Charmed Rewitch: Episode 7 – The one where everybody’s been taking happy pills (except they haven’t)

It’s been over 10 years since the Halliwells hung up their brooms, so I’m heading back to San Francisco to see if Charmed‘s special brand of supernatural entertainment still casts a spell…

Episode: 7.13 ‘Charmageddon’
Writer: Henry Alonso Myers
Director: John T. Kretchmer

ca1c9d81e9aaf43e741f1914499ba67eWhen it came to creating alt-worlds, Charmed often slayed the competition. Whether depicting a weirdly plausible near-future (in ‘Morality Bites’), the manor as asylum (in ‘Brain Drain’) or a post-Prue apocalypse (in ‘Centennial Charmed’), the show often excelled at turning its iconography on its head. And while the alt-world in this episode doesn’t quite pack the same punch as those other episodes, it still takes an interesting look at the impossibility of utopia.

Season seven’s Big Bads were the Avatars, an impressively ethnically diverse group of black-clad pacifists who first seduced Leo (by, uh, appearing as a scary floating head) before enlisting the Halliwells to help them bring about their vision of a ‘perfect’ world. In ‘Charmageddon’, that utopia has been rolled out globally, resulting in thinner newspapers (crime’s down), generally happier people (cue lots of awful bit-players) and, most importantly, a genuine shot at a demon-free existence for the Halliwells.

Of course, it’s not that easy. Phoebe’s boss (Elise, always welcome) may claim “it’s like everybody’s been taking happy pills”, but this supposed utopia hides a dark side – the cost of a ‘perfect’ world, it seems, is extreme fascism. With the Avatars stating they “simply cannot abide” conflict, anybody who rocks the boat is immediately scrubbed out of existence. Which, clearly, is sort of a problem.

‘Charmageddon’ came just 13 episodes after the hyper-happy world of season six’s (ultimately disappointing) finale, but it has starker questions in mind. Charmed was always best when it blurred the line between good and evil and, in this episode, it becomes increasingly clear that the Avatars are basically soft-spoken extremists – damn-near supernatural terrorists. Their message is essentially: “We want peace and we’ll kill to get it.”

On the flipside, demon Zankou (the excellent Oded Fehr) sees through the whole thing and quickly pairs up with Leo to try to fix things. We all know this utopia can’t last but it’s interesting seeing why it can’t. In particular, the peculiarly trauma-free issue of death (if you lose a loved one, you immediately accept “they’re in a better place”), which culminates in one of Phoebe’s best scenes of the season as she suffers an uber-premonition reminding her of every loss the Halliwells have experienced since becoming witches (yes, that includes a shot of Prue’s grave).

This is notable as the only time Charmed ever delivered a mid-season two-parter (it follows the brilliantly-titled ‘Extreme Makeover: World Edition’), and the concept certainly justifies it. Though its depiction of utopia is ultimately a little thin, ‘Charmageddon’ features a handful of great moments – Piper’s tearful breakdown at losing Leo, Zankou’s Egyptian tomb foraging (a clear nod to Fehr’s role in the Mummy movies), that uber-premonition. There’s even a poignant send-off for Kyle Brody (Kerr Smith).

The Avatars ultimately retreat, setting the world back to rights (and wrongs). If their withdrawal feels anti-climactic, it’s leavened by the fact that Zankou’s still around. There’s a wonderful cinematic shot in which he vanishes when a bus passes him on the street, and his prickly presence throughout the rest of the season offers a controversial explanation for why a ‘perfect’ world would never work – when the baddies are this good, who needs utopia?

Missed an episode? Catch up on the other Charmed Rewitches here.

Charmed Rewitch: Episode 3 – The one where Piper loses it big time

It’s been 10 years since the Halliwells hung up their brooms, so I’m heading back to San Francisco to see if Charmed‘s special brand of supernatural entertainment still casts a spell…

Episode: 4.07 ‘Brain Drain’
Writer: Curtis Kheel
Director: John Behring

Every once in a while, Charmed pulled off something genuinely cool. There was the time Prue went undercover as a hitwoman (in season two’s ‘Ms Hellfire’), and that episode where they blew up the Manor (‘Kill Billie Vol. 2’). Top of the pile, though, is this scalpel-sharp season four entry, which flips the Charmed universe on its head as Piper is brainwashed into thinking she’s an inmate at a mental institute.

Well, it makes more sense than belonging to a family of witches, which is exactly why this episode works – as The Source kidnaps Piper, puts her into a coma and rewrites her life top to bottom, you totally understand why she starts to crumble and believe the lie. Her world has been nuts ever since she and her sisters first headed up to that dusty attic and found more than just spiders. In a nightmare of demons and ghosts, who can tell what’s real and what isn’t anymore anyway?

It helps that the Manor’s transformation from cosy antique repository to sterile hospital is so brilliantly realised. The show’s set dressers deserve serious kudos for completely renovating its central set, rendering it almost unrecognisable in the process. Sure, it makes little sense for a hospital to be located in an old manor house on a suburban street, but the transformation sells it, and it’s great fun discovering the Halliwells’ home all over again.

The same is true of the cast, who have a ball playing wacky variations on their now well-worn characters. In Piper’s coma world, Leo is recast as a sympathetic doctor (a nice nod to his past as a war medic), while Phoebe and Paige are no longer her sisters, but fellow patients. There’s a lovely moment where Piper’s told Prue isn’t dead but was merely discharged from hospital, and a brilliant gag involving Alt Phoebe’s childish Book Of Shadows.

Charmed Brain Drain

It’s very much a case of ‘Piper, Interrupted’, and the emotional journey Holly Marie Combs takes Piper on here is powerful stuff. At first disbelieving and snarky, she’s slowly broken down by The Source, (posing as a doctor) until she’s willing to give up everything just to be free of pain. Any episode that puts Combs front and centre is guaranteed to exhaust your tear ducts, and this episode is no different.

In a season that struggled to reestablish order in the wake of Hurricane Doherty, ‘Brain Drain’ feels bigger than most Charmed episodes, and that’s partly because season four is where the show became more of an ensemble than ever before. We get Cole and Leo working together to get Piper back (Cole even gets himself caught to lead them to The Source), while Paige has just moved in and is learning the rules, which mostly include ‘demons can attack at any time’ and ‘don’t keep anything nice’.

Charmed was often unfairly dismissed as a silly show with magic, but episodes like ‘Brain Drain’ scream otherwise. Sure, there’s a boobtastic seer in a gold bikini, but this is a seriously grown-up 40 minutes of supernatural entertainment. That writer Curtis Kheel manages to stitch his script with so many clever ideas without it ever unravelling is impressive – between the demon fights and hospital drama, we also get an explanation of why we never see any of the girls’ friends (they’re too busy kicking demon butt) and gags about the doomed grandfather clock (“dammit, we just got that thing fixed!”).

If there’s one downside to this episode, it’s that it kicks off Piper’s obsession with having a demon-free life. While it makes sense here, especially in the wake of Prue’s death, that obsession became the writers’ go-to crutch whenever Piper needed to have an ‘issue’ to deal with. (And what a sour issue to have when you can flippin’ freeze time.) If that’s the worst thing we can say about ‘Brain Drain’, though, we’re obviously dealing with a pretty potent witch’s brew.

Missed an episode? Catch up on the other Charmed Rewitches here.

Charmed Rewitch: Episode 1 – The one where Phoebe’s boyfriend dies (a lot)

It’s been 10 years since the Halliwells hung up their brooms, so I’m heading back to San Francisco to see if Charmed‘s special brand of supernatural entertainment still casts a spell…

Episode: 5.08 ‘A Witch In Time’
Writer: Daniel Cerone
Director: John Behring

Charmed 508 A Witch In Time Phoebe

Time travel episodes were Charmed‘s bread and butter – the writers gave us one every season, and they were pretty much always a highlight. While there was the odd stinker (season two’s ‘Pardon My Past’, season six’s cringesome ‘Witchstock’), this season five time-warper is easily one of the best as Phoebe attempts to keep her new beau Miles (a likeable Ken Marino) alive, despite a series of premonitions spelling out his fate.

With Piper and Paige facing the hard truth that some innocents may be beyond saving, especially when the Angel of Death is involved, they attempt to help Phoebe see the truth. Which, obviously, goes down like a led cauldron as Phoebe becomes increasingly determined to save Miles.

Written by series stalwart Daniel Cerone, ‘A Witch In Time’ is classic Charmed. Phoebe’s fashion is horrific (what is that knitted skirt thing?), Leo is verbally abused throughout, and Piper turns on the waterworks to goose-pimply effect. Which of course means this is up there as one of the show’s finest outings.

With only two guest stars, it’s a lean 40 minutes with spot-on priorities. The straight-forward plot is peppered with stellar sisterly interplay – it’s great to see a show (especially this one) trusting its three leads so completely. Special banter points go to Piper, who manages to have an argument with herself thanks to a time rift that has her meeting her future self (“I’m not standing in her way!”).

Charmed Piper A WItch In Time

There’s also some great action courtesy director John Behring, who oversaw many of the show’s best episodes (season two’s ‘P3 H20’ among them). A slow-mo table dash is pure John Woo, and a vertiginous, heart-in-mouth balcony moment would have Hitchcock cowering. (No really.)

That’s not to say ‘A Witch In Time’ isn’t crammed full of Charmed hallmarks – there’s Phoebe/Cole angst, a himbo warlock with a silly plan and (sigh) yet more quickly-reversed sister deaths. None of that matters, though, when those hallmarks feel organic to a story that genuinely wants to explore the notion of fate. If you saw the show’s other exceptional time-travel episode, season two’s equally poignant ‘Mortality Bites’, you’ll know where ‘A Witch In Time’ is headed.

This is undoubtedly Alyssa Milano’s episode, but it’s to the show’s credit that her co-stars never feel sidelined. Cole memorably chows down on Chinese takeaway – surely the most depressed person ever to live in a Penthouse – and despite Phoebe’s emotional cyclone, it’s Piper (as ever) who gets to really dig us in the ribs, particularly in the final act.

Coming in the middle of an unprecedented hot streak for the show (it was preceded by haunted house ep ‘Sympathy For The Demon’ and followed by the excellent ‘Sam I Am’, ‘The Importance Of Being Phoebe’, and ‘Centennial Charmed’), this is Charmed at its best: chirpy, clever and emotionally honest. Oh, and with awful, awful fashion.

Missed an episode? Catch up on the other Charmed Rewitches here.