Tamzin Merchant (left), Seth Gabel

Last week’s Salem episode, “Wages Of Sin,” was a very exposition-heavy one but also one that was much needed. For an entire season, John Alden was completely left in the dark, and for another half a season, he still wasn’t quite sure of all of the pieces of the puzzle. “Wages Of Sin” finally put him on somewhat of an even ground with Mary Sibley, something that seemed like an impossibility for the majority of the series. Now, here in “Til Death Do Us Part,” both on more of a level playing field, John and Mary have to accept the fact—outwardly and not just within the quiet moments and the dark recesses of their minds—that they have both done absolutely unforgivable things to get to where they are now. And to what end? It’s hard to deny that their lives would have been so much different—maybe even better—if they hadn’t made certain decisions. But now it’s too late to know.

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The title “Til Death Do Us Part” obviously refers to the union of Anne Hale and Cotton Mather (a beautiful, bittersweet scene), but it also symbolizes how Mary feels about her situation with the Countess. As much as she wants that happy ending with John and John Jr., she’s resigned herself to the fact and the fate of not having anything resembling a happy ending. Amidst all the episode’s talk of forgiveness and sacrifice, Mary now feels the only way she can garner any form of the former is to become the latter. At first glance, it’s hard to believe that her part of the plan in rescuing John Jr. would be that of a kamikaze mission. But as she stands face-to-face with the Countess, holding the witch’s body captive as the Countess holds John Jr. in the same situation, she makes it known that she only sees this ending one way: with them both taking the trip to Hell together and not in the fun way. At this point, Mary legitimately sees this entire witch war between herself and the Countess as one that will end with both of them dead. Despite the defeatism that suggests, it’s also one of the more pragmatic thoughts Mary has ever had. In her eyes, this road to Hell—as paved with good intentions as it was—is still just that. A road to Hell, to death and despair.

Countess: “You alone unleashed a plague to devour hundreds of your kin.”
Mary: “Not kin. Puritan hypocrites who branded my friend, drove away my love, and forced me to give up the only joy I had left.”
Countess: “We all make sacrifices, Mary. And in these courageous acts, legends are born.”
Mary: “No. I wanted freedom. For all. I have been willing to sacrifice too many to achieve it, but you just want a world of slaves.”
Countess: “Do you not yet understand? Men long for the freedom of their chains. To them, slavery is freedom.”
Mary: “You are no better than the ones I sought to destroy.”
Countess: “You’ve not lived nearly long enough to judge me. Or the forces that drive me.”

It’s easy to forget that in most of season one, especially the earliest episodes, Mary was practically irredeemable as far as anti-heroes go. She was arguably the villain of the entire series. An amazingly well-dressed villain, but still a villain. Of course, like the best villains, she had (and still has) a magnetism and a charisma that was indescribable, even while she was doing truly despicable things. She was well on her way to eventually reaching a Countess-level of villainy; had John Alden truly been dead, she would most certainly follow on that path.

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But this season, with the introduction of her son and the second “death” of John Alden, the facade of baddest witch in all the land has constantly slipped. The kidnapping of John Jr. dropped the facade, and this episode completely removes all traces of the darker versions of Mary that we’ve come to know, except for the pain that such a life has inflicted upon her. The biggest example is in the Anne/Mary scene, where Anne reacts in the usual manner to Mary, steeling herself for the manipulations and lies that come with their conversations, only for Mary to speak plainly to her—for once—and warn her of the Countess’ motives, especially when it comes to Cotton. This episode is Mary Sibley’s swan song. It just doesn’t end with her death, it instead ends with her very public imprisonment by Hathorne’s hand (courtesy of the Countess and Sebastian). And it happens in an episode that finally features a moment or two of genuine humanity from the Countess. Will wonders never cease?

With all the examination of Mary’s character in this episode, it is important to note that, conversely, John Alden now finds himself with a real purpose for living in the form of his son. It’s not the same drive as vengeance, as he barely considers himself alive within that context. But just the fact that he has a son gives him a reason to fight to live, while Mary now finds herself fighting to die.

A large part of what makes “Til Death Do Us Part” rise above the rest, besides the fact that it’s a seemingly season-ending episode when there are still a few episodes to go before the actual season finale, is the look of it. Director Tim Andrew (Supernatural, Witches Of East End, Teen Wolf) takes some chances, going more with the stylized route than just the straight-up horror (although there is plenty of horror, as the final shot of the episode shows) the Salem tends to employ, and it pays off. You can see it especially in the scene where Mary finds and takes the Countess’ body, in slow-motion as time appears to stand still. It’s reminiscent of the scenes in Increase Mather’s retelling of the Countess’ back story in “The Beckoning Fair One,” and it’s sadly a style Salem doesn’t employ all too often.

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There are also the standard, technically proficient shots, as one of the best shots of the episode—in the one of the best scenes of the episode—is the low angle shot of the Countess with a choke-hold on John Jr. while she speaks of the freedom of slavery. Even in her moments of genuine humanity, when she speaks of the horrors she’s seen to become who she is, she’s still the most terrifying person in the world.

The wedding of Cotton and Anne, however, is an unnaturally pure and sweet scene in a show that is about neither of those things. Nothing about the shooting of the scene includes the underlying darkness of the fact that Cotton is still underneath a love spell, and for that, the audience is simply able to appreciate the beauty that is Cotton and Anne’s relationship (on the surface) and the chemistry between Seth Gabel and Tamzin Merchant. In fact, with the exception of the drunken fight with Hathorne, the love spell has done more good than harm for Cotton this season, giving him a greater reason to live instead of drink and fornicate himself to death. Thinking of it that way, the marriage scene truly is that pure and sweet and deserves to be shot as such.

“Til Death Do Us Part” is an episode of Salem that may not be heavy in the standard over-the-top witchcraft and horror that the series excels in, but it’s simply wonderful for character moments. This episode is a culmination of so much pain and suffering, and it’s easily the best of Kelly Souders and Brian Peterson’s (which include “From Within” and “Ill Met By Moonlight”) episodes this season. Like last week’s episode, it is a much-needed one. Yet while I criticized last week’s for being overstuffed with exposition, this episode is stuffed in the best way possible, which emotional beats that are especially welcome when you simply examine how far a lot of these characters have come from the beginning of the series (or just the beginning of the season). The fact that the characters are the true focus at this point—and not just the Grand Rite—and can hold that focus means Salem is doing something right.

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Stray observations:

  • Countess: “You know, I saw her [“the other Mary”] once. Mousy little thing. I don’t know why ‘the Lord’ chose her.”
    Mary: “Know why ours picked me?”
  • Mary (to Countess): “My heart? You’re welcome to it. But I think it might be a little bitter for your taste.” Mary Sibley is just fed up at this point. It truly is a wondrous thing to witness.
  • The dilemma about John Jr. being a devil child is addressed in this episode (though John most likely has no idea just how bad his son has been), with the very straightforward concept of exorcising the Devil out of him being the path they choose. However, that’s easier said than done. Also, the fact that Cotton’s examination of John Jr. has him saying he thinks the kid looks normal is the very reason Cotton is a ridiculous man at times. That’s why you’re always close but no cigar, Cotton!
  • More proof Mary has gone soft? She saves all the girls locked up on the Countess’ ship. She also saves Isaac (who, through and through, she’s always found to be her friend), but he now knows of her evil-doing and wants nothing to do with her. The scene where he finds Dollie’s body is almost too much to handle. “Have you not suffered enough,” Mary asks of the poor guy. That’s what we’re all saying.
  • Basically, the Devil is the Countess’ John Alden. How sweet.
  • This is also a good episode for Sebastian as a character, as he’s slowly having to decide a side in the witch war instead of just hanging on his mother’s every word. The seeds have been planted.
  • Before this episode, I actually thought it was impossible for Hathorne to be any more repulsive. Now I know I was wrong. I was so wrong.
  • However, the funniest moment of the episode is from the scene where Hathorne rants to the townspeople about notable absences like Wainwright and Reverend Lewis. He really is in over his head.

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