BROAD CITY’S “WITCHES” IS A TRIBUTE TO MENTAL HEALTH, WOMEN & THE FEMALE ORGASM

One of the most notable things about Broad City’s fourth season is not its take on the political climate, but how it has affected Abbi (Jacobson) and Ilana (Glazer). Abbi’s stress manifests itself in something as subtle as a grey hair, Ilana on the other hand has a full on allergic reaction to what’s going on around her. She seems to have sunken into a depression so bad, she has lost her will to twerk and, while we still get glimpses of her former, buzzing, chaotic self, her energetic “Yass Queens” have dimmed as much as the healing powers of her SAD lamp (“Abbi’s Mom”).   

It’s good to see shows like Broad City, You’re the Worst, Girls and Bojack Horseman working mental health issues into their narrative in an honest, relatable and, above all, non-judgemental manner. In normalizing the topic writers are breaking the stigma surrounding depression, anxiety, PTSD, etc. and are recognizing these, often debilitating, illnesses for what they are. The season opener, “Sliding Doors”, already alluded to Ilana having suffered from bouts of depression in the past, but to experience someone like her, someone who usually goes about her days with such joie de vivre, struggling to stay on her feet for pure mental exhaustion was another well-needed reminder that not even the toughest, outwardly confident and happy people are immune to the shapeshifter that is depression.

“Witches” was Jacobson’s directorial debut and my favourite episode of the season – possibly the series – so far, as it dives even deeper into exploring the effects of depression, particularly on women. Ilana is acting peculiar. She is lying about her plans and is fuelled by irritability and a strangely aggressive sexual energy. Although Abbi wants to be supportive of her BFF, she is clearly uncomfortable in Ilana’s dry-humping vicinity and is relieved to see her go about her secretive business. Determined to get the cash to pay for a space heater, Abbi sets up a stall with handmade Christmas cards in front of the Met. She gets to chatting to Margo (Jane Curtin), an older lady – a fellow witch, as Ilana would describe a wise, powerful woman – who immediately recognizes a kindred spirit in Abbi. They share more in common than Abbi is comfortable with – their preferred Tupperware brand, winter wardrobes and, worst of all, their carts – magnifying her fear of aging prematurely.

Meanwhile, Ilana timidly enters the apartment of sex therapist Betty (Marcella Lowery), where she is invited to sit back and study her vulva. For someone like Ilana, a self-professed Cum-Queen who leaves a cum-trail wherever she goes – “kinda like a slutty-slug” –, not being able to orgasm is cause for an identity crisis. Her sexuality is a huge part of who she is and now that things seem to be malfunctioning down-under, she feels completely disconnected. As it turns out, having upped her dose of anti-depressants and living in a country ruled by a “human skin tag” has caused her to suffer from “Trump-related pussy constipation”. Whenever she tries to relax into masturbating or sex, she is plagued by images of Trump, all the garbage that has ever spilled out of his filthy gob playing on a loop. Her mindset is presented to the audience in the form of a disturbing montage capturing the hostility Trump projects onto women and minority figures in America. Betty gently coaxes Ilana, urging her to stay in the moment as she works her “Abbi” with a dildo, but Ilana just can’t focus.

I usually get a giggle or two out of Ilana’s goofy sex-faces, but all I felt was her deep frustration and helplessness. The complexity of the female orgasm is hardly ever discussed, let alone depicted on TV – at least not from a woman’s perspective – and by exploring the depths of Ilana’s pussy constipation, Broad City finds the connection between orgasms and mental health. As Betty puts it, “Orgasms are a journey, they start in the mind”, and if the mind is troubled and emotions are raw, no wand, no matter how magical, is going to break the curse of the broken pussy. If the mind is broken the pussy won’t purr; it’s as simple as that. Bar the obvious punch lines, male TV characters experiencing whatever form of erectile dysfunction are generally met with empathy – and a Viagra gag –, but even through sarcastic remarks and trouser-tent-humour the emasculating effects on a guy are still very much acknowledged. For female characters there is no magic pill to lighten the load – literally and in terms of narrative –, making it too intimidating a territory to explore for most writers. “Witches” proved that the female orgasm, in all its capriciousness, is just as worthy of consideration.

Ilana is about to give up, but Betty encourages her to look deep inside herself and try to find a way to rise above the patriarchy that has traumatized her vagina. Taking a deep breath, Ilana settles in for another try and finally manages to keep her focus on her biggest inspirations, her greatest turn-ons: fierce, fearless women who have risen above and beyond a society ruled by sexist pigs, women who stand up for the rights of others, women who will not be silenced. A picture montage of women as diverse as Michelle Obama, Mindy Kaling, the cast of Sex and the City and The Golden Girls flickers through her mind and on our screens as she channels the “ferocious female current that is just constantly zip-zap-zopping around the universe like the speed of light” and finally – she “bazingas”. Hard.

Abbi, still freaked about the fact she has begun sprouting grey hairs before having the wardrobe, bank statements and lifestyle to match, is having a pretty rough day herself. She's feeling pressure from all sides: her former crush Jeremy (Stephen Schneider), who is now in a committed relationship, adopted child and all, and can afford to fork out $100 for her cards without even flinching; Margo, who went to the same art school as her and is still selling her work on the streets; and finally, a park avenue dermatologist in her fifties who looks no older than twenty. Instead of investing in her declaration of independence – a space heater bought with her own money –, she decides to blow her cash on a Botox injection.

As soon as the needle is inserted in her cheek, she regrets her decision. Looking around the room, she takes in all the posters advertising skin-whitening. She watches her dermatologist panic over having cracked a smile for fear of popping a wrinkle, and listens to her describe her beauty regime as a full-time job. Suddenly, Abbi realizes she has become a victim of a society pressuring women to conform to unrealistic, misogynist ideals and to serve to be sexualized, one that prosecutes those who do not fit the mould, much like it did back in the day – only now, we're not referred to as witches. Now, they call us bitches, perhaps because they have finally realized that to be a witch is to be powerful, and if you fuck with one witch, you're fucking with a whole sisterhood of bad-ass witches by proxy. Because, as Michelle Obama put it, “when they go low, we go high.”

Broad City has always been about sisterhood at its core, but “Witches” was a global summoning, an invitation to bare your boobs, love your wrinkles, your grey hair and your “Abbi”, take back your womanhood and your sexuality and shatter the Human Skin Tag Tower with the roar of the ferocious female current that is your orgasm – hit ‘em with what scares them most. Abbi and Ilana let it be known they will no longer use their broomsticks to sweep up the mess their country has turned into; they’re using them to fight back and whoop ass. And so should you.