From the first episode of PEN15, I’ve been wondering when the show would take on the late-’90s Wicca craze. Thanks to Charmed, Buffy, The Craft, Practical Magic, and Sabrina the Teenage Witch, I don’t think a single middle-school girl of the era (myself included) didn’t wonder if she might be in possession of supernatural powers. Pentagram necklaces, Ouija boards, and Bloody Mary were sleepover fixtures. I never went spelunking into the woods to cast a Geocities-sourced love spell on my crush, but I definitely knew girls who did.
This particular flavor of magical thinking appears to be back in style, from Lana del Rey hexing Trump to those TikTok “baby witches” cursing the moon. As with the original craze, it’s a backlash to the backlash, countering a society that tries to control women with the fantasy of seizing power right back. For two girls as outcast as Anna and Maya, the appeal is obvious.
“Vendy Wiccany” makes no bones about why the girls decide to pretend they’re witches; they discover their “powers” after fleeing a violent fight between Anna’s parents, and their demands quickly descend from the prosaic (more money, a pair of white jeans) to the raw. Anna, ignored by her parents, wishes she “wasn’t a problem.” Maya wishes she was blonde and hairless instead of Asian — and for “a group of friends that love us.” Both wish the closet incident with Brandt had never happened.
When one of the wishes is fulfilled (Maya’s dad comes home early from his concert tour), the pair fully commit to their obsession, stealing hairs and clothing from classmates, braiding their hair with beads and feathers, and speaking in a mutually developed nonsense language for their spell-casting. With the logical leaps of tweens who still think like kids, they decide that a realtor — Wendy Viccany — is actually “Vendy Wiccany,” a powerful mother witch who’s watching over their nascent attempts at spell-casting.
Maya, still fixated on Brandt, creates a voodoo doll designed to ensnare him. But Anna, living on the sidelines of the Kones’ brutal fights, is more focused on trying to get them back together. She even casts a “spell” to renounce her crush on Alex, telling Maya that even if they did get together, they’d just end up like her folks anyway.
In a show with no end of rough subject matter, the Kones’ divorce might be the most brutal. Taylor Nichols and Melora Walters do great work playing believable — yet boldly unsympathetic — parents who are so caught up in their own drama that their kid is an afterthought. One of the saddest scenes in the episode is the simplest: a shot of Anna picking some shell out of the plate of scrambled eggs she’s served for dinner, presumably because her folks couldn’t be bothered to cook her a normal meal.
The Kones are finally forced to pay attention to Anna after she and Maya get busted by their classmates for casting spells in an abandoned school greenhouse. They’re also upbraided by the principal for Maya’s habit of repeatedly stuffing hanks of her hair into Brandt’s locker. (With its usual fearlessness, the show displays the raw bald patch she’s torn on her scalp.)
Yet, instead of questioning why Anna might be drawn to living in her own magical universe, her parents immediately start bickering about their continued cohabitation and whether this is proof that one of them should move out. Asked her opinion, Anna earnestly tells her parents that she thinks they should get back together and confesses that she’d eavesdropped the previous night as her dad came to her mom’s room for make-up sex. “Are you in love with my dad, or are you just a Monica?” she asks her mom, before explaining, sotto voce, “Lewinsky.”
The moment is notable because it’s one of the few times PEN15 has ever referred to a cultural hallmark of the era more serious than a Nickelodeon show. At the time, kids definitely knew about the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, but it was a shallow understanding that mainly centered on Lewinsky being an object of scorn. Slut-shaming has been an aspect of every episode so far this season, and for good reason: At that moment, it was its own quiet witch hunt, permeating everyone’s consciousness and making them eager to distance themselves from similar accusations.
That adds extra sting to Brandt’s confrontation with Maya, who’s crushed when he tells her that he doesn’t like her and wants her to leave him alone. Maya Erskine plays the scene perfectly, her face twisted into a polite smile as both she and Anna sit in mute shock. At home, a mortified Shuji twists the knife, telling Maya she should just go away.
And so both girls decide to run away to the woods, where Anna tries to cast a spell to make herself disappear. Believing herself responsible for one of her parents having to move out, she wills herself to believe her fingers are vanishing — Back to the Future style. Faced with the prospect of losing her only friend, Maya breaks down, begging Anna to stay as they both collapse into sobs.
Like the previous episodes, “Vendy Wiccany” is unafraid to end on a down note, as Anna’s mom hunts fruitlessly for her in the house while Maya, the closest thing Anna has to a caring family, cradles her on the front lawn. It’s a heartbreaking moment, tempering the show’s central sweetness — that Anna and Maya are there for each other, no matter what — with the harsh reality of their powerlessness. Adolescence is a curse, and there’s no breaking its spell.