[Ed. note: This review of season 3 of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina includes major spoilers for seasons 1 and 2.]
Early in the new season of Netflix’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Zelda Spellman (Miranda Otto, who played Eowyn in the Lord of the Rings live-action films) learns that her niece Sabrina has secretly become queen of hell. Naturally, she demands an explanation. Sabrina (Kiernan Shipka of Mad Men) lays out a list of excuses, explaining that the throne is rightfully hers as Lucifer’s daughter, but she isn’t really queen, since her rule is being contested by a demon prince. Besides, she had to seize power to prevent an infernal war. But Zelda, who’s helped raise Sabrina since she was a baby, recognizes her real motivation. “You did it because you wanted to. You did it because you like power. And that’s healthy, up to a point. But you… you have a savior complex. You always have.”
Netflix’s version of Archie Comics’ teenage witch Sabrina started off as a classic Chosen One character. Her heritage was a mystery, and she was invested with far more power than a typical witch. She had a mysterious destiny, which turned out to be heralding Lucifer’s apocalyptic return to earth. After Sabrina repeatedly helped save her coven, her town, and possibly the entire world, that savior complex is certainly understandable. But it doesn’t come with any of the doubt or martyrdom found in saviors like Buffy Summers or Luke Skywalker. Instead, Sabrina’s arc most closely resembles the one David Benioff and D.B. Weiss struggled to construct for Daenerys Targaryen.
“I have served tyrants most of my life. They all talk of destiny,” the spymaster Varys tells Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones, in a bid to get him to abandon his loyalty to the Mother of Dragons. “Her life has convinced her she was sent here to save us all.”
Like Daenerys, Sabrina is the subject of prophecy and a worker of miracles. Where Daenerys walked into a fire with three rocks and came out with three dragons, Sabrina was killed in season 2, came back to life, and promptly murdered a group of angels attacking her coven. While she didn’t initially understand the source of her newfound great powers, she jumped to the conclusion that she was special because she was the child of a witch and a normal human.
She’s always struggled with balancing her commitments to two worlds, and it would be really convenient for her if the two could be brought together. When she decided to show her friends that magic is real, she was only stopped at the last moment by her ex-boyfriend, Harvey Kinkle (Ross Lynch), who discovered that Sabrina is effectively the Antichrist.
Sabrina’s self-righteousness worked well in season 1, when she was crusading against banning books at Baxter High School, and questioning her coven’s tradition of ritual cannibalism. But as the show’s stakes keep rising, that confidence seems increasingly unearned and questionable. Harvey broke up with Sabrina after she resurrected his brother, then had to kill him again when he came back wrong. She also cured Harvey’s father of alcoholism without his consent. As Queen of Hell, Sabrina is tasked with collecting damned souls, a plot that resembles a much darker version of Dead Like Me. In her very first outing as infernal psychopomp, she makes a snap judgment and forgives a man for selling his soul for the devil. Her rash actions threaten not just the balance of power in hell, but the workings of the cosmos themselves, and yet she doesn’t doubt their rightness.
Sabrina had previously been stretched so thin between her commitments to her coven and her high-school buddies that she’s been called out by both her family and friends for not giving them enough time. With hell providing a third realm of responsibility this season, she’s pushed to cut corners even more. During a MacGuffin hunt that will decide the true ruler of hell, Sabrina is offered a choice by Judas Iscariot. She can get the item she seeks the hard way, which involves taking it from a vampire’s tomb, or the easy way, which requires replicating Judas’ sin and betraying someone she loves with a kiss. While she eventually decides she can’t go through with betraying Harvey by trying to rekindle their romance, the fact that she comes so close to doing something unforgivable shows that her judgment and morality are fundamentally compromised.
As Zelda’s speech proves, the show’s writers never portray the pursuit of power as an inherently evil thing. Zelda’s extremely ambitious herself, marrying her coven’s leader, Father Faustus Blackwood (Richard Coyle) to gain prestige for herself and the Spellman family. Like Sabrina, Zelda sometimes lets her ambitions cloud her judgement. She knew Blackwood was a misogynist, but thought she could control his worst tendencies. Instead, she wound up being turned into a magical version of a Stepford Wife, and had to usurp him and seize control of the coven herself. In season 3, her biggest challenge is dragooning everyone into supporting her play, even if it means compromising their own ambitions.
The difference is that this season, Zelda has a better claim as a savior than Sabrina does. While her plans don’t always work, she focuses relentlessly on protecting her diminished coven from a host of internal and external threats. When she realizes she’s neglected a problem for too long, or needs to check her biases to work with witches who practice magic differently, she takes action to correct the issues. Sabrina eventually does the same thing, but only after things have gotten absolutely out of control, and then only in a way that benefits her at other people’s expense.
Like Danaerys, Sabrina also tends to win the devotion of other powerful people, who later come to regret their decisions. After breaking up with Harvey, Sabrina starts dating the talented, charming warlock Nicholas Scratch (Gavin Leatherwood) who fully supports her ambitions. At the end of season 2, he helps save Sabrina from her father by holding Lucifer hostage within his own body, and subjecting himself to captivity in hell.
While Sabrina rescues him in season 3 — yet another act that puts herself, her friends, and her entire coven at risk — Nick’s weeks in hell proved so traumatic that he tries to escape them through a mix of alcohol, drugs, and masochistic sex with demons. When Sabrina fights with Nick about his behavior, he’s as brutally honest as Zelda was. “Of course you’d find some way to make my suffering about you. It’s always about you, isn’t it, Sabrina?” he asks. “You let me sacrifice myself for you, and you weren’t worth it.”
Season 3 ends with Sabrina making yet another dangerous decision that sets up season 4, and promises to bring Lovecraftian horror to the foreground. That’s well-established territory from the Sabrina comics, and seems likely to push Sabrina to take even more dramatic and questionable actions to make up for her mistakes. How dark she’ll go remains to be seen. But unlike with Daenerys’ much-reviled heel turn, Sabrina’s writers have taken the time to lay the groundwork for any possibility. If she eventually follows in Daenerys’ footsteps and becomes a villain instead of a savior, it won’t come as a surprise, so much as a natural unfolding of the path she’s currently following.
The entire eight-episode season of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina will be available to stream on Netflix on Jan. 24.