Diyah Pera/Netflix
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October 26, 2018 at 08:05 AM EDT

Archie Andrews and his Riverdale pals heard tales of what lurks in Greendale, just on the other side of Sweetwater River. It’s where Cheryl Blossom ventured with her brother Jason, which led to his tragic death, and it’s the subject of Farmer McGinty’s uniquely trippy experience. As he once told Jughead Jones on The CW drama, “You never know [what you might see] on the road to Greendale.” Netflix’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina pulls back the veil to reveal a world of witchcraft bubbling beneath the surface and the half-witch, half-mortal teen at its center. Follow along with EW‘s binge recap. 

EPISODE 1: “October Country”

The 10-episode series, helmed by Riverdale showrunner Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, isn’t quite a formal spinoff of Riverdale. It’s clear both exist in the same world given all the references, but the gap between Netflix and the CW makes a crossover difficult — not impossible, but difficult. Instead, we should take CAOS as a Riverdale-esque take on Aguirre-Sacasa’s original Chilling Adventures of Sabrina comic, which was a gothic horror twist on the peachy keen world of Archie and Melissa Joan Hart’s sitcom-y Sabrina, the Teenage Witch.

CAOS, the show, does for Sabrina what Riverdale did for Archie — it leans into more dark and complex concepts to reveal the juicy stories at the center.

As a half-witch, half-mortal, this new Sabrina (played by Mad Men‘s Kiernan Shipka) must constantly reconcile with dueling forces. She enjoys her normal life of analyzing horror movies with boyfriend Harvey (Ross Lynch) at the local Greendale cinema and fighting the patriarchy with besties Roz (Jaz Sinclair) and Susie (Lachlan Watson). Sabrina’s generally cheery teen life is contrasted by the darkness of her witch life. As a young sorceress approaching her 16th birthday, she must make preparations for her Dark Baptism, a ritualistic rite of passage in which a young witch enters the woods with her coven and signs her name in the Book of the Beast (a.k.a. the Dark Lord’s book, a.k.a Satan’s book). Doing so will grant her immortality, ensure her powers don’t fade away and gain her entrance to the Academy of Unseen Arts (like Hogwarts if Harry Potter studied necromancy and demonic conjuring instead of charms). The downside, obviously, is that she signs her name over to the Devil and completely renounces her mortal life, two things which don’t sit well for Sabrina.

Still, this is what witches have always done, so she makes the necessary preparations with guidance from her witchy aunts Hilda (Lucy Davis) and Zelda (Miranda Otto). One is blonde, the other is a redhead. One is warm, the other is cold. One offers sympathy for Sabrina’s mortal attachments, the other wants her to cut ties. They exist as visual representations of the polar forces influencing Sabrina, but also they are their own endlessly entertaining gothic troupe — like Punch and Judy (a reference Zelda will bring up later on) if you could actually see the blood spewing from Judy after getting a shovel to the head. Sabrina’s cousin, Ambrose (Chance Perdomo), under house arrest by the witches’ council for a past offense, acts as a middle ground. He enjoys meddling in affairs but also knows the pain of cutting oneself off from the mortal world.

Shipka nails the look and feel of the teenage witch, but her performance has been oversold. She does a well enough job evoking some of the more emotional, intimate scenes (the sweetness between her and Harvey and the comfort between her and Susie). But her delivery doesn’t quite stick. The dialogue always feels more like she’s reciting lines of dialogue instead of really digging into the theatricality of the material.

Just as significant as the character relationships surrounding Sabrina is the atmosphere. The comic hinged upon the distinct style of artist Robert Hack, and the series offers its own spin. The opening credits are an animated homage to his artistry that pulls images directly from his comics. In the episodes themselves, the fishbowl effect seems to be a popular technique for throwing the viewer off balance and blurring the lines between what is real and what is spell work.

Much of this effect is used for scenes in the woods and ones involving Ms. Wardwell, Sabrina’s favorite teacher at Baxter High. The innocent woman tries to help a seemingly traumatized young girl who appears on the side of the road. The girl turns out to be Madam Satan, handmaiden of the Devil. She then kills and takes hold of Ms. Wardwell’s body in gruesome fashion, a scene that sets the tone for the audience — this isn’t a bunch of Bednobs & Broomsticks. Aided by Stolis, her crow familiar (a goblin that takes animal form to better serve a witch), she’s on a mission from Hell to sway Sabrina to join the Church of Night (the religious institution of witches) and embrace her dark side.

Then come the Weird Sisters, three identically dressing pupil witches who take issue with a half-mortal “mutt” attending the Academy of Unseen Arts. Prudence (Tati Gabrielle), Agatha (Adeline Rudolph), and Dorcas (Abigail Cowen) appear before Sabrina to cast a blood curse as she’s in the woods to summon a familiar of her own. It’s nothing Sabrina’s Aunt Hilda can’t fix, but the trio does even more damage when they insinuate Sabrina’s parents were killed by witches and not in an airplane accident like she had been told. That mystery lingers in Sabrina’s mind as she, taking a milk bath to wash off the hex, has visions of following her parents into the woods and encountering two babies on an altar — one normal and the other sporting cloven hooves instead of feet.

There are many references to classic horror films throughout the series, another comic book alignment; Aguirre-Sacasa’s books featured a line of variant covers that paid tribute to titles like Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist. The first of these is The Night of the Living Dead, which Sabrina and her high school pals discuss at Dr. Cerberus’ Books (Cerberus being the multi-headed hound of Hades that guarded the gates of the underworld in Greek mythology, and Greendale being a pathway from the mortal world into the realm of the supernatural). As Susie mentions, zombies in the film were a metaphor stemming from the Cold War for the collapse of the nuclear family, and CAOS serves a similar function.

The series plays with the image of women in the ’60s and ’70s, a time of the Suzy Homemaker, but then it twists that image with delightful results. Ms. Wardwell’s possessed form channels the fuller hair and sleek, vintage dresses of that era, but she’s a literal man-eater. Harvey always seems to look like an Industrial Age coal miner, due to his family business working the mines of Greendale, but he’s not poisoned by toxic masculinity. He keeps a lost age of chivalry and romanticism alive while allowing Sabrina to lead.

Sabrina also uses witchcraft, a symbol of the anti-nuclear family, as a weapon against “Puritanical masculinity” and restrictive gender norms. Principal Hawthorne (Bronson Pinchot) doesn’t take action when Susie (non-binary) is physically assaulted and harassed by homophobic jocks, so the young witch takes matters into her own hands. After Ms. Wardwell plants the idea in her head, Sabrina enlists Ambrose to hex a horde of spiders Hawthorne’s way, just to “mildly traumatize” him enough to take a sick day so that she can start WICCA, a club at school to protect Susie and all women at Baxter High. (Spiders are Hilda’s familiars, which is a reference to the comics when Hilda transforms herself into a gargantuan tarantula to scare a neighborhood girl bullying Sabrina.)

There are a lot of moving parts when it comes to introducing a new world, even one at least semi-familiar to Riverdale fans…

Sabrina tries to tell Harvey she’s a witch to see how he’ll react, but magically takes it back when it’s not to his liking. Parents bring the dead body of their recently killed son (who may very well be a witch) to the mortuary, which Ambrose suggests could be the work of witch hunters. Sabrina finds her familiar when a goblin sneaks into her room and takes the form of a black cat (Salem!). Zelda warns about picking a wild familiar to serve a witch, but Sabrina says it’s more about a mutual partnership than servitude. And with her concerns over the Dark Baptism mounting and her aunts’ refusal to postpone it, Ambrose suggests she goes to find a Malum Malice, an apple that grants knowledge to female witches. Ms. Wardwell gets wind of this and, fearing Sabrina might learn something that persuades her away from the path of night, uses some voodoo witchery to send a scarecrow after her in the hay maze barring the Malum Malice. Unlike the Salem familiar to Hart fans (pun intended), this Salem doesn’t talk (he mentally communicates with Sabrina), but he can revert to his more menacing goblin form and tear things — like said scarecrow — to shreds.

For the most part, CAOS does well in keeping all these pieces fun and engaging, while kicking off a more involved coming-of-age story about a teenager trying to chart her own path in life.

Sabrina finally chooses a path when she bites into the Malum Malice and sees a horrific vision: the tree’s branches now holds multiple witches dangling by their necks from the branches and out of its rotting trunk bursts forth a half-human, half-goat creature. Believing this to be the future that awaits her if she signs the Book of the Beast, she goes home to inform her aunts of her decision — only to find they are already waiting for her.

Hilda, Zelda, and Ambrose are gathered by the fireplace to introduce Sabrina to Father Blackwood (Richard Coyle), the High Priest of the Church of Night and Satan’s representative on earth. He has come, upon the request of Hilda and Zelda, to address Sabrina’s concerns about going through the Dark Baptism. Refusal to do so “must not be,” he says.

Thus begins ongoing mysteries around young Sabrina: Why does the Church of Night want Sabrina to sign the Devil’s book so much that they sent their highest-ranking official to persuade her? What really happened to Sabrina’s parents? What does it really mean to walk the path of the night?

Grade: B+

(Click ahead for episode 2)

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