Cotton Mather has come to American television with the new show Salem. Mather has a long pop-culture history — from a Marvel supervillain fighting Spiderman to jokey New Yorker film reviews written in his name — but this would seem to be the first time he’s been a main character on a TV drama. Now, with Salem, Cotton Mather is at the center of a WGN America cable show airing on Sunday nights.
Or maybe not.
As Kelli McCoy and Rick Kennedy write of their review of the show for Books & Culture, “Cotton Mather continues in his standard role as the minister all viewers love to hate.” Salem, it seems, has decided to follow the tradition that started in the slander of Robert Calef. McCoy and Kennedy explain:
“Although Mather never led a witch hunt, never was at any of the Salem witch trials, and did not agree that the evidence presented in the trials was sufficient to convict anyone of being a witch, Calef fixated on him as the cause of the witchcraft hysteria. Calef’s wild and scurrilous collection of anti-Mather material was published in London, and ever since there has been a weak but written foundation for presenting Mather as somehow central to the Salem story.”
Salem is not particularly interested in historical accuracy. It’s probably not really helpful to judge it by that standard, though there are certainly also historians who take pleasure from pointing out anachronisms. Salem has enough, big and small, to keep such viewers busy.
The Mather of this show is the Mather who is obsessed with witches, with devils, with the Devil, and with the apocalyptic battle he believes is centered on the colonial town of Salem. Mather, played by Seth Gabel, is first seen in the first episode (spoiler alert) preaching this message from the pulpit. He is preaching about witches. It escalates quickly to a high-volume rant about the stakes of the Puritan vision of a city on a hill, the dangers of this errand into the wilderness.
“The Devil was never going to let a promised land be built here without a fight,” he yells as the gathered congregation, “without a battle.”
In the tradition of pop culture Puritans, Mather is a fanatic. And also — as always — a hypocrite. A few scenes after he’s shown ranting about witches in church, Mather is shown in a brothel having sex with a prostitute. Because he’s both hypocrite and fanatic, however, Mather doesn’t just have sex with the prostitute, he shouts scripture while having sex with a prostitute. “Woe to the inhabiters of the earth and of the sea!,” says Mather, “for the devil is come down unto you, having great wrath, because he knoweth that he hath but a short time.” He helpfully cites chapter and verse: Revelation 12:12.
This is the status quo, of course, with representations of Puritans and of Mather in particular, since he’s imagined as the Puritan par excellence. His moral character is harshly judged, and by contemporary standards. Historian Harry Stout, in the preface to the collection Cotton Mather and the Biblia Americana — America’s First Bible Commentary, co-edited by Jonathan Edwards Center Germany director Jan Stievermann, notes that Mather is often condemned on the basis of psychological interpretations of what was really going on with him. While there are reasons to question the accuracy of psychotherapeutic diagnoses from across centuries, the Puritan practices of self-examination and the discovery of election perhaps lend themselves to unsympathetic readings.
“There is a long line of scholars,” Stout writes, “who have primarily judged Mather by his diary and found him guilty of vanity and egocentrism masquerading as Christian humility.”
To that long line, we can now add the television show Salem. Which is not to say that the representation here is entirely unsympathetic. Gabel, who played a recurring character on the show Fringe and also acted in the 2006 film The Da Vinci Code, plays Mather as someone engaged in a great internal struggle. He’s not simply a fraud or bigot, not straight-forwardly the villain. He is internally conflicted. Gabel explains:
“What I loved so much about the character was how tortured he was and how repressed he was and at the same time, how much he wanted to break free of all of the oppression in the society that he’s grown up in . . . He’s a person who has wonder and curiosity about the world that he lives in, but the society around him doesn’t encourage that, and all of his natural instincts are repressed by everyone around him and so as a result of that, he ends up exploding into chaos and misbehavior.”
The actor has psychologized Mather, clearly, but more sympathetically that one might expect from a show that has Mather leading the hunt for witches.
But then, the show is even more fundamentally sympathetic to Mather than that. In this show, Mather is actually right. There are witches. They are conspiring in the night, consorting with supernatural entities at enmity with the Puritans, plotting chaos and death. Suspicion of the supernatural is shown as a tool of the Devil, rationalism only a cloak for evil.
In some cases, in the first episode, the demonic activity is presented an liminal. A woman gives her unborn child over to a demon, but the point of view is fevered and nightmarish. In other cases, though, Salem shows the supernatural evil in realistic terms, from the “objective” point of view of the reality of the show. A character looks at Mather skeptically while he spouts data about demons, but then he’s shown to be right. He says, for example, that demons take on the guise of small animals that feed on the blood of their victims, leaving tell-tale vampiric wounds. In a later scene, a witch feeds a “frog” from an open wound on her inner thigh. In this world, Mather knows what he’s talking about, at least to an extent.
McCoy and Kennedy:
“The creators of the show are presenting a revised version of American history that actually conforms, in the big picture, with Cotton Mather’s own assessment of the witch trials in his Magnalia Christi Americana (1702). In the Magnalia, Mather writes of Satan’s possession of America before the Puritans arrived. Satan and his minions are threatened by Puritan towns. The battle for Salem, Cotton believes, is a battle for the future good of America. Mather admits the trials were botched. There was ‘a conscientious endeavor to do right,’ he says, but the trials ‘proceeded from mistaken principles,’ and ‘there was a going too far.’ We can imagine Mather enjoying this aspect of the show.”
This aspect of the show has actually stirred some controversy, among critics. At the AV Club, where Salem was panned, Zach Handlen writes that this revisionist history makes the show intolerable.
“It’s inherently distasteful to suggest that not killing enough people was the true mistake the Puritans made,” he writes. “The premise isn’t simply that witches are real — it’s that these witches are, in fact, controlling Salem just as their accusers believed them to be.”
Handlen notes that the show is campy, though perhaps not campy enough. It owes its aesthetic less to Arthur Miller’s classic retelling of the Salem witch trials, The Crucible, than it does to the many blockbuster demon-possession movies that have crowded multiplexes in recent summers. This is probably the work of Salem‘s co-creator Adam Simon. Simon’s previous work includes writing the 2001 gangster-ghost-revenge movie Bones and the 2009 demon-possession film The Haunting in Connecticut. He has a deep history in horror, specializing in this genre. In his retelling of the story, Mather has something in common with all the flawed hero priests of exorcism cinema, even if most of them were Catholic while Mather is staunchly Puritan.
For critics who liked the show, the twist that Mather’s right about the witches was its strengths. The New York Times’ critic Ned Genzlinger described the premise as fearless and shameless. He used the word “spunk,” noting Salem “gleefully [goes] over the top from time to time just to make sure you’re paying attention.”
There is an audience paying attention. The first three episodes averaged a viewership of about 1.7 million, and WGN America has announced Salem will get a second season in 2015.
For better or worse, Cotton Mather has his TV show for the foreseeable future, and it’s this one.
— Daniel Silliman
[Cross-posted at www.danielsilliman.blogspot.com]