“Salem” is the sort of show where nothing is too weird or warped to happen. Witches store animals in people’s bodies, perform dark rites of magic and of course, get entangled in love affairs, in a way that melds “True Blood” and “American Horror Story” to creepy, suspenseful effect. While many of the names may be familiar to anyone who’s read about the Salem witch trials, the characters are all a bit different from their historical namesakes, particularly in the case of Cotton Mather, who in the show’s universe, is a hard-drinking, prostitute-loving tormented reverend striving to do what’s right. We talked to Seth Gabel, who plays him, about what’s to come, and in true “Salem” fashion, a bat briefly interrupted our interview. Gabel swears it’s just coincidence, but does admit, “I wish my character would get some magic.”
Cotton spent much of the first season suffering under the influence of his father. Now that he’s gone, is he freer?
Well, he still feels it. He feels such guilt over having killed his own father, and committing patricide. I thought that going in he would have a feeling of freedom and of actually being able to live his life unbound by any expectations of his father. But he’s actually found quite the opposite that more than ever he has his father’s voice in his head berating his and making him doubt everything he’s come to know.
So he can’t quite escape the sense that his father’s still there?
Right, and as the season progresses, you start to get a sense that perhaps it’s not just in his head; perhaps the presence of his father is still lurking about.
Everyone on the show commits some pretty morally suspect acts, and it seems like John Alden (Shane West) has gone pretty far this year. Can his friend Cotton pull him back from the brink?
I certainly hope so. It definitely seems like Alden has sold his soul to another kind of devil. I love that the Native Americans have their own version of the devil, which is represented by this great serpent. For me it’s all very Joseph Campbell, where we have these symbolic archetypes that are universal in all the different cultures and what we call the Devil, another group may call a reptile of some kind, but it’s still representing the same thing and John has given over to that out of his lust for vengeance and justice. And, the whole question of the show is once you’ve sold your soul, literally or metaphorically, can you be redeemed? If you’ve done something wrong, and have gone against who you really are, can you get yourself back? And can you do it alone or does it take other people to believe in you? That remains to be seen.
Cotton also seems to be embarking on a bit of a romance with Anne Hale, who’s discovering her witch powers. Where will we see that go?
Right now they are connected and bonded in that fact that their parents have died and they won’t share it with each other, but each of them is the cause of their own parent’s death. So they’re deeply connected in the way that they’re feeling extreme guilt over something that is based on regret and doubt and remorse, and I think they are drawn to each other as a result of that. But at the same time, the characters are designed to be diametrically opposed in that Cotton is a witch hunter and Anne is a witch. And for them to have feelings for each other, it’s a very Romeo and Juliet-inspired tragedy that’s only going to deepen or get worse as the proverbial shit hits the fan, because at some point they’re going to find out, and Cotton’s going to know that he has feelings for someone that he’s supposed to be killing.
So maybe not a happily ever after for them.
[Laughs] Maybe not.
The show shades everyone with some moral ambiguity. Do you think we’re meant to know who to root for?
What you discover over the course of the show is that every character is sympathetic but that we’re all kind of victims of circumstance and victims of society and victims of what was established in the previous generations by our ancestors. ... They’re all victims of whatever past system existed before them, and, for the women especially, the only way to have any power in puritan society is to use magic and to go against what’s accepted as being OK, and worship a different system. And it’s not necessarily wrong, it’s kind of their only choice, because otherwise they’re slaves to this patriarchal society.