Review: Motherland – Fort Salem 1×1 (US: Freeform)

Pretty Little Liars: The Illusionists

Motherland Fort Salem

In the US: Wednesdays, 9p/8c, Freeform
In the UK: Not yet acquired

As we noticed with The Plot Against America, most parallel history sci-fi TV is obsessed with the Second World War. True, we get the occasional exception, such as For All Mankind or 1983, but largely, it’s 101 explorations of what would have happened if the Nazis had won the war.

That at least makes Motherland – Fort Salem a refreshing change, since rather than being a twist on just 20th century history, it’s a feminist twist of pretty much all of American history. Here, we start with the Salem Witch Trials and imagine not only what would have happened if witches genuinely were supernatural, but also what they would have done if they’d agreed to put their powers to use for the state.

Imagine 300+ years of history in which the only soldiers were women and they fought using magic instead of weaponry.

Unfortunately, Motherland – Fort Salem also decides that the only really interesting thing about that potentially highly exciting set-up is who’s shagging whom and who’s in and out of what High School-esque clique at any one time. It’s more Pretty Little Liars: The Illusionists than anything else.

Witch metaphor?

The first episode starts very well, with a suicide bomber from the show’s anti-capitalist witch antagonists setting off a bomb in a mall. The twist here is that the bomb causes everyone in the mall to commit suicide. It’s a very effective scene that along with all the show’s scenes of magic is actually pretty disturbing.

After that, the show gender flips the standard military tropes of dramas, with witches – both those descended from illustrious lines of witches and those who’ve randomly got the power – signing up à la 9/11 to defend the nation from the terrorists. There are scenes of ordinary civilians giving up their plane seats so that witch novices can make it to Boston – and then Salem – to attend basic training (“Thank you for your service”), while fathers give their daughters protective tokens their mothers wore into battle.

It all promises a lot. And certainly once we get to witch army HQ, we get displays of witch combat singing (it’s all in the harmonics) that raise up tornadoes, stories of witch battles in which the sand on beaches melted around combatants and even a hint of the Bene Gesserit voice. There’s a weirding way of hand-to-hand combat – if a witch can’t speak, she can’t use magic, so how about learning how to punch her throat out, just in case, as well as how to stop her punching out yours? Plus there’s a spy in the witches ranks who can face dance with fire.

If that had been Motherland: Fort Salem‘s focus, it would have been a real treat.

Cool jackets

Unfortunately, that’s very much a side part of the story. Motherland: Fort Salem is largely about in-fighting. There’s no end to the sniping between working class witches and upper class witches. There are cliques and put-downs, worries over love-lifes and boyfriends, gay witches looking for love, witches worried about their career pathways.

Those evil antagonists? Why are they even bothering, when these witches seem dead keen on killing each other.

Similarly, it does feel like a bunch of kids playing at being soldiers – a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing. No one seems properly frightening, unless you happen to be a moderately nervy teenage girl. No one wears combat fatigues or anything really comfortable, but spend all their time dressed up in snazzy leather jackets and nice looking boots.

You thought the Greek army looked cool? You ain’t seen these girls yet.

It’s less basic training, more first night in dorms.

© Freeform/David Bukach

Witch series?

There is enough promising material in the first episode for me not to classify it as a total write off and the show could certainly find a new path into doing the more interesting and nastier things that its first episode teases, as well as some examination of military gender tropes.

However, this is Freeform, the home of people who have outgrown The CW and want to watch shows like The Bold Type and Siren, so I’m not exactly 100% confident it’ll ever go there. Do I expect a miracle? No. But it might take some actual magic.

TMINE rating

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.


  • I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.