Wednesday, March 18, 2020

REVIEW: 'Motherland: Fort Salem' - Raelle, Tally and Abigail Begin Their Military Training as Witches in 'Say the Words'

Freeform's Motherland: Fort Salem - Episode 1.01 "Say the Words"

Set in an alternate America where witches ended their persecution over 300 years ago by cutting a deal with the burgeoning government to fight for their country, the series follows three young women from basic training in combat magic into early deployment. In this world, the traditional roles of gender and power are flipped, with the more dominant women on the front lines fighting looming terrorist threats that are familiar to our world, but with supernatural tactics and weapons.

In 2019, the television industry aired 532 scripted shows across numerous outlets. The way people consume content now is different than it used to be. It happens according to one's own schedule. As such, it's less necessary to provide ample coverage of each episode in any given season from a show. Moreover, it is simply impossible to watch everything. As such, this site provides shorter episodic reviews in order to cover as many shows as possible. With all of that being said, here are my thoughts on the series premiere of Freeform's Motherland: Fort Salem.

"Say the Words" was written by Eliot Laurence and directed by Steven A. Adelson

The drama opts for an intimate approach to its alt-history premise instead of depicting a sprawling world of how America could be if these fantastical events happened in the past. This premiere introduces three young witches who begin their military service. They serve as part of an honored tradition where witches have been the military leaders of the country before it was even founded. Sure, the audience may question what the real-world impacts would be to such a situation. It absolutely presents a more militarized world where service is honored uniformly with no questions asked whatsoever. It's odd because the show hasn't exactly done anything yet. Raelle carries through that direct point. She is the cynical witch who is largely hoping for a quick death on the battlefield. She doesn't aspire for a grand military career. She doesn't want that knowing it will eventually lead to the same demise. That's what fate befell her mother. She doesn't want to appreciate this service and the noble ideas that now guides the country. She just wants to be disruptive. That doesn't entirely make her a multi-dimensional character in the early going though. She lashes out because that's what the source of conflict needs to be in this first hour. It may develop into something more. A bond with Tally and Abigail that will be more powerful than any witch unit in generations. Right now though, the drama is defined by the adversarial dynamic on display amongst the trio. Abigail comes from a long line of military witches. She has been training for this fateful conscription day. She knows how to excel in all the basic training requirements and refuses to let anyone drag her down. She too suffers from being one character trait without a whole lot of depth to it. She comes across as someone who has experienced more of the world than the other two women who make up her unit. She knows what is expected of her. However, she still wants special treatment from General Sarah Alder, who has been the most famous witch in the world ever since the deal was first struck in Salem. Alder has shaped the world for centuries. That kind of power should immediately make the audience question the person making those decisions. Can she be trusted? Right now, she may have a collection of advisers around her. But they may be nothing more than subservient to her even though she talks fondly of the witch who saved her life countless times across the years. Again, there is this noble idea that female empowerment is proudly on display here. Women are the ones trusted to lead the battles and shape the politics of the world. Witches are still judged in society though. The world fears the terror from the Spree. That terrorist organization is a very vague threat at the moment. They have no leader. It's just the calling card of a balloon that drives everyone who hears it pop to commit suicide. That is a horrifying and potentially reckless visual right off the bat. It's important for the show to find the nuance in all of these characters. But it also needs more specificity in the actual plotting. It largely feels like character constructs that have been incorporated into fantasy programs like this before. There is even the shocking twist at the end when one of the characters is revealed to be an undercover agent for the Spree. That just happens to be the only thing that truly defines Scylla. That won't work in the long run if the show is also trying to build up an intimate dynamic between her and Raelle. This premiere does a lot of work to set up its premise and characters. It doesn't immediately point to a world with stories that need to be consumed. But it may be a premise that could grow more unique and challenging as time goes along. Again, the narrative builds up the idea that Raelle, Tally and Abigail are special as a unit. When they work together, great things happen as a result. Their training will hit some major bumps along the way. Their world has already been invaded by the enemy. They won't be able to trust those they serve alongside. That should make this compelling. But again, the effort needs to be placed into making the audience connect with these characters. At the moment, it's just a lot of spectacle with no real substance.