Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers from Season One of Siempre Bruja.
There’s a scene late in the eighth episode of Netflix’s new international teen series, Siempre Bruja (distributed in the U.S. as Always a Witch), in which the non-magical modern friends of time-traveling bruja Carmen Eguiluz (a luminous Angely Gaviria) get together to hypnotize one of their number into remembering a secret she’s locked deep in her memories. They choose to do this in the middle of a lush jungle, at the end of a long dock that stretches alongside the edge of a wide, blue pool dotted with flamingos. The moment the gold watch starts swinging, an older Indigenous man—a family friend of the girl about to be hypnotized—wanders over (from who knows where) to warn the kids about messing with power they aren’t equipped to handle. After the barest of explanations, the man agrees to help, and pulls the ingredients for a real hypnosis spell out from the cloth bag he just happens to have at his side (sure!). Seconds after Carmen’s friend goes under, she remembers one fact she locked away: Her kidnapper, a good sorcerer they’re trying to exonerate (don’t ask) did everything he did because of how deeply in love he is with Carmen (seriously, don’t ask). At the moment of revelation, the girl jolts awake in joy and the flock of flamingos takes wing, the camera panning high to catch the blush-pink birds’ ascent in its full, Instagram-ready majesty.
This scene is Siempre Bruja in perfect miniature: Gorgeous to look at, void of just about anything resembling sense, and as glitteringly shallow as the water the flamingos were standing in, all before transforming into a heavy-handed metaphor. It is also, like the series as a whole, shot through with a metric ton of wildly problematic plot threads—for example, the fact that Esteban (Sebastian Eslava), the sorcerer so in love with the time-traveling Carmen that he sees kidnapping one of her best friends as a logical means to an end, is also one of her university instructors. Or the fact that Carmen’s time-traveling started in 1646, when she had not only been burned at the stake as a witch, but was also a slave. Or the fact that Carmen wasn’t with her friends on the dock because she chose to go back to 1646 to reunite with her true love, Cristobal (Lenard Vanderaa), the white son of the family who owned her. Who owned her.
These plot threads are real. These plot threads are what Netflix apparently looked at and said “YES, THAT” when presented with the opportunity to partner with Colombia’s Caracól Television to tell the story of an Afro-Latina bruja escaped from slavery in the 17th century and washed up on the shores of Cartagena in 2019. These plot threads are what wrap themselves around Carmen and squeeze until the only real choice she has is between a romance with the 17th-century man who bought her and a romance with the 21st-century man who kidnapped her friend/is her professor, a choice as boring as it is morally disastrous. What’s more, with the specter of this love triangle hanging over the whole season, every other story that might benefit from sustained attention—not least Carmen processing the various traumas and shocks both escaping slavery and traveling four centuries forward in race relations had to have had on her psyche—is starved of oxygen. If Carmen is Afro-Latina and only recently escaped from the time in which she was a slave, Twitter rose up almost immediately to fairly point out, those facts should have an impact on both the direction her story takes, and the complexity with which it unfolds, an impact beyond her wide-eyed wonder at her access to education, and her equally wide-eyed certainty that her new, 21st-century sense of individual self-worth will somehow just make things better when she returns to Cristobal and her enslaved friends in 1646. (The series demonstrates just how direly it misunderstands the true horror of slavery by having those friends try to revolt against their master by declaring, “Carmen told us that in the future slaves only work eight hours a day, get paid, and have Sundays off!”) Carmen’s own proclamation that “Freedom is not a gift they give you, it’s a right” is the only genuinely considered thought any character gets to have about slavery in the entirety of Season One.
As Kayla Sutton notes in her excellent AV Club piece on the egregiousness of the series’ many racist tropes, it’s possible the majority-white creative team behind Siempre Bruja intended Carmen’s to be “a story of aspiration as opposed to a story of oppression and overcoming.” The problem with this theory, though, is that Siempre Bruja tries to tackle the Big Ideas behind personal/feminist aspiration repeatedly and with much earnestness… and it is just as ill-equipped to take them on with any kind of depth as it is to honestly address Carmen’s blackness in either century. The series is too much of a lightweight. No trauma is mined past the surface-level conflict central to the episode it’s found in. No dramatic revelation takes root deep enough to lift the story to new, more complex heights. There is no nuance. Literally, the first two lines of the first episode, spoken by the priest leading Carmen to her pyre, are: “We fear women because they tempt, they seduce, and they think. We fear women who do not obey, who rise up, who question.” Similarly banal lines litter each episode.Siempre Bruja is consistently certain that saying the quiet part loud is profound, and just as consistently wrong in that judgment.
This all sounds like I’m coming down hard on the series, but the truth is, I genuinely like watching it. Visually, it’s gorgeous—lush, bright, totally soothing. The soundtrack is bumpin’. The ensemble’s chemistry is hot hot hot. And, not for nothing, having to keep my eyes trained on the screen to keep up with the subtitles gave me the perfect excuse to put my phone down and just be. Aside from the fact that it fails nearly every progressive storytelling test 2019 might give it, and the fact that the writing has the intellectual depth of a rain puddle, and the fact that only about five percent of Carmen’s brujeria makes any sense at all (brujeria is literally the show’s premise, and I couldn’t be paid to explain a single fact about the mythology behind Carmen’s powers), Siempre Bruja is a legitimately good time.
It’s just that, in 2019, even TV shows that are just out for a good time need to be doing more.
Luckily, Johny Ki’s (Dylan Fuentes) giant pirate-shaped cliffhanger at the end of the tenth episode suggests that a second season may eventually be on the horizon. Here’s hoping the writers get the message in the meantime, and find the range to take on the stories they’re already telling. I’m ready for another season of gorgeous, slightly less-shallow fun.
Siempre Bruja (Always a Witch) is now streaming on Netflix.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.