it wrong to laugh at Cotton when he basically says “of course” to there being a pox on Salem?
- In all this talk about the men of Salem and how this show often goes to great lengths to show the worst in them, let us all remember that Isaac the Fornicator is the heart of this show. He’s blaming himself for the town’s downfall, and really, it hurts to see him hurt.