In Praise of ‘Broad City’s’ New, Real Ilana Wexler

Two minutes into last night’s episode, “Burning Bridges,” Broad City provided us with perhaps its most quintessential Ilana Wexler moment. Our heroine, vibrant and carefree as always, is strolling through Union Square when she stumbles upon a delightful new chant: “Madonna, Rihanna, Ilana.” (Not since Alfred, Lord Tennyson transformed his own name into a mantra has this sort of megalomania looked so charming.) Thus electrified, she catches an apple that a fruit vendor tosses to her, pets a dog, does a cartwheel in the middle of the sidewalk, and hip-checks an angry businesswoman headfirst into a trash can.

But just minutes later, reality intrudes on Ilana’s reverie, in the form of her longtime non-boyfriend Lincoln. He’s been dating another woman for much of the season, and instead of getting jealous, Ilana has used his sexual adventures as fuel for her own fantasies. Now, though, he needs to have a serious conversation. “I want to be monogamous,” Lincoln says. Ilana being Ilana, she has no doubt in her mind that he means he wants to be exclusive with her. So he has to break it down: “I’m talking about Steph. She’s my girlfriend now. We’re together… Listen, Ilana, I love you, but I want to be in a relationship.” And he doesn’t want to stay friends, either. Flustered, Ilana mumbles something about seeing him in a “more professional capacity” in the future. There’s an excruciating moment when she tells Lincoln to wait… but instead of making one final, likely welcome attempt to save what they have, she makes a fart noise with her mouth, shoots finger guns at him, and runs away.

The dissolution of Ilana and Lincoln’s loose yet affectionate relationship was a long time coming — or, at least, it would have been if Broad City had any interest in making Ilana a realistic character in its first two seasons. It’s always been clear that he’s a more conventional person than she is, and that he’s stuck around on her polyamorous terms (not to mention allowed himself to be roped into so many of her bizarre adventures) because of how deep his affection for her runs. And this loyalty made sense according to the internal logic of previous seasons, which positioned Ilana as a sort of weed-powered, work-neglecting, casually pansexual slacker superhero, immune to any real-life consequences of her hedonism.

Ilana’s Get Out of Jail Free card must have expired at some point during the yearlong bathroom montage that opened Season 3, though. At this point, it even seems fair to call her collision with reality this season’s defining theme. First, she got booted from the food coop after sending Abbi (in full Ilana drag) to work a shift for her. Then, she got fired from her job after something like 18 months of negligence and disruptiveness — to the Sister Act 2-level rejoicing of coworkers who genuinely hated her. And a few weeks ago, Ilana’s roommate Jaime confronted her about the “Latina” earrings she wears. “It’s almost like you’re stealing the identity from people who fought hard for it against colonial structures,” he says. It’s an admittedly small moment, but one that both draws attention to Ilana’s hypocrisy — she spouts pop-feminist buzzwords all the time while remaining blissfully unaware of her own privilege — and underlines the fact that Broad City and its characters are no longer giving her a free pass.

There’s an argument to be made, I guess, that Ilana’s sudden reality check makes the show tonally inconsistent, or just less fun. And if you had told me, before the premiere, that this was going to be the season things started to go to shit for Ilana, I wouldn’t have looked forward to it. Because that superhero quality is what I always loved most about the character: the fact that her very existence seemed to create a world free of violence, misogyny, homophobia, and all other sorts of danger. Sometimes, Ilana almost seemed to be a figment of the consistently earthbound Abbi’s imagination, a presence with the power to make Abbi’s life braver and freer and more exciting. The purity of Ilana’s love for Abbi — which also, kind of brilliantly, extends to her reverence for Abbi’s body — palpably bolsters that often reticent character’s confidence in herself.

But Ilana’s trajectory this season has been even more worthwhile than keeping that superhero persona alive. More effectively than Girls or even You’re the Worst, Broad City is capturing the shift that happens a few years into adulthood, when our choices start to feel more permanent and our mistakes more destructive. Though we may not fail as suddenly and spectacularly as Ilana has recently, the weight of all we’ve done (or didn’t do) really can hit us all at once.

In “Burning Bridges,” a disastrous family dinner late in the episode ends with Ilana in tears, confessing her sadness about Lincoln to Abbi, who she’s just caught lying to her about hooking up with Trey. Whether or not we’ve ever strung along a touchingly sweet, thoughtful man for an unacceptable amount of time, only to be dumped when he finds another “kween” who wants to get serious, we’ve all been that 20-something dummy crying on the sidewalk about something that is ultimately our own fault. In that sense, the show’s characterization of Ilana is consistent; its emotional realism makes up for any dissonance in tone.

Beyond that, what’s really worth celebrating is that Broad City has found a way to nudge Ilana towards adulthood without shaming her for who she is — and that’s especially notable considering how much traditional coming-of-age stories love to punish female characters who are confident, sexually liberated, and generally take pleasure in life. Sure, she’s learning the hard way that she’s reached an age where relationships and jobs get serious, and friendships are tested. But in the final few minutes of “Burning Bridges,” we see her and Abbi smoking a joint together in the bathtub, laughing over crushes and bras and Trey, and there’s no question about it: Ilana Wexler is going to be just fine.