To cap a season of pure brilliance, PEN15 offers an episode of meta-text about people investing a school dance with importance, precisely because they’ve watched way too many TV episodes about people investing school dances with importance. Watching the camera do a 360-degree spin around the dance floor at Trailview Middle, you see the ambition in every small face: to be just a little bit badder, a little bit bolder, a little bit wiser, harder, tougher. Then you get to see those faces wilt as those fantasy selves fail to manifest under the cold light of other kids’ scrutiny.
PEN15 gets this experience intuitively, because it gets disappointment intuitively. It also gets the weird moments of grace that sometimes arise when you don’t think you could be more disappointed. That’s what makes it so goddamn good.
The episode opens with Anna and Maya at loggerheads. Maya tries to make amends for her blow-up about Anna stealing her family, but she has no idea how much rage Anna still has left to burn over Maya not being there when her parents announced their divorce. She pushes back by performatively seeking extra sympathy from Heather, so that Maya is forced to learn about the divorce secondhand. Anna wants Maya to hurt as much as she does, and the strategy works beautifully.
I overuse the word “authentic” in relationship to this show, but Maya and Anna’s first real fight does play out so authentically. Their commitment to making each other suffer is matched only by the desperation of their desire to make each other care. It’s death by a thousand cuts, as emphasized by the skritch-skritch of their Venus razors when they shave their legs for the first time. Middle-school friendships don’t die with bangs but with whimpers, and you can hear every last one.
But they can also be miraculously revived, especially when everyone else has let you down. Maya finally has “the moment” with Sam, only to have it go sour when he decides to execute his own fantasy of “the moment.” His confession that he’s Flymiamibro22 isn’t like the movies, and Maya doesn’t fall all over him in rapture and recognition. She’s been lied to, and she’s understandably disgusted.
The same dynamic plays out with Anna, who, after hearing Heather is finally over Alex, works up the guts to walk over and ask him for a dance. She expects a movie moment, but his response is just “no” — a single word that hits so impossibly hard, I’m pretty sure I felt it in my teeth. As Anna reels, the popular girls deliver the knockout punch, telling Anna that she’s broken Heather’s trust by asking Alex to dance. Besides, they were only nice to her in the first place because of the whole divorce thing.
In the nick of time, Des’ree comes to save the day, allowing Maya and Anna to reunite over the “You Gotta Be” dance they’ve been rehearsing in little slivers all season. It’s a deeply moving moment, as the other kids suddenly vanish from the room, leaving Maya and Anna to move through their heartache together and get to a place where they can care a little less.
Being at rock-bottom has its advantages, one of which is that the girls can finally just be their authentic selves. When another boy compliments “UGIS” on her dance moves, Maya unrepentantly fires back: “I’m not UGIS, you fuck-butt! Go fuck a dick ’til it comes, you suck-face!” (Maya Erskine’s ability to curse like she just invented cursing never ceases to slay me.)
Surprised, the offending kid offers to make it up to Maya by fingering her, and soon, he, Maya, and Anna are sizing each other up in a storeroom. Neither girl is ultimately ready for third base, but they’re happy to round second, letting him delightedly massage one boob each and gratefully accepting compliments on their “really hard nips.” They’ve gotten one of their passport stamps to adulthood, and they’ve gotten to do it together.
It’s a very unexpected turn that will probably weird a lot of people out, but I totally loved it. Despite all of their high expectations for themselves and others, teenagers are still capable of something only kids can do: being wildly happy with completely left-field twists in their lives. For this one bizarre moment, Maya and Anna get to break free of their rigid social world, and their delight is palpable. When the camera cuts to old photos of them together as kids, it’s like watching Marty McFly’s vanishing siblings suddenly pop back into frame.
That’s not to say that the disappointment doesn’t still linger. The episode ends on a note of real heartbreak, as Anna tells Maya what she can’t tell her doting dad: the divorce is “the saddest thing that has ever happened” to her. Maya decides it’s time to break out that cigarette they’ve been stashing. They quietly smoke it in the backyard, simultaneously feeling more adult than they’ve ever felt and wondering if that’s even a good thing.
I can’t say enough about the creativity on display in this episode, which is bursting with surreal and beautiful moments of pure feeling, like Maya seeing her first tampon as literally ten times bigger than it actually is, or Anna repeating her mom’s thoughts about the divorce, word for word, back to her dad to make him feel better. The performances, the editing, the music choices: everything reflects obvious intelligence, craft, and care.
Given that level of care, I’ve been puzzled by reviews dismissing PEN15 as well-made but ultimately just a funny ’90s lark, when it’s clearly so much more. Perhaps its biggest feature is also its biggest bug: It takes teenage girls and their feelings seriously in a world that treats them as the least serious people alive. It’s an act of radical empathy, and one I won’t soon forget.