Still Charmed, After All These Years

It is no surprise that I write this on the Autumnal Equinox, nor that I do it as I am preparing my children for bed.   Bedtime and the television show “Charmed” seem to go hand-in-hand in our household.  It started fourteen years ago, when my eldest son, Luke, was still an infant.  On Sunday evenings his mother would visit her parents, and I would stay with him and feed him; soon after he would fall asleep and – as any parent of a newborn knows – you must never, ever disturb a sleeping child. So there I was, sitting upright in bed, stuck with a sleeping baby on my lap, my only other “companion” a television with one operating channel…and the only show on at the time was Charmed.

Maybe it is because the charm of Charmed is not just that it is comprised of “babes, boobs, and THE book” (and a great soundtrack), but that the writers got it right – they wrote a true faery tale – that in the end, “they lived happily ever after.”  Over eight years and 178 episodes from 1998 to 2006 we got the see the Halliwell clan battle not only their inner and outer demons, but ours as well.  They were – are – true archetypes come to life on the small screen.  It is no surprise ten years after it ceased production that it remains one of the top watched shows on Netflix, Amazon, and other streaming video-on-demand providers.

Prue, Piper, Phoebe, (as well as, later on, their step-sister Paige) – and, from time to time, “hot mommy” Patti or their grandmother Penny coming back from the astral – helped us reconcile our basic desires and drives to simply be happy. Assisted by their mortal friends and lovers, as well as angelic and demonic ones, despite the unrealness of the show, it was very much a real and important part of a generation of viewers – including those who secretly or not so secretly identified with or (like “Billie,” their apprentice in the last season) wanted to be a member of the Halliwell family.

When Charmed was being produced, the Neo-Pagan and Wiccan movements were at their height.  Television provided it either directly or indirectly with some of the best shows ever written – Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spin-off Angel looked at the supernatural, the trials of life, and the seemingly distant “sky daddy” (as creator Josh Whedon referred to God) in a dark and almost hopeless light. The television show Supernatural successfully picked up on this same theme and, while it provided its viewers with a peppering of very funny and occasional “feel good” episodes, these latter were the exception and not the norm. In Charmed, even when the episode ends with the death of eldest sister Prue, or Piper and Leo in marriage counseling, hope and meaning is extracted without resorting to sugar coating the problems.  While the obligatory poke at “the powers that be” occurred across the lifespan of the series, the writers avoided turning the show into a soapbox for issues of the day.  They also avoided “jumping the shark,” or staying around too long as a show, when the magic was long gone, the way that too many great shows have done.  No, they kept it, strangely, identifiable…even for me.

“I am Leo…”

In the 1990s and early 2000s I was a regular presenter at several of the better-known conventions that appealed to the Neo-Pagan, Wiccan, and magickal sort of folks. Given my background, scholarly approach, and (as I have been told) seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of things metaphysical, it was common to refer to me as Buffy’s librarian mentor, “Giles.”  A few even changed it to “Dumbledore” or “Snape” when Harry Potter began to get traction in the popular culture.  While this name-calling was all in good sport, and meant as a compliment really, few seemed to see out of all the media archetypes popular with “magic folk” which character I really was – who in many ways I still am: Leo Wyatt.

It is no surprise that my sons will occasionally refer to their mother as “Piper,” as my wife Andrea has many of the same qualities: motherliness and worry, attention to detail, and a habit of yelling up the stairs when she wants someone rather than going to get them.  While she does not freeze us as Piper was prone to do, I am sure she wishes she could…or maybe it happens and we just don’t know it.

So, in many ways I am Leo Wyatt – just not as handy with a hammer.

While academics and psychotherapists extracted meaning from Charmed by simply looking at it through the narrow eyes of a post-modern socio-political perspective of female heroes, that view is less important than many would like to believe.  On close examination, we see the fundamental message was not of young women coming of age. No, that was the backdrop; the fundamental message was as child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim stated in The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Faery Tales:

“…that a struggle against severe difficulties in life is unavoidable, is an intrinsic part of human existence – but that if one does not shy away, but steadfastly meets unexpected and often unjust hardships, one masters all obstacles and at the end emerges victorious.”

The story was always about perseverance, about personal victory and individuation along with the bonds born of struggle, and the often hidden price of helping others.  These are lessons all of our side characters – Kyle Brody, Victor Bennett (the Sister’s father), Chris and Wyatt Halliwell, Detective Darryl Morris, and even everyone’s favorite demon lover, Cole Turner – in turn come to realize as well.

It is all so simple really. For me the totality of the powerful appeal of Charmed and its unique status in television history is found here, in this statement by Bettelheim, “The unrealistic nature of these tales… is an important device, because it makes obvious that the fairy tales’ concern is not useful information about the external world, but the inner process taking place in an individual.”  Or as he puts it more simply, “The child intuitively comprehends that although these stories are unreal, they are not untrue …”   A part of us, our “inner child” so to speak, recognizes the fundamental truth behind these adventures.

Everyone knows someone like one of the Sisters: the overachieving and perfectionistic older sibling of Prue; the dreamy wander-cum-idealist of Phoebe; the cares-too-much worrier in Piper; and even the chipper and enthusiastic Paige.  But it is also the supporting characters that make the show and life what they are and, like in life, supporting characters can easily be taken for granted.

Like Leo, being a “stay-at-home dad” has its benefits, but also its drawbacks. No matter what Political Correctness or the feminist movement says, in the end, you are seen as something “less than” those men who have a more clearly defined and stated career that others can see – and that includes friends and relatives as well, as seen in the series. Despite authoring nearly twenty books and being published in over nine languages it has taken many years for some of the people closest to me to accept that I am a writer and publishing consultant to many experienced and first time authors. Self-employment is something (not unlike magic for many in the Halliwell universe) outside their framework.

Burnout from saving the world one too many times is more a reality than some think. It is easy to lose your enthusiasm and compassion, and, like Piper, to yell at God, the heavens, the Elders, whoever, to get their asses down here and start doing some heavy lifting.  While I haven’t saved the world (at least not to my knowledge…), helping one more “innocent” or “victim” at the expense of oneself and one’s family takes a tremendous toll – simply ask any social worker, police officer, or therapist and you will quickly know what I mean, particularly when that job involves easing or preventing the suffering of others. However, like Leo and the Sisters, I eventually learned that utopian dreams are more often than not totalitarian nightmares in reality, even if brought on by avatars from on high.  So, like them, I eventually grew up enough to give up my utopian fantasies and learned to live and accept life as it is.

Then there is the hard lesson of over-identifying with what one does, and mistaking it for what we are. Prue learns this on the day of Piper and Leo’s wedding when Phoebe tells her that her identification with being a witch is destroying her.  How often I have seen this in religious circles of all kinds, and in Wiccan and Neo-Pagan ones in particular.

So now, as my children grow up, I get to watch the occasional episode of Charmed with them at lunch time on a secret day off.  Nathaniel likes “Chick Flick”  (Season 2/ Episode 18) when the characters in a horror movie come to life.  And maybe that is it in a nutshell: we look at Charmed, or whatever our favorite television show or movie is, and wish that, for us at least, it would come to life.  Luke likes “The Wendigo” (Season 1/Episode 12), where Piper is transformed into a wendigo, a werewolf-like creature that bears the wonderfully telling title in the French broadcast of “Metamorphoses” or “Transformations.”  “Witchstock” (Season 6/Episode 11) is among my favorite episodes.  Here we get a glimpse into the Halliwells past during the hippie days of San Francisco and see how Penny transforms from the idealistic, tie-dye wearing love child into a formidable vanquisher of demons. After all, transformation is what life and magic are all about.

Yet despite the “power girl” mythos many enjoy, they lose sight of the fact that, in the end, each of the Sisters ends up in a conventional relationship with very typical gender roles. Each wants and gets her Alpha Male – Phoebe gets a supernatural being, Cupid to be exact. Paige marries a parole officer. Piper of course has Leo, who she realizes is Mr. Right all along. He is the “everyman” of the show. He is the one who is constantly there, who can be relied upon, and whose goodness becomes something that is simply expected.  His crises are our crises (and by that I mean the male viewers), but also he mirrors the inability of women to see what they have and are ignoring.  Piper nearly loses everything simply because she cannot stop worrying – a reality too often seen in relationships.  Once Leo finds his place as the Head of Magic School, then we see that everything for both him and Piper and their often rocky faery tale marriage (which is the main theme across all eight seasons) comes full circle.

So here we are: two years after I started writing this article I am finishing it, and in part because I heard a reboot was being planned (although it was eventually shelved). It is tempting to mess with perfection, and Charmed is truly a perfect faery tale.  Despite all of the trials and tribulations of the Halliwell Sisters, Leo, even the Sisters’ father (who becomes a reoccurring character in later episodes, along with appearances from the ghosts of their mother Patti and grandmother  Penny), everything has a happy ending.

“Fairy tales are loved by the child not because the imagery he finds in them conforms to what goes on within him, but because – despite all the angry, anxious thoughts in his mind to which the fairy tale gives body and specific content – these stories always result in a happy outcome, which the child cannot imagine on his own.” – Bruno Bettelheim

And that is all we want out of life. Everyone wants a “Charmed Life” as it were, magical powers or not. That is all I want for everyone. Like it says in the alchemical text Splendor Solis, attributed to Salomon Trismosin the teacher of Paracelsus: may everyone come to a “good end.”

So, thank you Patty, Penny, “Grams,” Prue, Piper, Phoebe, Paige, Leo (and Victor Bennett too) for keeping me still charmed after all these years.


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