If an alternate universe in which combat-trained witches defend America sounds like the perfect fictional escape right now, then I raise you Motherland: Fort Salem, a new series from Freeform.
The queer-inclusive saga is the brainchild of gay showrunner Eliot Laurence, who saw the concept through multiple incarnations, including a book series, before selling the IP to the Disney-owned cable channel. In this ’verse, the ladies of the infamous Salem witch trials struck a deal with the U.S. government to serve in the military in order to avoid persecution, and their modern-day descendants have followed suit.
It’s clear why the television series wasn’t an easy sell. The witches of Motherland operate as a matriarchy, and the story openly acknowledges that they are more powerful than their male counterparts. The show isn’t perfect, either: Its intriguing concept is marred by a confusing time line, a poorly explained mythology, and underdeveloped characters. But in these darker days, Motherland’s feminist ethos—and Laurence’s refreshing addition of a queer teen antagonist—strike a chord.
As far as teen protagonists on TV go, Raelle (played by Taylor Hickson) skews more “antihero” than “hero”; Laurence describes the witch, who begrudgingly conscripts to join the U.S. Army when she turns 18, as having “a big chip on her shoulder.” Raelle’s humble upbringing in the rural Cession makes her an easy target for the posh, thoroughbred witches in her training encampment at Fort Salem, and she openly blames the army for the untimely death of her mother, a fellow witch who died in the line of duty.
“Raelle is somebody who will sacrifice herself for somebody else,” Laurence tells NewNowNext. “So in a way she’s a hero—but a very troubled, dark version of a hero.”
Sparks fly almost immediately—I’m talking “hot-and-heavy make-out scene in the pilot” immediately—between Raelle and the elusive, raven-haired Scylla (Amalia Holm), another army recruit at Fort Salem. Scylla encourages Raelle’s rebellious tendencies, and the pair run away from their fellow soldiers in training to explore the camp, do a drug called “salva,” and have steamy lesbian sex in their rooms.
But Scylla isn’t your average teen rule breaker. Viewers quickly become privy to the fact that she’s hiding a big secret from Raelle—and is seemingly allied with the Spree, the witch-led, anti-military resistance group killing innocent people in random acts of terror.
“Scylla has reasons for being the way she is, but she’s just fiercely, fiercely intelligent,” Laurence says. “She travels with a lot of personal pain, and she wears a lot of faces and keeps you guessing.”
In a time line in which witches lead the charge in America’s military, it almost feels inconsequential to focus on one queer army recruit’s characterization as an antagonist. But that’s precisely why Scylla is so refreshing: She’s a queer woman whose primary function is, ostensibly, to work against the good guys. We are made to peel back her layers—her backstory, her true allegiance, how much she actually cares about Raelle. Really, anything but her queerness.
Is Motherland the first TV show to feature a queer antagonist? No, not even for Freeform. Queer Gen Zers who grew up watching Pretty Little Liars when the network was still ABC Family will remember complex characters like Paige (Lindsey Shaw) and Alison (Sasha Pieterse), both of whom had tumultuous queer relationships with a central character and were, at various moments in the show’s seven-season run, rather villainous. And the cursed Heathers TV reboot, which never got the full premiere treatment from Paramount due to America’s gun violence epidemic, also put queer antagonists front and center, making Heather McNamara (Jasmine Mathews) a black lesbian and Heath “Heather” Duke (Brendan Scannell) genderqueer.
But in the witchy world of Motherland, nobody harps on Scylla or Raelle’s sexual orientations, nor do they make a spectacle of their budding relationship. There’s no coming-out moment. Raelle and Scylla are ostracized at times, sure, but being queer is never the reason why.
In allowing Scylla to be a complicated figure with questionable motives, Motherland has done an important thing for young queer TV characters: afforded them the opportunity to be more dimensional, just like their cisgender, heterosexual peers. It’s a welcome sign of change. LGBTQ characters are no longer so scarce that screenwriters feel pressure to make them wounded, stereotype-heavy hero archetypes, or the queer-coded animated villains so many of us grew up with. The queer community is not a monolith, nor do all LGBTQ people share the same ethical or moral values. We’re moving beyond the narrative of the canonically queer hero in TV and film because society is catching up to the fact that queerness is not synonymous with righteousness.
Asked about Scylla’s story arc, Laurence recalls TNT’s Claws, another TV project he led that is similarly subversive and unexpected in its dark, gritty portrayal of women. “One of the foundational ideas behind Claws was this question, ’Can women be as bad as guys? Can they be bad in a way that is not linked to some kind of personal trauma? And can they be bad in a way that we don’t have to apologize for and find other ways for them to be nurturing, to balance it out?'”
Laurence thinks of Scylla that way, too. He felt it was essential to humanize Motherland’s queer characters, thereby “allowing people to not be [fully realized] and not perfect—not symbols for things.”
“I think if we allow marginalized people to be fully human,” he says, “then we can let ourselves see some of the bad stuff, and forgive them anyway.”
Motherland: Fort Salem airs Wednesdays at 9pm ET on Freeform.
Main image: Amalia Holm as Scylla in Motherland: Fort Salem.