Major spoilers for the entire series of Salem below. At the time of this writing, it’s all up on Netflix, so please go there if you haven’t finished the show yet.
Choice seems to be a recurring theme on Salem. It’s frequently brought up, usually in admissions/refutations of guilt, and it often factors into the plot. Mary chooses to give her baby up to the Devil as an act of survival, Anne chooses to bring little John to the Countess, and Cotton (most importantly, in the context of this article) chooses to give up his (after)life for the citizens of Salem. Case in point:
Mary Sibley: Sometimes in life, we make choices. And sometimes, these – these difficult choices – they lead us to do things, terrible things, and we don’t wish to. We’d do anything not to. But choice informs choice. [“Lies”, S1E5]
Anne Hale: I had no choice. Not then, and not now. [“The Witching Hour”, S2E13]
Other off-screen examples are known to have happened, not the least of which are the Biblical fall of angels (during which Samael chose to rebel against God) and the temptation of Adam and Eve (during which Adam and Eve chose to eat the forbidden fruit).
However, there may be something more insidious going on below the surface. Did the characters (humans, witches, demons, et al) of Salem ever really have a choice? Or were they being puppeteered the whole time?
In order to get to the bottom of this, we first have to study the Calvinist belief of “predestination” – and, more specifically, that of “unconditional election”. Predestination is the idea that God* has already decided the course of all time, and that whatever comes to pass has been planned in advance by God.
Predestination was a concept Puritans were well acquainted with. Anne Hale even mentions it at one point.
Anne Hale: Do not give in to despair. That is what you would tell me. We are not Puritans, not anymore. We do not believe in this idiotic predestination. We make our own destiny. [“On Earth as in Hell”, S2E11. My underlines.]
This naturally implies that the Puritans of Salem believe in predestination, but that witches do not.
Unconditional election was a necessary element of this paradigm. It follows that, if God has already figured everything out, then He has already chosen the “elect few” who will be able to enter Heaven, while He’s predestined everyone else to Hell. It doesn’t matter what you do, or how you act. God’s already chosen where you’re headed.** This belief has been debated time and time again, most notably within the context of Christopher Marlowe’s The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus, a play that has had no small influence on Salem.***
However, there would be virtually no evidence for either predestination or unconditional election in Salem were it not for Cotton’s Christ-like sacrifice at the end of the series.
In “Dead Birds” (S2E8), the ghost of Increase Mather appears to his son Cotton and warns him that he is already burning in Hell. In “Black Sunday” (S3E10), the Devil tells Cotton he’ll temporarily call off the apocalypse if Cotton will willingly enter Hell. Cotton concedes, gives a little speech about how he enters Hell “by choice”, makes amends, and goes through the Gate. Done and done.
Except that whole speech about choice about choice might be totally wrong – and if it is, it invalidates pretty much every other discussion about choice in the entire series.
The key is that Increase said Cotton’d end up in Hell, and he was right. Does this mean Cotton was a victim of unconditional election, destined for Hell since the moment he was born? Was his choice already made? And if that’s the case, what does that say about all the other choices in the series?
Two other examples:
The omnipotence of God and His power over the Devil is something that occurs in witchcraft texts time and time again. An insisted point (using the Book of Job as reference) is that the Devil can only do evil when God allows him to. Salem‘s world being rooted in said witchcraft texts, these beliefs can be seen in the show.
The most blatant example is brought up by John Alden very early on in the series.
John Alden: I’m a little confused, Mather. Did Bridget make that sign, or did God? No. No, no, no. Wait. I remember. God told the Devil, and the Devil made her do it…have I got this right? [“The Stone Child”, S1E2. My underlines.]
Beelzebub implies that God forced them to commit various Biblical scourges, and the Devil himself confirms this in a discussion with Cotton.
Beelzebub: When we were sent to slaughter the Canaanites, we wept. When we delivered the plagues, we wept. But beware! For Samael – that boy – when he killed every firstborn of every mother in Egypt, his eyes were as dry as the desert. [“The Reckoning”, S3E3. My underlines.]
Samael: The most terrible things we did, we did on His command. The flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, the torments of Job, Jonah, Daniel, St. Anthony, and all the other holy falls, even the temptation of Christ himself. All on His orders. [“Wednesday’s Child”, S3E6. My underlines.]
These citations support the idea that God controls Samael (who controls all lesser demons).
The third (and last) instance, which is solely based on a reading of one line and is open to debate, involves Anne’s exchange with Tituba in “Black Sunday” (S3E10). Anne, while referring to Tituba’s status as the prophetic Seer, tells her that “you can’t change what you see”. This would certainly imply predestination, and given that Tituba’s first vision as Seer is of an apocalypse where only the House of Seven Gables is still standing and where John Alden lies slain, we can assume that Anne will be successful in her attempt at the Grand Rite and that Black Sunday will finally come.
So, in conclusion: if predestination and unconditional election are part of Salem‘s universe (and I’m not saying that it is, but let the evidence shown speak for itself), then the whole series is orchestrated by God. God caused the fall of angels and the fall of man, God is responsible for all Biblical tragedies, God forced Mary to become a witch, God made Anne the terror that she became, God sent Cotton to Hell, and God has set things up so that Samael and Anne will rule the world.
That’s a thought that’s way too screwed up too contemplate. Perhaps Samael – an evil, vicious being in his own right – was correct in describing his creator (in “Wednesday’s Child”, S3E6) as “a vengeful, jealous, sadistic murderer and hypocrite.”
*God: specifically the god of Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and all the rest), variously referred to as the Tetragrammaton, Yahweh, Jehovah, El Shaddai, Allah, Elohim, and so on.
**Unconditional election: incidentally, this doctrine is brought up a few times in Robert Eggers’ The Witch (2015), although it’s not as integral to the plot as it is here.
***no small influence: e.g., the Writer’s Wrap for “Midnight Never Come” (S2E12).