Review by C.J. Bunce
It had a promising first and third season, twists and turns, clever story arcs, and a contender for the most faithful adaptation of a comic book series from the past decade. The creators of the fourth and final season of Netflix’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina gave 2020 a much-needed batch of two complete seasons, and we already gave the third season kudos in the 2020 Best of TV review here at borg. Kiernan Shipka proved to be one of TV’s best young actors, embodying a character that is next in line after Buffy Summers, Veronica Mars, and Liv Moore as young genre heroines who led series you can count on the first time and after re-watches. Already a contender for one of the best TV series of this century, and one of Netflix’s most creative efforts, how did the final season fare for our heroine Sabrina Spellman?
It became clear throughout the season that the writing team was running out of ideas, or perhaps a change in vision for the show. The first three seasons carved a dark tale of a smart, independent-minded teen pulled between a life at a normal high school and a life as the queen of the underworld. This year it took the route its sister show Riverdale took after its first seasons, opting to backtrack to the teen romance of the decades-old comic as opposed to Robert Aguirre-Sacasa’s update via Archie Horror comics imprint. So we saw more of Sabrina struggling with every kid’s teen angst issues, gaining and losing friends, gaining and losing boyfriends, and her own uncertainty, brought on by loneliness and boredom. It also meant more of the school band, more musical-inspired scenes peppered throughout the season. If you like those bits, you may like this season even more than the last.
Sabrina finds herself split in two this season, and she struggles to find her way with more than one dimension to fight for control and her very survival. If the first three seasons were primarily of the magical and fantasy world, this season leaned more on the science fiction. The writers took a nod from the Harry Potter series’ use of seven horcruxes to block its own final tale–here in the form of the eight “eldritch terrors.” Borrowed from H.P. Lovecraft and the comics stories, these deadly entities tested Sabrina, her aunts, her friends, and her coven, consisting of The Dark, The Uninvited, The Weird, The Perverse, The Cosmic, The Returned, The Endless, and The Void. As in the Harry Potter books and movies, they seem a bit crammed together. Each one was featured in an episode of the final season, some used very well, and others more compressed and contrived. Should they have focused on fewer in their allotted time constraints? Maybe. The more creative chapters find Sabrina in a parallel world where Father Blackwood becomes the center of Greendale in a sort of Nazi-inspired chapter, and in another Sabrina splits into those two parts–to rule Hell and be a normal teen. In another The Returned finds characters returning from the dead for a bit of a curtain call.
The most inspired and risky idea was forcing one Sabrina into yet another realm–The Endless sees the return of the two actors that played Sabrina’s aunts in the 1996-2003 light-hearted comedy series Sabrina the Teenage Witch, with Caroline Rhea as Hilda and Beth Broderick as Zelda. Sabrina lives out her life as an actor inside a television series with these aunts as the main cast and her former aunt actors relegated to stand-in roles. The best of the episode is the meta-on-meta happenings, and the show devolves into a bloody horror story by the end–all good things that fit the design of the show. Something viewers could always count on with the show: again the writers may even have crossed the line a few times, depending on your sensibilities.
Unlike many series that end between seasons, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina benefitted by knowing the fourth season would be its last, so the final episode is a true end for the story. It is a bit rushed, however, as if the end was only spliced in at the last minute. Yet in the magic-filled world of the series, anything, including a continuation via a season down the road or a movie sequel, is always a possibility.
What the series could never really overcome was the closeness in the comics (and the earlier TV series) of Sabrina and her familiar cat Salem. Shipka was allergic to cats and only revealed this apparently after getting hired, no doubt requiring some re-thinking of the writing staff. But so many moments and opportunities were missed across the series and again during this season by keeping Salem’s appearances at a bare minimum. Also, with the CW series Riverdale running alongside Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, one would think someone could have negotiated at least one crossover episode. What we got were only spotty mentions of Riverdale from time to time.
Despite its flaws, the entire series is truly unique. It introduces ideas and concepts never seen on television, especially for the teen audience and with teen leads. It’s a high school horror series, which of course taps Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but only in a few spots. The handling of the supporting characters is where Chilling Adventures can’t catch up with the chemistry, fun, and brilliance of Joss Whedon’s Scooby Gang. Chance Perdomo’s reliable cousin Ambrose is consistently the most interesting supporting character, the useful, wise, and insightful Giles of this series. Michelle Gomez adds to her Missy from Doctor Who another perfectly cast and developed role, although her character unfortunately was less of the focus the more the series continued. Tati Gabrielle’s Prudence was written well this season, given the most new and varied parts to play, always with some of the show’s best costumes and hair styles. And Sabrina’s aunts became somewhat iconic over the four seasons, played by Miranda Otto and Lucy Davis.
But of course Kiernan Shipka truly owned the series as Sabrina. Always confident, never veering from the seriousness of her role inside the story, her performance always made the series feel the gravity of Sabrina, her friends, and family. The series is a triumph of empowerment for young women everywhere, which was manifested via Sabrina, her individualist friends, her unusual aunts, and her former teacher with designs on becoming the queen of Hell. And Shipka re-earned her place on our ongoing Best Kick-Ass Genre Heroines list.
More magic, more of the supernatural, more problem solving, and a jumble of mythic elements that were interesting, but probably not as much as last season. Yet the great characters, great stories, great actors, and sometimes great writing make for an overall much-watch series for fans of Archie Comics, the star character, empowered girls, horror comics, teen-centric TV, and even the earlier Sabrina TV series. One of the very best adaptations of a comic book series yet, all four seasons of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, including the new fourth and final season, are streaming now exclusively on Netflix.