Our favorite half-human/half witch teenager took on eight timeless menacing entities to avert the apocalypse (again) in the final season of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. I’ve championed this weirdly captivating supernatural horror show from the beginning, and for three seasons the strengths have always outshone the occasional weakness. Unfortunately, S4 turned out to be the weakest of all, despite including one of the best episodes of the entire Netflix series, and what should have been a strong unifying narrative arc. It’s still pretty entertaining, but there was just a little too much pointless fan service and sloppy plotting this time around for S4 to really work.
(Spoilers for prior seasons below. Major spoilers for the series finale are below the second gallery. We’ll give you a heads up before we get there.)
As we’ve reported previously, the show was originally intended as a companion series to the CW’s Riverdale—a gleefully Gothic take on the original Archie comic books—but Sabrina ended up on Netflix instead. The show retains some of the primetime soap opera elements of Riverdale, but it incorporates more full-blown horror without bowing to the niceties imposed by network television. As I wrote last year, “Ultimately, the best thing about The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is how gleefully and unapologetically the show leans into its melting pot of the macabre. It’s quite the high-wire act, exploring serious themes while never, ever taking itself too seriously—and never descending into outright camp.”
In the S3 finale, Sabrina (Kiernan Shipka) transformed a trio of unholy artifacts into a medieval spiked ball and chain known, appropriately enough, as a morning star. She used this to create a time loop, enabling her to go back and correct the grievous errors she made over the course of the season. So there are now two Sabrinas. The original Sabrina Spellman returned to her life in Greendale, while her alternate self, Sabrina Morningstar, took up her rightful throne as Queen of Hell. They’re supposed to always stay within their respective realms, but, well, what are the odds of that happening with such a headstrong heroine? Meanwhile, in the final scene, a now-mad Father Blackwood (Richard Coyle) performed a summoning ritual to call forth the “Eldritch Terrors” and told his loyal acolyte Agatha (Adeline Rudolph) that they will bring about “the end of all things.”
Showrunner Roberto Aguirra-Sacasa hinted that S4 would go full-blown Lovecraft. It’s really more of a fun Lovecraftian-influenced homage, starting with the title of the first episode: “The Eldritch Dark.” That’s an allusion to sci-fi/horror writer and H.P. Lovecraft contemporary Clark Ashton Smith, who wrote a 1912 poem with that title, although Lovecraft himself included a similar entity in his group of Outer Gods. Sabrina‘s version is a strange darkness (and accompanying sense of despair) called The Darkness that descends on Greendale and begins to spread—the first of eight Terrors called forth by Blackwood, each the focus of a separate episode. It takes both Sabrinas, plus the full coven, to defeat The Darkness.
Next up is The Uninvited, an entity that emerged during the creation of all things when he was turned away from a warm fire. Now he wanders through Greendale, knocking on doors, and ripping out the hearts of anyone who doesn’t invite him into their homes (because they’re heartless, get it?). It seems to be loosely based on Lovecraft’s short story, “The Outsider.” When The Uninvited crashes Aunt Hilda’s wedding to Dr. Cerberus after being excluded from the festivities, the two Sabrinas defeat the entity through trickery. I honestly felt a little sorry for this Eldritch Terror, but you can’t have a zombie-like figure ripping people’s hearts out all over the place just because they failed to show a bit of hospitality.
The rest of the Terrors make their appearance one by one: The Weird—an octopus-like entity likely inspired by Lovecraft’s most famous creation, Cthulhu—who is a parasite with a collective consciousness that takes over Sabrina’s body; The Perverse, whose reality-warping powers are called forth by a gold imp statue (a nod to the Edgar Allan Poe short story, “The Imp of the Perverse“); The Cosmic, in which the various realms start to merge, with disastrous consequences; The Returned, in which departed loved ones return from the dead; The Endless, possibly inspired by the Lovecraftian deity Thasaidon; and finally, The Void, which existed at creation and will bring about the end of all things.
(Warning: major spoilers below the gallery. Stop now if you haven’t finished the season.)
Let’s start with what worked this final season. The cast remains phenomenal, with everyone turning in exceptional performances despite being given some very silly material to work with at times. In particular, Michelle Gomez as Lilith/MadamSatan, and Miranda Otto and Lucy Davis as Aunt Zelda and Aunt Hilda, respectively, have long anchored the show, and continue to do so in S4. The aunts even get to play opposite their counterparts from the 1996 TV series, Caroline Rhea and Beth Broderick, in the penultimate episode, “The Endless”—the aforementioned standout in the series,
In order to keep the realms from colliding, the two Sabrinas agree to inhabit separate realms. Sabrina Spellman remains in Greendale, while Sabrina Morrningstar goes through a mirror portal to a parallel universe, and finds herself on the set of a popular TV sitcom. The entire realm is comprised of the set, and everyone is in service to the star: Sabrina’s feline familiar, Salem, aka The Endless. Sabrina’s aunts are played by Rhea and Broderick, with Otto and Davis playing their understudies, reduced to sleeping under the beds of their counterparts at night.
The set is a nightmare realm of the longest-running sitcom in the universe, where people can be fired after three slight missteps, and sent to the “green room,” never to return. The entire episode is deliciously meta and very clever about weaving in industry in-jokes and poking fun at the Netflix series’ more ludicrous elements. Case in point: Sabrina Morningstar’s former consort, Caliban (Sam Corlett), prefers to work backstage in props where he won’t be so gratuitously objectified—and then proceeds to remove his shirt, because it’s “his choice.” But even The Endless will be wiped out by The Void, which soon arrives and consumes this alternate world. Sabrina Morningstar barely manages to escape, plunging through the mirror back to Greendale to warn Sabrina Spellman of the imminent threat. The effort costs her life. At least there’s now only one Sabrina again.
As for the cons, did we really need a hellish “battle of the bands” where every cast member has to perform a pop song? That reeks of fan service and a rather crass marketing ploy. Some plot developments just seem like lazy writing: Mambo Marie (Skye Marshall), the Haitian voodoo witch who’s romantically involved with Aunt Zelda, is actually Baron Samedi; Roz doesn’t just have the Sight, she’s been a witch all along; and Robin Goodfellow (Jonathan Whitesell) abandons Theo (Lachlan Watson) to return to the faerie realm, but then changes his mind and comes back. Don’t even get me started on Lilith’s baby. None of these developments seem to serve any real purpose, other than give the relevant characters something to do.
Furthermore, most of the Eldritch Terrors don’t come off as particularly terrifying, perhaps because they are so easily defeated. These are supposed to be incredibly powerful, timeless entities. Yet we’re supposed to believe that Sabrina and her pals can drum up sufficiently powerful spells and magical objects to counter each Terror, like they’re some paltry second-tier demon. I mean, The Uninvited gets tricked into being imprisoned in Sabrina’s enchanted childhood dollhouse. An Eldritch Terror should really be a little more savvy than that.
“The Endless” set up what should have been an equally sharply focused and emotionally powerful finale, particularly in light of Sabrina Morningstar’s demise. Instead, the plotting flounders, reeling from one implausible moment to another and never quite meshing in a satisfying way. Unlike some fans, I have no issue with the controversial decision to kill off Sabrina Spellman as well; the character has been associated with reverse Christ-like imagery from the beginning, so of course Sabrina would end up sacrificing herself to save the world. A similar plot line worked spectacularly well in the S5 finale (“The Gift”) of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, when Buffy sacrifices herself to save her sister (and the world).
But Sabrina’s sacrifice just doesn’t pack the same emotional punch. It feels rushed, like the writers were in a hurry to wrap things up, so we never really get to linger on the enormity of the loss and its impact on Sabrina’s friends and family. There’s a perfunctory funeral, and then we cut to Sabrina in the Sweet Hereafter, where she is soon joined by her boyfriend, Nick Scratch (Gavin Leatherwood), who went swimming in the “Sea of Sorrows” so he could be with her for eternity. Translation: he committed suicide because his girlfriend died. That’s an oddly distasteful note on which to end.
The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina has been a wild and crazy (if uneven) ride. As I’ve noted before, the show’s strategy of throwing every mythological figure and literary trope into the mix and seeing what sticks, works more often than not—in large part because of the gifted cast. It’s too bad that even such an amazing cast couldn’t rescue the series finale.
The final season of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is currently streaming on Netflix (along with all the preceding seasons).
Listing image by Netflix