PEN15 has never shied away from the dark side of adolescence. But compared to the first season, these first two episodes have featured some of the show’s bleakest moments yet. Still reeling from the previous episode’s slut-shaming by their female classmates, Maya and Anna find an equally inhospitable (and eventually outright misogynistic) audience among the boys. Throw in the ongoing fallout from Anna’s parents’ divorce and “Wrestle” makes for some pretty painful viewing.
This episode revolves around anger and what, if anything, girls are allowed to do with theirs. And it’s not afraid to make that subtext text. When Maya first shadows the boys at wrestling, Coach Brown’s exhortations quickly evolve from the standard “Focus!” to “Grab all the rage inside and let it out … Handle it like a man. Destroy something privately or, better yet, on a team.”
That open outlet for rage is instantly appealing to Anna, who remains a silent pawn in the battle between her separated but co-habitating parents. After they insert her into a fight over an unwanted reading pillow, Anna copes by repeatedly leg-dropping it, imagining herself as a fishnet-clad Trish Stratus dazzling the admiring Alex. Before long, she’s gone full meathead, pumping iron and bragging about her peanut-butter-and-egg method for bulking. (“It tastes like Reese’s Pieces!”)
Meanwhile, Maya is funneling her frustration into Brandt’s lack of acknowledgment of what even she admits — with zero self-awareness — is stalking. Like Anna’s wrestling fantasies, it’s initially played for absurdist comedy: A funny, well-edited opening sequence has Maya tailing Brandt around school like she’s in a spy thriller. In its total liberation from shame, Maya’s goofy, stop-at-nothing enthusiasm is almost admirable.
But the potential for a darker turn is there. When Maya finally gets Brandt alone in the weight room, she offers to make up for the whole three-way gossip issue any way she can. You can instantly see in Brandt’s eyes that he has something outside the typical bounds of seventh-grade sexuality in mind. (Jonah Beres is terrific in this role, perfectly capturing the above-it-all yet slightly predatory vibes of a slimy popular kid.) Thankfully, Anna gets in the way — first by walking in on that encounter, then by standing between Maya and her goal of wrestling Brandt — but a furious Maya responds both times by completely Hulking out, to a degree that’s a little scary.
The episode isn’t all doom and gloom. Both actresses continue to be game for just about anything, and a sequence in which they go full tilt in the weight room is classic PEN15 silliness. “You’re doing it for me, but you’re doing it for yourself too!,” Maya exhorts Anna as the pair incompetently hip-thrust each other’s weight and pump tiny barbells. Afterward, they strut down the school halls imagining themselves ’roided out (despite each only wearing half of a muscle suit).
As the girls get in touch with their anger, the world of the boys — which has gotten a lot more play this year — is rendered with a Freaks and Geeks–esque sensitivity. Sam is increasingly getting more athletic and popular than his buds Gabe and Jafeer and feeling the pull of proving himself cooler than monster trucks and Weasels magazine. Despite his long friendship with the girls, he’s willing to earn his locker-room stripes by insulting their “big, smelly bushes” and to beat Maya in a wrestling match by announcing her pussy smells like fish, to her shock and horror.
Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle may have 15 years on these child actors, but as they’re given more to do this year, they’re showing they can hang. Taj Cross, who’s essentially the show’s third lead, has been doing sensitive, nuanced work from the jump. He’s better than ever here, as is Dylan Gage as the nerdy, heartbroken Gabe. (Unfortunately, Jafeer, like all of the show’s Black characters, is something of an afterthought.)
The episode ends with Maya and Anna examining their respective vulvas — a scene that’s too upsetting to be entirely funny, even with delightful comic touches like Maya spritzing her junk with Bath & Body Works spray and Anna splaying out over the mirror in her Caboodle. Like most girls of that era, they have zero context for healthy body image or sexuality, or for where the tropes of misogyny end and their own bodies begin. They just feel bad: classed by the girls as too horny to be “good” and by the boys as too gross to be desirable. As Maya puts it, they’re animals.
Like last season’s masturbation episode, it’s relatable in the worst possible way. And even with their Claymation vaginas providing a bit of absurdist humor to round out the credits, it’s a moment when the show really sits with misogyny, in the same way that it did with racism in season one. The girls will get over this incident eventually, but they’ll never get over patriarchy in general.