Each week, Joe (@bstolemyremote) and Terry (@gaylydreadful) review the latest episode of Freeform’s Motherland: Fort Salem, alternating between our respective sites — queerhorrormovies.com and gaylydreadful.com.
Spoilers for episode seven…
1.07 “Mother Mycelium”: Abigail forges a connection with Adil and pushes a devastated Raelle to help him save a life. Tally uses Gerit as a distraction from her increasingly burdensome secrets. Anacostia probes into Scylla’s past.
I’ll confess, Terry, I’m struggling a little bit to process my feelings about “Mother Mycelium”, if only because the episode doesn’t really work as a stand-alone. If anything, it feels like the first part of a two-parter, especially the way that episode ends with our trio of girls jumping out of the Bat (helicopter) and into the storm. What awaits them? Are they en route to the Spree munitions factory that Anacostia (Demetria McKinney) glimpsed when she Advance Links with Scylla (Amalia Holm)?
“Mother Mycelium” isn’t a bad episode per se because it is advancing a lot of the plot, but it never quite gets there on any of them. It’s a busy episode that might have been better served by more judiciously selecting its A and B plots and shelving some of the others, like Tally (Jessica Sutton) and Gerit Buttonwood (Kai Bradbury)’s reunion, for another episode. But with only a few more episodes left in this first season, there’s also evidence that the show is ramping up as it heads into the S1 finale.
The last episode ended with Scylla is still alive and being tortured, and two Tarim refugees – Adil (Tony Giroux) and his sick, younger sister Khalida (Kylee Brown) – being welcomed/treated at Fort Salem by Gen. Sarah Alder (Lyne Renee) who is hungry for their songs. “Mother Mycelium” more or less focuses on both of these storylines as Anacostia and Alder attempt to break into Scylla’s mind for intel on the Spree, and the Fixers try and fail and try (and fail again) to heal Khalida of her mysterious illness.
The latter storyline is a bit more interesting to me, if only because the nature of the titular mycelium illness, with its Venom-like webbing spreading across the girl’s face and body (plus a kind of demonic possession that causes gale force winds and breaks glass) is visually compelling. I was also instantly reminded of Raelle (Taylor Hickson)’s encounter with the strange fungus wall, which warped her finger – a mostly subtle visual connection that pays off later when Raelle becomes involved in Khalida’s treatment and the ramifications of her “reckless” work is revealed to the Necro professor.
But Terry, I fear that I’ve stolen all of the fun stuff in the episode. What are your thoughts on Scylla’s torture, specifically her Oculus-esque meal of broken glass? What do you make of Khalida and Alder’s duet in the greenhouse? And did Abigail (Ashley Nicole Williams)’s burgeoning relationship with Adil, particularly the way he never hesitates to call out her arrogance and ignorance, work for you?
Joe, you hit the nail on the head. This episode completely felt like the calm before the literal storm as it ends with our recruits jumping out of their Bats (what a great way of naming helicopters) and into a, well, storm. I actually really dug this episode for a lot of the subtle ways it dug into the themes the show has been exploring since the first episode.
It opens with Scylla’s torture and I absolutely made the same note when she munches on glass, thinking it’s food. Flanagan should be proud. But the scene was also interesting because it immediately brought the X-Men feel of the show into stark relief. Scylla sneers at General Alder, “You bound us to people who hate us. Who hate you. Forced us to fight their petty battle.” She tells General Alder that she (and the Spree) are fighting for freedom while Alder dismisses the thought by calling her a murderer.
This very much feels like the debate at the center of Professor Xavier’s conflict with Magneto in X-Men. Professor X wants to work within the system, a system clearly meant to keep mutants down, while Magneto wants liberation, at all costs.
Only here, I’m not really sure who the good guys are.
By framing the episode in a familiar genre construct, but then also bringing to mind the early 2000s and Abu Ghraib’s torture, Motherland continues to twist expectations of “good guys” and “bad guys.” Instead of blasting Marilyn Manson or Nine Inch Nails at Scylla, they use a box of screeching. Instead of waterboarding, they place Scylla in a torturous position, starve her, play mind games, etc. It’s more nuanced than I’d expect a teen show on Freeform to be, if I’m being honest. And the way Alder and Anacostia eventually get into Scylla’s mind by using a distraught and confused Raelle is the epitome of evil.
The episode also gives us further examples that Fort Salem’s position in the world is tenuous at best. When Witchfather (Nick E. Tarabay) and his boys come back to the fort, he tells Alder a couple of interesting little nuggets. Namely that civilians are looking at them with “pitchforks out”, that a police officer roughed up one of his men and, finally, that there’s “Growing debate in congress to revoke the Discord and disband the army.” It’s this kind of insight that I live for, particularly when the events are a little bit slow.
Which makes me want to circle back to, as you said, is the most interesting part of “Mother Mycelium.”
But before we do, can we give a shout-out to the writers for this title? Whoever came up with the title is a Suspiria fan and I want a crossover now where a Mother Mycelium meets Mother Suspiriorum, Mother Tenebrarum and Mother Lachrymarum.
Anyway, Mycelium is a fungus-like bacterial colony with “…a mass of branching, thread-like hyphae,” and when you think that Khalida is infected with it and it’s only through the touch of Raelle’s mushroom-coated finger that it dissipates (it wasn’t her magic that saved Khalida, let’s be honest) and then infects the mushroom wall in the Necros’ mausoleum, it presents interesting connotations. Connotations that directly tie into the singing scene between Alder and Khalida.
When Alder asks Khalida how she’s feeling, Khalida responds, “Adil’s work is done.” It’s a very curious and loaded phrase. “Adil’s work is done.” It doesn’t sound like a sister who is thankful to be saved. It sounds like someone manipulating things. Obviously, I don’t think this is Khalida talking. I think this is whatever bacterial colony affected her and I think it wanted to get into whatever the mushroom wall is.
But I have droned on for too long. And I didn’t even get to discuss the fantastic way Adil turned “arrogance” back on Abigail, so I’ll leave that to you. Did that scene cause you to snap your fingers and say “yas queen” like it did me? And did you like how Adil discussed the repercussions of the wars that the Army wage? What did you think of the vicious way Necro leader Izadora (Emilie Leclerc) taught the class about Linking?
Jesus, that Linking lesson should give any of these recruits a long pause whether or not to ever volunteer for anything again. It’s a bit of an amusing moment if we take a step back: it’s very evident to audiences that Izadora isn’t going to allow this girl to simply bleed out, but none of the characters know that and their shock and horror is well-played.
It actually ties in nicely to the larger themes being explored between Abigail and Adil, which reinforces how little any of them question what they’re doing at Fort Salem. It’s been clear as day since Adil and Khalina arrived that Alder is interested in securing their songs, not helping their people. And each time that Adil interacts with Abigail, she (stupidly) marvels at what his powers could do for the fight. She’s so indoctrinated, she might as well be in a cult. When Adil challenges her beliefs, she lashes back, but never once stops to consider why he’s reacting the way she is.
You’re right, Terry, this links all the way back to the first episode. We saw it in the push-back Tally got from her mother about the need to answer the call and we’ve seen it nearly every week in Abigail (and by extension Lybba)’s superiority in their family legacies. What we haven’t seen is someone who pushes back against this, someone who challenges them on their assumptions and, once again, I wish that the series would spend a little more time on it. We’ve been digging in deep for the last seven weeks, but sometimes it feels like we’re doing the work and not the show, if that makes any sense?
We’ll see what comes about in the next few weeks and whether Motherland simply barrels ahead or takes time to marinate in some of these weighty issues. I’m intrigued by the idea that the girls are now outside of Fort Salem for their forthcoming Citydrop, which may give us a glimpse of both what Adil and Witchfather have mentioned in passing. I’m still desperately hungry for more knowledge about this world, Terry!
What about you: are you satisfied with the show’s exploration of murky morality or do you want more like me? You mentioned how cruel it is to use Raelle to lower Scylla’s guard. Did that work for you? And how long before all of this – Tally’s knowledge about Scylla, Raelle realizing her sickness is tied to being put to sleep, the mushroom infection – hits the fan?
The reason it feels like we’re doing the thematic heavy-lifting, Joe, is because we are. I’m not sure if it’s because Motherland and Freeform itself is geared towards a younger audience that they don’t want to bog the story down in queasy thematic enquiries or if the show is building to it a lot slower than you or I would like. But right now, it’s presenting these fleeting moral quandaries before transitioning back to the human drama. It is frustrating, for sure, particularly in the way it hints at real-world connotations, but doesn’t dwell in them for very long.
Not gonna lie: the moment Scylla and Raelle were re-introduced and Scylla said, “no matter what, know that I love you,” it felt like a final goodbye. It worked exceedingly well for me, even though it felt at-odds with the story. I get that from Alder’s perspective, getting information from Scylla is exceedingly important, but by bringing in Raelle — particularly when it’s already been established that they can make Scylla see things (glass, food, plates) that aren’t there–they’ve kind of put themselves at a disadvantage. What’s stopping Raelle from yelling from the rafters that Alder and Anacostia are torturing people? On the flipside, would the recruits even care?
Regardless, I had a pit in my stomach that the “Bury Your Gays” trope we discussed a few episodes ago would raise its ugly head and I’m sadly not convinced it still won’t by the end of the season. I hope I’m wrong. The way the story is heading, I desperately want to see lesbian femme mayhem unleashed on everyone that’s done them wrong.
I have a feeling this next episode is going to be a turning point for our little unit of Tally, Abigail and Raelle. I can’t imagine a juicer place for truths to start coming out than at a battle, potentially linked to Scylla’s memories. I guess we’ll learn more next episode when we go back to Gayly Dreadful for next week’s episode, “Citydrop.”