The real Salem witchcraft trials were nothing less than the judicial murder of 20 innocent people. Their tragedy serves as an enduring lesson that when we dehumanize others we ourselves become monsters.
Also: "witch hysteria" actually started in Salem Village, now known as Danvers, MA.
Also: I read about the trials way too much as a tween, got very passionate about them, maybe even started writing a musical libretto about them, weirdo alert, forget I said that, what!?
As for the WGN series Salem: it stands accused of being all decked out like one of Babylon's own whores in flashy CGI, the better to mix supernatural conceits with sacred history. I judged it myself before I saw it. I sat down to watch it already mad, yet here at episode 4 I'm a total fan, because Salem is actually an extended metaphor of how monstrous society becomes when it devalues empathy, and, YES to that message. That is a good message to spread. You can dress it up in thigh nipples and pitch-covered flash mobs if you must, but run tell that shit already.
Now let's discuss this show as entertainment. And therefore with an abrupt change in tone:
"Survivors" opened with a black snake sliding out of a slit in Mercy Lewis' taut abs (you know, Natalie Portman face/Linda Blair body). Think twice about sitting down to this show with a big bowl a' soba noodles! Her dad DIY exorcised it, which kids, do not try at home. Basically if it's in Salem: do not try at home.
Then a new guy showed up with a hat the size of a novelty pizza, in town on business. Hilariously the show frequently claims Salem is a thriving metropolis when we can clearly see it's a half dozen houses in the middle of a forest. Hahaha the docks you say!? Sure. New guy was headed dockside to pick up his Amazon package, but because this is Salem, the ship it was on had been quarantined because everyone on it had died from plague. Hahahahaha "That's so Salem."
The ship belonged to reigning Supreme Mary Sibley, my favorite character, even though she's an HBIC enslaved by the devil who occasionally turns into a life-size apple-head doll. Mary fluidly recapped the show's premise to her cutter husband George for the new viewers: the witches are running the witch trials, framing innocent people so they are wrongfully convicted and slain as part of a mysterious Grand Rite! The many are being tipped into paranoia by the powerful, so they turn on each other and leave the corrupted ruling class undisturbed! (Again, a message worth considering.)
However when Mary tried to compel Mercy Lewis into accusing a new false witch, Mercy did not, because her dad had drawn out the snake during that scene when I barfed up my soba noodles, so all the known witches met in the woods to brainstorm. (Not make a storm with their brains, just like, think as a team.)
The known witches are: Magistrate Hale, with his "hippy dad" hair, Tituba (Ashley Madekwe, one of the coolest actresses on the planet), sexy Mary Sibley and the mysterious Rose, who dresses like a sentient bonnet that rolled out of a ragpicker's pile and then proceeded to grow a face and hands, yet seems to network a lot with boss-type witches offscreen.
Hale expressed concern that Shane West suspected him of witchcraft and sort of wanted to kill him, but the other witches were like, "Put down the Book of Shadows and pick up the basic social skills, Hale. Just be cool, make a friend."
Shane West himself was letting the cemetery breezes tousle his wiglet just so while a-thinking on his Past like you do, when a very flirty Ann Hale stepped out from behind a tombstone. She had recovered from that poppet giving her the side eye last week. I already miss that hilarious poppet, it had so much 'tude! Anyway, her dad had removed the poppet from her room, then denied doing so, but before she and West could leap to a few conclusions about why, Hale himself elbowed his way out from behind another tombstone with a delightfully calligraphy-lettered invitation to his "Hurray for Shane" party.
Naturally when Mary Sibley went to the "Shane + Hale= BFFs" party, there was Ann wearing the 17th century equivalent of a thong and pasties (a gown) and Mary was like "Hi Thirsty, interesting you came to a party for my ex Shane, ahemTHIRSTYahem" and Ann was all "Well, this party is being held in my living room, so..." and then Mary handled Ann's statement jewelry and it was CURSED by anti-witch herb, Valerian root! Hale had given his daughter some witch pepper spray because again, multi-faceted characterization: Hale may be a magical murderer but he's also a devoted father.
Across town from Shane West's debutante ball, the darkest part of the episode was happening between Cotton and Gloriana. Cotton "So Emo" Mather is the most extreme example of a character who vollies between good and bad. Yes, he's sadistically murdered innocent people, but he feels really bad about it. Yes he looks like a a folk-rocker from 2010, but also he looks like a folk-rocker from 2010.
Cotton's one redeeming thru-line has been his affectionate relationship with prostitute Gloriana, but when she tried to provoke him into revealing his feelings for her, he fully sexually assaulted her in the church, then threw some coins at her for full "I'm an awful human being" impact. Rape scenes full stop make me queasy, this was no exception. I don't know that Cotton can ever come back from this for me personally.
Returning home from the party Mary Sibley found Hook had broken in and been given a message written in blood by husband George, a note accusing her of being a witch. Finally, some comic relief! JK: there is no relief in Salem. Ever.
Hook offered Mary a deal- he would suppress George's convincing "WITZCH" accusation if Mary Sibley let him get his Amazon package off her ship. She was like "Pssht fine, enjoy catching the plague, bye" all casual, but then as soon as he left she was like "TITUBA FIX IT." Then Mary gazed into the fire, went into greasy apple-head-doll mode, and made a spectral visit to Mercy Lewis.
Mary argued that without the serpent familiar inside her, making her run around screaming gibberish, Mercy was at risk of being very very basic. Wasn't it better to be the "edgy possessed girl" than to be just another basic bitch, cooking oatmeal and dipping candles, all mainstream like the rest? Mercy Lewis heard that, she slurped up that serpent just like the noodles previously named.
Meanwhile, while picking up all the party cups and streamers, Hale approached Shane West all "Are we BFFs now?" and Shane West was like "Nope because YOU BE A WITCH" so, watch out Shane. The party then officially over, Shane stepped off to enjoy the rest of his night and ran straight into Tituba who had big fake news: Hook was breaking onto the Sibley ship to steal Mary's property! Hook had threatened to spread rumors that Mary and Shane were having an affair! (Tituba had overhead an argument between Hook and Shane West earlier that revealed Hook knew some secrets about the 10 years between Shane going to war and showing up in Salem again, and correctly deduced Shane just needed an excuse to take Hook down.) Duly motivated, Shane hastened off to stop Hook from retrieving the package.
But here comes the twist: the Amazon package wasn't even really Hook's. It was for Rose, who'd contracted Hook to pick it up for her. So, is Rose secretly working against Mary Sibley? Why not just ask Mary if she could go get her handmade Etsy puzzle box off the boat herself? Witch-on-witch schisms might be a thing.
The salient point is that when Hook and Shane West met on the grim, contaminated decks of Mary's quarantined ship, both were there at the behest of witches. Their brief tussle and Hook's ensuing death revealed two things: that Shane West had killed a number of innocents in cold blood in his time away from Salem, and that to protect Mary Sibley he would happily kill again.
So: does all this sound lurid?! Dire?! Grim?! Not exactly tasteful? Absolutely. Salem is all those things. It's also imaginative, ambitious, and weirdly has its heart in the right place. I just ask that before you cast stones at Salem, at least give it a watch.