When you think of Sabrina Spellman, which visage comes to mind? For a certain generation, the titular star of the ‘90s sitcom Sabrina the Teenage Witch has become an iconic symbol of teenage girlhood — would that we could all cast spells like Melissa Joan Hart’s affable Sabrina to fix even our silliest problems. For others, the original, wholesome Sabrina from the 1962 Archie Comics series might be the most iconic. And then there’s the defiant, rebellious Sabrina Spellman of Netflix’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, a natural born leader who’s navigating a much darker, spookier version of her hometown of Greendale while grappling with her dual nature as a half-witch, half-mortal.
While the Netflix series and the 2014 Archie Horror comic it’s based on have a far more sinister tone than any of the character's previous iterations, Sabrina’s core struggle remains the same, as she learns to balance her split identity and understand her relationship to power. Yes, Sabrina still has her loving mortal boyfriend Harvey, her cat Salem, and her two aunts by her side. But what really connects every incarnation of Sabrina is the fact that she absolutely, 100 percent does not understand just how powerful she is — and in Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, we actually feel the gravity of what it would be like to stare down a reckless, terrifyingly powerful teenage girl.
When we first meet Kiernan Shipka’s Sabrina in the pilot episode of CAOS, it’s already clear that this character is different from how we remember her. She’s as smart-mouthed as always, but particularly pedantic about the history of the horror genre; she takes up arms in the form of community organizing and doesn’t hesitate to use violent spellwork against men who either directly or indirectly threaten to or actively harm her friends. She also performs dark magic, erases mortal memories, and eats fruit from the old hanging tree in a direct reference to Eve. She is far from innocent and is uniquely positioned, as a half-mortal and half-witch, to combat patriarchal oppression both in the mortal and magical worlds. This is a calling she takes up with vigor, though it’s clear as the series progresses that once she gets a taste of her true power, it makes her a little bit reckless.
In Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, we actually feel the gravity of what it would be like to stare down a reckless, terrifyingly powerful teenage girl.
In the ‘90s sitcom, Sabrina didn’t even know she was a witch until her sweet 16; once she does, her struggles to harness the power of her magic were treated mostly as funny hijinks — even when she did things like accidentally allow her friends to wander into the Other Realm or turn mean-girl Libby into a goat. CAOS presents a different situation: Sabrina has been raised as a witch and knows that when she comes of age, she's expected to sign the Book of the Beast, fully commit herself to Satan, and leave her mortal life behind. She also, to some extent, knows the kind of dark power she’s meant to embrace.
It's serious stuff, and the tone of the series forces audiences to grapple with the fact that teens with a lot of power are actually very scary. On CAOS, magic is a force that is not to be trifled with in the way that previous iterations of Sabrina seem to do, and CAOS shows us the gravity of being a young witch by providing realistic and sometimes devastating consequences for Sabrina’s actions.
Although both the ‘90s sitcom and CAOS begin with Sabrina’s sweet 16, a birthday of significance because it marks the time when she can truly embrace her powers, the Netflix series presents this event as a serious conflict. If Sabrina signs her name in the Book of the Beast at the stroke of midnight during the blood moon eclipse on her birthday (which is also Halloween), she will turn her back on her mortal side. That means prioritizing witchcraft over the rest of her life, including the mortal friends and boyfriend she loves.
But Sabrina wants to have it both ways, though straddling the line between the immortal and mortal world leaves her in a bind: she cannot fully embrace her powers and maintain her mortality. Plus, if she does the former, she’ll be forced to act on the whims of Satan, giving up her freedom in exchange for power. But she's stubborn, and she's a self-absorbed teenager. “I want freedom and power," Sabrina tells Prudence (Tati Gabrielle), the leader of the Weird Sisters.
"He’ll never give you that," Prudence says. "The Dark Lord. The thought of you — of any of us — having both, terrifies him.” When Sabrina asks why, Prudence raises an eyebrow and replies, “He’s a man, isn’t he?”
But Sabrina's desire to straddle both worlds is especially fearsome given her unique position as a half-witch from a powerful family, and as a headstrong teenager, she hasn't yet realized just how much of a threat her entire existence poses to the ways of the Church of Night. Add in the fact that Sabrina isn't opposed to using violence (both physical and psychological) to accomplish her goals, and it's no surprise that many of the mistakes Sabrina makes end up putting the very people she aims to protect in terrible jeopardy. It's a lot of power for a 16-year-old to wield, and CAOS wants you to know that this isn't a game — or a sitcom.
Sabrina is sweet, smart, and almost painfully loyal, but she possesses a nearly unfathomable degree of power that she wields recklessly and repeatedly.
On the other hand, Sabrina's failings also point to her more selfish side, which in some ways makes her even more relatable as a character. She’s overconfident about her ability to effectively rebel against authority figures, and she believes that if she thinks something is right, then she has a legitimate obligation to pursue it, regardless of what stands in her way.
This makes her seriously unpopular with her loved ones at several points throughout CAOS’ first season, though the emotional ramifications don’t seem to hit home until she finally takes her selfish acts too far. This incarnation of Sabrina Spellman is dark, insofar as she’s too slippery to hold on to the innocent persona we’ve come to know from her previous incarnations, particularly Hart’s, and Shipka embodies the light and dark of this character beautifully, pushing Sabrina into a place where she wants to do what’s right, but keeps doing things that are horribly, terrifyingly wrong.
In that way, it’s incredibly easy to root for this incarnation of Sabrina. We want her to succeed, even (and maybe especially) when she messes up. We want her to prove that mortality and magic don’t have to be mutually exclusive and we want her to be a champion for herself and her friends. Sabrina is sweet, smart, and almost painfully loyal, but she possesses a nearly unfathomable degree of power that she wields recklessly and repeatedly. Learning from our mistakes is an integral part of growing up, but for Sabrina, the stakes are especially high — each time she makes a choice, the consequences are swift (and often bloody).
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina presents us with a character whose primary conflict is centered in her desire to make everything okay, though the magic she employs is not molded in that vein. Unlike the ‘90s sitcom, where spells led to kooky mishaps that were easily resolved, spells in CAOS lead to — well, chaos. But the end of the day, we still love this teenage witch because we can relate to her, otherworldly powers and all, which is the true magic of this richly Satanic show.