One of the things I’ve enjoyed most about PEN15’s second season is its deeper embrace of absurdism. The show is inherently absurd — after all, it stars two grown women as seventh-graders — but Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine’s performances are so lived-in that it can be hard to remember the central premise is a goof. The little touches of visual weirdness thrown into each episode, from Anna assuming the guise of Trish Stratus to “Vendy Wiccany”’s business card transforming before the girls’ eyes, have maintained the comic buoyancy of some really heavy material.
“Sleepover” lets that freak flag fly, transforming a quotidian girls’ night into a literal and metaphorical horrorshow. Like “Pool,” it’s all about the palace intrigue of teen socializing, where the slightest vulnerability can be either embraced or weaponized in seconds. Only this time, there’s the additional wild card of Maura, a budding sociopath with an unpredictable mean streak. Each stroke of the grandfather clock portends the arrival of social doom.
The threat is palpable from the jump, when Anna rings up a mid-masturbation Maya to ask how much she likes Maura — whom Maya doesn’t know is listening in on three-way calling. (My parents would have killed me for racking up the phone bill, but presumably Maura’s are too rich to care.) Maya confesses that she’d give Maura about a 4 out of 10, and though Anna plays it off by saying Maya meant to give Maura “for-sure a 10,” it’s clear the battle lines have been drawn.
At the sleepover itself, Maura further mortifies Maya by refusing to laugh at her impressive use of a duffle bag to recreate the rhino scene from Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls. (Her loss: Erskine clearly spent years of her childhood rehearsing her Jim Carrey impression, and I am living for it.) Another bad hand for Maya arrives in the form of her period, shown through a painfully accurate X-ray reveal of her blood-soaked undies and scrunched thighs. When it comes to revealing the unspoken indignities of female bodily functions, this show is peerless.
The dramatic slasher music ratchets up as Maura, like generations of newly empowered tweens before her, announces she wants to push boundaries by staying up all night. Fearful of the consequences of falling asleep, Maya leans on the chugging skills she showcased in last season’s beer episode to gulp down most of a two-liter of Surge. The doom continues to mount in a bare-knuckle edition of Truth or Dare, in which Anna lets slip Maya’s history with Sam and both girls are held to account for the closet encounter with Brandt. Maura’s in her glory as she twists the knife over Maya’s Brandt obsession, informing her that he nearly changed schools because “you scared him so bad.”
As she endures these social slings and arrows, Maya is quietly fighting a second front, trying to stanch her flow with an ad-hoc toilet paper “pad.” (For those who don’t get periods, this is as much a rite-of-passage as getting your learner’s permit, but about one zillionth as fun.) Already creeped out by a white mask on the bathroom wall, Maya loses it completely when the girls lock her in for an impromptu round of Bloody Mary. The show really goes for it, showing the mask sobbing rivulets of gore as it screams “SECRET BLOOD!”
Anna tries to get the girls to lay off Maya, who’s clearly met her edge. But after one of Maya’s “pads” clogs the toilet, Maura goes in for the kill, countering Maya’s denials of having had her first period by cruelly yanking Maya’s pants down. The telltale wad of TP slips out, the girls scream bloody murder, and an utterly mortified Maya has to call her mom to take her home. (I wish I could say the show was being outrageously over-the-top here, but this was low-drama by the standards of some of my own tween sleepovers.)
The Grand Guignol slumber party is balanced by a quieter, but equally powerful B-plot surrounding Sam and his friends. After Brandt and his crew leave him out of a boys’ night, Sam tries to mend fences with Gabe and Jafeer over AIM. Jafeer and his passive-aggressive away message aren’t having it, but the softer-hearted Gabe agrees to an evening of WWE, snuck beers, and Skinemax in Sam’s bedroom.
The previous episode offered the barest hint that Gabe might be questioning his sexuality. This one confirms it, but also deftly avoids any pat, male-gazey coming-out clichés. A nifty camera technique visually evokes Gabe’s swirling thoughts, as he finds himself turned on by both the softcore and Sam’s presence. It adds another layer to what was already a moving storyline about friends growing apart, and it’s nice to see the show bring the same brutal-yet-heartfelt realism to budding queerness that it does to budding womanhood. Love, Simon this is not.
I was equally touched by the bathtub scene between Maya and her mom, in which she comforts Maya by helping her place the most important things — her self-worth and her friendship with Anna — in the “salad bowl” of her unquiet mind. Mutsuko Erskine continues to bring so much to PEN15, both in terms of grounding her daughter’s no-holds-barred performance and in busting the Asian-mom stereotype so prevalent on other shows. Yuki has a prickly self-regard, but it’s balanced with a deep well of compassion. Every scene with both Erskines feels so genuine.
I only wish we had that level of insight into Maura, who remains a scary cipher. Imperious and crude even when one-on-one with Anna, Maura nearly comes to blows with Anna after she realizes Maura’s “bestie” is a cutout from a magazine ad. While Maura’s mom has come off as a total pushover, she emerges to restrain her daughter from Anna with a touch so practiced that it’s clear this is not the first time — and that there may be a good reason she lets so much of Maura’s bad behavior slide. But with the show holding its cards uncharacteristically close to the vest, it’s hard to summon any empathy for Maura. Is she a bad person, or a badly parented one? Or is something else at play? We’ll never know for sure, at least not this season.
But while Maura’s behavior is left unexplained, the sudden reveal of her fake friend does give Anna an opening to apologize to Maya. She’s still mad that Maya didn’t spill the beans on getting her first period, but willing to acknowledge that it hasn’t been easy or simple for Maya, either. And Maya, who took it on the chin for all vulnerability at the party, gets the comfort of returning to the complete (maybe too complete) honesty she has with Anna. Their sins are many — staining a comforter with pencil lead, tossing a Sprite-drenched library book — but their bond can survive the Mauras of the world. In the horror movie of adolescence, they are the final girls: bloodied, but unbroken.