“SALEM: Season 2, Episode 5” (TV Review)News Ken W. Hanley
It may be pulpy, trashy and all sorts of melodramatic, but for every amazing practical effect or absolutely reprehensible act of terror, SALEM makes good for those aspects week by week. Having said that, it’s been a great joy watching SALEM so meticulously orchestrating its second season, as the characters and the conflicts have been sharper and more unpredictable than ever. But there is a piece of the puzzle that just won’t fit, and now, with the season approaching its midway point, the show better start finding a way to properly use John Alden this season.
So far in season two, John Alden has been among the forces cornering Mary Sibley following her Grand Rite, and was unwittingly a pawn in the game against Reverend Hathorne as well. But now, Alden seems to be in “scowl-rinse-repeat” mode, briefly intimidating Cotton Mather while making familiar threats he’s yet to make good upon. Meanwhile, Countess Marburg, Mercy Lewis and Hathorne all have eyes on Mary and, by extension, the surprisingly powerful Anne Hale, and after Marburg’s shocking power play, the long-promised Witch War might finally come to SALEM. But Alden seems to either be the wild card, whose true allegiance will make him a force to be reckoned with, or merely lacking purpose, a bystander in a sub-plot that might be well on its way to nowhere.
In any case, SALEM’s latest episode, “The Wine Dark Sea”, carries every aspect that’s made the season so incredibly watchable, whether its incestuous taboo, cringeworthy violence or dialogue that’s so pulpy that you can’t help but love it. On top of that, “The Wine Dark Sea” also delivers on the “horror” aspect of the genre show, providing a twisted Bathory-esque contraption and an SFX trick that will impress just as much as it’ll disgust. And while the Lovecraftian elements have died down (for the moment at least; I wouldn’t be surprised if good ol’ Brown Jenkin came back wearing a familiar face), the witchcraft has become more innovative, especially as Anne Hale’s powers become increasingly eruptive.
Perhaps the reason this episode so expertly executes its character drama and scary SFX comes in the form of its director, as actor/director Peter Weller is the man with the camera this time around. Weller not only gets the dynamic of SALEM, but understands his influences as well: George Sibley’s courtroom sequence feels almost out of a Universal Monster Movie, while Countess Marburg’s stalking sequence feels invasive in a way the show rarely gets. Weller’s experience in television may make him technically appropriate to continue on in SALEM, but it’s his work in the genre that allows his thriller instincts to work in a cerebral and effective manner.
This episode was also another excellent entry from SALEM’s top notch cast, with even the smallest actors bringing their A-game. Lucy Lawless might be this episode’s MVP, relishing every evil moment and witty comeback with eerie and confident precision. Meanwhile, Janet Montgomery, Tamzin Merchant and Seth Gabel also provide great performances, especially as the latter two enter a relationship that has more than a few sparks of electricity. And special note should also be given to Michael Mulheren, whose thunderous speech nearly steals the entire episode (and whom I hope to see again in further episodes, given Countess Marburg’s gift to the Mary Sibley).
Overall, while the John Alden problem is still a sore thumb in SALEM’s otherwise perfect hand this season, “The Wine Dark Sea” remains another great chapter in the series thus far. With Peter Weller’s excellent direction, fun and frightening writing and stellar performances, “The Wine Dark Sea” is more than just mid-season filler, and helps maintain the show’s sensational reputation while providing some wonderfully surreal moments of its own.