Dear Television: Broad City, Season Two, Episode Ten, 'St. Mark's'

Dear Television is Evan Kindley, Phillip Maciak, Jane Hu, Sarah Mesle, and Lili Loofbourow. They will be writing weekly letters inspired by the second season of Comedy Central's "Broad City." These aren't full recaps, but spoilers abound. Read previous installments here.

The Last Will and Testament of Ilana Wexler


Dear TV,

Phil: Having covered Broad City for a full season now, there’s a certain sense of occasion that attaches itself to our coverage of the final episode. And you can sense that that’s something on Abbi's and Ilana’s minds as well, inasmuch as this episode, like last season’s finale, is about a big birthday dinner gone awry. But there’s also something a little anticlimactic about the whole thing, both because the episode itself can’t escape comparison to “The Last Supper”—which is, I think, a much better episode—and because, as critics, our anticipation for this half hour is entirely based on inertia rather than narrative propulsion. There’s nothing I needed from this episode, narratively speaking, no loose ends to tie up or secrets to reveal. Broad City was looking, presumably, for a big finish. And this episode is big, and it is finished.

In lieu of that narrative continuity, though, this is a season that has really had ongoing thematic preoccupations. Doppelgangers and narcissism. Abbi’s sexual awakening. Fake vs. real. Dancing! But, and this is maybe where I’d like to start with this episode, this season has also been really invested in ethnography. The first season was full of young-New-York in-jokes, but this season seems more concerned with the shape and space and customs of this world. The Gowanus Whole Foods, the Long Island shiva, the gay dog wedding—Abbi and Ilana have been looking for the Balinese cock-fights of contemporary New York City, and, as much as the comedy is motivated by their antics, it’s been buttressed by these thick descriptions of places and rituals.

And this episode, we get St. Marks Place. Runaways, parrot guys, millennials pissing in the street. Broad City’s target has been so hard to place this season. Is this critique or is it love? It strikes me, more than usual, that, forgetting for a moment that they’re our protagonists, Abbi and Ilana are very much a part of this weird milieu, throwing wine at each other, wearing wigs, catcalling men on the street. So whatever’s being chopped or caressed here includes them. Is this a vibrant cityscape or a document of decline and fall, Sarah?

Sarah: Big finish or dying fall? No, that’s not fair: A lot about this episode was really so beautiful. And I respected how they didn’t try to one-up last year’s finale; instead, they went the totally opposite direction. In basically every way, “St. Mark’s” was the inverse of “The Last Supper.” Last year they gorged on shellfish, this year they barely ate; last year they dressed up, this year they started schlumpy and got schlumpier; most importantly, last year they were ritzing it up and out of their element, this year they were very much in it. As you’re saying, it’s an ethnographic encounter with themselves.

And it strikes me that it’s a very loving and tender one. Everything about the episode visually, from the focus on one specific place to the long camera shots, was about lingering. And in that regard, the formal qualities of the episode seemed to be a sort of response to another ongoing topic of conversation: death, loss, time slipping by.

This is clearest in the episode’s focus on Ilana’s will. It’s a strange sort of insight into Ilana’s character that, on her birthday, she starts thinking about death! And I think it’s an interesting question, how we’re asked to respond to her childlike 23-year-old anxiety. Are we supposed to share it? On the one hand, it’s clearly a manifestation of Ilana’s ridiculous self-involvement that she treats 23 as the beginning of the end. But on the other hand, she’s not wrong that that part of life goes by quite quickly. The lingering formal qualities seems to validate, at an emotional level, Ilana’s sense of time passing and our sense of nostalgia; as in the “Knock Offs” episode, I was impressed by the show’s ability to register a sadness and a tenderness that sitcoms can’t often accommodate. Can we think about these episode working narratively as a complement to Bobbi Wexler’s grief, earlier in the season? Or do you think that puts too much pressure on the show? Do you think it’s fair, or maybe a better word would be worthwhile, to consider how Broad City, which is still basically a sketch comedy, develops thematic concerns over a season?

Related: This is an episode about getting older. And that means it’s about changing. But even as Abbi and Ilana ponder their own milestones, are we supposed to see them growing as characters?

Phil: Yes! No! I don’t know! I think the question of “growth,” in terms of character development or moral education, is interestingly related to the question of this show’s narrative or thematic cohesion. We’ve mentioned a million times this season that this show does amazing things with the episodic, non-serialized sitcom structure, but still we want to attribute growth or development to them. Elaine didn’t grow on Seinfeld, why should Abbi and Ilana? Part of that is the show itself. Its short episode count suggests seriality to contemporary viewers, as does its semantic similarity to Girls. Plus, the show, and this episode specifically, is constantly making reference to longterm goals—or arcs—either in terms of bucket lists or accumulated experiences or Abbi’s b’day questionnaire.

So there’s a summary quality about this episode. Where have we come to, what have we accomplished, what’s next? But at the same time, the broads are stalled out, marked by none of the traditional signifiers of growth for this cohort—money, promotions, boy/girlfriends. Like waif/devil-queen Sister Carrie in her rocking chair, it’s all movement with no progress for these two. It feels a little like over-reading, but it seems entirely plausible to me that the show is intentionally staking its ground in between. It wants us to feel the sensation of momentum without any actual movement. It wants us to perceive progress, to bring it up to us and for us, only to deflate it. It’s not serial; it’s anti-serial.

Sarah: Whoa: Sister Carrie! 1: I am not sure how I feel about referring to Sister Carrie as a “waif.” PHIL, SHE IS NOT A WAIF, I DON’T CARE WHAT THE FIRST CHAPTER SAYS! But 2: You are blowing my mind. Is Ilana Sister Carrie???! Sister Carrie is very critical, finally, of Sister Carrie; Carrie in her rocking chair represents a sort of onanistic failure of modernity; she’s a blank. Are you saying that you find Broad City to be finally critical of its broads? Or of...young adulthood?

Phil: I think it’s a softer criticism, but it’s a criticism all the same. On one hand, it’s a kind of half-nostalgic, half-embarrassed look back. (I think it’s notable that Glazer and Jacobson are both just a few years older than the characters they play, and they’ve said in a couple of interviews that these characters represent a recent past.) But I think it’s ultimately less of an indictment of youth or youthful folly than it is a slap at critics and viewers who demand emotional progress of characters of this age. Plenty of writers and viewers are fed up with Girls, for instance, constantly teasing emotional growth for its characters and then doubling-back. If Broad City is indeed a throwback, traditional sitcom, and thus its timeline is kind of a frozen one wherein time theoretically passes—birthdays come and go, etc.—but nothing ever really changes, then there’s no necessary endgame, whether it be a maturation or a tragic fall. It seems like it’s possible this show’s Manhattan is a version of Never Land. Peter Pan won’t grow up, neither will Bart Simpson, and neither will Abbi and Ilana. I think the show wants us to feel stupid for thinking that these two are going to evolve in any substantive way.

Sarah: I’m really persuaded by the claim you’re making that Broad City is resisting the expectations critics have come to assign to “prestige TV”—narrative complexity among them. We—and I guess I mean that as the very specific “we” of the Dear Television writing crew, as well as TV criticism more broadly—want to reward a particularly kind of depth, because it rewards the way we (I?) know how to read. One of the things that’s been really satisfying about writing about this show, actually, is trying to find a critical vocabulary that’s useful.

Phil: Let’s wheel back around to the ethnographic aspect of all of this. When I said this episode was “big,” I guess I meant that in the sense that it’s full of stuff. “The Last Supper” was an epic bottle episode. This is a bottled-up picaresque. And a very small proportion of the main misadventures here seemed up to snuff. We can talk about the primary events—the ruined dinner, the purse-snatching—but I want to linger (!) for a moment on the absurd wealth of sight gags, many of which transcended the episode’s actual content. Can we talk about the Pissing Millennial?

Sarah: I cannot express enough how much I loved that Pissing Millennial. That girl was magical to me! All dolled up, checking her phone, pissing with a complete lack of concern for who might see! (Her posture was also sort of amazing; I personally have never seen a woman pee in that stance, so it was a sort of break down in realism, but I liked it because it reminded me of the Tree Man’s lanky pose.) It’s an “unruly” moment in classic Broad City style; have you ever seen a woman pee on television before? (Honest question: Have you?) That Abbi and Ilana seem unphased by it makes their relationship with her seem more clear: we’ve never seen Abbi and Ilana publicly pee together, but I believe that they would, and do!

But it was also a strange moment for me, because I’ve been thinking so much about this essay, which is, in a gentle way, quite critical of Broad City. The question the essay asks that has really lingered with me is, “Why does abjection signify freedom for white people?” That’s a broader question than we can fully answer here, but this episode put it dramatically on the table.

Is public peeing “abject”? I think so, in that “abject” is the word for “unruly” that really makes clear the social stakes of unruliness. Unruly seems zany and fun, while abject signals gross and, even, despised.

Phil: My question about that is this: Does abjection signify freedom for white people? Or, more specifically, is freedom what we’re supposed to be reading in Abbi scrubbing toilets or Selfie Sue taking a leak on a tree? (Also, for what it’s worth, Jessa got arrested for peeing on the street in an episode of Girls this very season! This has to be an instance of multiple discovery, as I suspect they were shot basically at the same time, but Jessa’s squat is slightly less graphic. Chalk up another one to Broad City for making Girls seem demure!)

Sarah: Well, let me answer that on an anecdotal level: I take pleasure in the Peeing Millennial precisely because she signals freedom to me. It’s a freedom that’s closely associated with one of the main pleasures I take in watching this show in general: It is mindblowingly pleasurable to watch women—it’s usually but not always Ilana—completely fail to follow the rules of feminine propriety and to escape unscathed. Like, there are no repercussions. (Here, following up on your Sister Carrie reference, let’s think about how Ilana is absolutely the opposite of Lily Bart. Or Tess. Or Edna Pontellier. All variously unruly women who die. That’s what’s usually happens to unruly women!)

As a woman, I think I have a very strong ingrained sense that if you don’t keep everything together, and spend a rather considerable amount of energy making yourself attractive to other people, shit is just going to hit the fucking fan. Like, no one will ever love you and no one will ever hire you or take care of you and you will not be okay, in a vague but nevertheless terrifying way. (And I say that as a woman who really carries my femininity very lightly!) So to watch this woman just not give a shit and be fine – yes, that does signal freedom!

But the condition of her being “fine” is her discovery, or her confidence, that she’ll be okay even without the safety net of public approval. Or, rather, she is fine because of the security that comes from knowing you have other ways to marshal care and comfort. That is a security which people of color, in the U.S., have typically been denied.

Which brings us more concretely to race. Another example of unruly/abject behavior is Ilana doing the “tongue thing” at—or, I guess, about—the handsome black man she passes on the street. How do you read that? At the most basic level, I think it’s a moment that “knows” that Ilana is safe in deploying her “tongue thing” in a way that the black man is not. That’s a moment, I think, about the power differential around race. Yes?

Phil: First of all, the safety net makes sense to me. We’ve talked about the bumper-lane Manhattan in which these broads reside, and the safe off-sites of Long Island and the Main Line, respectively, that keep the lanes inflated. At the same time, race—interracial desire, passing, gentrification, minstrelsy, the “post-racial”—is another of this show’s ongoing, almost constant, thematic concerns. I would say it’s one of the show’s anxieties if it weren’t always invoked so blithely. As you noted above, this episode is an ethnographic encounter with themselves. It marks their privilege, marks their feelings of touristic superiority over their surroundings, at the same time that it refuses to validate that superiority. (Remember the awkward moment in “The Last Supper” when Ilana tells the Hispanic busboy that one day, he’ll be the chef?) In other words, I think that there is a screwy race consciousness at work here, but I’m tempted to say it belongs to Abbi and Ilana rather than the show.

To your question, though, I don’t fully know what to do with Ilana here. Like the “reverse rapism” in the first episode, this is another one of those strange moments where Broad City tries to pull a triple Lutz of progressive politics out of Ilana’s obliviousness. There’s a harebrained Wexlerian logic that the appropriate response to something like the racially lopsided “10 Hours of Walking in NYC as a Woman” is to start catcalling African-American dudes on the street. And there’s something classically farcical about the tactic of bringing up a valuable conversation about race by staging a situation in which somebody gets the dynamic so woefully and gleefully wrong. I’m thinking here about Ilana’s famous first-season proclamation that within a couple of decades, everybody’s going to be “caramel and queer.” I’m imagining one of those Victorian-era Vanity Fair caricatures of Ilana Wexler as “The Post-Racialist.” But the show doesn’t often let that rhetoric play itself out in the world. It gestures but doesn’t commit. I think it’s telling that Ilana’s comfortable licking her chops at these guys, but the actual reciprocated (and sincerely expressed) desire that it prompts gets cut short.

Sarah: Right! Yes, it gets cut short by the crappy homeless guy—not really homeless, but we don’t know it yet—stealing the bag with Ilana’s present. Like literally the boring self-important white guy stole the story! This chase scene: What’s up here, Phil? I found this sequence…weird? Not unsatisfying, I guess, in that I like watching the broads’ shenanigans, but I didn’t feel that finally there was a lot of payoff. I would much rather have watched Abbi and Ilana really figure some shit out with the men on the street than watch them chase some guy finally into his gorgeous townhouse and watch him get humiliated by his sad, drunk mom. Talk about abjection! Here’s a woman who the episode did not see as experiencing freedom. There’s no respite for the disappointed and middle-aged, even when played by (the amazing) Patricia Clarkson.

Phil: Yes, absolutely. It’s so frustrating to me that the show side-stepped a really interesting and novel interaction/conversation about privilege and public life for a really hackneyed one. (Though, points to the broads for casting the actor who played Johnny Weeks—Bubbles’ white junkie protege from The Wire—as the fake homeless kid.) Middle-aged lushes, grad-school drop-outs, faux-poverty, white wine—we get it! I agree with you that I didn’t mind it on its own, but it took up too much space and distracted the episode from what was really promising about it. Yet again, I say, this show should be less worried about being boring. For an episode with as much rich detail as this, it was pretty disappointing to realize that once they left that brownstone, the episode was over.

Sarah: On that note, I think we have to talk about the episode’s final sequence. This episode ends, as so many episodes do, with Abbi and Ilana snuggling in bed and reflecting on their adventures. But here, their “bed” is a sidewalk under a pizza stand, and their blanket (it’s Abbi’s gift, and one of the episode’s big sources of narrative suspense) is a white blanket emblazoned with the life-size image of a naked black man. Like, that sexed up black man is literally Ilana’s security blanket: She thinks it’s hot, sure, but she also thinks her attraction to it is a kind of protection. Here the joke is definitely on Ilana — I don’t think we’re supposed to admire this part of her personality — but what does your subject position have to be in order to find watching this show “fun”?

Also to note on this point: the absence of Lincoln from this episode. I mean, of course he’s not there, right, because he’s not a part of Abbi and Ilana’s romance. (Phil, who is a genius, has suggested we call it an “estromance," an analogue to “bromance.”) But I guess this is a moment that makes me think about how much the show depends on him to keep its racial humor in the register of the pleasurable.

Not going to lie: This was an uncomfortable viewing moment for me, not less so because I of course love the fantasy of snuggling on the street with my best girls, eating pizza and talking about life.

Phil: Yeah, I think since the invention of “ironic hipster racism” those many years ago, that logic has been pretzeled in upon itself so many times it’s hard to tell which end this blanket falls on. Whatever it gets us, this is a self-conscious moment. After recapping her steps forward in the past year, Abbi says she wants to get an intense massage because she needs “to feel more of life’s pain” in her new year. That a rough massage is characterized here as “life’s pain,” that it’s further characterized as progress, and that it’s uttered from beneath a blanket with a nude black man screen-printed on it, should tell us all we need to know about this show’s relationship to privilege of all sorts.

“I hate pain. I love pleasure.”

Sarah and Phil