For Motherland: Fort Salem creator Eliot Laurence, the idea to reframe U.S. history through a feminist and witchy lens was like pure magic.
"Witches have always been an obsession of mine. Even when I was a little boy learning what that word meant, it excited me," he tells EW. "It’s a power structure outside the normal patriarchal power structure. I found that really appealing and would watch every witch-themed movie and read every witch-themed book. It’s always been a passion for me."
And that lifelong love of all things witches is what led him to create Freeform's new supernatural drama set in an alternate, present-day version of America — one where, 300 years ago, witches cut a deal with the U.S. government to fight for their country in exchange for power.
"One day I just got this idea: what if one of the Salem witches cut a deal with the Massachusetts Bay militia? And the rest just flooded into my head," Laurence says. "I’m a huge feminist and I’m a queer person so these kinds of stories about other kinds of power are very appealing to me, and power structures outside the status quo are appealing to me. It was a way for me to have fun and exercise a lot of stuff that I had gone through as a young queer person growing up, and witches are the eternal other so I felt very at home working on a project about witches."
Motherland: Fort Salem follows three young women who are just about to begin their basic training in combat magic as a magical terrorist threat called the Spree continues to ravage the country. Raelle (Taylor Hickson, Deadly Class) is a reluctant recruit with major authority issues and whose mother recently died in the line of duty. Tally (Jessica Sutton, The Kissing Booth) is a kind, strong-willed, and curious witch who enlisted despite her mother’s passionate disapproval. Abigail (Ashley Nicole Williams) is an unquestionably alpha, smart, driven, and courageous witch who hails from the upper echelons of military witch society and is excited to be joining the ranks of the witches’ army. These three will find that, together, they're stronger than ever — if only they didn't butt heads at every turn.
Below, EW got Laurence to detail everything you need to know about this new America and what to expect from the new series. Plus, get an exclusive sneak peek at the Motherland: Fort Salem series premiere, above.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you end up turning your love of witches into this series?
ELIOT LAURENCE: I walked in with this idea that struck me one day like lightning – oh my god, witches and military! Peanut butter and chocolate! – and I got a pitch together and they loved it. When I walked in there, it was the Hunger Games era and the Harry Potter era so the initial thought was: let’s do some books and then let’s do some movies. I got a book proposal together, which I had never done before. I got it on paper, I planned a bunch of books in the series, and we sent it around. Almost universally, people thought the idea was freaking crazy, it was so great, but it never sold. I could not get it out of my head. I had done so much world-building. I got busy with other projects, I created another show called Claws and we’re shooting our fourth season now. And then Kevin Messick, one of our EPs, called me one day and was like, "What if Motherland was a TV show?" And I was like, why didn’t I think of this first?
This new version of America features almost all-female leadership: there are female military leaders, female soldiers, and even a female president introduced in the first few episodes. Has the entire American society shifted to be matriarchal in this alternate version of history?
No, but we’re going there. We are going to go there in the course of the series but it has not happened yet. The army is a pocket matriarchy, but because these symbols have existed, these symbols of powerful female generals, I feel like there’s a trickle-down from that in our alternate world. That’s why there’s an African American female president and that’s why in the history of this alternate America, there were black female war heroes in the Civil War, in the Revolutionary War, and the trickle-down of that imagery has affected emancipation making it happen earlier in this timeline. It’s about the power of images changing the world. It’s the long goal of the series to introduce a new kind of witch Eden. That’s the long dream and I can’t wait to get there.
This show is so deeply embedded in women’s empowerment through a matriarchal power dynamic, but obviously you as the showrunner are a man. Do you have women with you in the writers' room to help lend female voices to the development of the show to balance that?
Of course, it’s essential. What this weird, middle-aged, gay dude thinks about female sexuality might be interesting but it definitely needs to be informed by women! It’s a wonderful opportunity to spend my days surrounded by very, very smart women talking about cool ideas and cool spells and matriarchies. It’s heaven for me. [Laughs] I’ve created my perfect life, basically. We spend our days talking about, what does female sexuality feel like in the absence of patriarchy? Those are not questions I can really answer so it’s really enriching to have this kind of conversation with a lot of cool women.
So let's talk about that – how does female sexuality evolve when it's set in this "pocket matriarchy?"
It makes me so proud. I love how in this world of Motherland, a young woman’s sexuality is something that gives her power and strength and oomf. It’s not something if acted upon will complicate her life or mark her in a certain way or put her in a certain category. It’s a source of joy and power and there’s something about that that’s really pure and almost innocent. It felt revolutionary to show this kind of freedom and be brazen about it but it’s also pure and innocent while still feeling carnal. There’s a lot of colors to it.
Witches and female sexuality (especially when it pertains to young teens) are two concepts that go hand-in-hand with persecution. To see it celebrated so freely on this series is shocking in such a fantastic way.
I agree. I feel like it’s a victory. Releasing the symbol of that into the world makes me feel like I’m doing some good things.
It's also great to see how the main romance on the show is LGBTQ as Raelle meets and falls for Scylla (Amalia Holm). Because of the shift to a more female-led society, has that changed how people view LGBTQ relationships/issues in this world?
In the world of Motherland, in this pocket matriarchy of Fort Salem, it’s not a huge deal. There’s a scene where one character, Abigail, is at this Beltane celebration and she’s having a lot of fun with two young men and at one point she gets a little bit bored when the guys start kissing – and they don’t even hesitate – and that moment is not about the guys being gay or not gay, it’s just labels that we construct in our world around race or class or political party; they all get obliterated in Motherland by the fact of being a witch. Because if you’re a witch in this world, when you turn 18, the army owns the rest of your life. That’s such a big thing. It’s such a big powerful classification that all the other little stuff – gay, straight, lesbian – is kind of left in the rubble in the face of this larger truth of witchhood. It exists in the world, LGBTQ people exist, but it’s not stigmatized and it’s not even labeled. It’s a little bit irrelevant.
What can fans expect to see from that relationship this season?
Just utter humanity and incredible performances from those two young women. Just heart wrenching stuff. Without giving too much away because there are lots of twists and turns, it’s just going to rip our hearts out. It’s going to be so deep and impactful and heartbreaking but also very inspiring. It’s really rich. The way these two bring it life is unforgettable.
It’s refreshing to see an LGBTQ romance story line deal with relationship issues that have nothing to do with them being LGBTQ.
Absolutely, I could not agree more. I want more stories like that!
Motherland: Fort Salem premieres Wednesday, March 18 at 9 p.m. on Freeform.