If the pilot episode of Paper Girls is all about giving people a look at the action they can expect with the series, the second episode slows things down and reveals the emotional center of the show. Sure, it’s a trippy time-traveling adventure, and if it’s anything like the comic, it will only get trippier, but it’s grounded by its coming-of-age story. In the midst of being shot at and ripped from 1988 only to be plopped in 2019, Erin, KJ, Tiff, and Mac are confronting who they are — sometimes internally, as they reckon with the decisions they are making in a time of crisis, and sometimes quite literally, as they meet their future selves. The Erin–slash–adult Erin (in these recaps we will never call her old Erin!!) conflict in this episode is so well done, at times it made me forget I was watching a sci-fi epic … I mean, aside from the fact that the two people having that conflict are in fact the same person at two different ages. You know, that old hat.
While her cohorts are freaking out over the internet, camera phones, the fact that all their pets are probably dead now, and that virtual assistant on adult Erin’s counter they accidentally wake up (“oh good lord, there are future robots!”), Erin is stewing over how disappointing it seems her life has turned out to be. Talk about being your own biggest bully, you know?
Erin spends this episode alternating between being angry at and disgusted with her older self. Instead of a self-assured U.S. senator who is married with four kids and lives next door to her sister and best friend Missy, Erin discovers a Xanax-popping paralegal who lives alone, doesn’t speak to Missy much anymore, and ran away and hid in her room at the first sign of trouble. And Erin doesn’t even know what Xanax is, but she knows she doesn’t like it. All of this is compounded by the fact that here, in 2019, her mother is recently deceased. It’s a lot to process on top of the fact that she just almost died, was saved by tiny robot bugs, and yes, again, louder for those in the back, time traveled. It’s easy to understand where Erin is coming from — can you imagine what your 12-year-old self would say if she walked through your front door right now? I can already hear that little shit getting on my case about how we’re still single and “wearing headbands again.”
But just because it’s easy to understand where Erin is coming from, it doesn’t make it any less brutal to watch her tear down adult Erin. Adult Erin is aware that she didn’t exactly live up to the potential she believed she had growing up, but she is also aware that this kid laying into her doesn’t have much in the way of life experience. She doesn’t understand how your dreams change and opportunities don’t always pan out. Plus, adult Erin is trying. Like, give her a minute to digest the insanity that is taking place, kid! She does eventually take the girls back out to the woods where that time travel capsule landed, but there’s no evidence that they were ever there — no blood, no bodies, no field hockey stick. She also gets them to a tech repair shop where she awkwardly asks a guy with whom she had a terrible date at Buca di Beppo to look into the little tech device Tiff is carrying around. Ali Wong is perfect in this role — I will hear no other arguments on the matter at this time. The guy, still super into adult Erin, by the way, tries to charge it but ends up frying it.
For all her effort, adult Erin has annoyed pretty much everyone at this point. Tiff has already decided that she needs to get in contact with her older self because that woman will surely be better equipped to help them out. She’s even more hell-bent on finding adult Tiff after she learns what Googling is, Googles herself, and learns she runs some type of scientific institute. The girls want to race off to Cleveland to find her, but adult Erin wisely tells them to take a breath. This is the last straw for Erin, who stops the passive-aggressive act toward her older self and goes full-on aggressive. That whole “You are literally the worst version of how my life could’ve gone” is going to sting for a while. Equally as cutting is adult Erin’s reminder that they’re the same person and she started quitting things a long time ago. For instance, this paper route? She quit after one day. These other girls never knew her. It is possibly the most complicated way to be mad at yourself.
With that huge fight, Erin refuses to stay in that house one more minute, and the girls take off and end up seeking refuge, as preteens in the ’80s are wont to do, at the local mall.
Erin isn’t the only person dealing with complicated emotions and all of that comes to a head in the few minutes the girls spend trying to figure out their next move and reminiscing about seeing Debbie Gibson perform in this now completely abandoned and run-down atrium. There’s KJ, who of course is grappling with the fact that she killed a man. She tries and fails to convince herself that he isn’t dead. She wonders why she was the one who reacted with such violence and not one of the other girls. All four of the main actors here are giving great performances, but man does Fina Strazza really sell the terror KJ is trying to keep tampered down inside.
Mac is almost on the opposite kind of emotional journey. She discovers that her house has been knocked down and that her dipshit older brother Dylan is now a doctor. All signs point to her having gotten out of Stony Stream. While Erin dreamed about what her future could be, Mac feared it, worrying she’d wind up an alcoholic with too many kids. Not finding her future self and seeing how well her brother is doing is freeing for Mac. Now, does that mean she’s any less of a dick? Of course not, this is Mac. Lashing out in the meanest way possible is Mac’s defense mechanism, and it is in full force at the mall when she’s reminded that her life looks nothing like these other girls’ lives. Hearing them reminisce about nice memories at the mall only makes her feel embarrassed about what she doesn’t have and so tears into each one of the girls — calling KJ “the psycho who killed a guy with a hockey stick” is gut-wrenching to watch — before announcing that she’s going off to find her brother and she’ll stay with him. She gets in one final dig at my beloved Baby-Sitters Club, which is straight-up blasphemy, before heading out in a blaze of double middle-finger glory.
The rift between our core four is concerning because little do they know that Prioress, Adina Porter’s character who we’ve seen skulking around in her white coat, is on the hunt for them. She sees KJ’s name carved into the field-hockey stick left near her dead colleague’s body and tracks down Mr. and Mrs. Brandman in 2019. We don’t see her torture them for information, but we hear it, and we watch as she leaves that house in a pink haze with KJ’s picture and a determined look on her face.
• Don’t count adult Erin out yet: Alone at home, she starts messing around with the device and accidentally turns it on. It scans her face and then opens up some sort of digital interface through her eyes. The previous owner was apparently “STF Unit 953,” and adult Erin somehow sets some sort of alarm system. Paper Girls is slowly doling out hints as to what’s really going on with all this time-hopping, but hopefully, we’ll get a more detailed explainer soon.
• And here I thought Mac was making some progress after she had that little chat with KJ — who seems to have taken a special interest in her new pal — about why Mac should stop saying such racist shit all the time. KJ tries to make a personal appeal, explaining how she gets bullied at school for being Jewish. She also has that heart-to-heart with Erin in which she apologizes for, uh, shooting her (“I’m sorry I shot you, it won’t happen again,”) and commends her on how tough she acted throughout the entire ordeal. Alas, Mac still can’t shake her instinct to be a dick, even if she’s aware of it.
• I’m still laughing over Tiff’s reaction when adult Erin tells her that phone books don’t really exist anymore. Of all the things to be horrified about.
• Tiff named her hamster “Weird Al” — our geek queen is very precious to me.
• Wow, wow, wow. Erin really got into Dave Matthews Band in the ’90s.