Another Salem season two episode, another episode where things just click. This witch war continues the shift in alliances and allegiances, as Sebastian finds himself growing more and more consumed with jealousy over Mary and Wainwright (she’s just not that into him), Tituba finds herself growing closer to get John Alden on her side (though it all gets bungled at the last second), Mercy worms her way into John Jr.’s life (and gets him on to the Countess’ ship), Anne gets bold (and less squeamish), and Cotton gains some peace of mind (as his father says those three little words he’d never said in life). As everything shakes out, Mary now has science on her side, which just might be what she needs to destroy the source of the Countess’ power: her ship.
Or, it could be completely useless, because this is a witch war, not a science fair.
“Dead Birds” gets its pretty straightforward title from the dead birds that just so happen to come to John Jr. on a regular basis, as well as the dead birds in the woods, as well as the chicken Anne rips the head off of, and really, a metaphorical bird as it were, as the Countess is shown in flashbacks to be essentially a phoenix who is reborn every time she is “killed.”
As usual, continuing where the last episode left off, Cotton reacts the only way he knows how to his dead father’s return: He screams and he screams and he screams some more, until his father simply poofs away. It must also be said, while future Cotton scenes in the episode—especially those with Increase—are heartbreaking, the very sight of Cotton screaming uncontrollably at the image of his father lends itself to how darkly funny Cotton’s constant misery—which is the result of his own doing, as well as his father and even the witches—can be in the right circumstances. Increase ends up back in Mary’s room, which is where he gives her a history lesson on the Countess and negotiates a deal of information for the chance to speak to his son. It’s not said enough, but Salem truly excels when it comes to the opening teasers of the episodes. They’re some of the best shot scenes of this particular episode too, as the blocking and directing in the Mary/Increase scene is just as captivating as the scene itself.
It’s standoffish, while also putting them on equal footing—even though Mary technically “controls” Increase—and it just slightly hides the pain in Mary’s eyes when Increase brings up her not having a child of her own.
That becomes an even bigger deal in the aftermath of John Jr.’s behavior in this episode, which is right off the heels of the Countess confirming that he is in fact a literal devil child. This episode reveals that the Countess is the Devil’s bride (a fact she apparently hasn’t made clear to Sebastian or Mercy), which is clearly another reason Mary will eventually have to hate the Countess. She’ll also have to add Mercy’s function as John Jr.’s “imaginary” friend “No One,” who manages to twist John Jr.’s twisted mind even more, to the point that he’s telling Mary “You’re not even my real mother,” calling her a “whore” (enough times that she slaps him), and throwing out a Dawn Summers “get out, get out, get” for good measure. Mary spends this episode working with a more dejected spirit than in most, but things do turn around for her come a patented Salem dinner. “Dead Birds” doesn’t actually have another biting dinner party to set the episode on fire, but it still is a dinner scene that leads to one of the biggest shifts in the episode. As Mary sits alone in her dining room, no doubt thinking about how her world and life have become what they now are, Wainwright arrives, revealing to her that he’s figured out she’s to blame for the pox… and that he wants in.
Of all the ways this could have gone down, this isn’t the most obvious, but since Wainwright still believes science is the major factor here, it causes him to let his guard down and find himself on the side of the witches. Mary isn’t necessarily lying to Wainwright here, but she is hitting the lie of omission buttons pretty hard as she “innocently” informs Wainwright that the reason the witches remain hidden is because of the Puritans’ drive to kill the witches. It’s absolutely true, but to claim that an innocence has any thing to do with Mary’s actions is laughable. When Wainwright calls Mary and witches “martyrs of truth” and advanced scientists, the very fact that Mary is able to keep even a smirk off her face is an impressive act itself.
On the other hand, you have Tituba, who takes things to the next level in trying to convince John Alden to join her side—to take on both the witches and Puritans—and fails in her desperation. Tituba, as good a witch as she is or could be, can’t help but have her inferiority complex follow her around when it comes to Mary Sibley. So when she has John on the ropes—definitely metaphorically, as she does so with John finally untied—she’s able to seduce him (in a sexually-charged episode, even in dream states). But it all goes to hell when he starts to see her as Mary, which snaps John out of it all and Tituba has to start all over again in manipulating him. I mentioned it in my review of the season premiere, but Tituba would make the perfect leader for the hive, if not for the fact that she’s the “wrong” color, and she even vaguely implies such in this episode. But there’s also an unrequited love, both for Mary and what Mary has, which gets in her way. It drives her, and it drives John too; but here, she misunderstands the hows and whys of that in the moment.
Sadly, “Dead Birds” doesn’t deliver much in the terms of Countess goodness, as she doesn’t really show up the episode save for the flashbacks in Increase’s historical retelling of her apparent immortality. Those moments are some of the best shot (also in the opening teaser, by the way) and most beautifully terrifying of the series. But even without the presence of Lucy Lawless, this episode proves a solid case for the new characters in this season. It’s typically easy to grow frustrated with the inclusion of new characters, especially as they enter the sophomore season of a show that was doing just fine with its first season cast. But Sebastian (Joe Doyle) and John Jr. (Oliver Bell) are appropriately frightening, although both can have moments of unintentionally awkward beats, especially when acting against Janet Montgomery and Elise Eberle, for different reasons, respectively. Stuart Townsend as Wainwright is also a winning character, as his pragmatism and search for knowledge puts him just on the edge of good or evil, whether he knows that or not. His camaraderie with Cotton is also a highlight—maybe even better than Cotton/John from season one—and his relationship with Mary is… heated.
“Dead Birds” is another winner for Salem, and as the season continues, things become both clearer and more muddled with regards to how it will all shake out. As long as the season maintains this quality, that’s perfectly acceptable.
- Increase finally telling Cotton he loves him and not to follow along the same path as him is a much-needed scene. Seth Gabel and Stephen Lang are both just aces throughout the episode.
- Salem’s somewhat intense amount of exposition works not just because of the delightful voices that tend to utter them but because, often times, it’s all met with a frustration and an eye roll from the characters themselves—especially Mary Sibley, who, as we all know, hates history lessons.
- Poor Brown Jenkins. No respect.
- So, I get the impression Tituba is not sure John Jr. is the Devil, but she knows something is majorly wrong with him. Correct?
- Anne’s wardrobe is getting better, which I guess mean she’s becoming more of a master witch. That’s how it works, right?
- One more thing about the opening scenes: While they’re a highlight now, there is every bit the chance the constant continuing off from the end of the previous episode—and quickly getting rid of the cliffhanger problem—may one day fall flat. That happened in the first season of Alias, which is the best example of this type of thing, and seeing Cotton freak out about his father’s presence (as he did at the end of last week), only to immediately move on until later in the episode, it really calls back to that, for all the good and the bad.