Sabrina Spellman (Kiernan Shipka) has always had a bit of a savior complex. In the first season of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, this was a natural byproduct of the Chosen One story it told. That got inverted in the (uneven) second season with her destiny entangled in the fulfillment of another. But this wicked and gripping third season does something fascinating with that concept.
(Spoiler warning: normally we can dance around the particulars of a show’s previous season’s events, but the setup for this third season of CAOS is a direct consequence of those storylines, so they will be aggressively and unrelentingly spoiled. Maybe go read our review of Sex Education‘s second season instead?)
This is primarily accomplished through Sabrina’s acceptance of the throne in Hell. Her father Lucifer’s (Luke Cook) throne to be specific, though she only does so maintain a cosmic balance between the three realms of Heaven, Hell, and Earth. She was perfectly happy just letting Lilith (Michelle Gomez) rule over the fiery pits if it meant she could get her boyfriend Nick Scratch (Gavin Leatherwood) out of Hell and Lucifer out of him. (You’ll recall he trapped in him a Flesh Acheron in the season two finale.)
By introducing this third estate with which Sabrina can once again stretch herself too thin and fail to fulfill social and familial responsibilities across the board, the show creates a tremendous contrast of power dynamics and lust for influence. Her aunt Zelda (Miranda Otto), the person who raised her and would know best of all, actually calls out Sabrina’s dangerous thirst for power, putting her savior complex as a raw desire. An addiction to being needed to do.
This butts up against a cocky upstart in the form of Caliban (Sam Corlett), a Prince of Hell with his sights set on taking the crown from Sabrina. It’s framed against an almost hilariously unabashed MacGuffin hunt for the Unholy Regalia, but it works to establish this question of worthiness. What does it mean to have power, and how does that distort to fit the hand that wields it. The idea of responsibility does not change across the heads that wear the crown, but who and what they are held responsible to are different, even if the goal of making sure the world doesn’t rend itself to pieces is the same.
This juxtaposes against Zelda’s own naked ambitions, a thread continued from the second season where she was so blinded by a ravenous hunger for influence within the Church of Night that she tolerated all the injustices dealt by Father Blackwood (Richard Coyle) directly to her and her family. Here, after Blackwood has been ousted and is now on the run and hunted by Prudence (Tati Gabrielle) and Ambrose (Chance Perdomo), her reckless pursuit of power has given way to an obsessive and protective attitude towards the witches and warlocks left behind at the Academy.
Zelda and the Academy forms the other half of the equation. While Sabrina is questioning the morality of categorically and callously reaping souls due for collection, an action of bureaucratic importance, Zelda is exploring her precepts of interpersonal responsibility. As Lucifer rescinds the blessing of his power to the Greendale coven and a band of roving pagans threaten their safety and her niece struggles to reconcile her mortal sensibilities with her burgeoning duties below, Zelda’s question is one of how can she best tend to this small and rapidly diminishing flock.
And then we have all the cosmic and supernatural subterfuge engaged by Blackwood, Lucifer, and Lilith. They each have grand plans for Hell and beyond, and each one is mutually exclusive from the others. Yet they all are seated in the same arena. Thrown all together, this forms an incredible swirling miasma of noxious yet regal intent. And couched within the contention for power channeled through Sabrina, it lends a grand set of stakes to what might otherwise be just office drama.
There is, however, also plenty of teen drama. Season three continues to have more to say about high school romance and adolescent development. Especially framed through Theo Putnam’s (Lachlan Watson) eyes, a trans boy having to deal with both a first relationship and having recently transitioned, it is a considered arc about how finding yourself isn’t as simple as a destination in the distance.
Then there’s Harvey Kinkle (Ross Lynch), traditionally a very supportive and non-traditional boyfriend despite coming from a comic book origin of boilerplate masculinity, as he fights with himself in his relationship with Roz Walker (Jaz Sinclair). And his role to play with Nick and Sabrina’s relationship, especially as Nick attempts to maintain a grasp on sanity as Lucifer continues to wreak havoc on his mind and Sabrina is tempted to betray Harvey’s trust. It’s some thoughtful mortal drama that grounds this otherwise otherworldly show.
If you fell off of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina after (or, more likely, during) the second season, no one can blame you. It hobbled along and never quite got up to the voracious pace of the first season. But if there was ever a reason to get back into it, it would be this neatly constructed and thoroughly compelling third season.
Final Score: 9 out of 10