For the uninitiated, SALEM takes the historical fact of the Salem witch trials, and throws a twist into it: Witches were, in fact, real. The killing of innocent Puritans was a result of the witches turning the townspeople on one another, fanning the flames of witch hysteria, until Salem is left to the witches.
We open with preacher Cotton Mather, distraught, reading over old texts, trying to figure out what is going on. He wonders, “Is this the price of building heaven on earth?” He prays for guidance, for a sign.
Meanwhile, Isaac the Fornicator (the man who was in the stocks when the last episode opened) is hauling dead bodies to an open grave. Cotton is busy with the redheaded prostitute when John barges in and attacks him for killing Mr. Cory. But John realizes that Cotton, with his books and his witch obsession, might know something that could explain the crazy scene he saw in the woods last night. John tells him that he saw witches — just like Mercy described them. He starts leading Cotton to the woods when they are intercepted by John Hale, who arrests John for “riotous mischief” in the Commons last night.
Mary is not happy about this. She says to John Hale, “When were you planning to tell me you arrested John Alden? Before or after you hang him.” Hale says that Alden is a loose canon. Mary says, “If he’s a problem, he’s my problem. My husband controls Salem, and I control him. You do nothing without my say.” She tells him to find out who broke their circle. “Find the seer. His eyes were there.”
Mary goes to see John in his prison cell. She tells him, “Salem still hangs men for you did.” He says nothing is stopping them. She tells him, “I’d never let that happen.” He is free to go. He asks her where her compassion was last night when they killed Cory. She tells John that “The Selectmen urge you to leave Salem and never come back.” John asks her, “The Selectmen? Or Mary Sibley?”
Mary: I am trying to save you! You don’t belong here.
John: And neither do you.
Mary: I told you. I can’t leave.
John: The last time I checked, your husband was in no shape to stop you.
Mary: Your confidence astounds me, Captain. Did you expect I would welcome you back with tears of joy? How incredibly naive you are. You’re too late. It’s over. I don’t want you here.
John: I almost believe you.
Yeah! She tells him to get out of Salem. Now. “Or you will hang.” He walks out of the cell, past her, and her eyes fill with tears.
Next, we see a kindly midwife named Bridget Bishop helping a woman give birth. Mary storms in, and demands to know the name of the father, preventing the midwife from helping the woman. Bridget tells Mary the baby must come out. Mary says the town won’t “shoulder another bastard.” It’s clear she is bitter about her own decision to get rid of her baby with John. After all, it was the magic abortion in the woods that sealed her fate. She is merciless with the pregnant woman, and Bridget tries to appeal her to reason, “Mary, you are a woman. You were even a poor one, once. But now you’re Mary Sibley. For once, use your position among the Puritans to help one of your own.” Mary ignores her, and forces the woman to tell her the name. The woman’s cries from labor pain give Mary flashbacks to her night in the woods. The baby is born, and Mary backs out of the room.
Meanwhile, John Hale goes to see the creepy blind seer in the woods, and tells him he needs to know who was in the woods the other night. The seer pulls out the lizard with its sewn shut eyes (the one that made Isaac scream) and says it will take some time.
In the church, Mercy is strung up on the cross. Bridget tells Mary that she thinks the Selectmen are exploiting the girl to stoke fear, and that Mercy should be treated medically. “This witch panic is yet another attempt by the Puritans to control us,” she says. Mary says, “Miss Bishop, please. Be careful of the words you speak. To less sympathetic ears, they could sound like the words of the Devil himself.” (Uh oh. You know Bridget is a goner.)
Sure enough, Mary sets up Bridget to take the fall for a demon birth.
But first, the toad makes another appearance (seriously, the craziest part of this show) and Mary feeds it from her body, crying. Tituba appears and tells her, “Careful. Your tears could sour the milk.” She’s annoyed that Mary is upset. Mary tells her, “There was a time when I might have suckled something other than a toad.” Tituba tells her to keep her eye on the ball: “What matters is who will be next? The Grand Rite has begun, and the earth cries out for innocent blood.” Mary says she is well aware of her duties.
The next baby that Bridget delivers is stillborn, and the mother suffers a feverish delusion that the midwife took the form of a hag-like crone during the delivery. Mary gets the girl to confess this to her, and she takes it before the townspeople as proof that they have found yet another witch among them. Mary makes the sales pitch herself to Cotton. “We have a sign, just as you described in one of your books…a monstrous birth.” She shows him the stillborn in a jar. He is completely freaked out (remember in the beginning of the episode he prayed for a sign?)
Bridget is officially charged with witchcraft in church, but she declares her innocence. John Alden stands up in her defense, and he is so convincing it seems like he has thwarted Mary’s plan. She has no choice but to play hardball, and so she suggests they bring Bridget in front of Mercy (who is still hanging on the cross) and see if Mercy will identify her as a witch. Of course, under Mary’s influence, Mercy looks at Bridget and spews blood all over her. It’s gruesome and seals Bridget’s fate. She is hanged in town square, despite the protests of Anne Hale, her friend (Anne is John Hale’s daughter, the spirited redhead who was flirting with John Alden last episode.)
John tells Cotton, “Well done. Another innocent.” Cotton says he doesn’t think so. But he is willing to spill innocent blood, even his own, if it means stopping the witches. John says, “I’ve never seen such a mixture of reason and [expletive] in a man.” Cotton says, “If you only knew what I knew. If we don’t stop these foul hags there will be no tomorrow.” Anne runs over and slaps him in the face. Alden restrains her.
John Hale pulls Mary aside and tells her she’s making a mess of things. He doesn’t agree with the path she is leading them down, and neither do the witch elders. She says, “This is the fulfillment of all our dreams. Vengeance for centuries of oppression. Too late for doubts now, Hale. We are all in this together.” He says, “Yes, and we shall all burn together at this rate.” He tells her she is too young to know the risk she is taking. He saw his entire family burn at the stake. Now he fears for his daughter (who is currently sobbing in John Alden’s arms.) Mary says, “Perhaps you Old World witches are too scared or too scarred to claim this new world. But not me.”
Meanwhile, in the woods, the seer gets an image of Isaac — his answer to who saw the witches the night the circle was broken.
Anne Hale goes to a bar and begs John Alden to do something about “this madness.” He says her passion reminds him “Of someone I once knew.” She asks, “What happened to them?” He says, “I wish I knew.”
He goes to visit Mary. She asks if he’s come to his senses and is leaving Salem. John says, “To the contrary. Anne Hale reminded me that Salem deserves better.” He informs her that he’s claiming his seat on the town board of Selectmen. He says, “It’s easier to break something than to fix them.” He sees that she is wearing the half coin he gave her around her neck, but she quickly covers it with her cape. And Tituba appears to break up their conversation. “I’ll be seeing you,” he tells Mary.
Mary gets busy making a gruesome voodoo doll to take care of Anne Hale.
In last week’s episode, we felt badly for Mary because we know what she has lost, and that she was manipulated into joining the witches. But now Mary is making it very difficult to empathize with her. Of course it is torturous for her to see John Alden back in town, but instead of making her lean more towards good, his presence is making her embrace evil. It’s as if she’s saying to herself, if I can’t have him, I will just be the worst possible version of the woman I have become. Yes, she has made a deal with the Devil, and no, she can’t undo it. But it’s clear from a conversation with John Hale towards the end that she doesn’t have to destroy Salem. But it seems like she is hell-bent on this path, even if it means killing John Alden. In this episode, she has certainly given him fair warning.