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SYFY WIRE witchy wednesday

PEN15 harnesses the power of witchcraft in the face of adolescent anxiety

By Emma Fraser

Trying to maintain any semblance of control during adolescence can feel impossible. Your body is changing, raging hormones dictate every mood, and relationship dynamics enter uncharted territory. The pendulum swinging between childhood and adulthood can make a person feel powerless, which is why supernaturally charged figures are so enticing during this period. 

In the past, the threat of teenage sexuality and the fear of witches have overlapped. Movies like The Witch, Picnic at Hanging Rock, and The Falling portray society responding to the so-called dissolution of innocence with terror and persecution. The relationship between teen girls seeking power from Mother Nature isn’t confined to period dramas and horror, nor is it bound to TV shows and movies with a strong magical theme like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Craft. In its recently released second season, Hulu “traumedy” PEN15 embraces the notion of secret powers, highlighting why witchcraft is so alluring at this age — no matter the genre. 

**SPOILER WARNING! Spoilers for Season 2 of PEN15 below**


PEN15 depicts the emotional and relatable middle school minefield with a unique twist, which sees 30-something co-creators Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine playing 13-year-old versions of themselves. Sure, audiences are used to non-teens playing younger characters, but the rest of the middle school cast is played by adolescent actors. Capturing the hilarity and horror of this awkward period, the myriad of anxiety-inducing aspects of being 13 are illustrated in all their cringe-inducing glory.

Season 1 culminated in Anna’s parents’ announcing their separation, Maya’s first period, and a school dance second-base milestone. Kicking off two days after the dance, Season 2 finds Maya and Anna caught between wanting their over-the-shirt antics to be confirmed and the perils of teen sexuality double standards. Instead of becoming Brandt’s (Jonah Beres) girlfriend, Maya is ignored and subjected to cruel nicknames and rumors. The pair is used to outcast status, but this rocky landscape is becoming unbearable. It isn't much better at home for Anna; her parents are living under a divided roof in a misguided attempt at being responsible. Unfortunately, it gives their daughter false hope while also sticking her in the middle of an emotionally fraught war zone.


The third episode, "Vendy Wiccany" opens with the BFFs watching an episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark? (“The Tale of the Dollmaker” for anyone interested.) Anna purposely scares Maya, but the true nightmare lingers in another part of the house. Raised voices can be heard over the creepy doll conversation on the television. Crawling toward the danger, Anna and Maya peek into the room her parents are fighting in. Something smashes causing Maya to grab her bestie's hand before fleeing the house.

Running as fast as they can, this whole sequence is shot like a scary movie. This flight for freedom has the marker of a Final Girl sprint, but the mood is broken when they collapse in laughter in the nearby wood. To distract from the trauma of parental discord, Maya claims leprechauns are lingering nearby. At 13, the notions of play and make-believe are being edged out by more adult interests — Maya’s Sylvanian Family toys still have a role in her active imagination —  but the creative fantasy world has not been banished yet. Mischievous Irish folklore shifts toward other magic-infused observations including the claim that Maya’s visible breath is dragon smoke. When Anna finds a business card bearing the name “Wendy Rochelle Viccany” shoved into the tree trunk she has climbed, it is not surprising when the conversation shifts to witchcraft. Witches are ideal teen fodder whether at sleepovers or hanging out with your BFF.


Rather than real estate, as Wendy’s card reads, the girls believe she is Mother Witch and her name is actually Vendy Wiccany. Anna suggests this alias is a nod to how Germans pronounce a “v” as a “w” — the name changes on the card before our very eyes. Giddily saying “hi” to the wind, Maya claims they can use her power to ask for “anything we want,” and the pair start yelling out wishes to the empty wood. The incantation chanting is a preview to the spell casting later in the episode when they fully embrace their gifts from Mother Nature.

For now, their wishes range from material desires like no body hair, white jeans, more money, and a bigger house, to emotionally charged demands such as Maya wanting her touring musician dad to come home and Anna longing for her first period. Anna finishes off with a pageant answer by asking for peace everywhere, but it is her second comment that pinpoints her deepest desire and anxiety. “I wish I wasn’t a problem,” she releases into the world in a bid to solve her parental heartbreak.   


It is pretty common for a child stuck between warring parents to blame themselves, even if this is something far beyond the scope of reality. When Maya’s dad comes home from tour early that night, it suggests they have harnessed the power of Mother Witch. Anna believes she can put a spell on her parents to make them fall in love again, which she thinks is confirmed when she hears her dad sneaking into her mom’s room in the middle of the night — a rare case of not being grossed out by parental sex. She takes this nocturnal encounter as a sign her powers are legitimate, and embraces her Wiccan self. 

Growing up is a lesson in finding out that control is fleeting, so Anna thinks they have to strike while the witchy iron is hot. “You might only have a limited amount of energy, you have to choose carefully,” she tells her friend as she thoughtlessly casts spells at mean boys. Anna has made a spellbook — a collage of images and printouts in the “W” section of an encyclopedia —  that will aid the ritual. Both opt for crush-solving magic, Anna wants to get over Alex (because she doesn't want to make the same mistakes as her parents) and Maya thinks she can win Brandt over with a love spell. If the latter happens, the name-calling and rumor spreading will stop. She will be popular. 


Dressing the part in heavy eyeliner, chokers, and layered skirts, the girls show off their new skillset via their on-point outfits. Gathering the necessary ingredients including herbs, hair, and clothing items, Maya even makes a Brandt doll (using real hair) to add to his likeness. Tipping into obsessive territory, Maya's behavior reaches a boiling point when she sees her crush post-ritual. After the girls have been disciplined for the greenhouse incantation display — when they maybe leaned too hard into the occult role play chanting "Vendy Rochelle Wiccany" — Maya wants to see if it worked. Brandt is blunt, "Just get away from me! I don't like you, you're ugly!" It is a heartbreaking moment, shattering the belief that secret powers will solve her outcast status.

Despite pleading the make-believe angle, Anna's parents are still aghast at their daughter's recent behavior. She uses this opportunity to explain that she wants them to stay married and she knows they slept together. Instead of pushing her parents back together, it makes her mom realize how unhealthy the divided house is. Lashing out, Anna calls her mother a "Monica" — referencing Lewinsky — in a below-the-belt moment that absolves her father of participating, while slut-shaming her mom. 


When they meet later that night in the clearing where they first discovered Mother Witch, Anna has found a spell to make them disappear. "I never did exist," she utters, claiming the pain is vanishing along with her body. Begging her to stay, Maya exclaims they are each other's family and they "will be together forever." Magic doesn't let them bypass the obstacles or challenges that are seemingly stacking up, but it does provide temporary comfort and a semblance of control in a tumultuous world.   

If The Baby-Sitters Club presented the tween journey from fearing witches to revering them — while reminding the audience of all ages that the word "witch" has been weaponized against women who don't conform — then this episode of PEN15 feels like a natural sequel emphasizing witchy adolescent appeal. Maya and Anna are the outcasts that match the Baby-Sitters Club description of women that have been called a witch. It doesn't matter if the magic isn't real, to believe you are in command amid the chaos is reassuring. While neither spell has the desired outcome, the real gift from Mother Nature in that wood is the reminder that this coven of two draws strength from each other — and nothing is more powerful than that. 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.