As hard as I tried to get into American Horror Story, I was never able to enjoy it. I liked the supernatural part of it, but it lacked the one element that hooks me into a show: a central love story. Not so with Salem. Within the first five minutes, we meet the star-crossed lovers: our hero, John Alden and the raven-haired, luminous town beauty, Mary.
It’s 1685 in Salem, Massachusetts. John’s father was the first settler in Salem, and from the way John is acting, his father would not be happy with the violently harsh, punitive society that has evolved. We open with a couple in stocks in the town square, being whipped and branded for “fornication.” The leader of this spectacle is a stout, white-haired angry preacher man named George Sibley. John is appalled at the scene, and when he meets up with his Mary at nightfall, he promises her that after the war, he will be back to take her away from all of this craziness. He says the war shouldn’t last a year (famous last words) and gives her half of his silver coin – all he has left in the world. They kiss.
When we next see Mary, John is gone. She walks through town with her friend Tituba (played by Ashley Madekwe from Revenge), and they pass the nasty George Sibley who tells her she is better off without John Alden, and that one day she will thank him for sending him off to war. That night, Tituba leads her into the woods, telling her this is her only choice: Mary is pregnant! But Mary is afraid of the woods. Tituba tells her that she shouldn’t fear the woods: The woods will save her; the townspeople will destroy her for her sins. Tituba puts Mary on the ground, presses oil onto her forehead, lips, and body, and starts performing some strange ritual. Mary wants her to stop, and she starts having horrific images of demons in between images of herself with John running through that very forest. But Tituba keeps going, and by the time she is finished, Mary’s pregnant belly has disappeared. Mary is distraught, but Tituba tells her: “All the world shall be yours in return.”
Cut to seven years later. John strolls back into town, fresh from war, to see three people hanging from trees. It seems Salem has gotten even more puritanical (literally) in his absence. His old friend Mr. Cory tells him that he’s clearly come back for Mary, but it’s too late: She’s Mrs. Sibley now. Married to that horrible old guy who was putting people in the stocks for fornication! What? Yes, Cory tells him, she’s now the richest woman in town. And when her husband dies, she’ll be the wealthiest widow in the country.
The once formidable George Sibley is now a shell of a man, wheel-chair bound and unable to speak. His moral leadership role in the community has been assumed by a young guy named Cotton Mather, whom John knew (and didn’t much like) when they were kids.
When Mary sees John, she’s just as surprised as he is. She thought he’d been killed. When she encounters him at Church, she’s cool to him, but says that she and her husband are having a dinner and he should join them. At the table, a young redheaded woman named Anne Hale is flirting with him. Mary will have none of it, and with her magic, makes John hallucinate that first Anne, then Mary, is between his legs under the table. He excuses himself, and she follows him outside. She’s clearly furious with him, saying she waited and waited for him. He’s like, yeah, well, not long enough. She said that he said he’d only be gone a year! He said it was out of his control – he was captured. He kisses her and says run away with me now, leave this town. It’s not like this in other places. We can go to New York.They kiss passionately, but she pulls away. “No. I can’t. It’s impossible. He’d never let me.” They are interrupted by Mr. Hale, Anne’s father.
Meanwhile, a town girl named Mercy is having screaming fits of hysteria, and suffers from wounds all over her body. When Cotton visits her to see what is going on, she insists the “woman” is in the room. We can see a hideous, demonic old woman, but Cotton can’t see anything. When he leaves the room, the demon flies onto the girl and attacks her.
But the strangest (and awesomest!) scene of all is when Mary takes off her clothes, walks to her wheelchair-bound husband, and extracts a live toad from his mouth. She then lets the animal feed off of her leg. George is trying to speak but can’t, and Mary shoves the toad back into his throat. “You took away everything I had George Sibley. Everything I loved. Can you imagine how good it feels to take everything you have? Destroy all you’ve built…and devour your very soul?” (I know it sounds crazy and grotesque, but it works. Trust me on this.) Later that night, she gets a visit from John’s old friend Mr. Cory. He tells her that he saw her in the woods that night, that she had been pregnant with John’s baby. Now that he’s back, he has a right to know. Are you going to tell him, or am I? (Not a good move, Cory.)
Mary is distraught over John’s return, and her lost love with him. Titula talks her off the ledge. “What’s John Alden compared to all that lays before you? Stop your weeping. That boy don’t deserve those tears.” Mary says they’re not for him — they’re for the girl she once was. “That girl belongs to somebody else now,” Titula says. Mary screams in anguish and the mirror she’s standing in front of breaks. Titula says, “Has He not been true to His vow? Are you your enemies now your slaves? Do you not have everything that you desire? Wealth? Power?” “Almost everything,” Mary says.
Meanwhile, things are getting super crazy with poor Mercy. She’s half out of her mind. She tells Cotton that she knows who the witches are, but she can not speak the names. Cotton puts her in some sort of Hannibal Lecter mask and a chain leash, and brings her into town. “Mercy can not speak a name, but she will show us the witch.” Mercy is writhing around like a wild animal. She starts heading for Mary, but Mary stares her down and Mercy backtracks and, under Mary’s spell, heads for Mr. Cory. She bites off her finger (bloody mess!) and points the stump at Cory.
At night, Tituba is preparing Mary for something ritualistic, again with the oil on her lips. Meanwhile, the guy who was originally in the stock when the show opened has befriended John, and tells him he’s seen witches in the woods and takes him to watch. There is a satanic bonfire scene, people wearing bloody animal heads and creatures rising from a tar pit (inter cut with images of Mary writhing on her bed). John can barely believe what he’s seeing. (Frankly, neither can I.) The friend he’s with screams, and the beasts in the satanic circle stop. One comes marching towards them but John shoots him with his shotgun.
Mary sits up in bed. “The circle has been broken.” Titula is distraught. “By who?”
Later, Mr. Cory is being strung up in town on suspicion of being a witch. He is crushed to death by stones, just as John arrives too late to save him. He stands in front of everyone and says “My father’s boots were the first in Salem, and I promise every one of you murdering, hypocritical Puritans that mine will be the last.” He looks across the square and sees Mary on her balcony. They exchange a complicated, tortured look between them.
Inside her house, Mary asks her associate Mr. Hale, “Who was in the woods? Who saw us?” Titula is standing beside her. Mr. Hale says he doesn’t know. She says well, she suggests he finds out. “The witch hunt has begun. And we will be running the trials.” The plan is that they will turn the townspeople against one another, until there is no one left. She turns to her husband, mute in his chair. “They will hunt, and they will kill, and they will drown in their very own blood. Until there are no Puritans left standing. And Salem is ours.”
Does this go for her former lover, John? I can’t wait to find out!