The show, which returns for its third season on Wednesday night, adds several new characters this season – including Manson as the sadistic barber/surgeon Thomas Dinley. The set for Dinley’s office includes strange, dangerous-looking surgical instruments and bottles of formaldehyde with things floating in it.
“He walked in and said, ‘Oh, I’ve got that at home, I’ve got that at home,'” said executive producer Brannon Braga. “He fit right in.”
Manson (who also produced the show’s theme song) plays a character based on the real-life 17th century barbers who would also slice patients open for surgery. “He’s kind of a cross between Vidal Sassoon and Jack the Ripper,” Braga said. “There’s a little Sweeney Todd in there. He’s a human aligned with the witches, and his reward for helping them is he gets bodies to experiment and cut open.”
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As Season 3 opens, the witches of “Salem” need all the help they can get. After conjuring Satan back to earth, they immediately regret their decision. And the one witch who can stop the devil, Mary Sibley (Janet Montgomery), is dead.
But this is the mystical world of “Salem,” and that means Mary (no real spoiler here) isn’t dead for long. But once back, she’s thrown into a love triangle between good guy John Alden (Shane West) and twisted villain Sebastian von Marburg (Joe Doyle).
“As the season goes by, you hope that [Mary and John] are back together,” West said. “I think as you pull them apart it’s always fun and tragic and exciting for the audience to watch, but hopefully in the end they end up together.”
Complicating things, of course, is the not-so-small fact that Satan now inhabits the body of Mary and John’s son Little John, played by Oliver Bell. That required the young actor to step up and play a large part of the show this year.
“When we cast Oliver Bell initially at the end of Season 1 he had one line of dialogue,” Braga said. “We knew he was a good actor, but we weren’t sure until he did his first couple of days of work, and then realized he’s an amazing actor. He’s the villain this season. He gets increasingly creepier.”
Little John/Satan is soon joined by another new character, the Sentinel (Samuel Roukin), “who turns out to be one of his brothers from Hell, and they’re actually seeking revenge against their father, God.”
The “Salem” set is intense, which requires some delicate care when it comes to bringing Bell in and out of scenes. Braga said an adult woman plays his double in moments that might be too graphic – including the moment in Season 2 where his young character, as Satan, stabs Lucy Lawless’ character, the Countess von Marburg.
Sebastian is now taking care of Young Satan, but still confers with his mother’s corpse for advice – and more. In Season 3, he will physically make out with the rotting body. “Last season I thought I did some of the weirdest things I’ve ever done as an actor,” Doyle said. “But we topped it this season, making out with a corpse.”
Among other characters, Mercy Lewis (Elise Eberle) is now running a whorehouse, in order to steal the prostitutes’ blood (which she needs to heal her burn scars). Also, “she has this love affair that came out of nowhere, and it was so much fun to play just because of how original the relationship is,” Eberle said. “But when you put Mercy in a relationship, it’s going to be a little twisted.”
As for John Alden, with Mary presumed dead, he takes over the Salem militia in order to protect the town as the French-Indian War is being waged. “It’s the first season that John has had a chance to be really active in Salem,” West said. “Mary’s dead, so what would he do with his life? He’s also cleaner. He finally takes a bath.”
The French-Indian War story line was modeled after real events, which Braga and the “Salem” staff take pains to do as the balance true history with the show’s fictional macabre. “One of the things that attracted me to the show is that the themes are all still relevant,” Braga said. “Oppression, female empowerment, pseudo Puritanical oppression, and the formation of the country.”
The Season 3 premiere also takes on what actually happened during that war: Hundreds of people were displaced and flooded to Salem, where city officials erected a wall in an attempt to keep them out. With the episode airing just a week before the 2016 election, the similarity to Donald Trump is striking.
“It didn’t start out that way, it was a happy accident that Trump came on to the scene,” Braga said. “We have a Trump-like character who is really behind building this wall and keeping out the refugees. It was something that was happening for real at the time. It fit thematically for us perfectly. There are those who feel that we should take them in, and those who think there could be witches or enemies among them. That’s something that foes through the season and is very relevant.”
“Salem” airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. ET on WGN America.