I love high-concept supernatural television shows. Suppose the series includes moody vampires falling in love with seemingly normal humans, werewolves turning buck wild during a full moon, or teenage witches brewing mayhem in their high school’s chemistry lab. There is a high chance I will plop my butt on the couch with my ungovernable tuxedo cat and watch it. Even if the show is not great, I will binge it from start to finish, sometimes in one day. Fortunately, Motherland: Fort Salem is one of those imperfect shows that manages to cast an enchanting spell on me.
The Freeform series follows a trio of witches training to fight and defend the United States as conscripted soldiers. It does not have Penny Dreadful’s budget or True Blood’s superstar talent, but it continues to deliver with its solid Season 3 premiere. Despite its overloaded plot structure and poor production values, Motherland meets expectations thanks to the expansion of its unique alternate universe, intriguing new conflicts among the leads, and notable exploration of women’s issues through the lens of witchcraft and magic.
Towards the end of Season 2, cadets Raelle (Taylor Hickson), Tally (Jessica Sutton), and Abigail (Ashley Nicole Williams) defeat their longtime enemy, the Camarilla, an ancient order hellbent on eradicating witches, at their military training base, War College. Unfortunately, their valor comes at a cost as the vice president of the United States, Blanton (Victor Webster), blames the witches for the murder of his daughter Penelope (Mellany Barros).
With the death of Penelope hanging over their heads in Season 3, the trio must leave the comforts of the army and become wanted fugitives. While on the run, their friendship gets tested as they evade authorities and form new alliances with former enemies. Meanwhile, General Petra (Catherine Lough Haggquist) and Captain Anacostia (Demetria McKinney) work to exonerate their runaway soldiers and take down the Camarilla for good.
Motherland reinvigorates itself by expanding beyond Fort Salem and the War College into the real world. Not only are Raelle, Tally, and Abigail no longer safe, but they team up with wildcards Scylla (Amalia Holm) and Nicte (Arlen Aguayo-Stewart), former members of a terrorist witch organization called the Spree, to survive.
This change of pace works as it forces the three young women to adjust to an ever-changing and increasingly dangerous world. Sometimes the results are messy, like when Tally accidentally reveals their hideout to authorities. However, their experiences force them to grow up. Before the incident, they had the protection of the United States government to help them fend off violent men and misguided witches. Now they have no choice but to fight all these forces alone.
It also helps that Hickson, Sutton, and Williams give well-rounded performances as the core leads. Even though their skillsets are not at the same level as Viola Davis or Sandra Oh, the performers do their best to separate the three witches from one another. Thanks to the actor’s take on the characters, each cadet has distinct personalities and goals, especially as their motives diverge in the new season. Like Charmed (both OG and the reboot) and Sex and in the City before it, viewers will find themselves in one of the three characters. Either they are reckless like Raelle, sweet but determined like Tally, or ambitious like Abigail.
With that said, the various plot threads in Motherland may confuse some fans. These storylines include but are not limited to Petra and Anacostia’s ever-expanding spy network, Camarilla leader Alban’s (Bob Frazer) goal to steal the witches’ source of power, nomadic tribe member Adil’s (Tony Giroux) desire to start a family with his girlfriend Abigail, and Tally’s combat training with former terrorist Nicte. Of course, these conflicts will encourage viewers to watch the show weekly but keeping up with its stories is challenging. Hopefully, showrunner Eliot Laurence and his team will find a way to connect all these points by the series finale, or else they will leave audiences scratching their heads.
Thankfully, Motherland’s exploration of women fighting the patriarchy saves the series from its overabundance of melodrama. Using witches and their hunters as a metaphor for the real world may be a bit cliché, but what separates the series from similar works like The Handmaid’s Tale is that it does not rely on cruelty and sexual violence to make its point. Instead, the show focuses on the importance of female friendships and gender role reversal to sell its thematic issues. Let’s face it, the United States is increasingly becoming hostile to women and other marginalized groups, so it is nice to see Strong Women ™ kick misogynist butts on the screen.
Despite premiering its third and final season, the production values are still not up to par. For a show about witches working for the United States armed forces, it is a shame that Freeform does not give the series a proper visual effects budget. I certainly do not expect the show to have the same high production values as Game of Thrones, but can it at least have the same level of effects as Shadowhunters? The supernatural drama’s visuals were dreadful during its first season, but it got better over time, unlike Motherland. Watching Indigenous witches control the weather with their combined powers during the cold open or Abigail using an invisibility spell to avoid the Camarilla is pure cringe, and these scenes deserve better.
Terrible production values aside, Motherland Season 3 is still an enjoyable series. It may not be as top tier as the previously mentioned supernatural shows. However, the show’s commitment to raising the stakes and depicting women’s empowerment in a positive light makes for a bewitchingly good time.
Motherland: Fort Salem airs new episodes Tuesdays at 10 p.m. EST on Freeform.