motherland: fort salem
TV, 2020, 4 stars
Creator: Eliot Laurence
First Run: 2020-2022 (3 Seasons) - (Spoiler alert for the whole series)
How do you offer a critical response to something that you really love? Motherland: Fort Salem (or MFS) is one of my favourite shows for many different reasons, so I preface that it is difficult to have true objectivity as a self-declared fan, but I’ll give it my best shot.
Fantasy TV usually has to get two things right to succeed. First, fans must engage with and believe in the world that's been built. Second, fans must fall in love with and feel seen by the characters within it. For all its faults later in its run, the creators of MFS got those two things spectacularly right.
MFS has a passionate fan base for good reason. It has a beloved canonical queer couple, at least one other compelling non-canon queer ship, an ensemble cast of women playing characters with authority, strength, purpose and power, a distinct style and aesthetic that influences costumes, sets, lighting and cinematography, and an internally consistent, complex fantasy world.
The basics are this. Imagine the Salem witch trials ended with an accord. Government persecution stops, but in exchange all witches must form an army to defend the country, leading to a system of compulsory conscription which is embraced by some, tolerated by many, and deeply resented by others. Power structures and bloodlines evolve over the centuries leaving witch society in a fractured state of haves and have nots, with outcasts and rebels who choose to either run or fight back.
MFS is wildly ambitious. It has big, high-concept stories to tell. There is an awful lot to learn in order to become absorbed, but no more so than something like The 100, and the pilot episode that spells it out is one of the best I’ve ever seen. It’s Battlestar Galactica good. MFS was never going to attract a huge audience on its America-only network, queer scifi themes, complex plots, odd concepts, and limited marketing budget - but it doesn’t at all lack vision.
Those big dreams are what caused it to occasionally derail. Considering this was made and ran from 2019 to 2022 it’s kind of amazing it got made at all. With more episodes, no pandemic, and less bad luck like the kind that saw breakout star Taylor Hickson forced miss a huge chunk of season three (she's fine, thankfully), they could have taken more care with the unravelling of all the complex plot points. The last three episodes try to tell more story than most shows try to tell in entire seasons, and MFS felt awkward and rushed towards its conclusion as a result.
There is no doubt though that late season one, all season two, and maybe the first 3 episodes of Season 3 of MFS are near-flawless fantasy television. A lot of fans adore the beginning of season 1 as well as this period is heavy on worldbuilding and romance, but it was still finding its feet.
It’s a technical masterpiece, and rewards repeat viewing to work through the complexity. On what was likely my eighth or so rewatch of season one I was still going “ohhhh, I see what they did there” on a regular basis. Again, this is another reason why being a ratings blockbuster was probably never on the cards. A decade ago this show couldn’t have been made, but MFS does make me desperately miss the slow burn storytelling possible across a 23-episode season.
When we meet our three MFS heroines, Tally Craven (Jessica Sutton), Abigail Bellweather (Ashley Nicole Williams) and Raelle Collar (Taylor Hickson), they all have different, conflicting reasons for being in the army. They are thrown together as a Unit for basic training and soon realise they have a unique bond and complementary powers.
Outside the army, dodgers run from the draft, while terrorist organisation The Spree actively kills civilians to make a point about conscription being witch slavery. The scene is set early for witch-on-witch turmoil at a macro and personal level, but eventually they realise that witches need to stop fighting each other in order to face a bigger enemy hell-bent on their destruction.
The military world of MFS is a matriarchal structure that puts women in the seats of power. It also disregards heterocentrist norms. There's no queer in this world. There's witch and civilian, there’s definitely male and female (which causes non-binary issues that were unexpectedly addressed in season three), but there's no gay and straight.
Sexuality in all its forms from the very first episode is about women celebrating sex with whomever they wish to have it. Sexual energy is a power source, and their sex lives are a natural, essential part of existence, like sleeping and breathing. The writers give sex and romance a lot of air time - all perfectly M-rated - and the show is all the better for it.
What MFS did very well was establish emotional bonds between characters. If you’re going to love MFS it will be because of this. The fiery, unit relationship of Raelle, Tally and Abigail is addictive. Their drill sergeant Anacostia Quartermain (Demetria McKinney) is a strong presence, but it’s her unexpected bond with terrorist Scylla Ramshorn that resonates. General Sarah Alder is a beast of a role and Lyne Renée owns the bombastic side of her, but her greatest moments are the quieter ones she shares with Tally and Anacostia.
The canonical couple is Raelle and Scylla. Hickson is note perfect for Raelle - she’s scrappy, disrepectful, and tormented. Amalia Holm gives Scylla her bad girl rage and darkness but also her playfulness and humour (and amazing eye colour). Together they’re angsty, flawed, and share off-the-charts chemistry. Just watch the pilot. Just… do it. You’ll see what I mean.
In the end this was a relatively low budget, complicated show about militarised witches so I don't want to overstate things, but there was an almost startling level of queer representation, something only matched in fantasy TV by shows like Wynnona Earp, Lost Girl (bless these brilliant Canadians), Warrior Nun, and Willow.
MFS has something perhaps only Lost Girl shares with it - in your face sexuality, with women taking and controlling their own power. Hickson and Holm portrayed a multi-faceted, complicated, unequivocally sexually-charged relationship from the pilot to the finale. There’s no ambiguity here, no queerbaiting, their love was interwoven completely into all major plotlines. They had rich, in your face intimacy, both physical and emotional. This is not normal, and it’s so much fun.
The actors are perfectly cast relative unknowns, and they commit. The chemistry flies off the screen, not just from the core group but also from the key supporting cast. Offscreen, the cast engaged with their fans on a granular level and knew it was important to respect what the queer visibility meant for fans. All this combined is a really big deal.
Ironically, in season three Scylla laments to Raelle that she wishes they had more time. Considering when it’s said, I think the MFS writers inserted it in protest. Characters literally moved mountains, got tortured, travelled vast distances, were redeemed, lost and found, fought battles, and escaped endless sticky situations in off-camera asides that are told to us to basically move the story along. This same story told more slowly and stretched across another season (or two) would have been captivating.
Still, this all-inclusive, feminist fantasy world with a queer vision is riotously entertaining, sometimes violent, shamelessly romantic, and endlessly fun. Hats off to you Eliot Laurence. Credit where it’s due, Motherland: Fort Salem will live rent-free in my head for a long time to come.
PS - Taylor Hickson redeemed the entire concept of lesbians kissing each other’s fingertips. I’m not even sure she knew it was a tired trope before she busted it and made it her own love language. I’m either going to have to rename this site, or dedicate it to her!