‘Motherland: Fort Salem’ Review: An Uneven Alternate History That Should Embrace the Camp

     March 18, 2020


Freeform’s alternate history witch show, Motherland: Fort Salem, has taken on a more ominous tone in the few days ahead of its release. In the series, which premieres tonight, the United States is facing a silent threat that citizens feel helpless to protect themselves against. But while Americans (and the majority of the rest of the world) take to social distancing to hopefully slow the spread of the novel coronavirus in the real world, the fictional USA of Motherland: Fort Salem looks to a supernatural force for help in fighting their foe.

Motherland takes place in the present day, but in a matriarchal society led by witches. In this world, the women prosecuted in the Salem witch trials were, in fact, witches, and brokered a deal with the U.S. government to provide military services for the country. A few hundred years later, women descended from the Salem bloodlines are called into service as they come of age. In Fort Salem, Massachusetts, we meet the latest class of recruits as they attend basic witch combat training to prepare for war college and deployment.


Image via Freeform, Frank Ockenfels

The opening moments of the series feature a terrorist attack at a patriotic public gathering — a baby blue balloon appears, and a twenty-something woman quietly utters a spell that causes people to jump from balconies, their crimson blood pooling underneath them. This is not the bubbly fun of The Bold Type or the millennial/gen Z struggles of Good Trouble and grown-ish, some of Freeform’s crown jewels — this is serious (you can tell from the blue filter). The invisible threat is the Spree, an anti-military witch organization targeting civilians as they enact their agenda … which is unclear through the first six episodes. Why they oppose the witch army (other than reasons any person could oppose the military) isn’t articulated just yet, but the Spree is fierce and angry and the heroines at the center of the story–three young witches from disparate backgrounds who are forced to learn and fight as a unit–are dead set on defeating them.

“Storm and Fury” is the plan of attack according to the military’s top general in her speech to cadets, who stomp their feet in response (an unsettling alternative to applause; in other scenes, banging on the table denotes agreement). This is serious, in case you haven’t gotten that yet. And while that’s a necessary tone to establish the stakes in this new world — Why shouldn’t this world-building be treated with the same respect as, say, Game of Thrones? — the fact of the matter is that this series is not being made with GoT money. It’s much harder to achieve that tone on a basic cable budget. In that sense, the tone to which Motherland aspires is more like Battlestar Galactica with its own lingo, societal hierarchy, and immediate immersion, but even then it doesn’t quite click. Is this a serious military story (those Spree scenes get scary!) or a soapy teen boarding school drama?

It’s only when the series embraces its camp that things get more fun. Episode four features a school-sanctioned bacchanalian orgy, which is set against a class of women resurrecting a dead guy to find out what killed him, which, to this viewer, sounds like a delightful level of ridiculous that this extremely Canadian production should try to maintain. In Motherland‘s world, it’s not only chill for women to fuck whomever they want, whenever they want, it’s encouraged. And after a witch has sex for the first time, her witch birthmark turns from black to shiny, like a badge of honor.


Image via Freeform, Frank Ockenfels

Back in December, when Freeform first sent press screeners, a more serious take on a typically frothy subject — witches, fun! — seemed like an interesting way to treat typically female-coded subject matter with the respect given to male-skewing genre subject matter. (Listen, if you’re totally cool with a giant slug alien holding a hot space princess hostage in a bikini but you’re having a hard time with a woman being a top military commander in charge of all-women group of front line soldiers, then you need to look inward and examine why.) But now, the more absurd the better.

It’s fascinating and sometimes confusing to note each detail of this new world, especially the afterthoughts thrown in seemingly haphazardly (like the fact that one cadet has never interacted with a dude because she comes from an all-lady commune called a matrifocal compound — a fascinating concept not explained any further). Honestly, even the ones that are spelled out are hard to understand — like how the highest-ranking general (played by Deep State‘s Lyne Renee) is also the only person who has led the witches for 300 years. Are witches immortal, or can they just cast spells to live longer? How are these new recruits, generations removed from the Salem witches, fighting alongside her? If someone could just give a little expository speech spelling it out exactly it would be much appreciated.

The three leads — rebellious healer Raelle (Deadly ClassTaylor Hickson), sweetly naive compound-dwelling Tally (Jessica Sutton), and rich Blair Waldorf-esque Abigail (Ashley Nicole Williams) — are strongest together, particularly when the women begin to gel as a unit. (They come from different places, and they don’t get along! But guess what, they start to respect each other and work as a team!) The series, too, is more fun to watch as after the majority of the details about this new world are established. And there are some cool-ass opening credits, an increasing rarity in a “skip intro” world.


Image via Freeform, Frank Ockenfels

Motherland comes from creator Eliot Laurence (Claws) and Will Ferrell and Adam McKay‘s Gary Sanchez Productions, and counts just one woman among its six executive producers (Laurence, Ferrell, McKay, Kevin Messick, Maria Maggenti, and Steven Adelson), with EP Adelson directing the pilot.

After six episodes (that’s how many Freeform made available to critics), the tone is still uneven and some of the reveals are hard to follow. Dialogue is occasionally clunky, frequently bordering on ridiculous. But it’s certainly a promising watch — especially if you’re intrigued by the concept in the first place. Would a campier tone be ideal in another time? Unclear. Ask again after the constant low-level panic subsides. But for now, it’s a worthwhile investment if you’re looking for an immersive glimpse at another world. And if you can’t leave your house, TV’s all we have if we want to visit somewhere else.

Rating: ★★ Fair

Motherland: Fort Salem premieres Wednesday, March 18 at 9 p.m. ET on Freeform.