Witches, War, Worldbuilding: Motherland Fort Salem is a show not to be missed

Posted 20th May 2020 by Siavahda in Blogathons, Fantasy Reviews, Let's Dig In: Thoughts, Analysis, Essays, Recommendations, Reviews / 1 Comment

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Wyrd & Wonder isn’t just for books, and there’s one tv show that fantasy fans definitely need to hear about. So here’s my attempt to talk about this groundbreaking show and how much it means to me!

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Tonight the finale of the first season of Motherland: Fort Salem airs on Freeform, just days after the show was renewed for a second season. Switches, as us fans call ourselves, sent up prayers of thanks to the Goddess of the show’s witches at the news, but it’s entirely possible that you haven’t heard of the show at all.

And that’s simply unacceptable, because Motherland is a show like no other, and if you haven’t watched it yet you are missing out.

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Here’s the premise: in an alternate version of our own world, witches are very real, a separate but related species of human (with some seriously cool biological differences I’ll get into later) that work real, powerful magic. But they’re not free to use it how they please: back during the Salem Witch Trials, they struck a deal with the US government, trading freedom from persecution for military service. It’s a deal that was eventually made all over the world: now in every country, witches are conscripted into their nation’s militaries once they turn 18. Stress on the word conscripted: it’s not mandatory.

Which brings us to the Spree – a terrorist organisation of draft-dodging witches who believe this worldwide, life-long military conscription is akin to slavery.

I’m not sure they’re wrong, but their methods are horrific. They don’t exactly have the moral high ground.

The show follows three new recruits as they hit basic training: Abigail Bellweather, who comes from a long line of decorated military officers; Tally Craven, an idealistic witch from a matrifocal community (an all-female commune); and Raelle Collar, whose mother died young and left her more than disillusioned with the military complex. Come Conscription Day, their medals appear before them via magic, and they each say the oath that binds them to service – and, though they don’t know it yet, to each other.

From left to right: Tally, Raelle, and Abigail

The three of them are wildly different, but have to find a way to make things work when they’re assigned as partners. Between the pressures of their training, a political climate that’s like an oil-soaked bonfire waiting for a match, and the worsening attacks of the Spree, it’s do-or-die.

So what makes this show special?

Am I allowed to say, literally everything???

This is a fierce, brilliant, feminist, wildly original show, and seriously, every little detail makes me swoon. The worldbuilding is phenomenal, incorporating ‘traditional’ witchy folklore alongside completely unique concepts – for example, every witch has a ‘mark’ somewhere on their bodies, which is a bit of historical trivia that comes from the actual Witch Trials (witchfinders claimed witches all had marks left by the Devil somewhere on their bodies). Through historical re-enactments that the recruits get to witness, we even see that the witch’s bridle was in use in this world’s Witch Trials – which is extra appropriate, because these witches make magic with their voices.

There’s no magic wands or special words here: witches have an extra set of vocal cords, allowing them to make far more sounds than other humans – and it’s these sounds that make the magic happen. Base sounds or notes are called ‘seeds’, and by mastering and combining them – many of which are beyond the audible range of humans – witches can do everything up to and including summoning up and directing hurricanes.

Before the show even aired, that grabbed my attention – that, their voices are their weapons line from the official Twitter account. We live in a world where women’s voices are often ignored where they aren’t silenced outright, so the idea of young women who can break the world open by opening their mouths? Is incredibly, gut-punchingly powerful.

When I was 11, the (all girls) school I was attending at the time arranged for us to have a self-defence class. One of the memories that’s always stuck with me is how hard our instructors had to work to teach us to scream – girls learn young that they’re supposed to be quiet and not make a fuss, to the point that many struggle to make a noise even when they need help. The sharp contrast to the world of Motherland: Fort Salem – where witches aren’t just unafraid of making noise and taking up space, but scream down storms and fire on those who dare stand against them – had tears streaming down my face as I watched. It’s so incredibly… I don’t know the right word. Validating? Freeing? Hopeful? Inspiring?

Something.

Motherland: Fort Salem takes place in an America where a Black woman is president of the United States – and there are Black women in many other positions of power, like Sergeant Anacostia Quartermaine, the trio’s drill sergeant, and of course Abigail’s mother, General Petra Bellweather. But this is also a show that puts queerness front and centre: Raelle hooks up with Scylla, another witch cadet, in the very first episode, and the relationship that develops between them is one of the linch-pins of the series. It’s not always easy to find a show that deals with sexuality well, especially queer sexuality, but Raelle and Scylla’s sex scenes are framed and shot with a refreshing respect and frankness; not gratuitous, not coy, just…natural. Motherland manages to walk that fine line between fetishizing queer sexuality and over-emphasising it, both when it comes to the actual sex and to their relationship. And their relationship is far from just sexual; like I said, what grows between them becomes a driving force of the whole story, inextricably interwoven into the politics, ethical questions, and conflicts of the show. And while those conflicts are big ones, they’re never about the queerness; no one in Motherland‘s world bats an eye at two women together.

In fact, witch society is delightfully sex-positive. Motherland showcases a world where sex is ‘celebrated, not shamed’, to quote the cast. The third episode of season one features Beltane, a festival also practised by pagans in our world that celebrates sexuality and fertility. In the show, the young witches are actively encouraged to enjoy themselves with as many partners as they please during Beltane, and embracing their sexuality and pleasure heightens their powers and strengthens their magic. I’m not sure where I, as a sex-repulsed asexual witch, would fit into the festivities, but it’s still a beautiful and joyful thing to watch, and such a breath of fresh air compared to our world, where we’re still fighting to disentangle shame and sexuality.

And like, this is all completely aside from the amazing special effects, and the plot twists, the secrets, the adventures and missions and magic. The cast, who are, all of them, incredible actresses. The politics, the Spree, the romance, the friendships, the war. We even get to see witches outside the US, as one of the major plotlines involves witch communities from other countries!

Listen. If you want magic, watch this show. If you want incredible, multi-faceted bad-ass women – depicting all different kinds of strength! – watch this show. If you want seriously wonderful worldbuilding, watch this show. If you want diversity presented as something natural and not-noteworthy, watch this show. If you want something groundbreaking, out-of-the-box, exciting, and beautiful?

Watch this show.

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