New Netflix horror series Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is as surprising a show based on Archie Comics’ Sabrina the Teenage Witch could be without going into full-bore HBO territory. Conjuring up old images of Satanic goings-on and populating its world with interesting characters, the show charmed its way to a Certified Fresh 88% on the Tomatometer. The show also proves once again, following his Riverdale success on The CW, that creator Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa has a magic touch for reinventing decades-old Archie characters for television (some of which even predate Archie Andrews himself).
Like other series based on comics, there’s a lot going within Sabrina‘s narrative and on the margins, so let’s take a look at some of the ways Sabrina honors its comic book roots, remixes old ideas, and casts its own unique spell on the viewer.
SPOILER WARNING: THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS INFORMATION FROM THE ENTIRE FIRST SEASON OF CHILLING ADVENTURES OF SABRINA.
Sabrina‘s cousin series on The CW, Riverdale, airs week after week with just a title card, but Sabrina carries on the Netflix tradition of a lavish and mood-setting opening credit sequence. The animated clip honors the work of one specific artist: Robert Hack, who co-created the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina comic book with Aguirre-Sacasa in 2014. The art suggests the look of mid-20th century horror comics and Hammer Film Productions’ dream-like horror movies of the 1950s and ’60s, something that sets Sabrina apart from other Archie horror titles (such as Afterlife with Archie and Jughead: The Hunger), and something Aguirre-Sacasa specifically set out to do following the success of Afterlife artist Francesco Francavilla saw on that title.
The sequence also honors the original source material when the animated Sabrina morphs into the character as realized by longtime Archie artist (and Sabrina co-creator) Dan DeCarlo for the “Based upon the comic book by Archie Comics” credit. While the series may be nothing like those Archie tales, the rest of the sequence certainly sets the mood for the horror to come.
One of the biggest departures involves Edward Spellman’s real intentions for his daughter. In the pages of the comic book, Edward appears to have a long-term plan for his half-mortal offspring that is interrupted when his sisters Zelda and Hilda turn him into a tree and raise Sabrina themselves. The television Edward simply exchanged Sabrina’s soul for the opportunity to marry a mortal woman, and Zelda (Mirando Otto) appears to be honoring his wishes while leaving his status as a tree a rather large question mark for those who have read the book and watched the show. While we may learn more about that comic plotline in the series’ second season, it’s also just as likely that Edward and his wife are as deceased as one can be in the witching world.
Instead, the person on the show with a future mapped out for Sabrina appears to be Satan himself — and those intentions will no doubt come to light in the second season now that the Dark Lord has apparently won.
Other departures from the comics include the re-imaging of Rosalind (Jaz Sinclair) as Sabrina’s best friend instead of her constant rival, the name Michelle Gomez’s character uses while teaching at Baxter High (more on her later), and the addition of Suzie (Lachlan Watson), a second major friend for Sabrina with a pretty interesting subplot tying back to the earliest days of Greendale.
The Chilling Adventures comic book is a tale of the mid-sixties; Sabrina’s 16th birthday falls on Oct. 31, 1963. The time period is key to the tone of the book and the various horror staples it honors, but the television series plays fast and loose with time. The first episode could be happening in 1963 — there’s very little on display to challenge that assertion — but small aspects of modern days emerge: Ambrose (Chance Perdomo) types away on a laptop when Sabrina comes home after nearly telling her boyfriend Harvey Kinkle (Ross Lynch) the truth. Harvey is later seen using a flip phone while Sabrina calls him on a corded rotary-dial telephone. While color printing can be seen on all of the movie posters in Sabrina’s room and at Cerberus Books, color photography appears to be non-existent. Cars also seem antiquated to preserve some of the comics’ period aspects, although music choices and movie references throughout the season suggest a more contemporary series.
The choice to set Sabrina in a non-specific time period plays to the dream-like quality of Hack’s art in the comics. It allows the exquisitely produced show to stand in its own gorgeous reality even as Riverdale apparently exists across the river. Speaking of Aguirre-Sacasa’s CW hit, that show also enjoys playing with earlier eras though its setting is squarely contemporary. Could Sabrina and Riverdale‘s love of older eras mean something for their apparently shared universe? As Riverdale previously established, Greendale is not a place you want to get caught after midnight. And considering Riverdale’s own dabbling with dark arts this season, the two shows may be connected by more than the Sweetwater River despite anything Netflix or The CW have said on the matter. To wit: Riverdale‘s recently deceased Ben Button (Moses Thiessen) briefly appears in an episode of Sabrina as a pizza delivery boy. Time and space may bend around the two shows, but it seems their towns are populated by some of the same people.
Besides the shared Riverdale geography, Sabrina features more than a few thematic ties to that show and its format. Sabrina was originally developed as a CW show before jumping to Netflix, and just about every scene set at Baxter High feels like a story prompt from a network version of the series. Consider Roz’s anger when she cannot do a report on Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye: Resolving that plot would be an entire episode of a CW show instead of a half-realized concept on Netflix’s version. Though, to be fair, that half-explored concept led to a far more interesting idea as far as Roz is concerned. But it’s easy to see how The CW version of Sabrina could have pumped the breaks on the Satanism in favor of Sabrina using her witchy powers to outsmart Principal Hawthorne (Bronson Pinchot) while keeping her magic secret from her friends. As a 22-episode season, episodes like that would be necessary instead of the brisker pace Sabrina sets at its streaming home.
One crucially important aspect of converting Chilling Adventures of Sabrina from panel to pixel is the reinvention of Harvey Kinkle. Throughout the season, viewers are told he is Sabrina’s key link to the mortal realm and her intense teenage love for him sets off a number of the show’s ongoing plots. But in order for it to work, Harvey had to be much more complex than his comic book counterpart. In the pages of Chilling Adventures, he is a typical mid-’60s football hunk who’s far more interested in sleeping with Sabrina than just about anything else, and that interest gets him into a lot of trouble. Sabrina works very hard to save him from his fate, but the relationship is far less idealized in the comic — which might for the best considering who ends up inhabiting Harvey’s body in that story.
On television, Lynch portrays Harvey as a more sensitive and understanding boyfriend. He harbors a lot of fears borne from a possible encounter with Satan at age 8, which is also something of a trigger for him. No doubt his poor relationship with his father has something to do with his anger when he perceives that anyone might think he is a coward. Then there’s what he really wants to do with his life: make comics. That love of comic books is something the comic-book Harvey would never be able to admit — even if he thought about anything other than scoring on the field or otherwise.
Sabrina embraces and celebrates horror movies and comics informing the series. Horror movies spotted on various TV sets throughout the first season include the original Night of the Living Dead, the sublime Carnival of Souls, and the 1930s classic Freaks — films all directly or indirectly about inclusion and exclusion. During Harvey’s first visit to the Spellman house, Ambrose lists off Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, and Grant Morrison as favorite comic book creators. The three men all redefined horror at DC Comics in the 1980s and ’90s, and their efforts would eventually lead to DC’s Vertigo imprint.
Even the use of The Bluest Eye as the book surreptitiously banned by Principal Hawthorne and the Greendale School Board speaks to a number of themes within Sabrina, as well as a few heavy subjects the show only alludes to despite its full embrace of Satanic imagery. The eye motif pays off when Roz learns the truth about her failing eyesight. And although it was perhaps not the intent of the series, prominently highlighting the novel also underscores the fact the show features two black characters whose stories include their eyes and an issue of paternity.
Then there are the other literary allusions, like the antagonistic Principal Hawthorne —a family name steeped in American witchcraft lore, beginning with pre–Revolutionary America judge John Hathorne (great-great grandfather of The Scarlet Letter author Nathaniel Hawthorne), who oversaw the Salem witch trials in 1692. Sabrina’s attorney is “Daniel Webster” (John Rubinstein), taking his name from the real and highly regarded 1800s lawyer and politician, who is also represented in fiction in Stephen Vincent Benet’s “The Devil and Daniel Webster.” In the story, judge Hathorne is appointed by Satan to oversee a trial with Webster as attorney for the defense. In Sabrina, the character of Webster has his own run-in with the devil that aids his ability to defend his client.
That the show can make use of all these references without stumbling is a magic trick in its own right.
Perhaps the show’s greatest bit of witchcraft is Gomez’s portrayal of Mary Wardwell, a character we eventually learn is also Madame Satan. Based on one of the oldest characters in the Archie Comics’ stable — she predates the company’s name-change to Archie Comics — Madame Satan saw her Pep Comics strip cancelled in 1941 to make way for Archie Andrews and the eventual Riverdale gang. Originally depicted as a temptress who becomes Satan’s footsoldier on Earth, the character cloaks herself as a dark-haired woman, hiding her green, desiccated pallor and skull-studded eyes.
Dormant for decades, the character briefly appeared in the 2013 Archie Comics series The Fox before Aguirre-Sacasa brought her back at the end of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’s first issue. Reimagined as Edward Spellman’s spurned lover Iola, her ambitions for Sabrina center on simple revenge even as her methods become more and more complicated.
Thanks to the comic book’s strange release schedule and indeterminate length, turning the character into someone looking to sit at the left hand of the Devil is far more compelling for television. It makes Madame Satan a truly great opponent for Sabrina, as the character also becomes her mentor. Before Sabrina can hope to take on Satan, she must first extricate herself from his most dedicated servant. Or, alternatively, Sabrina must become her. Either way, it allows for the conflict to be resolved in the second 10-episode season (or last as long as the series does). And with Gomez playing the part, hopefully Madame Satan stays involved for a long time to come.
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina season 1 is currently available to stream on Netflix.