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'Salem' recap: Once upon a witch

Season 1 | Episode 6 | “The Red Rose and the Briar” | Aired May 25, 2014

Houston, we have zombies. If you were sitting at home after watching the first five episodes of Salem thinking, Man, this show is really great, but you know what it’s missing? An army of undead Pilgrim zombies, then you’re in luck.

This week’s episode of Salem achieved horror-movie levels of gore and general spookiness, from the showers of blood spewing from Rose’s wrists to the zombies that sprouted from the ground like daisies in springtime. Granted, I still don’t think anything can match the shock factor of Mary nursing that toad from her thigh nipple in the first episode, but it’s nice to see that Salem still has a few surprises in store.

The episode begins with Cotton and John doing their best imitation of Scooby-Doo and Shaggy, except that the witch they’ve caught is very real … and very angry. Fortunately she’s stuck in their trap, but Cotton points out that they’re going to have to move her to “directly beneath Saturn” (wherever that is), because legend has it that’s the best way to get a witch to speak the truth. Great plan! Minus the part where they have to transport the moaning, cursing, writhing witch through town to follow Saturn.

Ever the problem-solver, Cotton whips up a serum to paralyze Rose. John asks why his house smells like a pack of wild dogs peed all over it, and Cotton tells him that the paralytic agent comes from dog urine, and gee, isn’t science neat? John is, as always, unamused. But he seems to be getting better at rolling with the punches without actually punching people, so progress is progress, I suppose. That is, until Rose badmouths John’s beloved mother, at which point he charges at her and rams the syringe into her chest, rendering her incapacitated. To summarize Cotton’s reaction: “That works …”

Mercy is living the good life at Chez Sibley, where she has much to learn, including how to eat with utensils. Tituba stares at the girl disapprovingly, as if Mary brought home a stray dog and let it eat at the table. Mary points out that she herself was a “dirty little creature” before Tituba and Rose made her into the powerful woman she is today. The look in Mary’s eyes is calculating but compassionate, like she’s actually planning to My Fair Lady this girl into a proper young witch. Tituba is leaning more toward the “let’s just kill her” option, if only because she’s threatened by Mercy.

Once Mary and Mercy are alone together, Mary goes into motherly mode, lulling Mercy into a state of trusting calm. She even invites the girl to rest her head in her lap as she tells Mercy the story of the “ash maiden” who became queen. It’s a creative way to show Mary’s backstory, how she went from a heartbroken girl with nothing to the most powerful woman in Salem. (Honestly, she could have just done a montage to Drake’s “Started from the Bottom,” and that would have summed it up. But the fairytale angle is cool too, I guess.) When it looks like Mercy has fallen asleep, Mary pulls out the razor from her shaving lesson with Mr. Sibley, and just as she’s about to slice Mercy’s throat open, the girl speaks. Mary is startled enough that she withdraws her weapon, letting Mercy live … at least for the moment.

Mercy opens her eyes to find that she’s no longer in Mary’s home, but in the middle of the woods. Neat trick, Mary! Only, Mercy doesn’t think so. She’s more terrified and confused, especially when Mary grabs her and cuts open her dress, leaving her naked (except for the shiny necklace Mary gave her) on the ground to face the evil demon spirit that makes you into a witch. (I’m not totally clear on the logistics of witchcraft, but that seems to be the gist.)

The woods are a hot spot tonight. While Mary and Mercy are running around doing their thing, the Seer is being his usual weird self, eating cocooned caterpillars and talking to bugs. Meanwhile, John and Cotton are trying to get Rose directly beneath Saturn before her paralysis wears off. Time is of the essence, but Cotton still takes a moment to stop and brag to John about his excellent swordsmanship. (I swear, I could watch these two flirt all day long and never get tired of it.) That extra 45 seconds is all it takes for Rose to regain the use of one of her hands, and John pays the price when she grabs a stick and nails him with it. Somehow they manage to get her tied up, but that doesn’t stop her from taunting them about their “whores” (Gloriana and Mary). She really knows what buttons to push. But before John is goaded into stabbing her with Cotton’s sword, Saturn takes over and she goes into a truth trance.

Cotton does not use this opportunity to ask anything fun, like, “What’s the most embarrassing thing you’ve ever done?” or, “What do you really think of One Direction?” but instead gets right down to business. When he asks Rose about the Grand Rite, she tells him that it is essentially death for him and all those like him, and that it requires the sacrifice of innocent blood. Then she scurries up the tree backward like some creepy, possessed squirrel before biting open her wrists and showering blood down on them. It’s all very Exorcist meets Carrie, with a side of Blair Witch. And then come the zombies, rising forth from the dirt like it’s Judgment Day. John and Cotton are understandably alarmed, and the look in John’s eyes seems to say, “We should have just stayed home and watched Jeopardy!” They defend themselves against the walking corpses using every weapon at their disposal: sword, gun and sarcasm included.

With her work done, Rose wanders off to stretch her tight limbs and collect herself, when who should she come upon but Mary? (Seriously, it’s like rush hour in the spooky woods right now.) Already aware that Rose betrayed her by bringing the Malum to Salem, Mary confronts Rose about her motives. Rose explains how she planned every event that has helped put Mary where she is. Rose even claims to have “let herself” get captured by Beavis and Butthead so she could see if John is still in love with Mary. (Wouldn’t it have been easier and much less painful to just slip John a note that said, “Do you like Mary Sibley? Check yes or no”?) The Grand Rite, Rose explains, is best performed by a witch who has no love in her heart, which is why Rose gave George Sibley the idea of sending John off to war all those years ago. (OH NO SHE DI’INT!)

After determining that John in fact does still have feelings for his former lady love, Rose tells Mary that she decided to revert Mary’s heart back to its black and broken state by killing John Alden once and for all. Mary looks shocked to find out that all the pain and torment she’s gone through has been carefully orchestrated by her former mentor. In a moment of perfect circularity, Mary introduces Rose to Mercy, the girl who reminded her so much of herself that she had to take her under her wing, as Rose had once done for her. “Have you met our newest sister?” Mary says calmly, just as Mercy runs up behind Rose and slits her throat.

As it turns out, John Alden is not that easy to kill. It must be his rakishly good looks that keep him alive time after time. Or maybe his hair has magic powers … who knows? The point is, no zombie is going to get the best of John, at least not when he has Cotton and his top-of-the-class fencing skills to back him up. Even so, the two of them walk out of the forest looking like they just, well … did battle with a bunch of bloodthirsty zombies. So it’s a bit awkward when they run into Mary, who only barely disguises her relief at seeing John alive. Cotton, oblivious to Mary and John’s mutual googly eyes, comes up with the best excuse he can think of for their appearance: “We were just … tracking the retrograde movement of Saturn.” And Mary looks at him like, “So that’s what the kids are calling it these days?” Then Cotton finally puts two and two together and slinks away, leaving Mary and John to quote Shakespeare to each other and swoon and whatnot.

Back at the Sibley house, Tituba is bathing Mercy while lecturing her on her lowly status as a baby witch. Poor Mercy has been through a lot in the last few weeks, and Tituba doesn’t exactly have any maternal warmth for her. Mary comes in and takes over bath duty, all the while telling Mercy about how men are rocks and women are sponges because they’re mostly made of water. I think this is the 17th-century equivalent of Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, which is a pretty good lesson to teach a teenage girl in Puritan New England.

Another teenage(ish?) girl who could use some lessons from Mary is Anne Hale, who is perpetually getting on my nerves, but at least she was only on screen for a total of about two minutes in this episode. She’s all up in her dad’s witchy business (or “busy-ness,” as her mother calls it), so when she sees a hooded figure she thinks is her father walking around the house, she goes to investigate, only to be shocked when the hood crumples to the floor the moment she touches it. In walks her mother, who has been playing dumb up until this point (good strategy, Mrs. Hale). She looks seriously at her daughter and says, “It’s time we talk about your father.” Drama! Oh man, is that going to be a fun chat. “Sooooo, sometimes your dad likes to wear a dead animal head and chant in the woods at night. K, good night, dear!” I’m not sure what it will mean for Anne to find out about Hale’s involvement in witchcraft — or if Mrs. Hale will even tell her. Either way, Magistrate and Mrs. Hale have some ‘splaining to do.

This episode was a lot of backstory and exposition, but it was worth it to get things lined up where they are now. Mercy is clearly an important game piece, despite what Tituba says. It’s interesting that Mary sees herself in Mercy, while John says he sees a young Mary in Anne. The young girls are being set up on opposite sides, it seems, although at this point Anne is hardly significant — except that she will inevitably end up seducing John and incurring Mary’s wrath.

When do you think that will be? Can Anne succeed in stealing John’s heart away from Cotton Mary? What’s next for the Malum? Is Rose gone for good? How did Cotton get that dog urine? Did you “awwww” when John and Cotton were talking about the things they admired about each other? What do you think of the Seer: creepy or just kooky? Tell me everything! Don’t hold back!

Salem airs on Sundays at 10/9 C on WGN America.

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