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Motherland: Fort Salem toes a fine line and exceeds expectations

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May 27, 2020, 8:24 PM EDT (Updated)

When the first trailer for Freeform's Motherland: Fort Salem dropped online in May 2019, it's safe to say that few could have predicted what the series (which debuted almost a year later) would look like. That's because that trailer showed only a sliver of the world the show itself would seek to unfold over its 10-episode first season.

Though it does set the stage for the alternate America of that world — one where witches have become the military and the site of their historical executions has become their training ground — its two-minute summary of that world and those witches fails to depict the amount of care and nuance with which it tackles the very real concerns of indoctrination, institution, and unchecked power.

In the version of the United States at the center of Motherland: Fort Salem, the witch trials did happen in the late 17th century, but they ended when one of the accused witches, Sarah Alder, struck a deal with the men in power: Stop killing witches, and they will fight your wars for you. Over the centuries they upheld that bargain, and the U.S. Army became an institution made up not of average citizen volunteers but of conscripted witches born to be soldiers and raised to fight battles on behalf of their country. While the vision of this alternate present begins, at least somewhat, as one in which all witches are proud to protect and serve, that concept is quickly dismantled as the series ponders whether an army and a country built on the blood of a single people forced to serve is really anything other than a form of slavery dressed as duty.

The show tackles these difficult subjects by excellently deploying a cast of characters that is diverse in, well, diverse ways. Not only are the witches of Fort Salem from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds, or representative of a spectrum of sexualities (the show has yet to tackle the spectrum of gender in a matriarchal society), they also represent a multiplicity of points of view on their role as soldiers. For some, like Abigail Bellweather, military service is the family business and has been since the first witches donned the colors of the budding USA. Families like hers are large and wealthy and full of decorated soldiers and family mythologies of valor in the face of overwhelming odds. She has faith in the system because her family is the system.

On the opposite side of things is Raelle, a powerful healer from a rural area who spends her time using her powers to help people around town. Her mother died in the line of duty, and as a result Raelle's opinion of service stops just short of disdain. She has neither affinity nor allegiance to the military, and she arrives at Fort Salem fully expecting she will die quickly once she is deployed into combat because witches aren't so much soldiers as they are fodder for the war machine. Raelle is very likely the type of soldier you might get if the military forced only certain families to fight and die for a cause they did not support.

Then there is Tally, the only one among them who volunteered for the cause. Tally's family was granted a boon. They were no longer required to serve because so many of them had died in the line of duty, nearly wiping out their family. But Tally, brought up in a world full of propaganda and desiring more than anything to do good in the world, chooses to forgo safety to join a cause. Tally represents those who, in real life, seek out service as a means of finding purpose and a way to make an impact on the world. Of course, the goals of institutions have a way of swallowing up and overpowering the goals of the individuals that make them up, especially when those individuals lack power within those institutions.

Credit: Freeform

Over the course of the first season, Motherland: Fort Salem builds the world around these three young women and their differing perspectives to deal with tough questions about the role of the military in society and the way institutions and a lifetime of indoctrination can obscure reality. They all believe that they are entering into a world of black and white, of right and wrong, and that they are playing on the side of the unequivocal good guys. They are, after all, fighting for a cause and against an enemy — in this case a group of magical terrorists known as The Spree — who are willing to murder civilians to make a point. But, as with all things, the truth is much more complicated, there is no such thing as black and white, and just because you're told something is true doesn't make it so. At the end of the day, Abigail, Raelle, and Tally (plus a cast of supporting characters) must learn things for themselves, question information that is handed to them, learn to trust themselves, and challenge authority when they witness abuses of power.

If that sounds like a lot of young adult fiction to you, that's because Motherland: Fort Salem shares a lot of DNA with franchises like The Hunger Games and Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and any number of epic fantasy stories about young people standing up for themselves and their friends in the face of an unjust world. It is earnest and dramatic, and the romances that power much of the non-military drama are intense to an almost comedic degree. What sets the show apart, however, in addition to the fact that it is the gay goth dream of a TV series I would have killed for when I was a teenager, is its devotion to telling a powerful story about bonds between women and sisterhood over service.

Motherland: Fort Salem wrapped up its first season on Freeform at the end of May and has been renewed for a second season, likely to be released sometime next year. At only 10 episodes, the series has barely scratched the surface of the world it has built and has already unearthed so many questions and conversations it is sure to explore going forward. If the first season is any indication, there are likely no easy answers waiting on the other side, which is exactly what makes it so exciting to watch.

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