With feasts like Samhain and Day of the Dead, and with Thanksgiving fast approaching, November is a month in which thoughts often turn to family, both present and passed. Charmed, a show in which family was paramount, told the story of four sisters who were the latest and most powerful in a long line of witches. The show was often just as much, if not more, about the characters as sisters than as witches; yes, they cast spells together and fought demons together, but they also lived together, argued with each other, and remembered their lost loved ones together. What made this last point less powerful than it could have been was the confusing and inconsistent nature of the afterlife as seen on the show.
Spoiler alert for the whole series and its comic book continuation after the jump.
Obviously fantasy and speculative fiction authors are free to re-imagine concepts, especially one as uncertain as the afterlife. But good worldbuilding always helps stories, and when a show has as much death (and resurrection!) as Charmed, you’d think there would be a clearer consensus on what comes next. A common response IRL to questions of the Great Beyond is, “Well, no one’s ever been there and back to tell us what it’s like.” That is definitely not the case in Charmed.
I’ve talked before about the rampant resurrecting on the show; granted, some of the resurrections were due to time resets, so I guess that would wipe the slate clean, but other times they never talked about what it was like to, you know, die and be dead. In only one instance that I can remember do we even see a glimpse of what it’s like to pass over. In “Awakened”, Piper is dying due to a virus. We see her about to cross over into some heavenly light, but she’s stopped by her boyfriend, Leo. Other than that, the sisters don’t take the time to discuss or process any of their own deaths. I think I would certainly be intrigued in hearing the story of someone who had died and come back, and even more so, had I died and been brought back, I would really want to talk it over with someone to process it all. The sisters frequently discussed their personal, romantic, and career lives with each other, it’s pretty surprising they wouldn’t have taken the time to talk about something as intense as dying.
They’re not the only ones who would have answers. Their grandmother dying was a huge plot point that set the whole series into motion, and their mother had died much earlier, in what ended up being almost a cautionary tale about the dangers of being a witch and battling demons. The ghosts of both Grams and their mother, Patty, appear multiple times throughout the series. Maybe the Charmed Ones were simply so happy to see their mother and grandmother they didn’t bother asking about what the other side is like, or perhaps they thought it rude to ask; who knows, but there’s never a discussion about where exactly they are now.
Precious few hints are given by the one main character who would probably know the most: Leo, the Whitelighter of the sisters and later the boyfriend and eventual husband of Piper. Whitelighters are deceased humans who now work as supernatural agents of good by protecting witches. This is kind of an intriguing facet of the Charmed afterlife; though Whitelighters are corporeal, they aren’t resurrected per se, it’s more like a post-life spiritual promotion. The idea of having a job and rigorous duties in the afterlife is a fascinating contrast to simply chilling out in Paradise while angels serenade you on golden harps. Leo works for the Elders, the next step up from Whitelighter, who dwell in some sort of heavenly dimension. The few times we see this place, it’s pretty stereotypical boring Heaven, full of clouds and white robes. However, there’s nothing to indicate that this place actually has anything to do with where people who aren’t going to be Whitelighters go after they die, still leaving that question without a definite answer.
Throwing a huge wrench into everything is the fact that reincarnation is also explicitly stated and shown to exist. The sisters have all had past lives, and it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for the spirits of their mother and grandmother to be visiting from anywhere if they’ve been reincarnated. Now, reincarnation and “destination-afterlives” (for lack of a better term) aren’t always mutually exclusive; for example, most denominations of Wicca do believe in reincarnation, and though it is an extremely decentralized religion, many strands also talk about “Summerland” as a sort of hold over area between reincarnations—but as I’ve said before, Charmed‘s witchcraft has almost nothing to do with Wicca.
The point of reincarnation in most religions in which it’s a tenet, such as the dharmic faiths like Hinduism and Buddhism, is to progressively overcome ignorance and attachments. Charmed does this at times; both Phoebe and Paige were evil in past lives and have overcome this to be good witches in this life. However, all too often, reincarnation is used in fantasy media just for funsies or to promulgate the notion of soul mates. Charmed is guilty of this one. In the episode “Pardon My Past”, Piper’s past life is caught between choosing the same two men as in her current life. This kind of storyline makes for compelling romantic drama, I guess, but is completely contrary to the purpose of reincarnation in spiritual life. Reincarnation should be about progress, not repetition.
In short, the writers of Charmed don’t seem to know what they want from the afterlife. They do manage to etch out a complex, though somewhat vague, cosmology for Whitelighters and their superiors, what with Elders and Avatars and Angels of Destiny and all, but are exceedingly quiet on what the afterlife is for other departed folk who aren’t working for Whitelight Inc. Despite numerous instances of ghosts and resurrection which open the door for conversation, no one bothers to ask and no one offers any answers on the subject. Reincarnation is seemingly a given, but it’s emphasized or ignored depending on the episode’s plot: reincarnation is convenient for love triangles spanning multiple lifetimes, but it is inconvenient for ghostly visitations from grandma. Charmed didn’t fare any better on these issues in its own afterlife—in the rather unnecessary comic book continuation of the series, Prue was pseudo-reincarnated; “pseudo” because rather than being reborn, she sent her soul into the body of a young witch who was comatose with no hope of recovering. This is problematic in its own right, and it merely adds a brand-new layer of complicated to the already messy world of the Charmed afterlife. Now that the comic series has also ended, maybe we can finally let that universe’s convoluted afterlife and its inconsistencies rest in peace.
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