Sometimes people have idea that must, in the moment, sound brilliant but just doesn’t work out. Like, “Cats, the Musical, with big-name non-musical actors and CGI!” or “Sweet potato pie, but with bone marrow!” This seems to be the case for new series on Freeform, Motherland: Fort Salem.
“It’s G.I.-Joe-style Military School, only with witches! And they’re all girls!”
Motherland: Fort Salem, which I am going to abbreviate as M:FS because that makes me laugh, is, to quote Freeform, “Set in an alternate America where witches ended their persecution and cut a deal with the government…” And then “follows three young women from training through deployment as they fight terrorist threats with supernatural tactics.” And most of what is wrong with the show is captured right there.
In this world the Salem witches had actual magical power. It’s not clear just what “government” they might have cut a deal with, since the historical witch trials took place in 1692-93. So, they brokered a truce with King George? Did they fight on the side of the British during the colonial rebellion, then? We don’t know but we guess not, because in the credits we see a painting of a witch general, General Alder (who’s still around) in a boat crossing the Delaware. Did the colonies achieve independence with the help of a witch army? Dunno. Maybe. Were there enslaved people in America? Dunno. Maybe. Was there an American Civil War? Dunno. Maybe. Is America post-democratic republic, and now a matriarchy of some kind? Dunno. Maybe. Probably.
There are several African American women in the show, at various ranks. Abigail Bellwether is the scion of a military dynasty of war heroes and she’s one of the three MCs. Several aides to the general are African American. This is good, but more on what’s not good about that in just a bit.
Currently, the Witches of America are fighting a global war against an adversary that calls itself the Spree. That’s right. The Spree. And their primary weapon seems to be blue party balloons.
Oh, an update here – they are hate-filled blue party balloons. That’s very different.
Our three MCs are exactly what you expect.
- Abigail, the legacy, carrying the burden of her military heritage. She will be horribly disillusioned.
- Raelle, the rebel, who hates the army. She’ll be horribly disillusioned on a personal level eventually.
- Tallie, the idealist and patriot. In films, this character is usually killed. Since Tallie’s an MC, instead she will just be emotionally tortured until her idealism and faith lie around her in shattered pieces. I’m just saying.
These are the same three characters we meet over and over in war movies, whether it’s boot camp, military school or some Pacific island where John Wayne has to make men and soldiers, or sailors, or whatever out of them.
One really cool thing about the show is the magic, which uses different tones, like song or chanting, to activate magic. Whoever is doing the vocals is great, and the harmonies create wonderful eerie moments. Like everything else in M:FS, though, this good thing highlights a really big gap in the world-building. Presumably, this alternate America was peopled when the Europeans got here. Where is the Native American magic? Where is African magic? There are, as I said, many African American characters, but only one “brand” of magic is used. It might be that this is military magic and other branches, like healing, forecasting, and so on draw on other traditions. And this leads to another worldbuilding problem. The entire witch community seems to be military; in fact, draft-dodging, if you’re a witch, is a crime. You don’t build a community on only one aspect, and certainly not an army, which needs infrastructure. I mean, come on, people.
The show seems to intend to address the inequities in its system using role reversal. It’s a matriarchy and men aren’t equal. They’re not subjugated, but clearly they lack privilege. And the Spree seem to be mostly disenfranchised witches, so plainly, if there is a terrorist army of such magnitude (they must have bought all the blue party balloons in the world, after all), there is trouble in Witch Haven Paradise.
All this may be moot. Freeform only had three episodes completed when we all started staying home, and there are no more in the pipeline right now. The show may lose its momentum completely. Of course, streaming may save it, but if it faded away like a deflated balloon, that wouldn’t be such a bad thing.