When we first heard that Freeform was working on a Handmaid’s Tale-style alternative history show where witches had been drafted into the military to escape persecution, our first thought was: “That’s redonkulus.” In some ways, that’s still true, but Motherland: Fort Salem has managed to balance out the bizarre with great characters and an invented world that’s pretty inspired.
Created by Eliot Laurence (Claws), Motherland is about a trio of young witches who’ve recently enlisted at Fort Salem, the home for America’s magical military. There’s Raelle (Taylor Hickson), a rebellious teen trained in healing magic who falls in love with fellow cadet Scylla (Amalia Holm); Tally (Jessica Sutton), a naïve patriot for the cause; and Abigail Bellweather (Ashley Nichole Williams), an aristocrat and descendent of a legendary witch who was also a slave. That’s right, slavery still happened in this matriarchy (shouldn’t be surprising, as white women have a history of enabling systemic racism).
Their main enemy is the Spree, a group of witches who want to accomplish, umm, something, and do it by killing people in coordinated terrorist attacks. The Spree is probably the silliest part of Motherland. There’s little rhyme or reason for their actions so far, so they come across as generic boogeywomen. Plus, the symbol of their rebellion—the thing that sparks fears in the hearts of all who behold it—is…a balloon. And it’s so dumb. It’s like someone was watching It and thought the idea would work here. Watching a child’s balloon scrawl threatening messages into a mirror while tense music plays is laughable. Every single time.
Raelle, Tally, and Abigael deal with life, love, and patriotic duty as they train in the art of witchy warfare, with a mix of offensive and defensive magic; but these are not the incantations we’ve come to expect from shows about witchcraft. There are tools and potions to enhance their gifts, but magic uses vocal cords and witches create spells through song. It’s an inventive concept that takes inspiration from Music Magick while also being its own thing. (Plus, it sounds super cool when they’re doing it.) Some details about their militaristic lifestyle are stupid though—like a silly foot stomp-shimmy to show approval, their ill-fitting uniforms, or the fact that their only weapons are whips designed to cut off airflow to the larynx. Keep in mind, this is a world where guns still exist. Give them guns.
However, one aspect of the series is so awesome it forgives all the others: It’s horny as hell. Motherland: Fort Salem is the sex magic-fuelled series Chilling Adventures of Sabrina wishes it could be, with the main characters expressing a great deal of agency and ownership of their sexuality. Raelle and Scylla get hot and heavy on the regular, and there are not one but two episodes dedicated to Fort Salem’s annual orgy for one of their sacred holidays. That’s where a group of warlocks—who are in a sort-of side military operation trained in domestic arts and supportive magic—descend on the school for shirtless sports, dancing, and fucking. There’s, just, so much fucking, y’all.
This does present a world where men are objectified, including a scene where some of the girls catcall the warlocks. It’s a bit uncomfortable to watch, and it’s hard to say whether this type of behaviour would happen under similar circumstances (and you can’t research it online without coming across 14 billion YouTubers yelling about reverse sexism). It’s one of the many ways the show’s alt-history bumps up against our own.
Much like The Handmaid’s Tale or The Man in the High Castle, this series takes place in an alternate version of America—although, in this case, it’s not a recent divergence. Centuries ago, a group of witches had signed a peace treaty with pilgrims to stop the Salem Witch Trials. In exchange, they promised that every female witch would be drafted into the military upon reaching adulthood. This caused a ripple effect that turned America into a matriarchy and changed the course of U.S. history—in a manner of speaking. Most of history’s major conflicts still happened, like the American Revolution and the Civil War. This is where the series risks losing the most viewers to its logic hole.
In the world of Motherland, the Butterfly Effect isn’t a tidal wave so much as a series of gentle ripples. There are plenty of subtle changes in this version of America but the core construct is the same. The Declaration of Independence still exists, the presidency still exists, Mount Rushmore still exists (although this one has a woman on it). For the most part, it’s our history only, you know, with witches. It can feel implausible at times because it’s hard to imagine the United States of America that we know as a matriarchy when it was built on patriarchal values. It’s a really big ask of the audience. But if it’s one you’re OK looking past, there are a lot of fantastic details to be found in the smaller ripples.
Overall, the series has some truly impressive worldbuilding. The writers really cared about enveloping us in their version of America slowly and deliberately, choosing to show instead of tell whenever possible. Given how many shows over-explain their own realities to the point where you feel like you’ve been given homework, it’s encouraging to see a show the trusts its audience enough to let them fill in the gaps. For example, there’s a Wiccan wedding that shows us the rules of coupling and procreation for their kind, as well as a powerful scene where we learn how the centuries-old General Sarah Alder (Lyne Renee) is still alive. Even tiny details like the fact that all-female communes exist, or how there’s one state of Carolina instead of two. Granted, it’s not a world that’s good; it’s a female-led militaristic society laden with patriotism and war propaganda. But it’s a world that’s laid out well and makes sense.
I went into Motherland expecting a hot mess. I came out of it pleasantly surprised and curious to see what’s next. It’s more grounded than most teen fantasy dramas out there, instead matching the standards Freeform has set for its more recent shows like The Bold Type and Everything’s Gonna Be OK. It has its flaws, ones that history buffs (or people who really don’t like balloons) may not be willing to overlook. But if you’re cool with hopping on this broomstick, it seems like it’s going to be an interesting ride.
Hickson and Sutton stand out in their roles as Raelle and Tally, with Sutton showing a lot of range in what would normally be the banal role of the unifying, motherly figure. The main one who struggles is Williams, who has trouble vocalizing Abigail’s outer haughtiness and inner feelings of inadequacy without coming across as whiny.
While we are seeing more shows including non-cishet relationships, it’s still rare to see one at the centre of an ensemble genre series. Motherland: Fort Salem’s main conflict revolves around the love story between two young women, and it’s encouraging to see that. The relationship between Raelle and Scylla isn’t just a plot point, it’s the plot point.
The lighting and colouring in this show is awful. With a few exceptions, it’s always tinted with this sickly shade of yellow. I’m guessing it’s to impress the idea of nostalgia for a world in wartime, like we’re watching it through a sepia filter. But it doesn’t work. It’s just ugly.
The show has only lightly touched on how non-magical folks at large feels about witches. On one hand, they’re honoured for their service, but there are also one or two times where they get pushback from people who are afraid of them because of the Spree. There’s also been a bit of exploration into the global community and its magic-users, but it doesn’t always gel with our history of international relations. Because all of them just, well, don’t like the Spree. Both of these things need more fleshing out.
I’d still like to see the role modern religion plays in this reality. The persecution of so-called witches in Salem was based in Christianity, a longstanding religion that had already dug its claws into America. It’s hard to believe one pact would change not only the government’s formation but also the role (and rule) of religion in this country. Of course, this might be something that’s brought out later, so we’ll have to wait and see.
I can’t wait for y’all to see the evil balloon. No matter how dumb you think it is, based on what I’ve said, it’s worse.