There is nothing I love more in serialized television than a Good Holiday Episode. Custom-built to be a fun, zippy miniature of the series it belongs to, a Good Holiday Episode will concentrate everything you love about a show into a glittering, character-rich bauble that will make you say, “Yes, this is the world—and these, the fictional weirdos who live in it—that I love.” Obviously, I am partial to television’s many and varied Halloween outings, but I’m no Grinch: Give me some excellent winter holiday magic and I’ll still be yours forever (or at least until the festive season ends).
It is thus with a heavy heart that I report that “A Midwinter’s Tale,” Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’s magic-filled contribution to the flood of original holiday content Netflix is trying its hand at this year, is not a Good Holiday Episode. For a dozen reasons, each equally to blame, “A Midwinter’s Tale,” rather than condensing the best elements of CAoS into a blackly glittering, witchy holiday treat, sees those elements evanesce into nothingness. I left the first half of the series’ debut season curious about where it might be going next. I left “A Midwinter’s Tale” baffled about how it might go anywhere next at all.
Here, as briefly as I can manage, is an outline of the episode: As both Christmas and the Winter Solstice approach, Sabrina Spellman (Kiernan Shipka) and her family prepare for the longest night of the year by lighting their evil-repelling family Yule Log, expositing all the while at excruciating length about the various plots they each left the fall finale entrenched in. Inspired by a photo ornament she finds of her baby self with her now-dead parents, Sabrina gets it in her head to conduct a seance to try to contact her mother, who, thanks to further bouts of exposition, we are reminded is stuck in limbo. Bafflingly, Sabrina first asks her human friends Susie (Lachlan Watson) and Ros (Jaz Sinclair) to help her conduct this seance, then, after they extremely understandably say no (“Is it too soon? Or too weird? Both?” Sabrina asks, shocked, when she sees the baffled horror on her friends’ faces. “Too soon,” says Susie. “Too weird,” says Ros), she goes on to ask the witchy Weird Sisters for help instead. In the course of the seance, ghostly wind blows the Spellmans’ Yule Log out, at which point a certain festive (and mildly cannibalistic) brand of hell breaks loose. There’s absolutely no need for more plot to be stuffed in, but while all this seance vs. Yule Log chaos is happening, Susie, basically stranded on a completely different show, has signed on to work as an elf in the local Santaland hot spot, where it ultimately turns out that (wouldn’t you know it) there’s a different kind of evil afoot. Harvey (Ross Lynch) and Madame Satan (Michelle Gomez) have nothing to do in any of these stories—literally, where would there be room?!—but they make appearances all the same.
Here’s the thing: A Good Holiday Episode needs to start with show’s characters in some kind of holding pattern. It’s not that major character or plot developments can’t happen during the episode—the Pretty Little Liars Christmas episode, for just one of my favorite examples, contained no fewer than twelve major character/mystery bombshells—but the familiar, strict outlines of holiday-based story arcs require that the characters at least start from a place of semi-calm normality. Holidays are about traditions, and the bones of those traditions need to be firmly in place for a Good Holiday Episode to have something solid to weave itself around.
Normal is not where Chilling Adventures of Sabrina left off. Where Chilling Adventures of Sabrina left off [SPOILERS] was Apocalypse nearly descending on Greendale, stopped only by Sabrina finally signing her name in the Dark Lord’s Satanic book mere moments after coming out to her friends as a witch—at which point her hair turned white, and her joy at living on the cliff’s edge of evil cranked up to eleven. Where Chilling Adventures of Sabrina left off was Zelda Spellman (Miranda Otto) absconding with the girl twin of the Herod-esque High Priest’s recently born babies, and Cousin Ambrose (Chance Perdomo) being roped into supporting the more misogynistic, revanchist faction of the coven, and Miss Wardwell revealing herself to the audience to be a scheming Madame Satan. Where Chilling Adventures of Sabrina left off was at the top of a cascading series of steeper and steeper cliffs, each one promising some really interesting emotional and narrative falls when the show returns early next year.
A series of steep cliffs does not the bones of a Good Holiday Episode make.
To its credit, CAoS seems to know this, which is why it leaps past all the sticky emotional work a newly Dark-Lorded Sabrina would have had to do, both internally and externally, to renegotiate her place in the human world, why it bulldozes through the implications of both Sabrina’s learning her mom is in limbo and Zelda’s kidnapping a baby, and why it completely ignores the revelations of both Ambrose’s new associations within the coven and Miss Wardwell’s true identity. Without those big picture obstacles in the way, the Spellmans et al. might be able to have at least the semblance of a fun, freaky and festive Yule holiday.
The thing is—duh—those big picture obstacles to freaky, festive fun were the whole point of the series’ first ten episodes. To leap over, bulldoze, or totally ignore them does not make that fact less true, and to try and treat each big picture obstacle like a minor irritation to be dealt with breezily over the course of a single long Yule’s night is… insulting. And boring! It literally took me two days to finish this hour-long episode. Two non-consecutive days. I got bored at all the exposition in the first fifteen minutes and turned it off, only returning to it days later when I remembered I was on assignment.
What, you might be wondering, would I have wanted the show to do for its big holiday special instead of try its best to pick up where “Chapter Ten” left off? Well, Susie’s horror story could easily have been the focal point of the whole episode, with the Spellmans having to come to her rescue despite Sabrina’s partial estrangement from her and Ros—an option which would also have allowed Harvey to do more to do than grieve/be confounded at Sabrina’s continued inability to read the non-magical room. (FYI, if sweet smol Susie’s horror story is the kind of festive story your TV-loving heart desires, bump Syfy’s Happy to the top of your watch list. There, at least, you’ll get holiday horror and a satisfying emotional arc.) Similarly, the Yule Log chaos held plenty of interest for a whole episode… if, that is, the episode had been set a year before the events of the first season. Give us a spooky Yule prequel! Let us see baby Sabrina in her almost-magical, un-disillusioned element, while we know all the the wild things looming so near in her future! That would also have given Harvey more to do throughout the episode, and would, as a bonus, have given Michelle Gomez the chance to embody the original Miss Wardwell in all her undemonic English teacher mildness. Would the Weird Sisters have had a place in that story? Maybe not, but they were Sabrina’s nemeses long before we met them; they could easily have been her nemeses then.
The point is: “A Midwinter’s Tale” could have been great, if it had been a capsule episode that let us loll about in the semi-calm normality of Sabrina’s old world without spoiling the big picture stories of her new reality they spent so much of the show’s debut season crafting. And frustratingly, “Chapter Five: Dreams in a Witch House”—an episode which, like “A Midwinter’s Tale,” also saw the Spellman Mortuary beset by an invisible, troublemaking demonic presence—showed us just how skilled CAoS can be at creating an atmospheric, self-contained corker.
Lest you come away from this downer of a review believing I really am a Grinch, let me reassure you that there were several details in “A Midwinter’s Tale” that I truly enjoyed: The actors chosen for Young Sabrina (McKenna Grace) and Young Susie (not credited) were so good I wanted to give the casting director an award, and the already ace title sequence got a tiny holiday update, replacing the normal card showcasing the Archie comics’ original take on Sabrina with one of the more wholesome version of the Spellman family dressed for winter and watching Santa fly through the sky. Cousin Ambrose (Chance Perdomo) also got to put on a snazzy suit, and while that was only to let him go stare sappily at his creepily silent beau from the balcony of a hip warlock lounge fancied up for the Solstice, it was at least nice to look at.
Ultimately, no one is as disappointed as I am to come down so hard on Sabrina this bright Solstice season. I found much more to like in the first half of CAoS’s debut season than Paste’s Amy Amatangelo did, and I was so ready to balance out Paste’s coverage of the show with a glowing review of “A Midwinter’s Tale.” That I couldn’t manage to find much to glow about is a huge bummer, and, at least for me, bodes ill for the future. But I do still want to love the show, and want it to succeed, so you can bet I’ll be tuning in next spring when the second part of Season One drops. Maybe I’ll find something to glow about then.
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’s holiday special, “A Midwinter’s Tale,” is now streaming on Netflix.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic whose writing has appeared on Forever Young Adult, Screener, and Birth.Movies.Death. She’ll go ten rounds fighting for teens and intelligently executed genre fare to be taken seriously by pop culture. She can be found @AlexisKG.