In many ways, this is the episode PEN15 has been building toward for the whole season. Among all the totems of adulthood available to a tween, the first kiss is the crown jewel, invested with mythic power. But it’s also the hard line where the show’s creators have to step back and acknowledge that Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle aren’t actually the characters they play, and making out with 13-year-old actors is definitely off the table. “Wild Things” manages to thread this tricky needle, and includes some youthful stigma-busting in the bargain. First kisses can, and often do, suck, and there’s no point in pretending otherwise.
With its usual nose for undersung teen rituals, the show sniffs out a great one: the first boy-girl party with a viewing of a spicy movie. In my southern hometown, there is no way in hell a cheerful suburban mom like Brendan’s would have countenanced having a group of teens over to watch Wild Things, but I’ll just chalk it up to Franklin County’s undisclosed location being in a much bluer state.
The screening is invested with a lot of weight for Anna, because everyone knows that this is the time when she and Brendan are expected to smooch. (His desperate attempt to keep things casual in the invitation note, which is signed “Tight. B.,” says it all.) After the near-miss kiss at the bowling alley, Anna’s not sure if she really wants to go through with it. But Maya reminds Anna that she has to do it for both of them, because Maya herself has no immediate prospects.
That realization prompts Maya to take another look around at her options, and to realize that Sam might be the best one. Her timing is terrible: Sam is suddenly getting interest from another classmate, Jenna, who actually does things like, ugh, complimenting him and being nice to him. The show is clever in keeping Sam’s real feelings close to the vest. Does he actually like Jenna, or is he pulling the same move Anna did with Brendan, making the best of what’s available while still pining for Maya? (One notable clue: Maya’s conversations with Flymiamibro are still in the picture.)
The actual scenes of the kids watching the movie together, joined by Brendan’s oddball cousin Richard, are pretty much perfect. Everyone wide-eyed and breathing heavily, yet trying to hold their bodies impossibly still against the arousal, is a really hard vibe to convey, and it’s executed well. The episode is smart about the ways inexperienced kids are stupid when it comes to physical chemistry, mistaking every signal for noise. In a masterful bit of wordless comedy, a jealous Maya tremblingly attempts to place her hand on Richard’s knee, only to have him quickly and silently pick it up and hand it back to her.
I was less enthusiastic about the big kiss scene between Anna and Brendan, which seemed overshot to fully reassure viewers that no, really, we promise, this is not a kid making out with an adult. Cuts jump rapidly from Konkle’s face to Brady Allen’s face, then to a disembodied pair of tongues, the male one clearly belonging to a different, adult face. It’s supposed to represent the jumbled, uncomfortable nature of the kiss, but it comes off as feeling like the camera can’t hold focus long enough to show what’s actually happening. The best shot actually comes after Brendan walks away, when the viewpoint shifts to Anna’s eye level as she wipes all his slobber from his face, mute with shock. It conveys more of the discomfort than the kiss itself does.
The denouement of the episode is lovely, marked by another sterling performance from Konkle. She relates the kiss to Maya at a sleepover, explaining that Brendan “did a torpedo cat tongue and like, drilled my mouth … [my tongue] was pinned back, like, it was in trouble, you know?” Maya comforts her, reminding her that at least she achieved the milestone. “I wish that I hadn’t,” Anna says. “He’s not the Brendan that bought us snacks at the bowling alley. He’s the Brendan that drilled the back of my tongue.” It’s a crushing moment, conveying with perfect economy the way romantic feelings can suddenly vanish in a puff of smoke.
The dynamic is explored just as elegantly in reverse. In a poignant scene outside Sam’s locker, Maya thinks it might not be too late to win Sam back, even managing to finally drop her guard and actually compliment him. He tells her she’s an “amazing friend,” to which she responds “That’s all?” And without Sam saying anything, we know it is, at least for now. (Taj Cross, who plays Sam, is terrific in this episode — as his role has expanded, he’s really risen to meet Erskine’s level.)
Anna is suffering, too. Thanks to some well-timed eavesdropping by gossipy Becca, she gets proactively dumped by Brendan before she can dump him herself. As her parents reassure her she’s a catch and uncomfortably start making out, it’s easy to empathize with Anna’s bleak perspective on love. She’s finally reached the age where disappointment can linger longer in the mind than excitement, even if “long” is just a couple of days’ time.