Did 'Salem' Just Kill Off Its Main Star?

Co-creator Brannon Braga talks with THR about directing the fiery fight between Mary and the Countess, the character they have big plans for next season and more.
WGN America

[Warning: This story contains spoilers for Salem's season two finale.]

After two seasons of fighting to protect herself and those closest to her, Salem's Mary (Janet Montgomery) made the ultimate sacrifice: in order to save her true love, John (Shane West), from certain death, she gave up her own life.

The decision came after Sebastian (Joe Doyle) drained and collected enough blood from Mary's body to convince his mother, the Countess (Lucy Lawless), that Mary was dead. Sebastian warned Mary she would be fine if she was careful and didn't lose more blood  but with John bleeding out, she cast a spell and used her blood to nourish him. Unfortunately for John, when he woke up  revived thanks to her sacrifice  he found Mary dead in his arms.

But death on Salem could mean many things. Co-creator  and season two finale director  Brannon Braga spoke with THR about whether Mary is really dead (and what that might mean for the show), how Anne's (Tamzin Merchant) newest trick will impact her relationship with Cotton (Seth Gabel) and more.

Now that Mary is, seemingly, dead, what can you say about what's next?

Mary is dead; she gave her life to save John, which is heartbreaking and the perfect ending to the season  these doomed lovers again in each other's arms. And one of them was dead. Which really, to me, encapsulates the emotion of the series, which is very much centered around love, as horrific as the show can be.

Make no mistake: she's dead. The question becomes, "How will she come to life? How will she live? What will it mean? What's going to happen." These are things we've only been talking about but haven't settled on. Obviously Mary Sibley is the emotional epicenter of the show, so it's hard to imagine the show without her. And yet at the same time, who knows?

Was her death something the writers had been working toward for a bit?

It was organic; it was early in our discussions for season two. We knew we wanted this year to be the fall of Mary Sibley. She had achieved everything at the end of last year; she was at triumph. And this year, circumstances conspire to take her down. All the way down. And, in fact, at the end of the day, she loses the war. The only thing she has left to give  and the only triumph she can possibly have  is to save her lover's life. We didn't know we were going to take it quite that far, but we wanted to see Mary come unraveled.

Given the sacrifice was on his behalf, how will John be coping with Mary's decision next season?

If you look at his reaction to finding her dead in his arms: he loves her still and always will, no matter what happens. What I really love about the first two seasons is this epic love at the center, that we've managed to nourish and sustain [them], and it's this dance between these two characters. They really weren't together at all this year. They certainly were at odds last year. They really only had a couple of scenes together if you look at season one. Same with this year. They barely have any scenes together, and it's this love story with two people who barely [share screen time]. So should Mary live, the love story will resume in some fashion. We do have some real specific ideas of how that might play out, but I don't want to give it away just yet.

Elsewhere, Anne has gone from putting a spell on Cotton to "make" him love her to full-on taking control of him so he couldn't leave her. Where will their story be going next year?

He's the new George Sibley, isn't he? We have some things planned. Obviously he's in quite a tight spot. And we obviously don't want the wonderful actor, Seth Gabel, to be catatonic the whole year. (Laughs.) There are some twists and turns coming there. I think that love story, as bizarre as it has become, we're very invested in and want to keep playing that.

Is there a line Anne or Cotton could cross where it would no longer be a redeemable love story?

It's a good question: at what point does Anne's spell over Cotton wear off? At what point does it just become implausible? Given the outrageous events on this show, I wouldn't know where the line is. I think true love weathers any storm on this show. Even a character like Countess Marburg, at the end of the day just wanted to be loved. And she didn't get it; her lover murders her.

The Countess was the kind of character where any number of people could have taken her out and it would have felt satisfactory. As a writers' room, what led to ultimately having it be Mary and John's possessed son, John (Oliver Bell), who did the deed?

The discussions about taking her out didn't happen until later because we weren't sure if the character would keep going into season three. It became more and more apparent she was going to go, and we very quickly went to the idea of the boy, and the idea of her motivation for resurrecting him was deeper than simply building a witch kingdom; she loves him. And expects to be his consulate and is betrayed. There is really no one else who could kill her.

I suppose Sebastian could have. But it was far colder to have Sebastian do nothing to save her.

Speaking of Sebastian, will he be around next season now that his mother is gone and he seemed resigned to let Mary be with John?

We really like the character, and yeah, he is primed to be a major character next year.

The attack on Tituba (Ashley Madekwe) seemed fairly fatal. Will Ashley be a series regular next year?

I hate to be disappointing, but I don't want to say. But [Tituba] sure looks dead to me. But on this show, you never know.

Read more: 'Salem' Star on Brutal Twist: "His Thirst for Knowledge Would Make Him Do Anything"

Right. Mercy (Elise Eberle) is once again in a bad way. Where does she go from here?

We saw Mercy as the first American monster  she's really a monster. And like every great monster, she's tragic. And right now, she's a monster roaming the streets of Salem, stealing souls of children, which is a pretty good place to begin her next year. She's a very popular character; the actress does a great job. She's definitely going to play a big role. She herself just wants to be loved and accepted. And she's in love with Sebastian. So who knows where that's going to go.

One of the most impressive sequences of the finale was Mary and the Countess' fight in the church as it burned around them. What was filming that like?

As the director, I can tell you I just had to be really prepared. We shot that entire sequence in one day, into the night; 14 hours, plus some splinter unit stunt work. I had it very carefully planned. Real fire was used. It was enhanced with digital effects, but there was real fire in that church. And it was careful planning and an excellent and efficient crew. Really prepared actors. But we got it done. It was ambitious. Our aim was to make it cinematic, and we got it done. It's not often you get to take one day to do one scene, but it was huge. Now, if it was a movie, you'd have spent a week on it.

Do you often prefer to use practical effects versus special effects on the show? Or was this a special circumstance?

Our philosophy on this show from day one has been to do everything practical, anytime we can. Because with horror, it has to be there. There's nothing scary about a translucent, visual effects ghost. But when there's a creepy ghost in the room with you, and it's played by an actor, somehow it's more viscerally impactful. So, when Tituba is getting her eyes pecked out, that's not a visual effect  that's an exquisitely crafted replica of her head and exquisitely crafted puppeteer birds pecking out her eyes. It takes longer to shoot, but it makes it more real. We could have easily, in the church scene, lit it with fire light and just said, "Eh, we'll make it all visual effects." But it wouldn't have had the same impact; you have to have real fire in there.

That makes sense. This year found some fun pairings together that hadn't interacted as much in season one. How much of that was arced from the start of the year, and how much of it was adjusting things once you saw how well people worked together?

It kind of happened organically. We were aware of it when it was happening. For instance, Mercy and Isaac had no scenes together in season one. And they really don't have one until the final episode this year. And it's a good one. There were other characters who hadn't really had scenes before. We knew we wanted the Cotton-Anne romance to be a part of this year. But you have to mix it up.

Was there a spark you saw this season between any characters that want to play with next year?

It was such a thoroughly satisfying season to do that my first answer is no. I think that a character we would like to do a little more with is Isaac (Iddo Goldberg). He had a little bit of a subdued season; half the season he was tied to a table, slowly being eaten to death. So I think we really love the character and the actor playing him  we probably will do a lot more with him.

Can you say anything about any new faces you might be bringing in next season?

It's too early to tell. We're very happy with the core ensemble we have; it's a very large cast as it is. We probably won't bring anyone in, unless it's a great character, obviously. But we haven't had those discussion yet.

What did you think of the Salem finale?

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