Everyone who’s been enjoying the magician-in-training aspect of Netflix’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina should be happy to know that the second half of the show’s first season doubles down on its debt to Harry Potter and Buffy the Vampire Slayer while also drawing some on Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings. One of the most enduring ideas popularized by George Lucas and J.R.R. Tolkien is that world-changing powers can easily be misused. In this latest Sabrina run, the heroine’s decision to sign her name in “The Book of the Beast” at the end of the season’s first half means she’s now one of the most capable witches on Earth, and those new abilities are changing her.
Chilling Adventures debuted last October with 10 episodes, introducing the show’s twist on the old Archie Comics’ character Sabrina Spellman, “The Teenage Witch.” Digging deep into what it might mean to be a half-mortal raised by a family of witches, series creator Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (who also created the comic book series of the same name) expanded the roles of Sabrina’s guardian aunts, Hilda and Zelda, exploring their devotion to the Satanic “Church of Night.” After rebelling against her faith for much of her first 16 years, Sabrina embraced her witchy roots in the half-season finale to acquire the power needed to save her human friends at Baxter High.
The season’s second half, which debuts on Netflix on Friday, April 5th, consists of another 10 episodes — although one of those, a Christmas special examining Sabrina’s family history, first appeared on Netflix back in December. (Of the nine new episodes, critics were provided advance screeners for five.) Although it’s ostensibly the same season, part 2 feels like a new phase for the show. Sabrina fans should still enjoy it, but it’s certainly different.
The biggest change is that the new episodes shift the action away from Baxter High and toward Sabrina’s other school, the Academy of the Unseen Arts. After helping save the mortals in her hometown of Greendale, Sabrina decides to pursue her hunch that something sinister — or at least more sinister than usual — is going on with her faith’s rigorously fundamentalist high priest, Father Faustus Blackwood. She becomes more active in the church’s educational programs, hoping to investigate them further and perhaps to subvert them from within.
Inevitably, just as Harry Potter, Buffy Summers, and multiple generations of Skywalkers and Bagginses learned, evil exerts a hard pull on those who get close to it, even if they had good intentions. Kiernan Shipka continues to be the best reason to watch the show, especially as Sabrina begins to toggle back and forth between the outgoing, good-hearted teenybopper she was at the start of the series and the more driven and occasionally wicked young woman she’s becoming.
Fair warning: most of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’s biggest flaws still remain. Each chapter is exhaustingly long, usually running in the range of an hour. The moments of levity are too sparse, and given the show’s overall dark look and tone, that can become punishing. The rare colorful moments are a treat, as in the opening sequence of Chapter 12, “The Epiphany,” where Sabrina spins around her room, using magic to try on new outfits. It’s too bad Aguirre-Sacasa and his creative team don’t tap into this fun side more often.
The second half does stick with a more enjoyable episodic structure, which is a welcome change since, by midseason, Sabrina was getting mired in its own mythology. “The Epiphany,” for example, is mostly about Sabrina challenging the Academy of the Unseen Arts’ sexist rituals by competing with her new potential boyfriend Nicholas Scratch in a series of challenges to win the position of “Top Boy.” (Again, all comparisons to the Harry Potter books are clearly intended.)
Meanwhile, in Chapter 13, “The Passion of Sabrina Spellman,” Sabrina briefly returns to Baxter High, where the Dark Lord Satan tempts her to misuse her powers to solve her friends’ problems. Chapter 14, “Lupercalia,” finds Sabrina and Nick taking part in the Academy’s annual celebration of teenage debauchery. In the very good Chapter 15, “Doctor Cerberus’s House of Horror,” a tarot reader predicts various characters’ possible futures.
The first three episodes of the season’s second half set up parallel stories between the Academy and Baxter High. While Sabrina’s bucking the patriarchy by trying to become Top Boy, her friend Susie is coming out as a trans man — now named Theo — and trying out for the boys’ basketball team. While Baxter High is putting on a production of Romeo and Juliet (with Sabrina’s best friend Roz and ex-boyfriend Harvey paired up), the Academy of Unseen Arts is staging its own blasphemous desecration of a Bible story. The Lupercalia in Chapter 14 happens at the same time as Baxter’s Valentine’s dance. And so on. The show keeps contrasting “normal” teenage life with what Sabrina’s doing.
Chapters 15 and 16 start pushing further into this season’s main story arc, involving Father Faustus’ possible involvement in the death of Sabrina’s dad, a high priest who advocated for a liberalized, mortal-friendly Church of Night. In the last episode provided in advance to critics, “Blackwood,” no Baxter High characters appear, aside from the school’s principal, the scheming Madam Satan. So it’s possible, given what happens in “Blackwood,” that the remainder of the season is going to be more serialized.
Because of this, the new episodes are unlikely to win over anyone who didn’t enjoy Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’s earlier chapters. But they do show more depth than what came before and a stronger thematic command. The producers are still essentially making a supernatural melodrama that drops fan-friendly references to past genre favorites, including by casting Buffy / Angel’s Alexis Denisof and Twin Peaks / Reaper’s Ray Wise in key roles. But they’re also putting forward a focused, barbed critique of institutional sexism.
Even the show’s villainous women — Madame Satan, the Academy’s mean popular girls “the Weird Sisters,” and Sabrina’s Aunt Zelda — are framed sympathetically, as ladies forced by a male-dominated culture to exert their power by subjugating themselves to aggressive, capricious men. Along the same lines, the richest subplot in these new episodes involves Theo openly taking on a boy’s identity and quickly becoming disenchanted with private, male-only spaces where dudes bully and belittle each other.
What’s most exciting about the second half of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’s first season, though, is how the heroine keeps becoming what she’s fighting against. She’s tapping into her Satanic gifts while integrating herself so fully into the Church of Night’s larger plans that she may not be able to get out. This is a classic fantasy hero dilemma, given new life by the spunky Shipka, who maintains Sabrina’s curiosity and brightness even as she ventures deeper into the dark. Her performance and the series’s strong feminist perspective are giving an old arc fresh relevance.