The Carnival Comes to Town in 'Chilling Adventures of Sabrina' Chapter 23 (RECAP)
[Warning: The below contains MAJOR spoilers for Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Chapter 23, "Heavy is the Crown."]
Roll up, roll up, for all the fun of the fair! Come ride the Tunnel of Love. Stuff yourself with corndogs until you're sick. Fight to the death with the zombie King Herod. Wait... what was that last one? That's right; the carnival has arrived in Greendale, and with it, a deliciously entertaining episode of horror hoopla for all the family to enjoy!
You know, in the past year or so, I've come to really admire shows that don't take themselves too seriously. I think the 2010s were defined by "gritty dramas" — your True Detectives and your Night Ofs and your Narcos. It was all craggy-faced protagonists and moody atmospherics with visuals so dark you had to turn your TV brightness up to full capacity. Don't get me wrong; I'm partial to a bit of grit, but it gets to a point where you crave something a little more colorful, playful, farcical even. It's why I loved The Witcher in all its ridiculous glory, and Chilling Adventures of Sabrina fulfills a similar hankering, and this episode is a prime example of what I mean.
What other show gives you a traveling circus of ancient magicians, a blood-stained, undead King Herod, and a witchy Fifty Shades of Grey style pulpy romance novel, all in the same episode? Sabrina isn't afraid to pile on the absurdity, and that's what makes it such a pleasurable viewing experience. It's not the most groundbreaking of TV shows, nor is it up there with the best of prestige drama, but it knows what it is and isn't ashamed of it in the slightest. Sabrina leans into its tabloid sex appeal and teenage theatrics and soaks it in gruesome imagery that pays homage to horror tropes of the past — in this case, the tried and tested trope of the spooky carnival.
As the circus sets up in Greendale, everyone is looking forward to letting their hair down for an evening of fun and games. Now that Nick (Gavin Leatherwood) is out of Hell and Lucifer-free, there is hope that things can return to normal — or at least what's considered normal by Sabrina standards. Sabrina (Keirnan Shipka) plans to make up for the lost time by playing hooky and spending the entire day with her boyfriend, but it's not so easy for Nick to just move on and pretend to be a happy couple again. Having the Devil inside you is not something you can just shake off and forget like a bad hangover.
It's a welcome change of pace to see the usually cool and nonchalant Nick stressed and vulnerable; for one, it allows Leatherwood to show more range than cocky quips and smoldering looks. If it's not the nightmares reminding him of the ordeal, it's the club foot that refuses to return to normal. Nick is genuinely traumatized, and it doesn't help when Agatha (Adeline Rudolph) and Dorcas (Abigail Cowen) mock his mangled foot and make sexual overtones about him being with Sabrina and her dad. In fact, it gets to him so much that he attempts an auto-amputation spell on his leg and tries sawing off his own foot — thankfully, it doesn't work.
Sabrina comforts her troubled beau and assures him that Lucifer (Luke Cook) is no longer inside him, that it's just in his head — a form of PTSD. But Sabrina is preoccupied with her own dramas to be fully present for Nick in his time of need, even though he's the one who tells her to focus on her Queen of Hell duties. The teenage monarch is summoned to the underworld to head up a round table meeting, where she orders an accounting of every soul in Hell, putting a lock on any future deals until all current ones are reviewed. But before she can continue, a challenge to her throne is made by surf-bro Caliban (Sam Corlett), who has gathered signatures from the highest born of Hell. I think this is the first time in history a petition has ever worked.
The challenge made is a quest for the Unholy Regalia — three of the most powerful occult objects in history that were lost to the ages. Whoever collects these items first can claim the throne, and the first object on the list is the crown of baby-slaughtering King Herod (Ian Rozylo). For as much as Sabrina claims to hate Hell, there is part of her that enjoys the power, and she accepts the Satanic scavenger hunt, though she later wonders if she's stepped into a rigged game. However, with the help of her cousin Ambrose (Chance Perdomo) and his expert research skills, the pair are able to track down the ancient headpiece to a neighboring town... Riverdale!
I was a little worried here that we were about to get a full-on crossover episode. Luckily, that's not what happens. It's more of a fan-pleasing, wink-and-nod reference. Don't get me wrong, I'm sure an eventual Sabrina and Riverdale crossover episode is inevitable, and it's something that could work, but I think it's still too early right now. Sabrina can stand on its own hooved feet and doesn't need to rely on those kinds of gimmicks just yet. Plus, I don't watch Riverdale and would have spent the majority of the episode utterly confused. So for selfish reasons, I'm happy they kept it limited.
Ambrose and Sabrina head into the Riverdale forest and locate Herod's crown from within a tree trunk. Obviously, it's not that simple, though. Ambrose asks his cousin if he can borrow the treasure for a few hours so that he can study its magical properties and perhaps learn how to harness its powers to help strengthen the coven. Sabrina agrees and heads to the carnival. Little do they know, they've disturbed the crown's owner, King Herod, who steps out of the tree and follows them back to Greendale, attacking Ambrose, reclaiming the crown and declaring vengeance on Sabrina.
King Herod makes for a great monster-of-the-week villain with his rotting, blood-oozing flesh and demonic cries. And of course, his confrontation with Sabrina at the carnival brings the episode to an eventful crescendo. However, it's the cunning Caliban who swoops in to snatch the crown in the middle of the chaos and is more than happy to leave Sabrina and Nick to their potential demise. Luckily for the troubled lovers, Herod spends an age describing what he's going to do, providing enough time for Ambrose to make the save and blow him to fleshy pieces.
There is a lot going on at Professor Carcosa's Traveling Carnival and Phantasmagoria, which seemingly popped up out of nowhere. There are clearly ulterior motives beyond providing amusement and frivolities to the good folk of Greendale. Take Ms. Wardwell (Michelle Gomez), who enters a clairvoyant cubicle to ask about her missing fiance, Adam. The flippant fortune teller (Lucie Guest) reads Wardwell's palm and talks of Adam's death — while implying that the memory-troubled teacher was somehow involved. She also brings up that Wardwell and Adam never consummated their relationship.
Harvey (Ross Lynch) is equally embarrassed when Billy the jock (Ty Wood) bests him at a test-of-strength game. Already feeling insecure in his relationship, mostly because he hasn't had sex before and wonders how to approach the subject with Roz (Jaz Sinclair), Harvey storms off while his girlfriend laughs it up with her new popular kid friends. Harvey is really a bit of a sadsack and hard to like at times. Anyway, he wanders into an exotic dance show where a bunch of old men — including Harvey's dad — ogle at a sexy snake charmer (Vanessa Rubio), who gives Harvey a wink.
Then there's Theo (Lachlan Waston), who plucks up the courage to ask new kid Robin (Jonathan Whitesell) to the carnival. The two of them are bonding well, and during a Ferris wheel ride, Theo even opens up about his past. "I wasn't always Theo," he sheepishly confesses. Robin is unfazed — he really likes Theo. But when they share a kiss, it all starts to feel a little too good to be true. It's similar to the initial stages of the Dr. C (Alessandro Juliani) and Hilda (Lucy Davis) romance, though it worked out for those two eventually, and now they're engaged! But whenever a new character randomly enters the fray, you have to ask questions.
Thankfully, we don't have to wait very long to find out Robin's true motivations. He is a member of this weird carnival family, led by a captivating ringleader played by The Greatest Showman's Will Swenson. The episode ends with these circus freaks planting a seed in the ground, making a blood sacrifice, and chanting something about "the green one being reborn." And I'm pretty sure they're not talking about Kermit the Frog. I presume these are the oft-mentioned "old ones" who have come to reclaim the earth — earlier in the episode, Roz briefly says the ringleader's true face, a sort of horned animal-human hybrid.
It appears these creepy carnies are looking for innocents, particularly virgins. The snake charmer mentions Harvey's purity, while the fortune-teller talks of Ms. Wardwell's virginity. "The Putnam child is vestal, as well," says Robin. I'm not sure of their exact plans yet, though I suspect it ties in with the previously mentioned Eldritch terrors, but it seems this group is the big bad of the season. And you know what? I'm down for some crazy carnival action.
- Are the carnies also responsible for the coven becoming weak? A lot of the Academy students are coming down with a bug, including Aunt Zelda (Miranda Otto), though she does her best to ignore the symptoms. This situation leads to Hilda cheering the kids up by sharing her first published novel: Buxom and the Beast (written under the not so subtle pseudonym, Helga Stillwell). It's the tale of "a humble witch and her incubus lover, who are terrorized by the witch's loveless hag of a sister." As you would suspect, Aunt Zee is not amused.
- Caliban is 1-0 in the quest for the Unholy Grail, but Sabrina's growing aggression (she slaps Caliban in the face... twice!) is clearly earning her admirers amongst the denizens of Hell. It's Sabrina's name that they are chanting by the episode's end.
- As for Nick, he ditches the carnival for a night at Dorian Gray's, where he numbs his pain with alcohol and S&M sex romps.
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Part 3, Streaming, Netflix