Sometime over the holidays my dad and I were discussing our shared fondness for Natasha Henstridge—my family saw Species and Species II (!) in theaters—so I brought to his attention that she currently had a new gig on the CW called The Secret Circle and his eyes lit up. He hadn’t heard of TSC (or, let’s be honest, the CW) and asked whether he’d like it or not, and I frankly didn’t know what to say. This is a problem I’ve run into with other people who ask whether this very CW show about teenage witches is worth their time, and if so, what episode should they jump in on? I never know how to respond. “Well, the pilot is great even though the show is totally different now. There was an episode with a demon? Ooh, no wait, the Halloween episode, they brought a bat toy to life and also the main girl set a dude on fire with her brain. One episode had an M83 song. I don’t know. Hey I’m hungry let’s go get some pizza.” It’s a tricky show to recommend, is what I’m trying to say.
So it is with clear eyes and a full heart that I can now say I believe we finally got that episode, one which we can show to friends and family as an example of just how good and unique The Secret Circle can be. “Witness” was the long-awaited flashback episode in which we finally discovered the circumstances in which many of the characters’ parents were killed, but it went much further and deeper than a simple information dump. While the show has generally shied away from putting these teens through the sorts of devastating, life-altering catastrophes that the characters of The Vampire Diaries deal with on the daily, this episode’s reveals were casually brutal and genuinely disturbing. Plus, you know, awesome.
If you’ve read my recaps of The Vampire Diaries you probably know that I constantly complain about flashbacks. I just don’t care for them too much, in the same way that I resent the entire notion of a prequel. If it happened in the past, we know the stakes don’t matter so it’s an academic exercise at best and a cosplay activity at worst. I never expected The Secret Circle to reinvent the flashback episode as thoroughly and excitingly as it did in “Witness,” which presented memory recall as a form of time travel like something straight out of a Phillip K. Dick story. In this world memory isn’t just an imaginary place that exists from one person’s perspective; when mixed with magic it becomes its own realm, a physical place that can be experienced by anyone powerful enough to tap into it. PLUS the experience can harm you for real and there’s a suggestion that you can perhaps alter things in the past if you try hard enough. In other words, you’re not just some passive observer of past events. You’re involved in a very real situation.
That was just a long-winded way of saying I adored this episode.
Haha just kidding, here’s a recap:
We picked up immediately where last week’s episode left off: Shortly after Faye’s school dance meltdown, Cassie and Adam kissing like a pair of starving baby birds, and Jake’s perfectly timed interruption.
While Cassie more or less instantly seemed super relieved to have him back (or was that just me projecting?), she and Adam were understandably dubious about all the in-hindsight sucky stuff Jake had done. Attempting to murder them all? He had A LOT of explaining to do.
Jake merely touched on the subject of why he’d aligned himself to witch hunters in the first place, but the main insight here was that he was now freely willing to rat them out completely. Their motives, their inner workings, just how dangerous they were, and especially how much capital-D Danger Cassie was now in.
Adam, obviously, wasn’t having it.
Yeah, it was a pretty tragic situation for Adam. He’d just gotten to mack out with his newly realized “soul mate” and in walked the only guy who could make Thomas Dekker seem average-looking. Plus it didn’t help that Adam’s personality has generally defaulted to pursed-lip disapproval whenever anything interesting happens. It made me laugh when he was driving Cassie home and right away when he criticized Jake (remember, a known murderer) she was like, “You don’t know him.” Boom! Game over, Adam.
Meanwhile Charles had an awkward run-in with his fake-Ex.
Dawn was just chillin’ with Diana! Also, this is dumb, but the reflection on the glass made me laugh here:
Anyway, it was clear Dawn was just using Diana to get back in Charles’ good graces, but he saw through her plan immediately.
I loved the look on Dawn’s face after Charles took off. Yup, she and Faye are definitely related!
Speaking of which, Faye’s subplot was a bit of a snoozefest, so I’ll just sum it up real quick.
One of Lee’s ne’er-do-well former associates swung by his dimestore haunted house to buy witch drugs. Apparently Lee used to deal witch drugs and his former girlfriend may or may not have O.D.’ed on them? Obviously Faye was interested in taking drugs that boosted her powers. I mean, come on. It’s Faye. She’d been doing witch drugs from the get-go. Anyway, the main thing to know is this dude was also on American Horror Story, and it makes me laugh to pretend he’s the same character and after giving Faye drugs he’s gonna go have a kitchen argument with Jessica Lange. But really this plotline wasn’t super eventful, it was more just a thing to cut back to whenever we needed to remember how attractive Phoebe Tonkin and Grey Damon are.
Meanwhile after Jake walked into his bedroom but notably BEFORE he’d slipped into something more comfortable, he sensed he had company.
I loved that Cassie was chillin’ in his bedroom waiting for him to come home. She lives literally ten feet away! What was she doing in there, exactly?
Anyway, Jake then informed Cassie that, oh yeah, as a toddler he’d basically WITNESSED the mass murder of their parents and with Cassie’s dark magic skillz he could unblock those memories.
Adam did not think it was a good idea:
Now, Jake’s explanation that as a toddler he’d snuck into his parents’ car and then onto the ship where they’d been murdered was highly ludicrous. What was he, a toddler James Bond? It didn’t matter though, what mattered was that because he’d been there, he was the point of entry for a scenario that continues to exist in the ether. This show had already set up that magic+memory=reality when Faye’s memories had come out to play during the lake house episode. Basically this episode was already headed in a cool direction.
How hilarious was it when Adam attempted to get Diana on his side and she immediately not only sided with Cassie, but expressed interest in helping? I mean, it was crazy for Adam to have been so incurious. His mom had died that day! The deaths of their parents had been a defining moment in each of their lives, so it was straight-up touching when Diana immediately recognized the emotional opportunity here. She misses her mom!
Oh, you want to see an incredible location?
THIS was awesome. Even if they just found these ships this way, images like this are what help make The Secret Circle so compelling. I might occasionally nitpick or make fun of this show’s narrative shortcomings, but I will never disparage how great and perfect this show’s world looks. Chance Harbor has this unique and immersive vibe that makes it seem not only like a fully realized place, but one I’d love to hang out in for a while. Contrast that to Mystic Falls, which has an atmosphere largely defined by the town’s reluctance to change lightbulbs.
Anyway, yeah. This was apparently the location of the 15-years-prior boat fire that claimed the life of a gaggle of hot parents. Jake and Cassie decided to pay it a visit in order get some boat dirt (?) for their memory spell.
Meanwhile at the Boat House, Dawn was putting into action her newest scheme, this one involving Adam’s distractingly dreamy, perpetually near-tears father Ethan.
Haha it always makes me laugh whenever Dawn gets intense about Crystals. Typical Dawn.
This was sad. The only picture Jake has of his parents (and lil’ baby bro Nick).
Until this point the only thing we knew about Jake’s parents were that they were part-time hunk manufacturers, but seeing an image of their happy family really kicked off how deep this episode was going with regard to its characters shattered families.
Anyway, it was time for a trip:
So, already I was like WHAT? The boat was ALREADY ruined and decayed when the disaster happened? I don’t know if it’s because I have problems retaining information or if the show was intentionally cryptic, but my impression of this disaster (as hinted by the previous 11 episodes) was that it involved witches out on the open water having a booze cruise and then demons showing up and then everybody exploding? A spell gone wrong at the very least. But the main thing this episode did right was pull the rug out from under me right away. Everything was different from what I expected!
Not only different, but casually devastating. For instance, Jake immediately saw his parents, young, alive and headed for doom:
This got me:
I mean, how would YOU react in this situation? I would’ve gasped also! While this episode was all-business when it came to matter-of-factly showing what happened on that day, even pausing for a second to really imagine the emotions these kids must’ve felt just added to the weight of the story, so it was super easy to look past any logical flaws and just completely embrace the pathos. This wasn’t just an informational flashback, this was life-changing.
Oh, and for the record, these were definitely people who could create a Jake:
His parents were arguing about whether they should even be there, so it was clear some very serious and important meeting was about to happen, not the booze cruise I’d imagined.
But then Jake realized he couldn’t follow them anymore.
Here was another incredible element to this episode’s flashback concept: Jake’s brain was actively preventing him from witnessing his parents’ death and it manifested in physical pain. It was a nod to basic psychology and how our brains often block traumatic memories in order to allow us to carry on healthier lives, but I don’t ever think I’ve seen it rendered in physical terms. I don’t know. I just found this really clever and kind of powerful I guess.
And then there was this moment which was ostensibly pretty small but I just keep thinking about it. Cassie didn’t listen to Jake’s attempts to call off the mind-meld and instead just disappeared into the blur without him.
Who would do this?? She’s gotten caught up in a bizarre, baffling, potentially dangerous scenario and she made a split-decision to press onward alone. That’s hero stuff. Obviously Cassie had her own agenda: Discovering what happened to HER father. But this one little moment just completely summed up why she is the hero of this series and the image of her walking off into blurry, unknown territory just really got to me. Chills.
Back in reality, Jake awoke and Cassie was still locked away in his memory. It was such a strange concept: WHERE exactly was she? And did I mention Zylka was doing some A+ emoting in this thing? It’s weird how invested you can get when it seems like characters are genuinely frightened. And frightened for good reason: In addition to witnessing their parents’ murders, they were playing with a magic they didn’t truly understand.
So yeah. Anyway, 15 years ago:
Guess who Cassie spotted acting super suspicious?
Hey Ethan! You look 40-something! Anyway, the main thing we learned from listening to Jake’s parents was apparently they were all gathering for a “truce” summit between witches and WITCH HUNTERS. Apparently most of the witches had agreed to stop practicing magic in exchange for the witch hunters leaving them alone, but Jake’s mother didn’t seem convinced that the witch hunters could be trusted. Some of the circle already didn’t approve of this truce (including Charles, Dawn, and Amelia) so they weren’t there at all.
And then a witch hunter came out and slashed Jake’s dad’s throat! Right in front of Cassie! Then she went further into the ship where there was more commotion and came across TONS of dead witches with slashed throats.
Again, this was completely unexpected. We were led to believe the parents had died in some kind of accidental fire, but it was actually in some Manson-esque massacre. Truly disturbing stuff.
It was no wonder Toddler Jake blocked most of it out.
Aw poor Jake.
Anyway, as Cassie drew nearer to the witch hunters, it still wasn’t clear whether she was an unseen ghost a la It’s a Wonderful Life or what, but she immediately recognized a man without even seeing his face.
And his death promised to be more elaborate than the rest, possibly due to his dark magic issues.
And then another amazing thing happened: Someone IN the memory SAW Cassie and warned her to run.
First of all, WHAT? Holy moly. The girl’s name was Lucy and I expect there’s more to this story, but still. WOW. What was going on here? See what I’m saying, this wasn’t just an information dump. This thing was interactive!
So interactive that Cassie began choking on all the smoke, which meant she was choking in real life too.
And then in one of my all-time favorite Secret Circle moments ever, Diana, Adam and Jake came together to help her breathe!
Again, just a simple moment, but I loved it so much. The Circle performed magic! In a competent and clever way! To save their friend! These ten seconds were what this show is about, if you ask me.
So then Jake went back in, the whole time fighting against his mental block. Meanwhile a BAMF moment was brewing:
John Blackwell removed a medallion from his pocket and BURNED THOSE MFers ALIVE.
And THEN he went so far as to drop the medallion and peace out like a rapper walking off stage. Truly great. And Cassie saw the whole thing:
Then as the fire got worse, Jake whisked Cassie away, but not before he had another devastating encounter. His own mother pleading for help on the other side of the jammed door.
I mean. Wow. That’s heavy. This lady knows what I’m talking about:
So, in the post mind-meld breakdown, Cassie recounted what she saw, but kept things super vague. I like to think it’s because she possibly witnessed one of the more devastating scenarios she’ll ever face in her entire life? Not sure.
But the heartbreaking moments kept coming:
Perfectly understandable questions and perfectly devastating. But in short, Cassie declined to mention all the dead bodies she’d seen.
It’s not clear why Cassie didn’t tell them specifically what she’d seen (“One lady who definitely looked like you had a slashed throat”), but I prefer to think it’s because she’s protecting her friends somehow. Like there’s no going back, innocence-wise, when you’ve seen what Cassie’s seen. I don’t know, I’m not a doctor.
So, recalling that her dad had definitely dropped his mystical medallion, Cassie visited the wreckage and FOUND IT.
Dang, girl. Be careful.
In the very much less compelling B-story, Ethan called up Charles and told him he knew all about the crystals and murder, etc. But it was all a trap!
Ethan ended up getting his revenge on Charles for the pilot episode water barfing incident.
Oh, also Charles implied that Ethan was a villain who’d made bad choices in the past (like one time on a boat, for instance), so that’s an interesting idea. Otherwise, this was definitely just another plotline about bickering over a crystal.
At least Ethan wasn’t no chump!
Another classic TSC plotline was revisited as well, this time the mounting tension between Diana and Adam.
I don’t know, Adam didn’t seem that into Diana anymore. Or maybe he was just all shell-shocked about losing his lady to Jake again. Either way, I’m not sure how much Diana-Adam stuff I can handle. (Not Diana’s fault).
Anyway, a subtle but important moment happened later when Jake more or less confirmed to Cassie that he <3s her so much. Unfortunately it was couched within a statement like, “Oh well, I got here too late I guess,” to which I’m sure Cassie was violently disagreeing with inside. Also, I’d been wondering how exactly Witch Hunter Jake would convert to Hero Jake, and this episode totally did it with flying colors. He admitted that he’d grown up blaming his parents’ death on dark magic (and other witches) so it slightly explained why he’d fall in with the witch hunters. But now that he knows they were not only lying, but also the ACTUAL murderers of his parents, I have to imagine his perspective (and therefore entire life) has just experienced a tectonic shift. I definitely buy that. I wouldn’t even be surprised if we now got a revenge plotline out of it.
But the episode wasn’t done yet. We then concluded with ANOTHER great moment, in which Jake suggested they find out once and for all who was buried in John Blackwell’s grave.
I just loved how ordinary that decision seemed. “Well, let’s dig up his grave.” “Sounds good.” At the actual cemetery, there was another nice little beat where Jake was just about to open the casket and Cassie paused to brush off his tombstone, as if to enjoy one last moment before her life will change dramatically yet again.
And then dog bones.
HAHA WHAT? I have GOT to meet this Blackwell dude. What a weirdo!
This episode had a lot to live up to, and I truly think it beat my expectations at every turn. I don’t know what else to say about it except this is the one I want to show people. “It’s a show about teenage witches and it’s cleverer and more emotionally complicated than you’d expect.” I can’t wait to show this episode to my dad. Hey I’m hungry let’s go get some pizza.
… Did Ethan sell them all out?
… Do you attend lots of important meetings on decrepit ships?
… Can we just all agree that Dark Magic is the best? How many lives has it saved now?
… Was going to Seattle a pretty good idea on Melissa’s part?