Going into the third season of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, one cannot help but have a few trepidations. The third season of Riverdale, which at this rate we really should call a sibling series of sorts, especially after this run of episodes for Greendale’s residents, completely and utterly went off the rails in its third season, and that was coming off the back of an already crazy second season where those rails were already showing signs of being loose.
The Archie Comics Universe on screen has proven interesting to say the least. Riverdale started incredibly strong; it was as if someone asked themselves what Dawson’s Creek would be like if David Lynch had created it (albeit for network television) and the results were magnetic and brilliant, but come halfway through the second season, Riverdale was showing itself to be nothing more than a one season wonder, and honestly, I’ve never went back to the show since I bailed on it halfway through the third season where the show decided to become Fight Club meets The Shawshank Redemption (yes, I am very serious about that) complete with a Dungeons and Dragons-style game that was seemingly killing off anyone who became obsessed with it.
Just writing that last sentence feels crazy.
Part of the problem that became apparent in some of Riverdale was that it felt as if Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and his writers were wanting to write a more genre flavoured teen series. They managed to take Archie Andrews and his famous group of friends and put them into the middle of a Lynchian-flavoured murder mystery with its powerful townsfolk, trips to the local diner, and hints of incest magnificently in season one and then when left with more standard teen storylines after that, tried to make them as ridiculous as possible but without ever being able to make them work.
A reboot of Sabrina offered them the chance to go wild and actually have that approach be part and parcel of the series and its fabric. While the previous incarnation of the character was through the popular Melissa Joan Hart sitcom of the late 90s (a favourite of mine growing up, it has to be said), a reboot offered the chance to go dark and more horror tinged in a manner the previous version never could, or wanted to; it was after all a studio sitcom complete with an obviously fake, but charming, talking cat.
Right from the beginning, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina was filled with a tangibly dark atmosphere, wasn’t afraid to let the blood flow, and intoxicate its world with a brilliant sense of intense atmosphere. Being filmed in Vancouver also allowed it to have some of the creepiest forests this side of a Chris Carter television series from the 90s.
The first season was great. The second stumbled just a little, but it was still incredibly watchable. Going into the third, one holds their breath and hopes it won’t go full Riverdale. With a sigh of relief, it doesn’t, although there is one major complaint to be had.
As good as this season is, and at a lean eight episodes it zips along at a brilliant pace and builds brilliantly throughout, especially in a tension soaked second half, for some reason everyone has decided that what Riverdale does so well are those bloody musical numbers and so now Sabrina has them too.
Now, let me be clear about something; I love musical numbers. In fact, I like musicals. I am one of those people that adores La La Land, and one of my favourite ever episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is ‘Once More, With Feeling’, but for some reason, someone over at Archie Comics and Berlanti Television wants these cycle of shows (and I imagine it’s going to be the same for the forthcoming Katy Keene) to turn into fully fledged musicals for at least one scene because…well…just because I guess, or they want to make money from the inevitable release of said songs on iTunes or Spotify.
It’s a stylistic choice that worked fine on Riverdale, at least when it was good, and was something that happened the odd time previously on CAOS (as no doubt the cool kids call it), but the overreliance on it this season almost takes ones out of the show whenever it happens, which is a shame because everything else going on around it is incredibly entertaining.
The season is brilliantly structured for starters; the first half plays out as an entertaining supernatural teen drama as always, but then in the second half, once the newly arrived antagonists of the season, The Old Ones, become a more prominent threat, the season shifts gears into an against the clock narrative that sometimes never goes where you’d expect it, with an escalation of suspense and incident that hints at building to an incredible climax.
It ends up building to two climaxes. They’re both great, but only one truly works wonders, but if it had stuck to what the series opts to do in its penultimate episode there would be no show to continue with so it really leaves everyone with no option but to use time travel as a means to get itself out of the pesky situation of pretty much killing of the majority of its cast and destroying the world.
How you feel about the finale depends on how you feel about a story that does the things that this series does in its penultimate episode and then backtracking. For starters, we don’t really expect everyone to die, but the script to the finale, from showrunner Aguirre-Sacasa and Daniel King, takes back pretty much everything that happens. It’s not fully a happy ending, and it does leave a lot of breadcrumbs for Part Four to play with, but there is a danger when one realises where the finale is going that the onslaught of shock and awe that went into the penultimate hour is going to be taken back.
Over half of the cast is seemingly killed, and while there are certain characters we don’t want to leave the show, it does indicate, once again in this day and age, an unwillingness for a piece of pop culture to be somewhat afraid of offending a devoted fanbase when it comes to hurting or killing off characters that they love. Television used to be filled with shows unafraid to rack up a body count; The X Files, Buffy, Angel, Lost and 24 were some of the biggest shows of their era, but they were unafraid to hit you were it hurts, particularly when it came to characters that the audience loved, and maybe just to keep the audience on its toes Sabrina should have made one of those deaths in the penultimate hour stick.
That aside, it still amounts to a great finale and a great season of television. Three seasons in, Sabrina is showing little of the rot that set in on Riverdale, which the show not only makes reference to in passing this season, but even throws in a Southside Serpent, a cameo appearance from one of that show’s actresses (albeit playing a different character), and a trip to the place itself, complete with references to the Blossom family and Jughead.
It will leave one wondering if both shows truly take place in the same universe, and the truth is they can even if being on differing platforms means they can’t actually fully crossover (Buffy and Angel managed to stay in one universe even when on differing networks) and the speculation adds to a lot of fun in watching the series, but the truth is, after three seasons, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is on a completely different level of quality in comparison to the adventures of Archie and friends.
Riverdale started with a wonderfully strange air, but could never replicate it, even when throwing in The Gargoyle King (and jumping over what amounted to several sharks, let alone one), while Sabrina has managed to stick the landing wonderfully.
The cast has grown and there are many elements that the series has to play with now, but it keeps hold of those juggling balls and never lets go, even if it has less episodes to play with that the twenty two or so episodes that comes from the next town over. In fact, if anything is proven here, is that maybe this brand of shows works best when less is more. At an hour per episode, each chapter of Sabrina has a lot to do, but does so magnificently with a spring in its step, plus being on a streaming service such as Netflix means that it can play fully with the horror movie tropes. The blood flows thick and deep, and even manages to throw in a moment that pays tribute to notorious seventies British horror film The Wicker Man, which will probably fly right over the head of many of the show’s teenage viewership, while also acknowledging both Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Dracula 2000.
There are moments of teen angst dotted throughout, with complicated relationships between Sabrina, and her friends, including the returning Harvey, Roz, Theo and Nick, but those moments work brilliantly; the cast plays the angsty relationship stuff well, and it never leaves one rolling their eyes. Admittedly the series is not quite in the realm of brilliance in comparison to Buffy (let’s face it, very few shows are), which managed to combine character, plot and genre in a way felt incredibly grown up for a teen series on The WB network. The dialogue is never as punchy here as it was when written by Joss Whedon and his team of writers, but it does come close, and there is much joy to be had in seeing the series double down on substituting various words for ‘Satan’ in casual conversation.
What the series does share fully with Buffy is in treating its central character as a well-rounded and developed character. Kiernan Shipka takes the character of Sabrina and layers her complexities wonderfully, especially when it comes to either choosing her family or her supposed destiny as the Queen of Hell, which becomes a recurring theme for her this year and which reaches a somewhat surprising conclusion which leaves one eager to see what Part Four will do with it.
Yes, the time travel thing does leave you with maybe a plot hole or two in the finale, but the eventual outcome is that we are now left with two Sabrina’s, both of them the same person but from differing timelines, and the prospect of seeing how both will adapt and possibly change with their differing lives is one that sets up an intriguing fourth season that cannot come soon enough.