“Salem: Season 2, Episode 4” (TV Review)Movies/TV,News,Reviews Ken W. Hanley
I must admit that with a show like SALEM, the repeated efforts to be bolder and brasher beyond the limits of taste are motions to be respected. Whether it’s graphic foreplay, gore or just uncomfortable thematic material, SALEM caters to its audiences love of the taboo while crafting their own unique brand of horror. This is largely effective of an approach, yet with 13 episodes to service per season, that balance doesn’t always equal a narrative home run. And while the pacing of this episode is a bit rocky at times, SALEM still has many admirable moments in the latest episode, bluntly entitled “Book of Shadows.”
Perhaps the most intriguing part of “Book of Shadows” is the first explicit Lovecraft lore introduced in this season, with Anne Hale taking on a familiar by the name of Brown Jenkin. Alongside the water witch Countess Marburg, the chance of seeing a fully Lovecraftian universe born out of SALEM is becoming more and more possible by the week. And in doing so, the introduction of Brown Jenkin is an ominous foreshadowing towards the fate of Anne Hale; anyone who is familiar with DREAMS IN THE WITCH HOUSE know that if Anne Hale becomes even half as evil as the antagonist in that story, Marburg will be the least of Mary Sibley’s problems.
Speaking of Sibley’s problems, this week shows our erstwhile protagonist regain a bit of footing following her defeats in “From Within.” Thanks to John Alden’s mischief, Sibley is able to publicly shame the new magistrate Hathorne, while finding an unwitting ally in the way of Cotton Mather. Furthermore, Mercy Lewis, while toiling away on the surprisingly-not-dead Isaac, is still weak and scarred, showing her to be still unprepared to go to battle with Sibley once more. This is all without even mentioning Alden himself, who is almost caught by Sibley and is only saved by a token that rendered him invisible from her sight.
While “Book of Shadows” has its fair share of violence, including the mutilation of at least two corpses and a depressing kitten murder, it is a much more low key affair that previous weeks, gearing towards more risque sexual material and a pair of genuinely suspenseful scares this week instead. Of course, the highlight of the episode would be Anne Hale’s well sequence, which set up tension beautifully while once again establishing the immersive environments of the series. And on the SFX side of things, there’s less spectacle this week than in previous episodes, with the best practical work coming from a pair of putrid scenes with Tituba.
“Book of Shadows” also has the benefit of sporting exceptional performances, which makes even the more nuanced episodes relatively strong offerings. “Book of Shadows” did a great job bringing some of the more understated performers to the spotlight this week, with Seth Gabel and Ashley Madekwe a chance to show some extra dimensions to their characters this week. Furthermore, Tamzin Merchant and Stuart Townsend have scenes to steal of their own, especially when they begin addressing the reality of witchcraft within the SALEM universe. And, of course, Janet Montgomery delivers a wonderfully wicked performance, proving as always that she can rightfully adapt to the sinful and strange world in which Mary Sibley inhabits.
Overall, “Book of Shadows”, while less riveting than its predecessor, still contains enough of SALEM’s amoral spirit and horror to make the episode worth your while. “Book of Shadows” is a necessary episode to move along the narrative of the series whilst also developing the essential bridges between characters: Mary Sibley’s romance with Wainwright and her possessive alliance with Anne Hale, Cotton Mather’s friendship with Wainwright and his burgeoning rivalry with Hathorne, etc. And while the episode doesn’t quite hit the shocking highs that have steadily ran through the second season so far, it does contain one of its scariest sequences and sets the stage for more macabre melodrama for the rest of the season.