The Matriarchal Magic of Motherland: Fort Salem

Witchcraft, a lesbian protagonist, and women in uniform – Fort Salem has it all. Well, not quite. As Gabrielle points out, the show was written and directed by a dude. It’s also nauseatingly straight, with elaborate mating rituals and the pressure to continue magical bloodlines. But it’s pretty magical too; both in terms of how powerful women are depicted, and the way same-sex love is celebrated. So, here’s why you should give Fort Salem a chance.

Like Charmed and Harry Potter, Fort Salem buys into the power of three. Our golden trio meet on their first day of military academy. Raelle Collar, healer and reluctant conscript. Abigail Bellweather, an overachiever with a powerful family. And Tally Craven, the true believer in Fort Salem’s mission. It’s not exactly love at first sight, but it is a powerful sisterhood.

Fort Salem is about women’s relationships with other women: as friends and lovers, mothers and daughters, comrades in arms or deadly enemies. Tally grew up on a matriarchal compound – meaning “no dudes, ever.” Season two needs to happen just so that we can see this rad community of weavers, knitters, midwives, and – goddess willing – more lesbians.

Although there aren’t many explicitly les/bi characters in Fort Salem, Raelle’s romance with Scylla is central to the plot. The relationship enables Raelle to question the world around her, and where she fits into it as a witch. And Scylla starts to doubt the Spree’s extreme methods, learning to think for herself. Their love enables both young women to grow in ways that the witching authorities would rather they didn’t.

For a same-sex relationship to be shown as a place of safety and sense is still altogether too rare. Often, lesbian relationships on screen lead to a character’s downfall – whether it’s death or moral decline. But Fort Salem shows Raelle and Scylla’s love in a purely positive light.

And Scylla’s storyline involves a moral complexity that is rarely allowed in les/bi characters. Season one opens with her committing mass murder in the name of the Spree, a fiercely anti-military resistance group. And it closes with the possibility of redemption, found through the love Scylla shares with Raelle. She is neither glorified as a freedom fighter nor condemned as a terrorist. Instead, Scylla is shown in an altogether more humane light: a young woman caught between two terrible, opposing forces.

Like Raelle, we never really know whether the words coming out of Scylla’s mouth are truth or lies. But Scylla is all the more intriguing because she sits in that grey area.

Fort Salem is never more exciting than when it embraces ethical complexity. Yes, the fight scenes are dope. But far more thrilling are the subtle shifts of power. Through the witches’ leader, General Sarah Alder, we see that power is a complicated and often corrupting force. There is no denying that Alder saved countless witch lives with the Salem Accords.

But generations of witches have died young after serving as “war meat”, sacrificed to the military industrial complex. And Alder, over three hundred years old when Fort Salem begins, is determined to keep her position at any cost. Instead of mentoring future generations of leaders, she siphons the life from young recruits to stay forever young.

The darkness in Sara Alder, the unanswered questions about her past, make her a very compelling character. For all Alder’s faults, there is something marvellous about an alternate world where women’s deeds are documented with oil paintings and celebrated with statues. In Fort Salem, men run the creche and raise the children. Women make the decisions and fight the wars. But, in this flipped gender script certain inequalities continue. Throughout their military service, witches are nothing more than the property of the state.

Black women like the Bellweather witches were slaves at the time of the Salem accords. Only by offering themselves up in military service could they find any measure of authority or agency. General Petra Bellweather and Sergeant Anacostia Quartermaine have immense influence in the witch community. But their servitude – the servitude of their daughters and granddaughters – is the price. Still, Black women have power in this world. The 45th President of the United States isn’t a woefully unqualified white man, but a dignified and capable Black woman. For that alone, Fort Salem is a welcome distraction from reality.