The funniest thing about “Witches,” “Broad City’s” Oct. 25 episode, is that it is the show’s Halloween episode. The title suggests magical old ladies, and to a degree, old ladies do bring some fear to the episode — one character named Margo (Jane Curtin) is punctuated with a repeated cawing-crow sound cue, and occasionally appears behind Abbi (Abbi Jacobson) and Ilana (Ilana Glazer) to whisper “spooooooky!” at them with a suggestive eyebrow wriggle. But the witches are the heroes of “Witches;” what’s really scary is not dark magic or a pagan ritual happening in a shadowy corner of Central Park, but instead everything else that happens in the episode.
This season of “Broad City” has been a markedly different one in tone from the first and second seasons, in particular. The early years of “Broad City” were freewheeling immaturity; the third season, with its plot continuity and Hillary Clinton cameo, was a distinctly transitional one. This buildup has resulted in Season 4, which is a new vintage of the same wine. “Broad City” is very much the same show, but it has noticeably matured. Indeed, a gray hair is what kicks off the action in “Witches,” when Ilana finds one in Abbi’s hair.
This season has been the show’s clearest expression of how Jacobson and Glazer are coming to terms with their own runaway success with “Broad City.” Abbi’s anxiety about her appearance — which leads her, in “Witches,” to get an impulsive injection of Botox from a 51-year-old who looks 23 — seems linked to Ilana’s anxiety about her newfound wealth in “Just the Tips,” where she compulsively spends money because she’s never before had so much of it. And after a few seasons of comfortable, low-impact stasis, Abbi and Ilana’s lives are mushrooming with real issues: Abbi got a great new job and was then terribly fired, and in between she rekindled an awkward relationship with her former boss, Trey; Ilana’s antidepressants have sent her on a rollercoaster that nearly cost her a restaurant gig.
This fourth season has felt like a new chapter in the life of the show — and for both of its showrunner-stars, who have been vocal Twitter users (and Clinton supporters) in a year where social media has been the event horizon for political narratives. Because the other big, adult issue lurking at the edges of “Broad City’s” fourth season is the conflagration that is President Donald Trump’s administration. This Halloween makes it almost exactly a year since Election Day 2016, when Trump beat Clinton; our current political reality is much scarier than any haunted house or slasher film. “Broad City” took 17 months off between Seasons 3 and 4, and Jacobson and Glazer returned to their scripts in December 2016 to address Trump’s election. “The way we were feeling was just so overwhelming,” Jacobson told the Los Angeles Times, that “it had to be infused into the show as an…undertone.”
“Witches” does not really keep that feeling to an undertone — at least, not for Ilana’s subplot. As Abbi confronts her fears about aging, Ilana confronts her vulva — and the fact that she hasn’t had an orgasm since the election. With a helpful sex therapist named Betty (Marcella Lowery), Ilana stares down her genitals, trying to work past her own despair and anger. With a vibrator and Betty’s soothing guidance, she walks herself through a sexual fantasy, only to get distracted by politics. “Average-sized dick,” she says, appreciative. Then her blissed-out expression is clouded with consternation. “Electoral college,” she growls. She goes back to her fantasy: “Fat titties,” she murmurs. But then the anger takes over again. Her eyes half-open, she turns towards an unseen enemy. “Mike Pence,” she hisses, awash with fury.
It is both hilarious and achingly familiar. Ilana is trying to be herself — “the cum queen” — but the world and its presently despairing state has eroded her peace of mind. She likes herself. She likes her life. But she can’t enjoy it; this year has been a cloud of frustration, rage, and despair. She’s so angry, she’s become angry at her anger; it’s in the way of the rest of her life. Maybe Ilana is, like some of us, proud of being an independent, open-minded, integrated and evolved woman. But it is hard to enjoy that — orgasmically or otherwise — when smothered under a wet blanket of barely contained panic about the state of the world.
I don’t think I’ve ever related more to any episode of “Broad City.” It’s like the girls of the first season have grown up into pissed-off, frustrated women, and though traces of that evolution are visible in the fourth season’s earlier episodes, “Witches” really hammers it home. When Ilana finally does climax, the episode shows us a supercut of powerful, influential, or otherwise inspiring women — some of whom are quite controversial, like Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton. (In a moment that is so thrilling it seems designed for my delight, the final still is of the cast of “The Golden Girls.”) When she describes it to Abbi later, Ilana identifies it as a “ferocious female current” of power. And that current goes all the way to the top: In the final seconds of the episode, we cut to Trump Tower, in time to hear Ilana’s orgasm crack glass.
Abbi’s plotline is similarly radical, if not so overtly political. She struggles with her gray hairs the entire episode; Ilana encourages her to “rejoice” in this “powerful moment,” because she’s “becoming a witch.” Even her dumb roommate Bevers (John Gemberling) refers to it as “ascending.” But Abbi’s hung up on what other people might think of her in a way Ilana rarely is, and when she meets Margo, she’s disturbed by how much she already has in common with this old kook — they have the same tupperware, the same thermos, and the same pushcart — and out of embarrassment shrugs off Margo’s ministrations. But by the end of the episode, when she fails to get validation through either an encounter with an ex-fling or a hasty Botox injection, Abbi comes to value Margo’s defiant weirdness. When Abbi and Ilana come upon Margo, Betty, and a whole host of other free women dancing around a fire as if their lives depended on it, they’re ready to join in. (Abbi, in a touching note of solidarity, runs back to get the icily beautiful dermatologist first.)
Until now, I had not quite gotten the witch thing — a documented hipster-ishphenomenon of semi-ironic spells and semi-sincere resistance. There has long been an element of alternative culture that embraces pagan and/or Wiccan ritual, and witchiness is not far removed from tarot cards and astrology and reading auras. But after watching “Witches” — and especially after listening to rich men paint attempts to uncover long-buried offenses as “witch hunts” — I’ve begun to understand it. It’s not, necessarily, about wearing black and purple and casting hexes. It’s about living free of (male) expectation — whether that is an unjust power structure or, more simply, following socially acceptable norms of appearance.
For all of its superficial antics, “Witches” is a defiant, rallying episode. It presents its characters uncoupling from the patriarchy; it’s about women opting out of a normative gaze or an unjust power structure to forge their own collective future. As we face our one-year anniversary of living in Trump’s America, “Witches” is a beacon — one that knows how we feel, when every day of the last year has been a gauntlet of fear, disgust, frustration, and anxiety. “Broad City” suggests that this Halloween, women oughtn’t be afraid of the witch; they should be one instead.