Adolescence is all about the high highs and low lows, and I admire PEN15’s willingness to confront the latter head-on. But while this season has managed to work dark humor into every episode, it’s been a little short on the flashes of authentic, childlike joy that provide the yin to PEN15’s brutal-realism yang. That makes “Opening Night” a welcome gear-shift, showcasing a moment of ecstatic accomplishment in the girls’ lives without pretending it obviates everything else they’re going through.
Set on a single day — the first of “The Days Are Short”’s run — this supersize 36-minute finale moves fast, integrating nearly the entire ensemble of the show and tying up a number of this season’s plotlines. That’s impressive when you consider it wasn’t even intended to be the finale; the back half of this season remains in post-COVID limbo, awaiting completion for a 2021 release date.
The greatest accomplishment of “Opening Night” is its ability to take a very predictable plot to an unpredictable place. “The Days Are Short” is the epitome of a disastrous TV school play, wildly overwrought and far too mature for a group of seventh-graders to comfortably execute. On top of that, Maya and Anna are having an equally clichéd growing-apart, as their new fascinations with acting and stage-managing bring them into direct conflict. Throw in Gabe’s continued disinclination to kiss an increasingly eager Maya, and you have the makings of a theatrical disaster.
And sure enough, the disaster arrives. Maya, looking ridiculous in her oversize Mad Men getup, blows all her cues, sending Anna’s tech team into shambles. Gabe chokes on the big kiss, clapping his hand over his mouth. Reeling with horror, Maya blanks on her next line. The audience’s discomfort mounts.
This is the part where most shows would cut away to the cringe-y post-play aftermath. But PEN15 is willing to sit with the awkwardness, offering the fresh and genuine perspective that even the worst teen disaster is not the end of the world. Anna feeds Maya her line, and the rest of the play doesn’t just go smoothly — it’s a huge hit.
The show renders this transition as a surreal “dream ballet,” emphasizing the clockwork interaction between the actors and crew, and between Anna, Maya, Gabe and their families in the audience. It sounds corny on paper, but the show embraces the goofiness with such confidence that it becomes oddly moving. You don’t need to see the play itself to understand how it changes everything — you feel it.
It’s a brilliant use of artistic elision, delicately shifting nearly every relationship in the room without an ounce of unnecessary exposition. That allows the episode to roll into the cast party with the table fully set for the events that follow, and execute them with the precision of Anna calling out cues from her binder.
It starts big with a fun bookend to the season premiere: Anna and Maya once again roll through the doors of Yuki’s minivan and into an extended tracking shot, roaming a suburban pizzeria full of admiring family and friends. Scored to the Four Seasons’ infectious “December, 1963” (which had unexpectedly re-charted at the time), it’s a moment of pure delight that feels all the sweeter for the darkness that preceded it. Every little moment of reconnection — Shuji enthusiastically praising Maya; Sam rejoining Gabe and Jafeer to discuss plans for Weasels magazine — feels as resonant as it would have from a tween’s perspective.
But as usual, PEN15 is clear-eyed about acknowledging there’s some bitter with the sweet. Sam finally makes a genuine apology to Maya — and acknowledges he wishes he had been in Gabe’s shoes for that onstage kiss — but Maya is too caught up in her feelings about Gabe to acknowledge it. (In a hilarious bit of awkwardness, she picks up a chair to hold between them as he tries to make his move.) Anna convinces Maya to give it one more shot with Gabe, whom she notes was likely just as nervous onstage as Maya was. The pair cozy up in the backseat of Anna’s dad’s new midlife-crisis convertible, but Gabe can’t bring himself to do anything more intense than awkwardly tongue Maya’s jaw (with a stunt double, of course). He gives Maya a pretty impressive “it’s not you, it’s me” speech by tween standards, but the damage of her first heartbreak is done.
As for Anna, she’s once again caught up in the war between her parents. Her dad has skipped the play to buy his new car, without informing Anna or her mom first. The other kids, especially Steve, are impressed — unbelievable as it sounds, the Solara was a cool car at the time — but Anna is crushed. It’s a moment that reveals how thoughtful and deliberate the show has been in portraying Curtis and Kathy Kone. Neither are going to win any parenting awards, but Curtis initially comes off as the good guy: the one who “gets” Anna, compared to her high-strung, often tone-deaf mom. Yet as the season has unfolded, it’s become clear that Kathy is the one who’s doing her best to care for Anna at her lowest, even if she sometimes goes about it the wrong way.
Realizing that her mom showed up for her big night and that her dad couldn’t be bothered is a real scales-from-the-eyes moment for her, one that intensifies after she takes a few swigs from Steve’s flask and hears about his own parents’ split. Gutted by his admission that his mom is “the strongest woman [he] knows,” Anna makes a heartfelt apology to Kathy for the way she’s treated her — and acknowledges that her dad is the one who should really be apologizing. Kathy also apologizes to Anna, for letting her see more of the divorce’s fallout than she ever should have. Both Anna Konkle and Melora Walters are so lovely in this scene, delicately rendering the moments of sweetness that can emerge amid the prickly battles between teen girls and their moms.
As with the rest of this season, the finale ends on a bleak note. To the strains of “One Fine Day” (another ‘60s-turned-‘90s favorite, thanks to the George Clooney-Michelle Pfeiffer romcom of the same name), the girls hop into Curtis’ car for what should be a triumphant ride home. Instead, Maya is deflated by the breakup, and Curtis levels Anna with the announcement that Kathy will keep the house, and she’ll have to decide with which of them she wants to live.
The final shot lingers on Anna as she stares at her own arm, willing the surface to be cool the same way Steve does. Like the entire episode, it rests on the fulcrum of heartbreak and hope, reality and magic, the family ties of a kid and the romantic aspirations of an adult. It’s perfectly teenage — and perfectly PEN15.