New Series Motherland: Fort Salem Conjures a Magical Post-Patriarchy Present
Freeform gets bewitched, bothered, and goes to war
As a kid, Eliot Laurence was obsessed with witches. It was his costume of choice at Halloween, and an occasional source of concern for his parents. He devoured folklore and mythology, anything and everything occult. This fascination continued into adulthood, sitting potent in the back of his mind, until he finally had what he called a "lightning strike idea" to fuse his paganism obsession with the military. This revelation became the basis for Motherland: Fort Salem, his new series debuting on Freeform this week.
Motherland envisions an alternate America where witches make up the country's armed forces after their ancestors traded in persecution for conscription hundreds of years ago. What results is a depiction of both witches and the military not previously seen in media. "I felt like I'd hit a vein," Laurence said. "I just kept going and building and merging those two things, which feel really, really, really different, but somehow they've united in the show in a really new way."
Working with producers Kevin Messick and Adam McKay (recently of Succession fame), Laurence originally proposed Motherland as a book series, but the project failed to find a publisher. After years of plateauing, Messick had his own lightning strike idea. "There were so many provocative and great opportunities for new shows with television," Messick said. "I called Eliot and said, 'We should do this as a series.'"
The world portrayed in Motherland is rich in detail, carefully crafted to defy expectations. Messick noted, "[Laurence] didn't want it to feel or look like any of the kind of magical adventure shows that had gone before it. It's not about wands, it's not about brooms, it's not about purple lightning." Instead, the witches source their power from sound, their voices serving as weapons.
"Female voices felt like a very symbolic thing for the show to get behind thematically," Laurence said. Talent recruited from Game of Thrones helped with the show's sonic development, including a linguist who created the alphabet and language of the witches' ancient mother tongue.
Early episodes of Motherland offer a look at basic training. The matriarchal structure of its military results in an environment distinct from the testosterone-driven ones typically seen onscreen. Camaraderie and affection manifests not as noogies and playful punches, but as linked arms and caressed cheeks. Emotion is not buried, seen only briefly and implicitly in climactic moments; instead, it's at the forefront of everything, with open expression a deliberate and integral part of training. Laurence said, "There's this idea that the stuff that's kind of unruly inside of you – whether it's your emotional life or your sexual life – that all of that stuff is actually fuel for your military might."
Sexuality in particular was a returning point of conversation in the writers' room – what it looks like in the absence of a patriarchy. Midseason, the witches celebrate a holiday associated with "lust and rebirth and life and joy and fun and sex," as Laurence put it. He went on: "It just felt really kind of momentous and very simple to tell a story where these young women were not complicated by their sexual choices, whatever they may be, and that whatever they did on this crazy night would not mark them in some way or put them in a category."
Of course, the soldiers need an enemy to fight, and that enemy comes by way of the Spree. Believing conscription is slavery by another name, this terrorist organization seeks to dismantle the existing military structure. Laurence looked at the history of terrorism and how ideological wars are fought, studying the circumstances that make such violent methods seem necessary to certain people. "I wanted to really get inside the heads of the people who do these things," Laurence said.
The complex universe presented in Motherland requires equally dimensional characters to inhabit it; the show does not disappoint with its central trio of recently conscripted witches. Angry, jaded Raelle (Taylor Hickson) is disillusioned after the death of her mother in combat, and frequently butts heads with Abigail (Ashley Nicole Williams), who hails from the upper echelon of witch society and is determined to uphold her family's great legacy. Tally (Jessica Sutton), an earnest do-gooder who joined the military despite having an exemption, plays the peacekeeper with her sweet and innocent nature. Clearly, as Messick said, the show is "not just about girls and magic. [Laurence's] story from eight years ago has felt timely each year that we've tried to make it happen, and this year is no different in terms of things that are swirling around in the culture and in the marketplace, from things that are happening in movies and TV to the op-ed pages. I feel like Motherland is gonna hit a good mark."
Motherland: Fort Salem debuts on Freeform on March 18.