No early-aughts teen nostalgia trip would be complete without an appearance from AOL Instant Messenger, the hardworking every-app of its era. But PEN15 is characteristically dead-on in recognizing that AIM’s importance to millennials of my vintage is significant enough to merit an entire episode of its own. A quiet technical achievement, “AIM” renders the vanished landscape of AOL in utter fidelity, right down to the intentional misspellings, bad fonts, and cheesy screen savers.
More importantly, it gets the emotional aspect right. Rather than forging head-on into all the cyberbullying, relationship drama, and passive-aggressive away messages, the show smartly presents Maya and Anna as first-time AIM users, devoting the entire first half of the episode to their initial foray. The episode takes its time, letting us slowly re-experience the initial wonder of the medium through their eyes. It miraculously conjures the feeling of a time when technology represented endless possibility and mystery, a big achievement from the perspective of an era in which it’s become a storage unit for every bad thing you’ve ever said or done in perpetuity, all awaiting your eventual cancellation.
Rekindling AOL’s cheery, bland feeling of anonymity is essential to the believability of the plot, in which Maya and Anna stumble into a local chat room and end up flirting with a bold rando or two. The mythos of the era was that middle-aged perverts were trawling chat rooms to pick up unsuspecting teens. But PEN15 nails the truth that it was mostly the opposite: teen perverts trawling for something to liven up a bland masturbation diet of underwear catalogs, snuck Playboys, and the occasional snippet of an R-rated movie. (Importantly, Maya and Anna also undergo the inevitable fallout: losing your shit the second things get too hot and heavy, terrified you’ll be found out.)
“AIM” is about the ways in which technology serves as an intensifier, making us all say and do things we might not countenance face-to-face. That’s curdled into something more unsavory in our time, making it easy to forget how welcome a release valve it was for anxious teens terrified about their perception. Being Brendan’s girlfriend makes Anna uncomfortable face-to-face, but she can connect with him for hours at the remove of her phone receiver, or via a mix CD. Maya can barely discuss masturbation at all with her best friend in the world, but she can fearlessly tell Flymiamibro22 about her hard-on for sand dunes. No wonder she’s so quick to fall head-over-heels in love with him.
Riding high on that AIM-driven impulsivity, Maya (or “Diper911,” because “Viper911” was taken and she’s stubborn) tells Flymiamibro they should meet face-to-face at a bowling alley. Anna is shocked, pointing out the obvious: “Are you sure you want to meet him, because what if he’s pissed that you’re a kid?” But Maya doesn’t mind; her digital self has emboldened her real one. So Anna agrees to join her, provided that Brendan comes for extra backup.
But both girls do end up coming down off their internet sugar high. At the bowling alley, Brendan tries to make the most delicate and fumbling of physical advances on Anna. She swats him away like a gnat, surprising even herself with the ferocity of her response.
Meanwhile, Maya lets her eyes linger on a variety of men, willing herself to see the attractiveness in even the oldest, ugliest ones. When none of them turn out to be Flymiamibro, she falls into uncontrollable sobs, convinced his unwillingness to show up means she’s ugly and unlovable. It’s a specifically feminine quality of projection that I don’t think I’ve ever seen onscreen before (though there were elements of it in the viral short story “Cat Person”), and it confirms how interesting and vital this show continues to be in centering girls’ experiences.
The big reveal, of course, is that Flymiamibro is Sam. He’s been crazy about Maya all along, and this is his only way to get close to her without dropping his indifferent façade. It’s the only part of the episode that feels pat, not to mention unnecessary — Sam’s visible discomfort when Maya discusses her new e-beau at lunch would have been enough. One of the things I’ve liked best about PEN15 so far is its confidence that its world is rich enough to be compelling; it doesn’t need to go anywhere in particular. Building up to a big Maya-Sam romantic moment isn’t urgent; we’ll get there when we get there.
Overall, “AIM” is a quietly important document, a memorial to all those concentrated man-hours we now carefully disburse to texting, Twitter, Facebook, Tinder, and Instagram. Watching Anna and Maya endure every excruciating step of the dial-up process, breaking into grins as they hear that final, all-embracing “Wel-come!” … the mechanism may have changed, but all the feelings are exactly the same.