Elise Eberle (left), Janet Montgomery, Ashley Madekwe, Tamzin Merchant

Taking the time to think about it for a moment, Salem is an endlessly fascinating show. It’s easy to call it a bandwagon-jumper, with the trend of series like American Horror Story, Witches Of East End, and even Sleepy Hollow. It’s even easier to discredit the show based on it being the first major television series on a network sort of best known for Bozo The Clown.

Instead, Salem finds itself pushing the envelope with regards to what can be shown on the most basic of basic cable stations, while also depicting an allegory of female oppression and doing so under the charge of the all too forgotten “anti-heroine.” While Mad Men is on the way out, forcing AMC and television viewers alike to say goodbye to the other half of two of television’s most iconic anti-heroes (first went Walter White, and now here goes Don Draper), the reign of Mary Sibley (and the rest of the women on Salem) remains under the radar, striking with a quick force that no one (neither television viewers nor the characters) quite knows how to handle.

The scene in this episode in which Mary meets with Anne to convince her to join her is kind of indicative of why Mary is such a fascinating character, one that Salem has really struck gold with. (The same can be said of the casting of Janet Montgomery in the role.) It would be far too easy to simply say that Mary is looking for someone she can keep under her thumb, someone who is so terrified of what she is that she won’t have a problem bowing to her orders. In fact, Mary offhandedly scoffs at the idea of embracing Anne earlier in the episode (understandably, given the John of it all).

But during the scene, Mary brings up the simple fact that Anne can’t hide who she is and live in denial of all of it—she did brutally kill her parents, after all. Mary is smart enough to compare the two of them and how they came into their powers, but she also brings up the solid point that the world of the Puritans is one of “violent hypocrisy and oppression.” Whether she’s being honest or altruistic in her intentions or not, she rarely comes across like she herself doesn’t believe the things she’s saying (except for when John becomes a part of the equation), and honestly, she’s not exactly “wrong” in the words she says:

“Neither the world, the flesh, nor the Devil himself is like a Puritan’s suit, in only black and white. All is grey. And the Devil they fear is not the Devil I know.”

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One of the best parts of the season one finale was Tituba’s speech about the witches simply being persecuted because they are different (even if they do, you know, worship the Devil and want to bring him to Earth), so when Mary is saying all of this to Anne, it’s difficult to see any ulterior motive or agenda, even if the audience is initially very much aware that there is one. Even at her cruelest, Mary remains a character whose decisions and motivations just work. John Alden, a man who loved her and who has every right in the world to feel betrayed about her, can’t even changed the fact that she’s so compelling and a type of character you want to root for and see get that happy ending… again, even if that happy ending means the Devil on Earth.

When Salem ended its first season in July, the anticipation for how much more over-the-top the show could get (in the best way possible, of course) was palpable, and with its return in “Cry Havoc,” it’s clear that the show really has no plans of slowing down. In fact, it’s embracing the crazy—something potential viewers should understand before embarking on this televisual journey—even more and looking for ways to somehow one-up itself. After all, this season premiere does feature castration that leads to a penile transplant in the form of a bird (six total, one onscreen), as well as eyes being removed for witchy vision purposes; plus, all signs point to a future of nipples being in places they also don’t belong. Salem isn’t an accurate depiction of the historical Salem witch trials, nor is it trying to be. And that is despite what interviews prior to the series’ air tried to say—as soon as a toad left a man’s throat, the argument of the series being grounded in reality was void. What it is, however, is a fantastical story about persecution and corruption. It is a story of the evils that men and women do and why.

With this season of Salem being subtitled “Witch Wars,” “Cry Havoc” serves as the drawing of those battle lines. On the macro level, right now, it’s about Mary versus Mercy. But there are so many other factors within all of this already, from the new characters to the old, eventually a chart may have to be drawn up. It’s most likely only a matter of time before the Salem witches all realize it’s better to stand together at this time than to fall alone, especially with the upcoming threats—even if one of those threats is as “tame” as the town’s Selectmen feeling emasculated by the fact that they and their town are clearly being controlled by a woman, not a man.

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In what might also sound like a backwards description of women (most likely from Selectman Mr. Hathorne) but it is honestly an interesting point that the premiere subtly alludes to: The witches in Salem will create (or are creating) their own downfall simply because of their inability to get on the same page and push the in-fighting aside. Part of this simply stems from the fact that two of the most powerful witches in Salem—Anne and Mercy—are teenagers who simply think they know what is best for them, even when they don’t (like most teenagers).

But a larger part stems from the elephant in room that, no matter how powerful the other, non-Mary witches are, they don’t fit into the neat little box of “face of the hive” like Mary Sibley does. Mercy is dirty, reckless (as they constantly mention and she proves by killing the elders), and practically feral at times. Anne is too wide-eyed and impressionable, and really, she’s still a bit of wild card by the end of this episode, even after she finally accepts Mary’s help. The unfortunate fact in Tituba’s case is that she was simply born the wrong color for such a position.

So Mary, no matter how many times she messes up or lets her desires for John Alden fill her mind is the one who the elders allow (or allowed) to be “in charge”—more truly, the public face which they can control. Mercy, not Mary, being the one to kill Samhaim witch last season—even if she’d been able to tell the elders in this episode—doesn’t really make her the “Queen of the Night” as she was taught, because that role is as corporate as you can get in this plot of magics and witch politics.

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Not realizing the centuries old pecking order is what creates this havoc, and it is what brings forth this war.

So while things are going to hell in a hand-basket back in Salem as well as with the Mohawk Indians and John (in a plot that really is a lot to unpack), poor Cotton Mather is restricted to staying in Boston, to stew in his guilt the only way he knows how: having sex with hookers and talking to his dead father’s portrait. Other than maybe Tituba, Mather is the most under-served series regular in this episode, mostly because he is relegated to an outside sphere. But his plot does transition into an introduction of the much hyped Special Guest Star of the season, Lucy Lawless as Countess Palatine Ingrid von Marburg, a former adversary of the now deceased Increase Mather. Her introduction features her bathing on an ornate ship and magically drowning her minion in her own bathwater (a most twisted interpretation of the No Doubt song) as soon as he has lived out his function. It’s a grand entrance, befitting of both Lawless and the extravagance with which Salem clearly hopes to be known.

As the flames at the end of the episode warn Mary and Tituba, “war” is coming. That is the purpose of “Cry Havoc,” and it does an excellent job in those regards. This season opener is a good refresher on what these characters are more or less all about, although a late-coming viewer might take a bit of time to fully understand what is happening in this nightmare world of sex and horrors. Salem still has yet to reach the greatness it clearly strives for; “Cry Havoc” is a solid episode with buttons at the end of each plot that foreshadow potential greatness ahead. But what Salem does provide is a consistently entertaining show—with a surprising amount of social commentary—that just might attract more eyes to it as it continues.

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If nothing else, John Alden’s new and improved haircut may bring in a few thousand new viewers.

Stray observations:

  • Welcome all to TV Club’s season two coverage of Salem. I’ll be the leader of your hive for this endeavor, and no, you may not call me the Queen Of The Night. At least not yet.
  • When this episode begins, only three days have passed since the season finale and the Grand Rite. Mary and her unnamed son (“John Jr.” or just “boy”) spend some time together each night, but Tituba always takes him back to the elders. That’s healthy.
  • As someone who found the Mary/Tituba friendship (or possibly more) to be one of the better parts of season one (in its own tremendously warped way), seeing them on the outs—Mary calls her a “traitorous little bitch” early on—still isn’t great to see, but having them reluctantly have to team back up to battle Mercy (and whatever may come) should be interesting.
  • I found myself going back and forth on this as the episode went by, but which witch do you think Mary sees the most of herself in, warts and all: Anne or Mercy?
  • Stuart Townsend is also introduced as a new recurring character in this episode, as Dr. Samuel Wainwright, a man of science who is quick to turn on the charms toward Mary. He really is quite charming, but his rational senses (which he has decided to use to find the origin of the pox that is wiping out the non-witches of Salem) will only make him another thorn in Mary’s side. On the plus side (to viewers, at least), he brings back poor Isaac The Fornicator from the brink of death.
  • Seriously, John Alden’s entire plot in this episode really is too much for me to unpack at this moment in time. I was already a goner at the giant dream catcher.
  • Despite the reminders that Magistrate Hale is dead, Xander Berkeley’s name remains in the opening credits. Thoughts?

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