The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is a thoroughly unremarkable show. Based on the Archie Comic character Sabrina Spellman, the Netflix adaptation bears little resemblance to its source material. It was originally developed for the CW as a companion series to Riverdale before being moved to the streaming service, and like Riverdale, it’s a grittier adaptation of traditionally fun characters. While Riverdale chose to make a neo-noir murder mystery of Archie and the gang, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina chose to lean into the horror elements of witchcraft and makes a point to remind us of this decision by often referencing other horror works in its canon. The first season of both shows have clearly defined plots and precise executions, but since then The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina has lost its identity.
When it first debuted, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina followed the story of Sabrina, an orphaned half-witch, half-mortal as she tries to balance the two halves of who she is. On her 16th birthday, she must choose if she will fully embrace her witch side and sign her name over to obey the Dark Lord (aka Satan aka Lucifer Morningstar) who her coven worships and in return grants them their magic. When the final and fourth season of the show picks up, there are two Sabrina Spellmans. It turns out the reason Lucifer wanted her loyalty so much is because he is actually her father and through the events of the last two seasons, she becomes the queen of Hell after completing a number of trials. After using time travel magic, thus creating another Sabrina, she decides the doppelganger should take her place as queen of Hell so she may instead focus on living in the mortal realm with her family and friends. So, there is a Sabrina Spellman and a Sabrina Morningstar.
For a show so concerned with the distinction between Spellman and Morningstar, the two halves of Sabrina that are now split, season 4 really drops the ball on developing an intriguing narrative between the two characters. The season is centered around the Eldritch Terrors, ancient beings that have been summoned to wreak havoc on Greendale and, at the end, destroy the world. Each episode is dedicated to a terror, and the show primarily follows Sabrina Spellman rather than Morningstar as she deals with them.
Many plotlines feel half baked and void of tension. The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina takes great care setting up its characters and their motivations… to only then very poorly explore their relationships in a way lacking thoughtfulness. For example, the failure to develop Sabrina Morningstar as her own character makes the strife of past seasons feel hollow. They’re supposed to be foils, different halves of the same person, but Morningstar feels like a new character. Spellman didn’t want to fully become what her Morningstar counterpart became, so it seems strange to see Morningstar make decisions that Spellman disproves of, that they would be so different.
Moreso, Morningstar is more content than Spellman. While this should raise thematic questions about the identity of Sabrina and her choice to pick the mortal realm, it’s not addressed in a thought provoking way. What is this supposed to mean about the identity of Sabrina that the show focuses on Spellman? Who knows! The narrative uses two Sabrinas to instead explore Spellman’s loneliness. If that’s the central theme of the show, then it’s explored in an extremely superficial way. What you see is what you get and that makes the entire thing very tiring to get through.
This is only one example of the lack of clear direction and the use of its plotlines. While the plots do serve a purpose, they are terribly underutilized and simply do not have the potential thematic payoff. It’s a shame. Zelda Spellman especially is one of the most interesting characters who is given some very interesting side plots, but her story never feels finished. There has been the vague shape of a love triangle throughout the show but it ran out of steam early on so there isn’t much going on in terms of romantic tension. The show is shaky on its feet and the writing is stretched thin. The primary motivation for watching, I assume, is the aesthetic, atmosphere, and if you like the characters enough. Even then, the tone tries to balance between horror, comedy, and camp, but by failing to fully commit to either, it inhabits this bland liminal space where it’s not fun to watch but not scary either.
None of my criticisms have been entirely specific to the fourth season, but the finale of any show will magnify the faults of the series tenfold. When things must come to an end, it is on the writers to end things in a way that narratively encompasses the show as a whole. And if the writing of the series is not strong throughout, the ending will fall apart. And so does the finale of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. It is not satisfying. If anything, it’s a pathetic attempt at evoking a modicum of emotion from an otherwise disinterested audience. It feels familiar because it steals finales from better received shows but without the foundation they built up, the ending falls through poorly. Describing the plot, it seems so ridiculous it should be funny, but it’s played so straight that it just feels like a chore to get through.
Before I end this dismal review, I will address the elephant in the room. Yes, Caroline Rhea and Beth Broderick, the actresses for Hilda and Zelda Spellman from the seven season 1996 comedy Sabrina the Teenage Witch based on the same source material, make a season 4 cameo. Their involvement is in a campier, more meta episode, but it’s difficult to enjoy due to its placement in the season and hesitance to lean into the absurdity of the show. This is because it may expose the absurdity of the entire season and risk losing the fear factor. To that I say, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina never was a successful horror, so you might as well have had some real fun before the end, maybe it would’ve actually been enjoyable then.