TV & Movies

What This Spellbinding PEN15 Episode Says About Suburban Tween Witchcraft

Get out your spell books.

Spoilers ahead for PEN15 Season 2, Episode 3. No show has ever captured the humiliation of middle school quite like PEN15. But while the Hulu comedy’s return still brings plenty of turmoil over unrequited lovers and unwanted body hair, PEN15 Season 2 is darker and stranger than ever, as Anna’s volatile home life and Maya’s desperate desire to be loved by a boy become major storylines. Episode 3, “Vendy Wiccany,” stands out as a surreal and slightly somber shift in the series. After Anna and Maya witness a particularly brutal fight between Anna’s now-separated parents, they run to the woods and find something unexpected: magical powers.

Witchcraft comes to them at a time when they need it most, and Maya and Anna give themselves over completely to the notion that they have powers. They start gathering classmates' hair for potions and improvising chants that will solve all their earthly problems. As Maya and Anna go deeper down this rabbit hole, they become intoxicated by their “powers” and the newfound sense of agency that comes with being a witch. For Anna and Maya, pretending to be a witch makes you feel in control at a point in adolescence when everything feels out of control. Through their journey, the episode manages to shed light on Anna and Maya’s inner turmoil while also dissecting the greater cultural context of the powerful partnership between ‘00s tweens and the magical realm.

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Given Maya and Anna’s age in the year 2000, we can assume that they have grown up around shows like Sabrina the Teenage Witch (1996-2003), Charmed (1998–2006), Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997–2003) and movies like The Craft (1996), in which teen witches are depicted as cool yet misunderstood outcasts. In real life, these shows and movies “occurred alongside an increasing number of real teenagers adopting the religious identity of Witches,” according to a 2008 study on teenage witches from the Journal of the American Academy of Religion.

Casting a spell that makes your parents fall back in love is infinitely easier than confronting the complicated reasons why a marriage might end.

Being a teen witch is useful in that it can explain so much of the inexplicable. Suddenly, all the scary parts of those years — body changes, hormonal changes, increasingly complicated social interactions — can have a much simpler answer for why they exist. Casting a spell that makes your parents fall back in love is infinitely easier than confronting the complicated reasons why a marriage might end. Anna and Maya don’t feel that their weirdness is celebrated at school, but rather than try to assimilate with the popular girls again and again, they lean into magic and the unlimited possibilities it offers them — a feeling that is antithetical to the reality of middle school. Why else did we cling so hard to our hardcover copies of Twilight if not to live out the reality that maybe the most plain and boring among us were actually destined for spectacular lives filled with hot supernatural boyfriends and adventure?

The girls’ spells start out fairly superficial. Maya wants to be blonde and Anna would like some white jeans (understandable). But a much darker reality gradually seeps in. Anna wishes she wasn’t a problem for her parents, Maya wishes for her dad to be home, together they wish for a friend group that loves them. Magic becomes an escape for the pair, a place where they can say their dreams out loud. Some of their spells appear to work: Maya’s dad comes home unexpectedly, and Anna finds herself finally falling out of love with Alex. Others, like Maya’s attempt to make Brandt love her, go painfully wrong. When their parents talk to them, both girls insist they were just playing pretend, but were they really?

In the end of the episode, Anna and Maya meet up in the woods to cast their final spell. A disappearing spell for Anna, who cannot bear to witness her parents' dissolving marriage anymore. As she starts casting it, magic stops being fun for Maya. She clutches Anna and pleads with her to stay. The spell dissolves into sobs.

As the camera pans away, it becomes clear that the girls are not in the woods at all, but a suburban front yard, using their imaginations to get as much distance from their realities as possible. Despite the electrifying prospect of being witches, they will still have to face their horrified classmates and real lives tomorrow. Magic can only do so much for a tween.