'Chilling Adventures of Sabrina: A Midwinter’s Tale': TV Review

A heartwarming display of gore and mayhem.
12/14/2018

Netflix's holiday special is a delightful continuation of the 'Sabrina' story, marrying horror with holiday spirit.

Netflix's Chilling Adventures of Sabrina has been one of the great surprises of the year. Far from the camp and hijinks of the '90s sitcom also based on Archie Comics' teen witch, this Sabrina is legitimately spooky, brimming with gore, mayhem and sexuality under a Todd Haynes-like retro aesthetic sheen. Tonally, it may as well be American Horror Story: Teens. The show's popularity with women should be no revelation — historically we've been the primary audience for tales of horror and woe since the advent of commercialized storytelling in the late 18th century, gobbling up cheap gothic novels, penny dreadfuls and pulp magazines well before the geeks took over.

Beyond Sabrina's shocks, however, is a deeper thread about the question of consent — in all areas of our lives — and how we learn to live with the consequences of bad choices made with good intentions. Sabrina is also one of the most openly religious shows on television right now. The religion, of course, just happens to be Satanism.

Which makes the show's holiday special, A Midwinter's Tale, such a clever delight. I mean, how many other current series still feature a family priest as a main character or a matriarch concerned about her clan's standing within their church's congregation? (Coven, congregation, tomato, tomahto.) Whether Sabrina accurately depicts Satanism — or unlawfully lifted copyrighted deific imagery from the real-life Satanic Temple — is another question. But the show's dark proclivities certainly foment a unique premise for a holiday episode: How does one Christmasitize the occult? (Or, I guess the bigger question is how did paganism influence the modern celebration of Christmas?)

A Midwinter's Tale picks up right after the dire events of the first season's finale. Sabrina Spellman (Kiernan Shipka), our half-mortal witch heroine, was finally coerced into signing her name in the Book of the Beast, promising her body and soul to the devil in a bid to save her town from destruction. Her mentor/saboteur Miss Wardwell (Michelle Gomez, deliciously sinister) revealed her personal ambitions — that she's been grooming Sabrina all along to become Satan's concubine so she herself can ascend to the role of Queen of Hell. (This chick fancies herself with a lot of epithets: Lilith, Mother of Demons, Madam Satan. Pick one!) Sabrina's mortal friends finally figured out her magical status and her sweet dunderhead boyfriend, Harvey (Ross Lynch), broke up with her for recklessly resurrecting his dead brother without a soul, leading him to coup de grâce his own sibling. And her supercilious Aunt Zelda (Miranda Otto) has kidnapped their priest's newborn daughter to save her from a whole Agamemnon-Iphigenia situation. So, um, a lot is going on! 

The best holiday specials inch us along between seasons, moving the plot forward just enough to justify all the one-off Christmas mischief of the episode. (Think Doctor Who, Downton Abbey, etc.) A Midwinter's Tale beautifully marries horror with holiday spirit, allowing us to revel in the good tidings of the witches' Winter Solstice holiday, replete with gingerbread house effigies, spellbound yule logs, decorative pentagrams adorned with colorful baubles and the cheerful mantra, "Satan bless us, everyone!" (Satanists, they're just like us.)

Sabrina is still figuring out her place as a third culture kid — one foot in the mortal realm, one foot in the Church of Night — and seeks a relationship with her dead parents, particularly when her maiden aunts try to steer her away from yet another foolish magical endeavor. After glimpsing her mother's spirit trapped in Purgatory, Sabrina misguidedly hopes to connect with her again via seance. "Sometimes I don’t think you understand the meaning of family at all," barbed Zelda cuts into Sabrina. Like with all holiday specials ever, you can be sure Sabrina will be reminded of the true spirit of Winter Solstice by the end of the episode.

Following her coerced agreement with the devil, style queen Sabrina's innocent golden bob has de-oxidized into platinum-silver, and her thick, dark eyebrows and oxblood lips signify Red Riding Hood, whether she fully understands it or not, is now the wolf's plaything. Still sore over how things ended with Harvey, she's determined to win back his trust, but enchanted eggnog meant to cure his father's alcoholism just shows Sabrina hasn't learned her lesson: that people who explicitly state they don't want to be manipulated by magic aren't "just one spell away" from being fixed. Just like an underage girl who doesn't want to sell herself to Satan isn't just a Persephone waiting to be seduced. Consent matters, even if Sabrina's intentions are loving. How many times must she learn this lesson and when will she accept that magic isn't a panacea? That's the rare genius of this teen series — these kids, magical or not, must live with the results of their actions.

Mileage may vary with A Midwinter's Tale's subplots, a mishmash of the Spellmans protecting their infant ward from a baby-crazed witch and Sabrina's friend Susie's (Lachlan Watson) kidnapping by a Santa-costumed demon who means to turn her into a wax elf. All silly fun. But you don't necessarily come to Sabrina for the supernatural details — its Buffy-like demon-of-the-week plots only serve to develop the flavor of the pathos, like salt or MSG. Sabrina excels at showcasing that even a teen witch from a small New England town faces the same social problems in her religious community like any other person. After all, what's a prayer versus an incantation, anyway?

Cast: Kiernan Shipka, Lucy Davis, Miranda Otto, Ross Lynch, Chance Perdomo, Michelle Gomez, Jaz Sinclair, Lachlan Watson

Executive Producers: Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, Lee Toland Krieger, Matthew Barry

Premieres: Friday (Netflix)