Each week, Joe (@bstolemyremote) and Terry (@gaylydreadful) review an episode of Freeform’s Motherland: Fort Salem, alternating between our respective sites — queerhorrormovies.com and gaylydreadful.com.
Spoilers follow for episode one…
S01E01 “Say The Words”: Three witches join basic training at Fort Salem where they’ll prepare for the front lines, fighting looming terrorist threats with supernatural tactics and weapons.
You know, Terry, when I arbitrarily suggested that we consider doing something with this show, I was half-joking because the concept looked bananas-insane and, if we’re being honest, Freeform doesn’t exactly have the best track record. I’ll die on the hill for The Bold Type, but not much else.
Imagine my surprise when, one episode into Motherland: Fort Salem (oh my god, that title), I’m…all in?
Look, I’m not saying that this series – which takes place in an alt-universe in which witches are both real and an instrumental part of each nation’s defense – is high art or anything. In fact a lot of the writing is predictable and over the top, and the characterizations are shallow to the point of being stereotypes…and yet…
There’s something earnest about creator Eliot Laurence’s restraint when this concept could have so easily descended into camp. The simple fact that Motherland: Fort Salem treats its outlandish premise so seriously makes for the occasional misstep, but then it compensates with a visually impactful sequence like the giant tuning fork exercise that revels in the unity of three powerful, promising witches. Suddenly I’m sucked back in.
But let me pull back a little bit. Things get off to a slightly rocky start as we’re introduced to each of our three main characters – world weary healer Raelle Collar (Taylor Hickson), plucky optimist Tally Craven (Jessica Sutton) and by-the-books Abigail Bellweather (Ashley Nicole Williams). I say rocky because not only is Motherland: Fort Salem attempting to construct a whole new world history as we meet the girls, but they’re initially painted in very broad strokes (it’s as if Laurence, who pens this introductory episode, realizes that the girls need to be distilled quickly and easily since the audience is going to be primarily focused on the “what the hell” of the larger world).
From there, however, we get the striking image of the burning medal appearing in each girl’s bedroom, the over-the-top welcome address from General Adler (Lyne Renee) – now with 1000% more foot stomping! – and “Say The Words” begins to settle into something of a rhythm that is both easier to engage with and accept. The opening sequence of a mass suicide at a mall is clarified as a Spree attack, the role that witches have played in history is clarified, and the structure of the show begins to coalesque. We’ll follow these three as they inevitably discover that they are more powerful as a trio, albeit with regular hiccups because of course there’s a dark history between Raelle and Abigail.
And, shocking literally no one, Raelle’s lesbian crush Scylla (Amalia Holm) is a secret Spree shapeshifter/mole, so cue that drama.
Terry, what are your initial impressions of the show? Does the feminist message underpining the witches’ power (their voice is their most important weapon) intrigue you? Are you already bored by Abigail’s straight-laced by-the-books rhetoric? And did you, like me, spend most of the pilot wondering how long it will take to reveal that the Spree are the real heroes and this Battle School is actually evil?
It’s weird coming from “Prestige” television like Servant and The Outsider to a more youthful, young adult show like this, Joe. When you sent me an interview about it and I went to watch the trailer, I expected a big trash fire that might be entertaining in that way preposterous television can be. But, like you said, it takes the subject matter deadly serious, as evidenced by the alt-history take on suicide bombers that opened the bleakly somber premiere.
It’s absolutely painting in broad strokes here…down to the names. Raelle is generally considered to be “Soldier of the Lord” while “bellwether” is the leader of a flock (which befits Abigail’s ancestry). But the biggest name to catch my attention is our lesbian lover Scylla; Scylla, of course, being a mythical Greek monster that attacked Odysseus’s ship. Right away, I knew she wasn’t who she says she is, particularly as she tries to lure Raelle to her side. So no, it isn’t particularly surprising that she ends up being the shape-shifting Spree from the opening. I’m honestly just glad the show revealed that immediately.
Abigail’s “no ma’am, yes ma’am” relationship with her mother immediately set the stage that I probably wouldn’t like her character, at least not initially. She pretty much embodies all of the stereotypical traits of someone coming from a high-ranking family and it’s obvious that she would butt heads with the girl with the Natalie Dormer-circa-2014 hairstyle. I just find that insanely boring and grating. I’ve already plotted out their friendship…and so has the story, as evidenced by General Adler (a German name meaning “noble eagle”)’s speech comparing Raelle and Abigail’s relationship to one she had in her youth.
The character I find most interesting right now, though, is Tally (last name Craven: as in cowardly. Will she fall into that or subvert it?). It’s mostly because of her past, growing up in a Matrifocal commune where there’s absolutely no dudes. She’s so eager to jump into the fight, telling her unit she couldn’t watch innocent people die.
…I’m waiting to see that idealism get crushed.
About the feminism, though: I’m about 50/50. I think it’s fascinating that, to my knowledge, we’ve only met two male characters. It’s a nice inverse of the prototypical war movie, where there’s a bunch of dudes and a single token woman. I’m also digging the subversion of the witch trope where, instead of feared, they’re honored. A man gives up his seat on the trip to Boston so that Tally can fly, for instance.
But I do wonder if it’s inclusive feminism. I know we’re only one episode in and it’s too much expectation for it to be a perfect representation of the show, but I wonder where the transwomen are and if they are welcome in the military? Can transwomen serve? I also wasn’t sure if the sparkly mark was an actual signifier of if the women are virgins or if they were teasing the obviously naive Tally…I hope it’s the latter, because otherwise we have another pure/impure-ish mark aspect to the story.
And, finally, yes, I’m waiting for the attacks being blamed on the Spree to actually be a tactic of the government or something and the “reveal” that the Spree are actually the good gals, for Raelle to inevitably join them and be labelled a terrorist…
But what about you, Joe? Am I being immediately too harsh on the gender politics of the show, considering we’re only an episode deep? What are your thoughts about our three main characters? And what do you hope for in the coming season?
Apparently I’m a terrible queer, Terry, because the inclusion of transwomen never even occurred to me! While I realize that I came down a bit hard on Freeform in that first section, I should confess that since it’s a younger skewing network, they’re typically pretty progressive with both politics and representation (consider that two of the five prominent characters here are Black, including Demetria McKinney’s Anacostia). So it’s entirely possible that we’ll see a trans character somewhere down the line.
As for sexual stuff? Ummm…could go either way. The lack of male characters suggests that it might not be a huge priority; even the “this season on Motherland: Fort Salem” preview didn’t suggest we’d get much of a male presence in the weeks to come, so unless most of the characters identify as queer or lesbian, sex might be held to a minimum. Which, again, would be interesting. A war/action series aimed squarely at young female viewers with nary a male heartthrob in sight and the most prominent sexual relationship is lesbian? It would be a bit shocking.
My biggest fear moving forward is that we’re going to have to suffer through more of those painfully obvious spats between Raelle and Abigail (I’m already done with them). While I appreciate Collar’s ill-fated romance with the enemy and her Natalie Dormer haircut (I genuinely guffawed at that, BTW, so thanks), I’m bored of her drama with Abigail. The fact that there is nothing more to Abigail immediately makes her my least favourite character, so yeah…I’m also team Tally!
The best possible outcome for me would be to jettison this predictable stuff and dive head first into the conflict. It certainly looks like we’re not going to spend the entire season at the Battle School (or wherever we currently are), which is promising. There’s certainly potential here, but the obviousness of the narrative plotline could easily trip Motherland up.
What about you, Terry: what are you hoping for? Is there a chance that Raelle’s mom is actually alive? Finally, even though we’ve acknowledged the show’s surprising lack of camp, do you still get Starship Trooper vibes from the costumes and posters?
Oh, Joe, I absolutely think Raelle’s mom is still alive. The fact that we get a nifty flashback that shows her involvement in the mission that killed her (played by Diana Pavlovská) suggests that we will keep seeing these flashbacks and that will lead to a reveal at the end of the season that she is, in fact, alive. She’s basically Chekov’s Mom. We’re seeing her here, we’ve established what she looks like, and we’ll get the payoff later.
Not only that, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Mama Collar is either a high-ranking member of The Spree or runs it. That said, I do love the way the episode incorporated the flashback as a rune on the letters from home that, when traced, shows Raelle her mother’s memory.
I also saw some Starship Trooper vibes with the “Go Team! Win!” mentality that seems to suffuse the entire country. From the patriotic marches to the singing and the foot-stomping and generally, well, everything, it’s obvious that nationalism is in the crosshair. Which, given the political climate in which we find ourselves, makes perfect sense. Since the show is shying away from camp, I’m glad they are staying just this side of the Troopers-style patriotism because it would feel completely out of place with the dour nature of the story so far.
As for the future, I hope that we quickly burst out of the we-must-fight-as-a-unit-or-die (but-we-hate-each-other) tropes and get on to the good stuff. I also hope we get a bit more world-building, since that’s an aspect I find most fascinating here. In a world that has a Salem Accord and seemingly celebrates a kind of American patriotism in a snowy month, rather than the summer month of July (unless I’m completely reading this wrong), there’s a rich alt-history here I’m insanely curious to learn more about.
I guess we’ll discover more next week, over at Gayly Dreadful.