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The Cost of Weather: Alt-History Witches, Hot People, and…. Military Politics? (Thoughts on “Motherland: Fort Salem” as of Ep.7)

In this time of quarantine, there’s nothing like bonding with folks by watching TV shows, and for me and my sister, we have been catching up (almost) every week through watching Motherland: Fort Salem on Hulu. While it is mostly supposed to be for fun weekly watching, the show is extremely dense in a lot of ways, tackling themes of military intrigue, terrorism, romance, family history and dynamics, all within the context of an alternate history where witches form a major arm of the US army. Due to this content, every week I have Many Thoughts that end up being tweeted into the void and usually they’re some variation of the same 3 things over and over. So, in the interest of not being repetitive I thought I would consolidate some of my more major thoughts in a more organized but casual way.

Motherland’s basic premise, according to Wikipedia, is this:

“Raelle Collar, Abigail Bellweather and Tally Craven are three witches who are enlisted in the U.S. Army. They train in combat magic and use their vocal cords to enact “seeds” or “seed sounds”, which is layering vocal sounds to create powerful spells. The series takes place in a women-dominated world in which the U.S. ended persecution of witches 300 years ago during the Salem Witch Trials after an agreement known as the Salem Accord. The world finds itself at odds with a terrorist organization known as the Spree, a group against the military conscription of witches.”  


The setting and premise is very fascinating, and in a strange, not-exactly-but-kind-of-adjacent way kind of reminds me of NBC’s “Kings” which also had an alternate American-esque history except this is with more of an emphasis on women and magic. It  has a strange and interesting sort of tension in the way that power is distributed between the parties involved. On one hand, according to the fictional “Salem Accord,” witches are granted protection and authority in exchange for using their powers to fight wars for what will eventually become the United States, and from what we see in the show, it is through war, fought both domestically and abroad, that witch families such as the Bellweathers can rise to wealth and prominence. On the other hand, witches are still shown to be feared and rejected by “civilians,” and many comments by characters scattered throughout the series remark on how the people they are sworn to protect do not respect them and see them as outsiders. This is a large conflict between the storied institution of Fort Salem, the military academy of witches that our young protagonists attend, and the apparent villains of the story, “The Spree.” The Spree are described as having no centralized organization, who oppose the military authority of Fort Salem, and who engage in horrifying acts of mass murder that involve magically inducing crowds of people to mass suicide.

The linking of witchery to war, as well as the alternate history both shown and implied has.. a LOT of implications that are very interesting for the world that Motherland exists in, and I’m not sure I can begin to analyze all of it, though I can record my impressions and the repeated thoughts that I have every single time I watch an episode of this series.

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One thing I really love about this series is its beautiful opening sequence, which shows an animated quilt being sewn showing the history of Witches after the Salem Accords are written, and features a brief glimpse of the family trees of the main characters. Part of the imagery shows a map of the US, as well as a painting based on Washington Crossing the Delaware but with General Sarah Alder, the Chief Witch character, in the place of Washington, performing magic to alter the weather allowing her people to cross. My first thought whenever I see it is always “Damn! That looks so cool and tickles all my aesthetic tastes.” My second thought, immediately after, is “So witches in this universe definitely participated in Manifest Destiny then, huh.”

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While the series has not yet finished, and since I’m watching on Hulu I am always 2 episodes behind, it is a very “hm” moment, especially since there is, as far as I have watched so far, no Indigenous characters featured in the show, despite it being diverse in other ways. The closest we get is when the main characters attend a pageant depicting the outcome of the Salem Witch Trials in this universe, where Sarah Alder, condemned to death for practicing witchcraft as well as for consorting with “savages,” uses her powers to free herself. In the present day of the show, set 300 years later, Alder and the American Witch Military is still shown as fighting wars in foreign countries alongside other world power. While   the exact details of those wars are not explained in story, if they parallel the actions of the United States in the 20th and 21st century at all, then well. “Witchery” in this universe was and continues to be complicit in some pretty big imperialism.

The idea of Witches being simultaneously an oppressed class as well as having access to institutional powers–or the idea that there are witches who survived through assimilation and serving the interests of imperialist power–is very very interesting as a plot point and troubling given the real life history. I bring it up specifically since while some reviews have focused specifically on witchiness as female empowerment in the series, it often is mythologized in a way that centers the persecuted white woman, and ignores the ways in which anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism were central to shaping the fear of “witches” in the event of the Salem trials themselves. Motherland does takes a nod its history in regards to the Bellweathers, a prestigious family of witches who trace their lineage to Black war heroes in the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, but the idea of “Witch” identity overriding all other aspects of identity is one of the things that, despite the show’s many exciting and genuinely good aspects, rings a lot less true to me.

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The Witch military in Motherland is portrayed mostly through the eyes of our main characters: The ambitious Abigail Bellweather, descended from a storied Atlantic family, the sheltered but eager Tally Craven, who left her NorCal hippie commune to participate in military dreams, and last but not least Raelle Collar, who has the angst, cagey attitude, and intense soft gay devotion of your run of the mill emo anime boy (but lesbian edition) . It’s interesting to see the different perspectives they lend–Abigail fervently believes in the tradition of the military and sees it as her way to make a name for herself and her family, Tally is a compassionate soul who wants to feel like she’s doing something good and productive against terrorism. On the other hand Raelle participates and builds up her skills, but is listless and cynical and generally distrustful of the institution. She enters with a sort of half-hearted death wish, but finds comfort and companionship through meeting her girlfriend, Scylla–someone who has her own dark secrets and reasons to distrust the Fort Salem institution as well.

The tension between Fort Salem, General Alder, and the institution of Military witches and the society built up around it is genuinely very interesting to see play out, and in the recent episodes that I have seen (up to episode 7 as of now) does seem to be going in the direction to deconstruct that institution through the experiences of the characters involved. There is a weakness in how the Spree are portrayed as a critical force against the witch military–characters speak boldy of “Liberation” and “refusing to be complicit” in military evils– while also being shown to be participating in mass-murderer. The creator has mentioned that he wanted the Spree and its members to be shown as more morally grey, and while that greyness can be seen in individual characters, it is frustrating to see this trope of “organization people criticizing and rebelling against the system being a cause of genuine harm” play out once again, especially when the only way that is discussed of how to “defeat” the harm is through military violence. As @thegoodbadbasic tweeted earlier in April, did we really need a show extolling and propping up the ideals of American Imperialism and the Industrial Military complex. And more so try to claim that those ideals are inherently feminist or can be? No, we didn’t need it.”

On the other hand, the Spree is not the only party who are vocally critical and distrustful of Alder, Fort Salem, and American actions as well, and if recent episodes go in the direction I think they will, I predict there will be more of a turning in the story in that direction as well being shown not just from the perspective of the Spree. How far it will go in resolving the story in a way that isn’t just a kind of generic liberal “Military Industrial Complex can be Good….. if RESPONSIBLE WOMEN in Charge” remains to be seen, but I’m curious about all the different elements that have been introduced, and look forward to seeing things play out as a story regardless.

Anyway, now that I’ve talked about the more heavy implication stuff that I really needed to articulate, I can move onto the parts that I am actually really enthusiastic about.

The main trio attend a wedding in formal uniform attire


The costume and art direction of the show overall has an interesting feel of being set in a not-too-distant past–there’s less focus on technology, more on magic and analog tools, the Fort itself is always cast in a very warm tone that suggests historical sepia without actually being sepia. The uniforms feel less like modern military uniforms, and feel a bit more distant, like slightly past Civil War era, and the witches themselves are armed with magic and leather whips, rather than guns. It gives it a very distinct and unique feeling of being different from the world of “civilians” in both overt and subtle ways–Witches don’t clap with their hands, they stomp on the ground with their feet, both sitting and standing, when they give applause. Some of their casual vocabulary differs from the norm. Magic is performed through singing and sounds, and thus the connection of vocalization with power is emphasized both in the symbolism of the opening sequence and throughout in very clever ways.


Bonus: Everyone is Hot!!!!! Even the side characters who appear briefly!! Of course, because this is a TV show, it makes sense that the main characters are generally attractive actresses, and this is definitely the case. Also it did take me a while to get over my suspension of disbelief that those are DEFINITELY not military style hairstyles, but since this is Witch Military maybe there’s more leeway for that, and after the first few episodes it becomes kind of part of their “character design” so to speak and becomes rather charming. Also I feel like, in general, it’s nice to see when women characters get to dress in various utilitarian/unisex clothing as well as in typically feminine wear, so it’s a big change from the usual thing I see in TV and movies where all the women are dressed like models with the same kind of fashion and hairstyle. There’s also a lot of older women both as side characters and main cast and it does make me feel a kind of Way to see them portrayed in such various ways. General Alder and the old women she surrounds herself with, the witch council delegates, they all have varied looks and appearances and, it is very much, as the saying goes, a sight for sore eyes.

Not to say that there aren’t men involved as well–there’s a whole episode to focus on guys, and while the series does indulge in a little bit of the Reverse Gender Roles in a way that upon first glance feels a bit like the what folks would complain about the “reverse sexism” but however… Just seeing a few brief shots of men watching after kids, or frolicking at sports and being ogled by the girls, or being portrayed with some brief personality but ultimately mostly there to be a goal for the female characters – its a change in the gaze and its focus definitely but not delving into the territory of “Look at these Powerful Women treating the Poor men Badly For No Reason because that’s what they DO if you give them POWER” sort of frustrating thing. In short, there are men, and they’re mostly there to Look Good and serve the character arcs of the ladies. As other folks have pointed out in more serious discussions, its interesting how even a little equality in portrayals can feel like a Big Deal because we’re not used to it, but that’s a longer discussion in the making. The male characters have major parts to play in the plot and relationships of but overall they take a back seat to the conflicts and relationships between the female characters.

Women’s sexuality is portrayed in a very refreshing way in this series as well-it’s nice to have a series about young women that portrays their sexuality not as a “distraction” from their important work, or their personality, but as something to be embraced and acknowledged, and in the case of Motherland’s universe, potent and powerful on top of being just plain fun. While the more inexperienced Tally does have some minor drama with her crush and guy friend she meets and bangs during the witch fertility ritual Beltane, it’s not the result of malice, or men taking advantage of women sexually, as is often used for drama in mainstream stories–and I was surprised at how… nice it is to watch things where the threat of male sexual violence just isn’t a presence. It’s a nice break.

It’s also interesting how the relationship between Raelle and Scylla is shown as so central to the plot and intrigue of the story–it’s the main romantic relationship shown from the first episode on, and every single episode we get to see them develop and be casually affectionate with each other in very heartwarming ways, which contrasts a lot with the strictness and coldness of how Raelle usually is with her classmates. I personally like how fluffy and devoted they are with each other from the beginning as well as still having a good TV dose of drama that I’m excited to see play out for the rest of the series. The actresses have amazing chemistry and I hope desperately for a happy ending for them despite, well, everything that seems to stand in their way.  It’s refreshing that out of all their obstacles, in this universe homophobia does not seem to be one of them–As the showrunner Eliot Laurence, a gay man, expressed with enthusiasm at the close of his Entertainment Weekly interview.

I hope it comes across that I am genuinely super interested this series and how it turns out–from what I googled it’s intended to be 13 episodes, and it’s a little halfway through. I’ve tried to keep this post fairly spoiler-free, since it is a story where the ways in which the twists manifest and new things are introduced is part of the fun, and I do like seeing the characters develop over each episode.  I write up my thoughts here because while I can’t help but have my criticisms in terms of taking this story that purports to set itself in (fictitious) American History within the context of that history and the meanings that result from it, I know it is also just as ineffective to keep tweeting and pointing out “This is Problematic” repeatedly every week because doing that on its own does not really accomplish anything on its own.. And if anything I enjoy these aspects of this show, and the themes it seems to be attempting to address, and I hope that it ends up being executed in a way that maintains interest for me. I may or may not end up satisfied with how they choose to resolve those themes in the end, but, well….there are a billion shows out there that exist with basically the same problems or worse (historically or otherwise), but with less intrigue and interesting, Attractive Characters to become invested in.

Author: maiden theory

I'm just a Bird whose intentions are good

One thought on “The Cost of Weather: Alt-History Witches, Hot People, and…. Military Politics? (Thoughts on “Motherland: Fort Salem” as of Ep.7)”

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