The Netflix adaptation of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina opens with everyone’s favorite teenage witch facing a difficult choice: she can go through with her scheduled dark baptism on Halloween and become a full-fledged witch, never to interact meaningfully with mortals again, or she can reject the dark baptism in favor of living as a mortal herself. (The specifics of whether she’d had any magical powers at all with this second choice are actually unclear.) This is meant to be a gut-wrenching decision, a point where Sabrina must choose between the two worlds she’s been living in and claim only one, and it’s presented as psychologically shattering for her. How can she give up her friends? Or her family? Or magic as she knows it? Yet the rest of the show actually makes the choice look straightforward: Sabrina must choose between good and evil and…she simply is not evil.
Magic in the show is explicitly linked to the devil. Witches sign their souls and their free will over to him in exchange for long lives and for magical power. And there’s no secret twist here that the devil is actually secretly sympathetic or misunderstood. He is evil and understood to be as such. Hell is real, and it’s a place people want to avoid. And if all this is true, one cannot help but wonder what Sabrina sees in life as a witch at all.
One might argue that witches who have been raised solely in the witch world would think all these things are normal and fine, but Sabrina was not, and she directly rejects nearly everything that the magical world seems to stand for and be interested in. The show opens with Sabrina and her friends attending a horror movie, and boyfriend Harvey comments on how Sabrina loves all things gruesome and dark and gory, but the reality is she doesn’t, not when it’s not just for show.
Her house is covered in spider webs, and she’s someone who thinks cemeteries are interesting instead of creepy, but she doesn’t actually like all the dark things that come out of the witch world. She doesn’t approve of the harmful magic that the Weird Sisters perform on jocks who have been bullying girls at her high school. She’s terrified when a creepy scarecrow comes to life and chases her. She doesn’t like nightmares or demons or, really, anything else that actually is born from witches’ magic.
This makes the show fall flat for me. When Sabrina so clearly rejects the way magic is used and the source of magic and when she gets upset about it all and screams that she is not evil, the viewer has to wonder how any of this can truly be a choice for her. If your options are to sign your soul away to evil or to…not, how many people (especially really nice people like Sabrina!) would actually choose the first?
The show tries to skirt this by offering up the possibility that maybe Sabrina can have her cake and eat it, too. Maybe she can find a way to be magical without signing away her soul. This is still a tough sell, however, when the magic she and other people use never seems to actually be for good. Her soul might be free in a technical sense, but if her powers are used for harming and scaring people, what’s the point of choosing to be a witch?
The show is interesting in many ways, but when the entire premise seems so flimsy, it’s hard to watch. When you’re choosing between good and evil and you’re clearly a good character, there just isn’t a choice at all.