The two-episode premiere of Sanctuary: A Witch’s Tale did a nice job of introducing viewers to a world where witchcraft is legal (but not fully accepted) as well as the murder mystery impacting a small town.
Produced by AMC and based on the 2020 novel Sanctuary: A Novel of Suspense, Witchcraft, and Small Town Secrets by V.V. James (which I haven’t read), I was interested in checking out the live-action adaptation when I saw the trailer about a month ago. I enjoy stories of witchcraft set in present times, and I’m a big fan of murder mysteries (being an author of such stories myself). While I didn’t find the premiere to be the most well-written piece of content ever, I’m here for a narrative focused on exploring human relationships after a major tragedy. The magic element is there, but it’s more of a secondary priority. I’ll talk more about that in a bit.
The premise of Sanctuary: A Witch’s Tale deals with a fictional world where witchcraft has become legal. Registered witches are allowed to use their magical abilities to help others as long as they follow certain rules, of course. People seem to be happy in the small town of Sanctuary. They have their own local witch named Sarah Fenn (Elaine Cassidy) to aid them with solving certain problems.
The first episode didn’t waste any time introducing Sarah and her coven-to-be (Abigail, Bridget, and Julia). However, the lives of the seemingly happy women and their spouses change forever after a tragedy strikes during a friendly get-together. We then jump ahead six years. The friendship between the women is still going strong. But that’s about to change very soon.
Abigail’s teen son Daniel (Max Lohan) dies during a party at an abandoned warehouse and the questions surrounding his “accidental” death lead to whispers about witchcraft. Suspicion gets cast on Sarah’s teen daughter Harper (Hazel Doupe). And even though Harper didn’t inherit her mother’s magical gift, that still doesn’t deter Abigail (Amy De Bhrún) and certain other people from wanting justice.
I liked how the story didn’t drag the reveal about what happened six years ago and how the bond between Sarah and her coven strengthened over the years. Allowing the audience to understand the friendship between Abigail and Sarah was important to ensure their inevitable rivalry had an impact. And I think the writers were able to accomplish that. You could tell that Sarah was more of a friend to Abigail than the other way around. As more information’s revealed during the two episodes, it became obvious that over time Abigail started to think of Sarah as a resource she could use to solve her problems instead of treating her as an actual friend.
The intense scene between Abigail and Sarah closing the second episode was one of the highlights for me. Even though I could see where Abigail was coming from due to being shaken to the core after her son’s death, the way she tried to force Sarah to bring him back to life or else she would continue to go after Harper was a low blow. Abigail was only thinking about what she wanted.
Bridget (Valerie O’Connor) and Julia (Kelly Campbell) did try to make Abigail see sense earlier. But that clearly didn’t work. So, with Abigail giving Sarah an ultimatum, I’m interested in seeing how Bridget and Julia will try to handle the situation. Abigail’s ready to go to war with Sarah and, unfortunately, she will have support from the townsfolk.
Judging from the trailer, this show is going to dive into how easily fear and prejudice can be used to cause mass panic and hysteria in a community, cumulating into people taking so-called justice into their own hands and becoming judge, jury, and executioner. The debut of Sanctuary: A Witch’s Tale laid the necessary groundwork for just that. The whispers and suspicious glances toward Sarah and Harper will turn violent as the series continues.
With Sarah racing against the clock to prove her daughter’s innocence, the story also introduced us to detective Maggie Knight (Stephanie Levi-John). She remembered working on a case in Sanctuary six years ago, a case that involved Sarah and the rest of her friends. And now Maggie’s back to get to the bottom of Daniel’s so-called murder.
Even though Maggie wasn’t a witch, she did have a strong sense of justice. It’s through her that we got to learn a bit more about the relationship between the teen cast and Daniel. Maggie kind of acted as the audience surrogate to help flesh out the town of Sanctuary.
I can see Maggie and Sarah teaming up soon to ensure justice is served because I highly doubt Harper’s responsible for killing Daniel.
Talking about Harper, she shared a very strained relationship with Sarah. Harper felt useless because she couldn’t become a witch like Sarah, even though she wanted to be one ever since she was a child. She looked up to Sarah. However, as she was unable to become a witch, Harper’s disappointment in herself transformed into a dislike for Sarah’s witchcraft. And the rift continued to widen over the years.
I liked the scene where Sarah made Harper realize that she never felt disappointed in her only daughter. In a way, Sarah was disappointed in herself because she felt she wasn’t a strong enough witch to pass on the gift to Harper. With the murder mystery surrounding Daniel being accompanied by the risk of Harper being sent to jail and executed, I’m looking forward to seeing the mother-daughter duo growing closer.
Due to Harper being Daniel’s on-again-off-again girlfriend, I can see certain viewers not liking Harper’s character arc involving a sex tape with Daniel. There are hints that she was abused by Daniel and that he grew up to be quite manipulative because of being adored by everyone in town. However, I do feel that it made sense due to the type of story being told. When you look at the history of witches, there are instances of women being accused of sexual indecency and being labeled as witches. Society being angry over not being able to “control” a woman’s sexuality has always been a thing.
In Harper’s case, she’s considered the S-word by certain other teens because of a prevailing stereotype of how witches gave their children more freedom when it came to sexual expression compared to other parents. Not only that, but even after the sex tape leak, people were comfortable with calling Harper the S-word instead of saying anything about Daniel which linked to how, in the real world, women get to experience more backlash for expressing their sexuality instead of men.
Sanctuary: A Witch’s Tale has a bunch of women in front and behind the camera. You can tell that it’s operating on multiple layers when it comes to depicting womanhood and how women are treated by society. That’s why Harper’s storyline made sense to me considering the narrative. Now, whether or not that particular plot point continues to be developed in a well-written manner remains to be seen.
I do feel that the show might end up trying to tackle too much at once. The two episodes were packed with a whole lot of content concerning the characters and the worldbuilding. And while I think the character dynamics might get the required attention, the worldbuilding is likely to fall a bit short in the 7-episode long series.
There seem to be a whole bunch of rules around the show’s magic system with consent being a major one. As a registered witch Sarah’s supposed to ask permission when performing magic on other people, especially because certain spells and potions require her to use a person’s hair. Once done, she’s supposed to lock away the unused hair samples in a safe along with the person’s file.
From the look of things, doing magic on someone without their consent could have dire consequences, especially if said magic messed with the natural order of things. There’s a reason Sarah blamed herself for Daniel’s death due to what she did six years ago.
There are also rules surrounding her coven. It’s revealed that Abigail, Bridget, and Julia aren’t witches. However, they are part of Sarah’s coven and allow her to siphon energy from them to empower her magic. Not only that, there’s an entire ritual young witches-to-be have to participate in to determine if they actually have the gift of magic. There’s also an entire branch of government that tracks registered witches and ensures certain rules are followed.
The scope of this show does feel quite contained due to being set in Sanctuary. That’s why I’m not expecting much when it comes to worldbuilding. In a sense, it would be better if you think of this show as being similar to AMC’s The Walking Dead. Yes, TWD has zombies in it, but the undead are more of a background thing and are basically used to explore the facets of humanity during a zombie apocalypse. So, while witchcraft is indeed present in this particular show, I’m keeping my expectations low when it comes to in-depth lore.
Having said that, what I was offered via the two episodes has got me very interested in seeing more of the interpersonal drama and twists that are yet to come.
As for the queer representation, Bridget is supposed to be a queer woman married to Cheryl (Sophie Mensah). She’s the Headmistress of the local school Harper and the others attend. Bridget and Cheryl are raising a daughter together.
Daniel’s close friend Jake (Darragh Gilhooly) is a closeted queer teen who has to deal with a whole bunch of emotions after Daniel’s death. The way he went after Harper due to being jealous of her relationship with Daniel allowed the young actor to showcase his skills. Falling for your straight best friend as a teen is something a bunch of queer viewers would be able to relate to. I just hope that the story doesn’t use Jake as yet another example of the unfortunate toxic Gayngst trope.
Also, for those wondering, anyone can be a witch if they have the natural gift to be one. It’s not a woman-exclusive club. So, the story has inclusivity in that department. Transgender talent Edalia Day is supposed to appear in episode 3 as Morgan Lynch, a magical specialist Maggie calls for help.
All in all, Sanctuary: A Witch’s Tale gave me a strong start to an intriguing murder mystery with witchcraft and interpersonal mess. Here’s to hoping the quality remains consistent as the show continues.
Did you watch the two-episode premiere of Sanctuary: A Witch’s Tale? What did you think of it?
Let us know.
Farid has a Double Masters in Psychology and Biotechnology as well as an M.Phil in Molecular Genetics. He is the author of numerous books including Missing in Somerville, and The Game Master of Somerville. He gives us insight into comics, books, TV shows, anime/manga, video games, and movies.
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