July 13, 2014

THE SKED Season Finale Review: “Salem”


Sometimes one piece of casting is what it takes to turn a TV series around, and for SALEM, that was the arrival, about midway through the season’s 13 episodes, of Stephen Lang as the Reverend Increase Mather, father of series regular Cotton (Seth Gabel).  Increase, a witch-hunter so fanatical that he didn’t much care who he tortured or murdered on the way to discovering devil-worshipers (when he wasn’t scarifying his own flesh to purify himself from sin), was a perfect role for Lang’s particular brand of slightly deranged authority.  More importantly, his presence gave a focus to Salem that had been lacking.  The show, created by Brannon Braga and Adam Simon, had shown an admirable commitment to recreating the feel and especially the extreme gore of 1960s-70s low-tech horror, with plenty of rotting corpses, blood splattering deaths and contorted souls possessed by demons.  Its central plot gimmick, though–that the real Salem witches were orchestrating the witch trials from behind the scenes, because the deaths of innocents not only threw the witch-hunters off the real trail, but fed their illicit rites–was too clever for its own good; it gave the witches no real antagonists with any strength.  Cotton Mather, who was introduced as the show’s first chief witch-hunter, was too weak and conflicted to be much of a threat, being an alcoholic in love with a local prostitute.

That changed with the arrival of Increase, who scared the bejeezus out of everyone in town, his son very much included.  Tonight’s season finale was highlighted by a grand confrontation between Increase and the secret head of the local coven, town leader Mary Sibley (Janet Montgomery), who was at long last able to openly express her contempt for him, and her triumph at having outsmarted him every step of the way.  It appeared, unfortunately, as though Increase didn’t survive the finale, run through by his own son’s sword, but he may not have been quite dead when the credits rolled (although the fact that he was being gnawed upon by dogs wasn’t a good sign), so perhaps Lang can still return next season.

The finale, written by Braga and Simon and directed by David Von Ancken, left just about all cliffs hanging, so it’s a good thing Salem‘s been renewed for a 2d season.  We don’t know if the plague Mary and her coven were calling down on Salem’s humans had actually kicked in, or if it was confined to the good-hearted but dim-witted–and presumably now dead?–Isaac (Iddo Goldberg), who’d opened the witches’ talisman he wasn’t supposed to have touched.  It’s also not clear why Indians saved John Alden (Shane West) from his hanging in the woods, or what they intend to do with him, or what rebellious young witch Mercy (the scary Elise Eberle) intends to do with the coven she’s formed in the forest.  We do know that Salem is down one magistrate, as newly-revealed witch Anne Hale (Tamzin Merchant) went all Carrie on mom and dad (Xander Berkeley) when they imprisoned her against the plague, very colorfully blowing off the top of her mother’s skull while impaling Dad’s.  Also, it’s been revealed that the love child of Mary and Alden, previously believed to have been given up in the womb by Mary in exchange for her powers, had actually been raised in the woods by the deformed elder witches who speak in tongues.

That certainly leaves plenty of material for next season, although one hopes the new crop of episodes won’t concentrate too much on the Mary/Alden devil child, a plot device that’s been done to death since the Omen movies.  If Increase Mather really is deceased, the show’s most important task will be to bring in a substitute villain of the same magnitude, since Lang brought up everyone’s game, especially Montgomery’s and Gabel’s.  By the end of the season, Salem was crackling on its own horror-ific terms, with only West’s very earnest John Alden remaining a bit dull (even though the show tried to make him more interesting by giving him a dark past living with the Indians).

Salem was the first original programming premiered by WGN America, sort of the Hemlock Grove to the network’s upcoming quasi-House of Cards, the (seemingly) eminently more respectable historical drama Manh(a)ttan.  The ratings were little to speak of, but a network striking out into original drama is less in need of giant ratings than attention, and Salem opened the doors for WGN to be thought of as a “real” network.  The series became quite enjoyable once it hit its stride, and if it keeps its current level of intense horror going, it has the potential to be a lasting guilty pleasure.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."