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Diverse, queer and feminist witches dominate Motherland: Fort Salem
Two witches meet in the forest. Raelle, a first-year cadet who is still in basic training, follows Scylla, an older necromancer, as she leads her to a clearing. Scylla tosses her one end of a rope. "Put it around your foot," she says and then hands her a small piece of star-shaped paper that Raelle ingests. What Raelle doesn't know is that this is Salva, a drug used to help witches perform controlled drops into combat zones.
She's too busy floating in the air, staring into the eyes of the woman she can't stop thinking about, and finding herself not falling but floating in love. Scylla has given her something no one else has since she arrived: a break from the weight of the world Raelle carries on her shoulders. For one of the first times since she arrived at Fort Salem, where she and every other witch are trained to defend the U.S., Raelle laughs, smiles, and feels free — that is, until her commanding officer shows up, breaks their concentration, and takes them to the infirmary. Turns out that Salva is very dangerous and shouldn't be used to impress cute girls.
In many TV shows, especially in a pilot episode, that's all the queerness we would get. Some implied attraction, stolen glances, magical metaphors, and then a long, slow burn over multiple seasons that maybe leads to onscreen kissing — but not on Motherland: Fort Salem. The next time we see our fabulous witches interact, Scylla and Raelle kiss. On the lips. And the next episode starts with Raelle making a mad dash from her lover's dorm room to her own.
It may not sound significant, and if they were a straight couple, it wouldn't be. However, even the most iconic LGBTQ+ characters in science fiction and fantasy TV, like Buffy's Willow and Tara, have had limits placed on their sexuality.
Spoiler alert: Minor spoilers for the first three episodes of Motherland: Fort Salem follow.
Motherland: Fort Salem takes place in an alternate history where instead of the Salem witch trials culminating in the deaths of innocent women they resulted in a treaty between a powerful witch and the Massachusetts militia. That witch, still alive by questionable means, became a part of the militia, weaponized magic, and conscripted witches into service of the state. Witches, who control their powers through choral-like sounds, have fought every military battle since before the founding of the U.S.
Set in the present day, the series follows three young witches as they're recruited into service, become a unit, and participate in basic training. One of those witches just so happens to be a lesbian named Raelle who almost immediately meets her new lady love, Scylla. Raelle totally kicks ass. She's anti-authoritarian, pissed off to have been drafted, and mourning the loss of her mother. Scylla is bisexual and equally as badass. She grew up on the run with her parents, who were draft dodgers, and now she has an ulterior motive at Fort Salem.
It's worth noting here that the representation of Scylla teeters on the edge of bisexual+ stereotypes about deception and manipulation, though the wider context of the series (and screener episodes I've seen that have yet to air) leads me to believe the series will do right by bisexual viewers.
Series creator Eliot Lawrence is queer and wanted to explore queerness through the ultimate outsiders: witches. "I’m a huge feminist and I’m a queer person so these kinds of stories about other kinds of power are very appealing to me, and power structures outside the status quo are appealing to me," Lawrence told EW. "It was a way for me to have fun and exorcise a lot of stuff that I had gone through as a young queer person growing up, and witches are the eternal other so I felt very at home working on a project about witches."
Beyond the queer elements, as Lawrence mentioned, this is a deeply feminist series. Women, particularly witches, are presented as powerful and important, albeit flawed and just as prone to abuses of power. Men are presented as nurturing, loving, and subservient to women. Raelle and Scylla's queerness is never questioned or treated like it's abnormal — in fact, the rest of her unit cheers when Raelle upgrades Scylla to "girlfriend" status. It's very, very sweet.
The list of important and feminist representation goes on. There are a variety of racial identities portrayed, and Black women are prevalent throughout the series. Notably, main character Abigail is the descendant of a long line of badass Bellweather witches, the first of whom served while still enslaved. There are a variety of bodies represented, though mostly older women are allowed to be fat. Despite that, it's pretty damn revelatory that fat people exist — and have no problem engaging in magical feats that many series would make difficult for larger bodies, such as using Salva to fly. They're also presented as sexy AF fat women, which is a true delight.
Motherland: Fort Salem doesn't treat good and evil like cut-and-dried concepts, particularly because there is a terrorist organization called the Spree that works in opposition to militarized witches worldwide — and because the military is presented as deeply flawed, even nightmarish. Without spoiling anything, I can say that how these lines are blurred becomes incredibly important to the queer characters in the series.
In fact, the rejection of a stark good-and-evil binary is the only element of the series that is non-binary — an omission I hope will be addressed in future episodes. To me, an added effect of all these elements coming together is a stark condemnation of militarism; however, there are other readings, as pointed out by the folks at The Good. The Bad. The Basic. Podcast.
All in all, Motherland represents a different kind of witch series — one that isn't afraid to come out of the gates swinging in terms of queer representation, racial representation, and a gaggle of ethically complex quandaries. Furthermore, the genuine love and attraction between Raelle and Scylla, two young queer women just trying to make their way through an imperfect world, is radiant — and makes the series worth tuning into.