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‘The Chilling Adventure of Sabrina’: An empowering reboot

and | Monday, November 5, 2018

Joseph Han

TV shows featuring a strong female lead are not something easily found in the abyss that is our Netflix feed. Even more difficult to stumble upon, is an almost entirely female-led show. The Netflix original adaptation of the classic “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” breaks that mold.

“The Chilling Adventure of Sabrina” comes from the creators of “Riverdale,” and with that in mind I feared I’d find it, much like “Riverdale,” riddled with boy crazy girls and pointless plot lines. However, I was more than pleasantly surprised with the creators’ execution of something almost completely the opposite. For starters, the atmosphere and setting of this show are stunning. Greendale is a cloudy, grey and ominous little town with an even darker past. The visual details imbued in everything from costumes to props make Sabrina’s world look like a slightly twisted version of ours. This sense of seeing the “real world” in a funhouse mirror — a feeling aided by the rather ambiguous time period in which everything is taking place — sets the viewer on edge and allows one to suspend their disbelief. We know what we’re seeing, but it doesn’t look quite right; therefore, anything is possible.

Within the first five minutes of the show we witness, with no context, a young woman kill Sabrina’s teacher then enter the woman’s body to take her place, immediately cultivating in the viewer a feeling of uneasiness and fear. The dramatic irony involved with the secret identity of Sabrina’s teacher is certainly effective. I found myself increasingly frightened as I made discoveries along with Sabrina, my shock and disbelief mirroring Sabrina’s own confusion. Sabrina — played by the impeccable Kiernan Shipka — is a capable lead, doing well to express defiance, confusion and uncertainty in equal parts. She is always believable, acting in a way that is authentic in its representation of the teenage experience, and her character is bold, vulnerable and full of ingenuity. In the hands of a lesser actress, Sabrina would appear overly-affected and contrived, her rebellions earnest but cliche. Unfortunately, the show fails to develop some of its other characters. Sabrina’s boyfriend Harvey is rather one-dimensional, and early attempts to develop his character fall mostly flat. In fact, Harvey is little more than a plot device, as are Sabrina’s friends, Roz and Susie. 

Sabrina’s struggles with her identity within mortal society and the Church of Night are a metaphor for the perceived challenges faced by most young girls. The show’s beginning episodes present a dichotomy of oppression, both in the mortal and supernatural realms; when Susie is bullied by a group of jocks, the school’s corrupt male leadership does nothing to help. Similarly, Sabrina discovers that the Church of Night, an institution that was lauded as a celebration of free will and personal choice, proves to be just as stifling and patriarchal as the town of Greendale itself. In signing her name in the Book of the Beast, Sabrina realizes that she is really signing away her soul. The harassment Sabrina faces from the Weird Sisters — who should be her allies — seems to parallel the infighting of similarly subjected women (infighting that has recently been recognized and scorned by feminists, especially in the of  the #MeToo movement).

Moreover, almost every dimension of the show is marked by fighting between the genders. Sabrina’s worlds collide when she is tried in the Church of Night for “breach of promise” and forced to fight for her autonomy. Both the human world and the witch world claim to “own” Sabrina, and she is forced to choose, but neither of her options appear particularly appealing. However, “The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” presents a hopeful solution to what appears to be a widespread and fully-ingrained patriarchy and an inescapable dilemma. The solution is Sabrina herself. She manages to choose a middle path between the Church and her former life, keeping her head on her shoulders despite a constant barrage of hardships. The solution to the continuing problem of female oppression, “Sabrina” suggests, is women themselves — especially young women. Overall, the show is a stunning display of female strength in numbers and a refreshing break from the cliches of male led series.

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