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'Salem' recap: How to catch a witch

Season 1 | Episode 5 | “Lies” | Aired May 18, 2014

The characters on Salem are like volatile chemicals: Any two mixed together can create an explosive reaction. This week’s episode featured some surprising pairings, including Tituba and Magistrate Hale, Mary and Mercy and, of course, the always-entertaining John and Cotton. Who would have expected any of these couples to become allies? It’s amazing how a mutual goal can unite two opposing parties. Whether it’s power, safety or opening a magic box, nothing brings people together like wanting — or hating — the same thing.

In its typical titillating fashion, the episode opens in the brothel as Mab tells a group of her girls, um, attending to a gentleman client to get a room (in the most literal sense). She walks into the woods, where she meets Hale, Rose (that crony witch who sometimes acts like Mary’s mentor), and a group of older witches who are — how can I put this politely — aesthetically challenged. They mumble at Hale in Klingon or something, basically telling him that John Alden needs to be voted off the island. They formulate a plan to use John’s mysterious secret (known only by the very-dead William Hooke) to get him to leave Salem, which of course involves just a teensy bit of necromancy … plus some face-peeling (and not the exfoliating kind).

After her alarming vision of Mercy, Mary pays a visit to the girl who has managed to evade her control. Mary puts on her no-nonsense face long enough to tell Mercy that the girl is only alive because Mary allows her to keep breathing. What do you say to that? Thanks? Mercy just wants to be free of her painful possession side effects and live a normal life, and in exchange, she will refrain from calling Mary out for being a witch. Deal? Deal! Mary seals it with a very enthusiastic kiss. I think Mary is playing her own game of Piss-Off-the-Puritans Bingo or something, and she’s pretty close to winning. Sex out of wedlock … check. Black-magic abortion … check. Witchcraft … check. Lesbian PDA … check. BINGO (assuming she used her “free” space, obviously)!

You know who has plenty of free space? John … in his head. What kind of person tries to use a knife to open a magic box with satanic symbols on it? Come on, John. I’m no expert in the occult, but I can tell you right now that this box is not going to be opened with brute force. I can just picture John beating it with a rock, running over it with a carriage, and staring at it with his trademark unamused glare in the hopes that he can somehow brood it open. Twenty bucks says this thing requires either a blood sacrifice, chanting something in Latin, a cipher, or all of the above. But by all means, keep trying, John.

Frustrated by his lack of progress, John slams the box down and curses. Suddenly the box opens to reveal a carved wooden apple. (OK, so forget everything I said about ciphers and Latin chanting. Apparently brute force and cursing at it are also valid methods for opening a magic box.) John picks up the apple and is immediately seized by visions of boil-ridden corpses filling the village streets — so, pretty much what you’d expect from a box with a pentagram on it.

Since John doesn’t really have any friends except Cotton, he immediately barges into the reverend’s house, catching Cotton and Gloriana in a flagrant act (not for the first time, I might add). John is totally unfazed, and Cotton doesn’t even seem that upset by John’s latest show of cock-blocking ability. He simply catches his breath and casually asks, “John, what brings you here?” To which John responds dramatically, “This,” and thrusts the wooden box at Cotton, like that somehow validates his blatant interruption of their, ahem, Biblical moment. Cotton looks at John as if to say, “To the Batmobile!” and Gloriana rolls her eyes because, come on — even if Cotton did just try to buy her as a sex slave, anyone can see Cotton and John are totally in love with each other. That’s just a fact.

Mercy is sitting home by herself, probably writing in her journal (“Dear Diary: Today Mary Sibley kissed me, and I’m not really sure how I feel about it. Also, I kind of miss that snake that used to live in my stomach …”) when some of her friends stop by to see how she’s doing. Really, they just want to hear about how cool it is that Mercy can essentially kill anyone in Salem with a wave of her finger. It’s kind of like the 17th-century version of Mean Girls, only instead of a Burn Book, these girls have a list of people they want killed. First on that list is Emily’s alcoholic father. Mercy suddenly sees her condition for what it is: a position of power. In fact, the girls tell her she’s even more powerful than Mary Sibley.

John and Cotton start researching their devil box, but not before John sings a few verses of “Cotton and Gloriana sitting in a tree” just to really rub it in. Cotton does most of the actual “research,” while John paces and fixes those strands of hair that fall perfectly in front of his stormy eyes. Back then, research involved poring over pages of books until you found something useful. You couldn’t just Google “weird wooden box + pentagram + creepy visions” and see what came up. Somehow Cotton identifies the box as something known as a “Malum,” which anyone who knows Latin or has seen the movie Inception can tell you means “bad.” Cotton suggests they share their discovery with the town selectmen immediately, but John has another idea: something along the lines of “we make our own destiny” or blah, blah, I don’t know. John doesn’t like people telling him what to do, so instead they decide to go rogue and concoct their own plan to lure the witches into the open using the Malum as bait. Sadly, this plan does not involve them dressing in drag or riding a tandem bicycle or anything fun, really. But it does involve John being shirtless, so I can get behind it. More on that later.

Thus begins the portion of the episode where everyone congregates in the town square and stuff hits the fan. As always, John runs into Anne Hale while performing some noble dramatic gesture, but Anne is uncharacteristically cold towards him. When he asks if he has offended her, Anne questions if he considers it offensive to lead her on while harboring feelings for another woman. John looks even more baffled than when that wooden apple made him see dead people. As if on cue, Mary shows up to make Anne’s point for her. After Anne storms off, John and Mary share a nice moment where they talk about having been young and passionate once.

The quotidian bustle of the market is abruptly halted by the arrival of Mercy, wearing her witch-hunting muzzle and harness, followed by her three friends. Mary becomes appropriately nervous, afraid that Mercy will accuse her of witchcraft in front of everyone. Mercy charges at Mary but stops right in front of her, looking into her eyes, where she sees the fear Mary feels in that moment of helplessness. After several seconds, Mercy turns away to find her next victim, who turns out to be Emily’s father, the drunk who was planning to sell his daughter to the whorehouse after her next birthday. The man is dragged away to await trial for witchcraft, and Mary looks relieved, not to mention a little shocked that Mercy didn’t out her. The girl is certainly relishing her newfound power over the people of Salem.

Tituba spends the afternoon in the woods, talking to the dismembered face of William Hooke. When she comes home, Mary goes off on her about all the lies she’s been telling. Tituba finally tells her that the other witches have turned against her and that they believe Mary is compromised by her feelings for John. Mary is taken aback, but glad to at least hear something truthful. Tituba tells her that if Mary wants to protect John, she has to complete the Grand Rite, which means killing eight more people before the end of the lunar cycle. Hey! That’s one death per episode in each of the remaining eight episodes! How convenient. (Though I doubt it will go that smoothly.)

John is wandering around in the dark with a pickax (because that’s just how John Alden rolls) on his way to meet Mary, who decides it’s time to drop some truth bombs. She tells John that she once believed in goodness because of him, so she was surprised when she heard that John is a murderer. Amidst some impressive facial-expression Olympics, John shakes his head calmly before lashing out at Mary, shouting, “YOU DON’T KNOW ME!” like he’s in a Simple Plan music video or something. He tells Mary that he murdered 20 people, and in that moment John looks utterly broken. Mary is desperate to find some explanation, some sign that John is still the good man she believed in, but John refuses to grant her that hope. This is his confession, and he makes no excuses for his crimes. He only asks if Mary will have him arrested. It sounds almost like a plea, as if he’s imploring her to have him punished. Instead, she kisses him. She tells him that “choice informs choice,” and sometimes the world makes people do terrible things. Then she walks out, leaving John crumpled on the floor, looking lost and defeated.

Mary goes into the woods to find Mercy and her friends dancing around a fire, stripped down to their petticoats. The lighthearted reveling quickly changes to wariness as Mary approaches them, directing her gaze at Mercy. Mary reminds her that they had a deal, to which Mercy replies that it no longer pleases her. Irritated that she is subject to the inclinations of a teenage girl, Mary asks Mercy what she wants now. “I want to be just like you,” she says. All it takes is small taste of power to develop a craving for it, I suppose. Lucky for Mercy and Mary both, they have a lot to offer each other. Mary can teach the girl to be a witch, and Mercy can be an ally for Mary as she works to complete the Grand Rite. It’s a win for everyone — except for anyone who gets on their bad side.

Finally it comes time for John and Cotton’s master plan, which begins with John sleeping shirtless in his bed (so far so good) while the Malum sits unattended in his room. A hooded figure sneaks into John’s room and reaches for the box, when suddenly the floor gives way and the mysterious intruder crashes to the floor below, where a bunch of wooden stakes have been set up. John, still shirtless, rushes downstairs just as Cotton bursts in, wielding an ax. John pulls back the hood of their bleeding captive to find Rose, the older witch who earlier in the episode warned Mary about staring at John in public. Their plan actually worked! Way to go, Mulder and Scully! (Before you ask, John is totally Scully.)

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t surprised that Cotton and John actually managed to pull this off. The question is, what will they do now that they’ve caught a real witch? Interrogate her about the Malum? Expose her to the town and let her be killed? (This is assuming she doesn’t die from their trap.) Will Rose exploit John’s feelings for Mary and tell him that if they turn her in, she’ll bring down Mary with her? There are so many ways this could go, but one thing is for sure: Things are starting to get pretty tangled in this town. The minute you try to untie your own knot, you’re sure to get snagged on someone else’s. If I had to guess whether this macrame mess is going to end up tied in a neat little bow or a hangman’s noose, my money would be on the latter.

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