TV Christmas Specials have been in vogue in the UK for many years, bringing cozy yuletide stories that often serve as the true finales for a given television season. They are, in fact, “special” — they often run longer than a typical episode, put the characters into unique situations, and/or conclude with something big and probably heartwarming (a reunion! a proposal! a baby!). Lately, the U.S. has gotten in on the act via Netflix in particular, which produced a number of holiday episodes. And while Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’s Christmas Special (or Solstice Special, I suppose we should call it), checked some of the boxes of a classic, in other ways, it was a perfect inversion of those expectations — for better or worse. “A Midwinter’s Tale” ended not with a reunion, a proposal or a baby, but with Sabrina’s mother leaving her for good, Sabrina and Harvey taking some space, and Zelda handing baby Leticia over to the outcast witch Desmelda.
And yet, the expectations we have for Christmas Specials are there for a reason. “A Midwinter’s Tale” was very cozy and full of witchy traditions, but it didn’t feel special. It could have been a decent pre-finale episode, but given the momentous events of that finale, where Sabrina finally signed the Devil’s book and got a bleached new ‘do, it felt like a step backwards. “A Midwinter’s Tale” didn’t address anything about the finale (including that hair!) because that’s clearly all being saved for Season 2. So Sabrina thinking about about how to get her mother out limbo proved to be a meta commentary on the special itself, which was also stuck there.
There was a lot of potential in “A Midwinter’s Tale,” but the fun setups never really led anywhere. Gryla and the Yulelads was a Christmas-y take on a Demon of the Week (which the show does really well), though unlike the Batibat, their advent (if you will) didn’t reveal anything new or interesting about our lead characters. Even Madam Satan largely sat this one out, allowing Sabrina to borrow her Book of the Dead and building an elaborate voodoo gingerbread house of the Spellman’s residence, but all she really ended up doing was putting out the yule log long enough for the Yulelads to play some pranks. That doesn’t seem to be in alignment with that closing scene of her biting the head off of a gingerbread Sabrina though, so it’s unclear what exactly her plans were.
As for the B-plot of Susie being kidnapped by Bartel the Santa-Demon, it also followed a pattern of promise without payout. Dipping mall elves in wax to trap their souls there is great, creepy fun, but it was so hastily inserted that it didn’t have much build-up or resolution. Susie being a major fan of mall Santa culture was certainly a surprise, but she was snatched basically the first night she worked there, and never seemed to be in any real peril. Though the episode did end with a grim end for Bartel and a new home for the souls of his wax children with Grylda, like Grylda herself, it didn’t really do anything for the plot or character development, but also wasn’t interesting/scary enough to work on its own. (And made a case for this episode needing to be feature-length).
The return of Sabrina’s mother, Diana, should have been what held this episode together in order to give a teary, Christmas Special-worthy conclusion, but instead it again felt like an after-thought. There are many questions about why Sabrina would continue to trust the Weird Sisters (other than Prudence), given that they killed so many innocent people including Harvey’s brother (and we know how that turned out!), but even if we’re willing to overlook a lot of questions regarding Sabrina’s thought-process or lack of an ability to learn from her mistakes, the summoning plot still didn’t work the way it should have. Diana wasn’t able to speak to her daughter directly at first, but in her very next scene she arrives in a crown and dictates a Solomon-like decision for Leticia’s future (which was itself a trick). She then casually accompanies the Spellmans to the basement, where Sabrina should have asked her a lot more questions (especially clarifying what her mother meant about being in danger, as well as her baptism and all kinds of things). In her final return, she says her unfinished business was making sure Sabrina was loved. It could have been a wonderful moment, but the episode wasn’t at all about how much her aunts love her … it was about how they were all running after Yulelads and Grylda and trying to save Susie and figuring out what to do with Leticia, which made that final acknowledgement feel hollow. We know Sabrina’s aunts love her, that’s been clear throughout the entire series and never once in doubt. What was it about Diana’s brief experiences here that convinced her though?
“A Midwinter’s Tale” is an enjoyable episode that also doesn’t hold up to any kind of scrutiny. There were cracks even in its smallest details, like Zelda wanting to erase all mention of “Christmas,” but the family sitting around listening to seasonal music that clearly evokes Christ the King (something even the captions picked up). Usually, the show is tighter about both its inversion of Christianity and its exploration of faith, but “A Midwinter’s Tale” again muddied things by making Grylda essentially a benevolent savior of lost children. (In other details, let’s also not forget Ambrose showing up at that lavish party and then nothing about it ever being mentioned again).
The special also retread the Season 1 finale storyline of Harvey wanting to take a break from Sabrina and magic, with Sabrina continuing to give him magical pencils and even “cures” his father’s alcoholism with enchanted eggnog. Harvey doesn’t want any of it, and that’s completely understandable given the utter disaster that occurred with his brother. Her mother’s advice seems to echo that, and yet, it still isn’t totally clear — which feels again like something that’s being saved for Season 2.
What the episode did set up well was its final reveal: three demons looking like magi coming forth from the cave. Is this the fraught Witch Epiphany that Zelda mentions? It lines up well with Ambrose’s reading of A Christmas Carol (with its three ghosts) as well as Christmas itself. But who are the demons bringing gifts for, Sabrina, Leticia, or Father Blackwood’s other child? Is this leading to an Antichrist storyline? Presumably this will be addressed, again, in Season 2, but another question “A Midwinter’s Tale”introduced and did not really followup on was the death of Sabrina’s parents. Was it really an accident, or something more nefarious? With her mother now passing out of limbo, does that close the book on that question? And if not, what was the point of this midwinter tale?
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina returns to Netflix in April.