[Ed. note: This review contains major spoilers for seasons 1-3 of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, and reveals some general plot points for season 4.]
Like its title character, Netflix’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina has always been pulled in too many directions. Half-mortal/half-witch Sabrina Spellman (Kiernan Shipka) started the series by dividing her time between getting a normal teenage education at Baxter High, focusing on social-justice causes, studying magic at the Academy of the Unseen Arts, trying to fight the patriarchy running the Satanic Church of Night, and protecting the town of Greendale from supernatural threats. Her life and the show’s plot got even more complicated in season 2, when Sabrina was revealed to be the daughter of Lucifer Morningstar (Luke Cook), leading to her using magic in the season 3 finale to simultaneously both rule with her father in hell and stay in Greendale.
So when Netflix cancelled the show in July, it seemed pretty unlikely that showrunner Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa would be able to tie up all Sabrina’s subplots satisfactorily with his eight remaining episodes. The show’s messy, chaotic fourth season, which drops on Dec. 31, emphasizes Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’s familiar strengths and weaknesses at the same time. The finale doesn’t do justice to many members of its overstuffed ensemble, but it does deliver a powerful mix of genuinely creepy monsters and escapist romance.
Based heavily on the work of H.P. Lovecraft, season 4 sees Sabrina and her allies trying to fight eight eldritch terrors, which conveniently appear at a rate of one per episode. Chilling Adventures of Sabrina has often been at its best when dealing with contained monster-of-the-week style plots, and the final season leans into the formula with a series of strange and terrible threats: The Weird, a primal aquatic parasite that wants to strip humanity of free will, combines elements of Alien and the DC Comics villain Starro. The Uninvited is the manifestation of every folktale that results in people being punished for failing to show kindness to a stranger.
But those thrills are bogged down by Aguirre-Sacasa and his writers’ past missteps. They’ve repeatedly failed to eliminate characters who’ve outstayed their welcome or narrative use, and the bloated cast means that many characters who feel like they deserve compelling arcs are largely ignored. Sabrina’s best friend Rosalind Walker (Jaz Sinclair) gets some powerful payoff this season for the oracular abilities she began developing in season 1, but their other close friends, Harvey Kinkle (Ross Lynch) and Theo Putnam (Lachlan Watson), are left with nothing but romantic plots.
This was probably inevitable for the foursome, whose garage band and monster-hunting group Fright Club closely resembles the Scooby Gang of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer. As the threats Buffy faced grew more world-shaking, characters without some connection to the supernatural couldn’t keep up with the power creep, and real-world concerns felt increasingly irrelevant. Sabrina’s final season follows the same course.
When Sabrina and Roz run for co-president of Baxter High in season 4, Sabrina’s aunt Zelda Spellman (Miranda Otto) points out that Sabrina should be focusing on defeating the eldritch terrors. Sabrina retorts that she can’t exactly put “vanquisher of eldritch terrors” on her application to Vassar. That might be true, but having Roz and Sabrina make a rousing speech to defeat some bro strawmen feels like a waste of precious screen time for the series.
So does all the time devoted to misogynistic warlock Father Faustus Blackwood (Richard Coyle) and Lilith/Mary Wardwell (Michelle Gomez). Blackwood hit his peak as the primary antagonist of season 2, but has weaseled into the plot in increasingly unnecessary and ineffective ways for the last two seasons. His presence also limits the potential of his daughter, the mean-girl witch Prudence Night (Tati Gabrielle), who’s spent that time obsessed with trying to kill him. And Mary has been a constant low-level annoyance to Sabrina since her major plot resolved. Gomez was fantastic while scheming and vamping it up as Madam Satan, but both of her characters feel irrelevant in season 4.
Greendale is Riverdale for goth kids, a vision of small-town bliss where you can get milkshakes at the local horror bookstore, then head to a midnight showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The show’s soapy romances have always been just as important as its magic-fueled plots, so unsurprisingly, much of season 4 is devoted to making sure everyone gets some form of happily ever after.
Yet again, the rush to resolve everything leaves much of those arcs feeling unearned or off the mark. “We’re endgame,” Sabrina’s warlock ex-boyfriend Nick Scratch (Gavin Leatherwood) tells her, in a groan-inducingly meta bid to get back together with her. His attempt to get to know her fully by enrolling at Baxter High could have made for a really entertaining fish-out-of-water arc, but it barely lasts beyond a scene showing how good he looks in a varsity jacket. A plot where Dr. Cerberus (Alessandro Juliani of Battlestar Galactica) is exorcised of the incubus possessing him feels like a repudiation of the kinky aspect of his relationship with Sabrina’s aunt Hilda (Lucy Davis), since previously, they could only have sex with him chained up.
Not all the romance falls short. Theo has precious little to do throughout season 4, but his Midsummer Night’s Dream-inspired plot with his hobgoblin boyfriend Robin Goodfellow (Jonathan Whitesell) nicely mixes the supernatural and sappy. The best overall arc of the season, if not the show, goes to Zelda, who after a long time being unlucky in love finds a surprising romance with the voodoo witch Mambo Marie LeFleur (Skye Marshall), but struggles to believe she deserves the affection.
One of the most terrible eldritch terrors Sabrina must face is the Endless, which manifests in an extremely meta episode where she’s trapped in a sitcom alongside Caroline Rhea and Beth Broderick, who played Sabrina’s aunt Hilda and Zelda, respectively, in the 1990s show Sabrina the Teenage Witch. The Endless represents both the unchanging nature of classic sitcoms and the constant reiteration of established properties, but also the inevitability that all things actually do end, even if they believe they deserve more time.
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina was never a perfect show, but it was a bold one. It was never as sharply written or innovative in its direction as Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, but Aguirre-Sacasa tried to make up for any weakness with scripts that were much queerer and hornier. Their inability to get rid of characters is somewhat understandable, since all the actors seemed to be having so much fun diving into high camp in their garish costumes and overabundant eyeliner. Like Sabrina herself, the show’s writers wanted to have it all. They never really achieved the right balance, but watching them try was thrilling.
All eight episodes of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina season 4 launch on Netflix on Dec. 31.
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