I saved a slot in my blogging schedule for a review of the fourth and final season of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. After watching it, I decided to skip the review and just post a few comments on Facebook. But those comments grew a little long, so we’re back to a blog post.
Here’s the bottom line. If you’ve seen the first three seasons you’ll want to see the fourth, if only to find out how it ends. Parts of it are quite entertaining. But don’t expect to be satisfied. And don’t expect to walk away sad because it’s over.
I finished the final episode thinking “if that’s the best they can do, it’s just as well that it’s ending.”
Beyond here are spoilers for all four seasons, and major spoilers for the ending. You have been warned.
Season 1 was awesome
I was never a fan of the Melissa Joan Hart Sabrina series and I hadn’t read the Chilling Adventures comic books. But when I heard about the Netflix series, it seemed like something I’d like, a lot. I got Netflix specifically so I could watch Sabrina. After I saw the first episode in October 2018 I knew I made the right decision.
It didn’t even take a full episode. I loved the dark visuals and the horror movie references. They got a lot of witchcraft details right. I wished they had made the witches Pagans instead of Satanists, but the Satanism served as a critique (and sometimes as a parody) of fundamentalist Christianity. Plus even in this post-Christian era (or at least, an era of rapidly declining Christian influence) Satan is still transgressive, and therefore edgy.
I’ve never forgotten the pain and powerlessness of being a child. That got better as a teenager, but not a lot better. So while I’m a lot closer to retirement than to high school, Sabrina’s story resonated with me. I wondered: would I have signed the “Book of the Beast” if I had the opportunity? Honest answer – probably not <sigh>.
Season 2 in April 2019 continued the storylines. It spent too much screen time on Father Blackwood, but it allowed us to see Sabrina growing as a person and as a witch. And it ended with a cliffhanger that set up Season 3 very nicely.
Season 3: a mixture of good and frustrating
The third season (in January 2020) was non-stop action. It also made Pagans the bad guys, which led me to speculate that our nitpicking annoyed the writers and they were getting back at us. That idea was thoroughly denied (and occasionally ridiculed) but I’m still convinced there’s at least a bit of truth to it. Still, at the end of the season the Greendale coven rebranded themselves as the Order of Hecate – very appropriate for a group of witches, even though Hecate was never understood as Maiden-Mother-Crone.
I hate stories that mess with time and I hate split identity / unknown twin stories. When Sabrina split herself into two – one in Hell and one in high school – I thought this might be the one time it was done well.
Season 4 showed I was wrong.
The final season
Somewhere before Season 4 finished production, Netflix announced they were canceling The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. This was hardly a surprise. Netflix’s business model is based on new shows to attract new subscribers. Once people sign up, they tend to stay signed up. And after a couple seasons, existing shows stop attracting new viewers. So Netflix would rather spend their production budget on a new show than an existing show.
I don’t know the order of events. But it looks like the fourth season started out expecting that there would be at least a fifth. The “Eldritch Terrors” functioned like a monster of the week – something bad comes, Sabrina and company struggle to understand it, but they defeat it by the end of the hour.
I found the first few episodes entertaining, though not amazing like Season 1. But it seems like somewhere around the middle of the season they got word of the cancelation and they tried to wrap everything up in just a couple episodes.
Much of the second half feels rushed, especially Mambo Marie and her true identity. Too many scenes feel like someone said “wouldn’t it be cool if we could do this?” with no regard as to whether “this” tells a good story or not. The Battle of the Bands was fun, but it didn’t fit at all.
The paradox of two Sabrinas
Since the end of Season 3, we’ve been warned about the “paradox” of splitting people into two. Season 4 teased the two Sabrinas coming together, then separated them as though they were going to stay apart indefinitely. When the realms were being smashed together they decided to merge, only to have Ambrose stop it at the last minute.
Isn’t that how you’re supposed to fix things when you split a person into two? Each body has a portion of the soul or psyche or whatever – they have to be put back together. But the way it was written, they didn’t split Sabrina so much as they cloned her. It was like the writers were so enamored with The Parent Trap they had to find a way to have twins, even if it didn’t fit the circumstances or advance the story.
The end of the series
I’ve seen rumors that another streaming service might pick up The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. The ending didn’t suggest that. Sabrina Spellman is dead and living in a very bland afterlife (I know they had a limited budget, but come on – you can do better than that) and Sabrina Morningstar is just dead. And now Nick’s dead too, with the implication that he killed himself (accidentally-but-not-exactly) to be with Sabrina.
Sabrina was at its best when it was a good story about an ordinary teenager in a very extraordinary situation. It managed to work in progressive ideas (especially a trans character played by a trans actor) without coming across as preachy. It reinforced the value of family, friendship, loyalty, and honesty. When it was done right, the fictional witchcraft pointed toward real witchcraft. The purpose of the show was never to proselytize for witchcraft, but authenticity matters, even in fiction.
Even the Satanism worked well at times, reminding us that Lucifer’s story has been told by his enemies, and that the “false God” is hardly perfect.
It’s hard to end a series, even when you can plan for it well in advance. Game of Thrones was the talk of the civilized world for seven seasons, then botched the eighth. True Blood took a great series of books, started strong, got into the weeds, and then ended weakly after seven seasons. I can’t fault the showrunners of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina for not giving us a great ending.
But after Penny Dreadful I was already tired of young magical women sacrificing their lives to save the world.
At the end of the day, Sabrina is a TV show and nothing more. Enjoy it for what it is.
As for me, I think I’m going to go back and re-watch Season 1. It was the best season of the series, and I can try to imagine what might have happened if 16-year-old me had gotten the opportunity to sign the Book of the Beast…