Motherland: Fort Salem Episode 1: Pilot-Review And Recap- Cessation, The State Map, And Conscription
The dynamics of espionage and war are only the beginning in a promising Motherland: Fort Salem Episode 1 that delivers intrigue and drama with a side of magic.
An edgy, witchy drama brings a modern spin to the age-old pastime. I’m sure when Freeform who is best known for Cloak and Dagger and its mermaid drama Siren, first saw this series they were excited. Genre television is hot, especially fantasy. In particular, for a network that actively seeks women in the young demographic, a story about witch battalions fighting American Wars is a perfect fit. I like alternative history and so I was cautiously optimistic. If Motherland: Fort Salem Episode 1 is any indication this is a smart thriller that will scratch many genre itches.
The basic premise is witches exist. America has convinced them to fight on their behalf in every important war since before the revolution. A peace deal was struck in 1692 called the Salem Accord. Since that time witches have been called up from bloodlines rich in the craft to fight enemies foreign and domestic. It’s a dangerous job. Most die or are seriously injured. The American public looks at the warriors with awe, respect, and some fear. Essentially if the X-Men were appreciated instead of hated because of their power this is what the world would look like. Their magic du jour is harmonics that cause tornados and lightning. Instead of shock and awe, it’s storm and awe.
In addition, there is a splinter terrorist group called Spree that uses their magic to compel people into mass suicide. They are the scourge of the free world and the pilot episode opens with one of their attacks. An innocent blue balloon we come to see as their calling card pops and unleashes a spell. That spell causes all who hear it leap to their death. The simple but effective prop, a reminder of every baby boy announcement, as their symbol helps drive home these are not good people and don’t care that innocents get caught in the crossfire.
Women simultaneously have all the power and none of it. Conscription Day otherwise known as the Draft in our time is mandatory for witches. It is an odd dichotomy of control. They are the fighters and have been so indoctrinated to serve and protect. They have effectively pushed themselves into a corner. This is a topic that is explored early with Raelle played by a tough but fragile Taylor Hickson. Think, Sarah Michelle Gellar’s Buffy The Vampire Slayer in the early days. Some witches choose the glory, but others are more reluctant. Still, others have families who have seen combat and are desperate to keep their daughters safe.
She has taken the oath to join the army and fight out of duty but not out of joy. Raelle is a healer who cares for those in her community because she is a good person. She is concerned she will end up like her mother, dead on the battlefield instead of home caring for her friends and family. She is resentful and rebellious. It’s not a good combination for an organization that doesn’t just thrive on order but demands it.
The remainder of the triad unit is an entitled legacy and an idealistic enthusiast, Abigail and Tally respectfully. Ashley Nichole Williams(Abigail) delivers early on her spoiled superior girl routine. Williams uses her magic and family name like some women use sex and like rich men use money. Midway through the episode when Raelle predictably begins ignoring rules Abigail tries to get her kicked out of her unit. An insightful moment into the true nature of the feminist movement with General Sarah Alder(Lyne Renee) puts Abigail in her place and provides context to the country’s philosophy.
Jessica Sutton who plays Tally is more than just a hopeful volunteer. She is asserting herself as the glue that holds the unit together. Her own aunts fought and died in the war and her mother avoided it only by claiming a linage hardship. She lives in a Matrifocal Allotment near Sacramento. It is a female-only community where she is sheltered and protected. The matriarchal society that has formed is as rigidly controlling one. It is what one would expect from a military state with a singular focus on continuation.
Nearly every person in the first episode is female. The cast makes up a veritable who’s who of up and comers and genre favorites. Hickson who has been in everything from last year’s Deadly Class and Incident In A Ghostland, Lyne Renee from Split, and standout spy Scylla Amalia Holm(Alena) are powerhouses. Relative newcomer Ashley Nicole Williams smirks her way through every engagement convincingly. Jessica Sutton from last year’s surprise hit Escape Room is wide-eyed innocence mixed with a steely spine. Demetria McKinney(Superstition) is adept at bringing a solid military presence while providing a maternal spirit to the young soldiers.
By the end of the episode, the trio of Abigail, Tally, and Raelle have fought in spectacular fashion, mended fences, and found their collective voices Pitch Perfect style. They each have their role to play and the strong ones aren’t always the obvious ones. Tally has already proven she is a quiet force to be reckoned with and Raelle is more than just a gifted healer. Scylla has also sunk her hooks into Raelle.
What her agenda is is unknown now but she clearly has malintent. She is the same terrorist we first saw in the opening scene at the mall. Scylla is leveraging Raelle’s fear of death and anger at her Mom’s death. It will be fun to watch this unfold as the remaining 9 episodes play out. Raelle is besotted now but it won’t be long before she understands she should be careful of pretty girls with pretty words.
Simple but flashy effects breathe life into glamor spells and give vision to psychedelic magical trips. Motherland: Fort Salem Episode 1 is a gorgeous force of nature rife with drone shots and wide angles of tornadoes and black clouds. It brings a feminine angle to the war on gender. It is slated for a 10 episode run with no season 2 commitment yet but with a solid start, it shouldn’t be long. Come back each week for our season-long coverage.
- The Cessation is an interesting development on the map shown during the opening credits. Hints from the recruits make clear this area was a consolation made to the Native Americans. It is a territory similar to reservations in our current country only much larger. This territory is still subject to the same laws such as conscription. It runs north to south throughout the country and comprises states like Missouri, Iowa, and Nebraska. In the world of Motherland: Fort Salem there are only 30 some odd states. Most of the Heartland has become part of the Cessation.
- Religion is present in this alternative world. Raelle’s prayer as she used her skills to heal is an altered form of The Lord’s Prayer in Christianity. Her good luck charm could be a holdover from Voodoo or native American religion. She is an amalgamation of spirituality.
- Slavery existed in this timeline and white women saw nothing wrong with enslaving women of color into the magical fight. I guess some things never change.
As the TV/Streaming Editor for Signal Horizon, I love watching and writing about genre tv. I grew up with old school slashers, but my real passion is television and all things weird and ambiguous. When I’m not watching and writing about my favorite movies and series, I’m introducing my family to the wonderful world of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror. My only regret, there is not enough time in the day to watch everything.