One of the biggest flaws in media about teenage girls (and let’s be real, about women in general) is that it assumes they’re all one of two ways: young-acting or old-acting, prudish or slutty, mild or wild. What makes PEN15 so refreshing is that Maya and Anna are both, and often flit between the two poles within seconds. They might not think to rebel on their own, but when an opportunity falls in their lap, their curiosity will still get the better of them.
“Miranda” is all about those internal contradictions. The episode opens with Maya and Anna childishly acting out scenes with Sylvanian Families dolls — only to reveal that those scenes are utterly crude, a hillbilly soap opera with extramarital sex. (“I got a husband and two bitch kids and I miss you!” yells Maya’s porcupine doll.) The Sylvanian dolls are the best friends’ Friday-night ritual, one that Maya wants to keep going forever, “until we’re like, old.” But after they get mocked in the cafeteria for purchasing a new set, they start wondering if they should embrace more adult pursuits.
A pathway emerges when Maya and Anna, hiding from bullying in the girls’ room, chance upon an errant cigarette that a trio of more popular girls have dropped on the floor. (The janitor catches them, but takes pity: “Lessons get learned through choices,” she tells them, instructing them to throw it away themselves.) Alternately repelled and compelled by this totem of adulthood, they decide to tart themselves up into looking more adult so they can go buy a lighter at a convenience store. That leads to a hilarious scene in which Maya dithers over the “normal” number of lighters to buy (four? two?) as Anna desperately tries to flaunt their advanced ages to a 6-year-old behind them in line.
After a chance encounter in a driveway, Anna and Maya end up getting invited over to those popular girls’ garage hangout, where they’re awaiting a quintet of good-looking brothers for a make-out session. In addition to smokes, the party boasts a lone, ominous can of beer, which sends both girls into a temporary panic. Maya decides to play it cool by taking a swig, upsetting Anna, who impulsively chugs the rest of the can. Trying to one-up Anna, Maya huffs computer cleaner and passes out on the sofa. Each is furious with the other for blazing through a teenage milestone without her.
The conflict worsens with the arrival of the boys, who literally line the girls up in a cattle call and make picks like they’re drafting them for dodgeball. Of course, Maya and Anna are last to be picked, ending up with the two youngest boys (in Anna’s case, an 8-year-old that everyone reassures her is “still hot, though”). The show does really nice, delicate work showcasing the subtle forms of sexism already at play between the kids: Maya’s kind of repelled by her make-out buddy but still feels obligated to kiss him, while Anna’s boy studiously ignores her tears over growing apart from Maya, so he can redirect the topic of conversation to Crash Bandicoot.
Like the pilot, the episode’s overall feel is low-key naturalistic, but there are some fun stylistic choices that give it a dry visual wit. A mirror make-out session done from the mirror’s POV is unshowily creative, as is the locked-in view on Maya’s head as she huffs the cleaner and falls to the sofa. A series of wordless, piercing looks between characters get subtitles. And instead of showing Maya’s mom lecturing her for drinking beer, the show jumps to the miserable aftermath, as Maya mopes at the kitchen table while her mom fusses over her sudden melancholy.
The end of the episode is crushing, reminding us that the girls’ increasingly adult bodies still contain magical-thinking kid minds. Their commitment to doing all their “firsts” simultaneously allows them to pretend that adulthood is something they can unleash on their own schedule, a defined ritual that they can undergo at exactly the same time. If they don’t, the spell won’t be cast correctly, and their growing-up will come out all wrong. Eventually they’ll be disabused of that notion for good, and the effect on their friendship will be catastrophic. But for now, they can hide that cigarette in their Sylvanian Families refrigerator, until they’re both finally ready.