How Zelda & Hilda on 'The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina' Are Challenging The Church of Night From Within
Spoilers for The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Episodes 1-8 ahead. Being a witch isn't all black cats and broomsticks. Netflix's Chilling Adventures of Sabrina follows burgeoning half-witch Sabrina (Kiernan Shipka), who just wants to hang out with her boyfriend, watch horror movies, and run her patriarchy-smashing club, WICCA. But heavy is the head that wears the pointed hat. The series opens right before Sabrina's Dark Baptism, during which she's supposed to sign her name in the Dark Lord's book, renounce her mortal nature, and cut off contact with her human friends. But despite the urging of her aunts, Sabrina is reluctant to leave the mortal world behind given her dual nature, and it soon becomes clear that the Church of Night is a domineering establishment whose leaders are intent on making Sabrina obey their rules. Even Sabrina's aunts, Zelda (Miranda Otto) and Hilda (Lucy Davis) are intent on Sabrina committing fully to the coven, even if it means giving up her free will to serve Satan. It feels like an apt metaphor for the patriarchy, but it's more than that, according to Otto.
"It's a metaphor for any kind of institution," Otto tells Bustle. "You can build any institution around that — the idea of an institution that has its rules. And there's so many contradictions within it and things that people find ways to make excuses for." The Lord of the Rings actor cites the Feast of Feasts as an example of this overt abuse of power. Episode 7 introduces this revolting, sexist, and literally cannibalistic holiday, wherein one "lucky" girl from the witch community sacrificed and eaten by the rest of the church. "[R]ealistically, it's not something that any of the women in the church enjoys," Otto continues. "But we find ways to mythologize it and make it work."
To a newcomer, it's a ridiculous and unnecessary ritual, and yet this year's chosen handmaiden, Prudence (Tati Gabrielle), eagerly awaits her death. That is, until Sabrina uncovers the holiday's violent and misogynistic origins, when a witch named Desmelda was nearly raped by her high priest. It's this abuse of power coupled with mindless rule-following that infuriates Sabrina so much — and for good reason.
And then there's the fact that Sabrina is supposed to remain a virgin for the Dark Lord, which the youngest Spellman understandably has reservations about. "Why does he get to decide what I do or don't do with my body?" she asks her aunts defiantly in Episode 1. But it's not just her — Zelda and Hilda also have their doubts about the Church of Night, it's just that they have different strategies for how to defy it. "I think Zelda would like to change the institution from within," Otto theorizes. "I think deep down in her deepest self — she won't say it to people because it's a secret, personal thing — but I think she thinks that there should be a female head of the church."
A female religious leader is radical even by today's standards, let alone the Church of Night, which seems even more parochial by comparison. "I see Zelda very much as a politician, in some ways," Otto continues. "She's part of the party, but she has her own motivations and her own ways that she would like to go with things. But she will toe the party line where she has to to get to where she wants to go, or where she wants Sabrina to go." Lucy Davis, who plays Aunt Hilda, agrees. "When you disagree with anything in life, often the place to make change is not away from it. It's from in it, and within it," she says.
And it's thanks to Sabrina that the aunts have a renewed sense of urgency about combatting the Church of Night's domineering tendencies. After the Feast of Feasts' violent conclusion, Sabrina asks Zelda if she would have allowed her to be chosen. "Never," she says. And while at the surface level, the strict witch appears to be a stalwart rule-follower, she's actually raised her niece to question authority. For that reason, it should have come as no surprise when Sabrina defies the Church of Night during her trial in Episode 3, declaring the Dark Lord's behavior "unacceptable."
"I think that that's why [Sabrina] is such a leader and such a strong female character is that she's seen women in those roles," Otto says of the teenage witch's upbringing. "She hasn't had a father kind of figure in her life, so I think she thinks as a woman or half-witch that it's totally her platform to say what she thinks and to question authority, and I think it's that lack of a male, dominating figure in the room."
And while her sister has a more stealthy strategy to defy the Church of Night, Hilda can't help but wear her heart on her sleeve. After the cheerful witch is excommunicated, Hilda begins fraternizing with the human world — something that's frowned upon. Davis speculates that her character is a bit of a casual churchgoer, in the same way that many religious people are. "I feel like people are telling her things that she needs to believe in that she doesn't," she says. "Or certainly, it's not black and white."
Furthermore, the fact that Hilda allowed her niece to be baptized into the Christian church shows that she's willing to break the rules where her loved ones are concerned. "Hilda's the quiet one that you think is a bit bumbling and possibly her opinion isn't worth as much, but then actually, she does do her own thing — it's just that she gets it done in a different way," Davis says. "More quietly, I think."
In fact, it could be argued that Hilda is the emotional center of the show, gently providing encouragement, love, and advice to everyone at Spellman Mortuary. And when the witch begins working at Cerberus Books, it becomes crystal clear how much she's craved that social interaction. "[S]he loves connecting with other people, with other human beings, and getting to know people and chatting and gossiping and pulling up a chair in a coffee shop," Davis says. That, too, is arguably a form of rebellion against the Church of Night.
Ultimately, Sabrina can rest assured that with her two aunts by her side — one who plans to overthrow the Church of Night with kindness and the other with political aspirations — there's nothing she can't face.