A Fan’s Eye View of Witches of East End

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Julia Ormond stars in the Witches of East End. Photo by James Dittiger Copyright 2014

Bewitching – why a trashy little Lifetime show about witches turned out to be one of the best things on TV

Since Witches of East End actually “went there” and killed off Wendy in the season 2 finale, I’ve been trying to figure out how on earth I became this invested in a trashy show about witches. I’m not entirely sure, but here goes my attempt to process the loss of Wendy, and why Wendy & Joanna are fabulous television… 

Two weeks ago, I stopped watching Nashville. It was a conscious decision. I’d followed Connie Britton (of Friday Night Lights) into a show that should have been incredible, and instead I found myself hating it more and more: never-ending love triangles, a constant stream of dull new characters, a fixation with turning Connie’s character into a saint who never had to deal with real-world consequences for her shitty choices, a good actress wasted in a dead-end melodrama. When the season three premiere turned up the soap factor even higher, I decided it was time to tune out. And yet, this week I found myself crying right along with the immortal witch Joanna over the death of her sister Wendy, a shape-shifting witch who had given up what remained of the last of her nine lives for someone else. From Joanna weeping over her sister’s body, the show headed on over to a pool party in hell, where Wendy was greeted by a mysterious third sister in a bright red cloak. I sat there, mouth wide open. When the credits began to roll, I may have uttered a string of expletives. I need season three NOW. What on earth has this trashy little show about witches done so right?

To explain how I started watching a show about witches when I’d never been particularly into science fiction or fantasy, you need to look at casting. I’ve been a fan of Julia Ormond’s work for many years. She’s one of those actresses who elevates almost any script, and trust me, she’s been in some clunkers. But when she’s got good material and good co-stars, she just runs with it. If you’ve seen her in TraffikTemple Grandin or her brief guest-stint as O’Hara’s globe-trotting girlfriend on Nurse Jackie, you know what I mean. But I really didn’t have high hopes when I read on Deadline that she’d signed on for a show about witches on Lifetime. Did she have to pay the mortgage that badly?

(L to R) Jenna Dewan Tatum, Julia Ormond and Madchen Amick.  Photo by James Dittiger Copyright 2014
(L to R) Jenna Dewan Tatum, Julia Ormond and Madchen Amick. Photo by James Dittiger
Copyright 2014

Within four episodes, however, I quickly realised that this show was far more than a show about witches. Instead, in the capable hands of Julia, Madchen Amick and the show’s writers and producers, it became a show about family relationships, inter-generational support, power and loss. It had stupid things like an immortal historian which totally broke my brain, being an historian myself. (I’ve lost count of the number of times this idea has kept me entertained when bored at seminars and conferences. Seriously. Think about it: what if one person in every history department was immortal… but don’t think too hard in case I want to turn this idea into a book one day.) This show knew it was slightly trashy and never took itself too seriously. But mostly, in spite of all its supernatural leanings, the ‘adults’ —sorry Freya and Ingrid!— felt refreshingly human.

For all the talk about us experiencing a ‘golden age’ of television right now, there’s still a massive lack of series where the action is driven by female characters, and among the shows where it is, there still seem to be way too few three-dimensional women that seem ‘real’, for lack of a better term, especially away from HBO, Showtime and Netflix. The new CBS show Madam Secretary, while featuring a woman as an ex-CIA-turned-college-professor-turned-Secretary-of-State as its central character, is turning into yet another show about super-women who “have it all”. That’s just not engaging, especially not in this day and age where competent, successful women can still be decried for consciously choosing not to have children, and stay-at-home-mom is used as a slur. Give me Tea Leoni’s train-wreck character in Spanglish any day over Madam Secretary.

Witches of East End, however, feels almost ground-breaking— a basic-cable show where the action is entirely led by four women who don’t bicker but support each other, who all have flaws which enrich their fictional characters.  Sisters Wendy and Joanna had been estranged for many years, but in the pilot episode, Wendy came to Joanna’s house because she sensed Joanna’s life was in danger and needed her help. Joanna constantly hid the truth from people close to her to protect them. Even though she’d done so with the best intentions of protecting her daughters, Joanna had been far from a perfect mother to her now grown-up daughters over the years. There were consequences for her actions, but, refreshingly, they bore none of the sadly-still-common hallmarks of teaching a flawed female character ‘a lesson’.

Because Joanna is immortal, we gradually discovered that she had a string of immortal lovers who came in and out of her life across centuries. She reconnected with them and sometimes they had sex. Sometimes Joanna left; sometimes they did. Rather than be constant sources of heartache and despair, these men and women came to help Joanna and she was better because of them. Please find me a show where female characters above the age of 40 have relationships like this without any other character judging them for it; I can count them on one hand. Wendy had many more casual dalliances across seasons one and two, but again, nobody judged her for it. Even when Joanna suggested to Wendy that her commitment phobia was no longer appropriate because she was on her last life, note that at no time did anyone imply that Wendy had been ‘easy’ or ‘promiscuous. Wendy is “the fun aunt”.

Season two of Witches of East End has featured plenty of crazy, from tentacle-porn monsters and time doors, to more bad CGI than you can shake a magic wand at, but, in spite of the crazy, Joanna and Wendy have remained grounded in reality.  By taking the ballsy step of killing Wendy who is easily the show’s most popular character, the writers not only brought home Joanna’s constant cycle of burying the ones she loves to us the viewers, but they also followed through with something that’s been carefully set up this entire season. If this season had one over-arching theme it was the fracturing of family, which in Joanna’s case was mostly loss: the death of her former partner Victor, her ex-girlfriend Alex’s departure, the (temporary) death of her daughters Freya and Ingrid which resulted in Joanna’s suicide attempt, and now, finally, the death of her sister Wendy, the character we all adore. Thus, Joanna’s grief is real but it doesn’t feel gratuitous. This is not some kind of tragic heroine scenario here. Instead, I’m looking forward to season three (which there had better be) where we see Joanna develop as a character because of all that has happened to her in season two, as she deals with the negative consequences of immortality, but also exploring how grief might bring her and her daughters together as an even stronger unit and serving as an impetus for the three witches to try to bring Wendy back. Hello seances!

We also know  that this show will introduce more trouble in the form of the third sister, Helena, who gathers souls in the underworld. On paper, she sounds like a villain, but I have every confidence that instead of bitch fighting between sisters, Witches of East End will use Helena* to enrich the family dynamic, elevating the established characters while simultaneously not portraying them as flawless saints. It’s what this show does best: strong female characters who support each other, fuck up, and keep on having each others’ backs between all the bad CGI effects.  And that, ladies and gentlemen,  is why I grew to love a trashy little show about witches. It might just be one of the most refreshing, feminist-ing shows on television.

*… and if you need any convincing that Melrose Place alum Daphne Zuniga just has to play Helena and could totally hold her own against the talents of Julia Ormond and Madchen Amick, please watch the episode of Nip/Tuck that she guest starred on (find episode 5×01 on Netflix). This woman is stupidly talented. She’d totally pass as a relative. It’s a no-brainer and has to happen.

This essay was written by 'Fiona Bentfield' and originally posted at Another Electric Picture Hall. Original post can be found here. Many thanks to Fiona for allowing me to re-post.
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