From the perspective of 2020, a return to PEN15’s 2000 sounded as refreshing as an ice-cold box of orange Hi-C. Fantasizing about JTT? Playing MASH and ending up with 2,000 kids? Not knowing anything about politics beyond who the president was? Those were the days, man.
Clearly, I’d forgotten how much this show loves a bait and switch. Every token of millennial nostalgia in PEN15 — “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It”! BattleBots! — comes at the price of resurfacing a long-buried trauma. You’re lured into complacency, wondering whatever happened to your half of that “best friends” necklace, only to be slapped in the face by the memory of a time when Frenching a mirror seemed like a reasonable outlet.
It might not sound like much of a sales pitch for the show, but honestly, it rules. In a year that has inspired nothing but longing for the Before, PEN15 is a bracing reminder that there was no pre-social-media ’90s utopia. We long for those carefree summer pool parties but forget that they were often the emotional equivalent of knife fights.
Season one ended on Maya and Anna’s deeply depressing first sexual encounter, as cool-boy Brandt tweaked their nipples in a school supply closet. In an appeal to modern tastes, a different show might have chosen that as the moment in which the girls develop self-worth and fixate on boys that hold them in higher regard. But PEN15 is comfortable with the era’s ugly truths, including the fact that girls were never taught to expect better. Anna and Maya believe being chosen is far more important than having a good time once they are.
Sadly, that only makes them more desperate to be chosen again — a desire that animates their scorched-earth socializing at the pool party. Operating under the preteen delusion that drama is a status symbol, they take on the other’s social dirty work: Maya lays into Brendan for still being into Anna while Anna chides Sam for lying to Maya on AIM. But Sam feels he’s apologized enough; Brendan already has a new girlfriend; and Brandt could not be more eager to put the closet incident behind him.
Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle continue to play their internal dynamic masterfully, each fluffing up the other as Cruel Intentions suave, then gazing around in mute, fish-eyed panic as reality repeatedly interferes with that vision. The direction nicely accentuates that vibe of self-delusion, especially a bravura tracking shot that portrays the girls’ minivan arrival like they’ve rolled up to a swinging L.A. house party in a ’70s movie. (Never mind that Maya’s mom is yelling at them to close the sliding door.)
The episode’s visuals also do a lot to emphasize the “smallness” of Maya and Anna in a context where everyone else — especially the boys — has zero interest in their social climbing. Sam and his buddies Gabe and Jafeer are busy making a weasel-themed magazine. Brandt just wants to cannonball, if he can get Maya to stay off his tail for three seconds. And Spencer’s mom is guarding the whole proceedings like the Secret Service, determined to keep wet swimsuits from crossing the threshold of her house.
That context helps explain why Maya and Anna resort to the worst possible idea: broadcasting the news of their closet encounter with Brandt, under the vaguest possible pretense of secrecy, to pretty much anyone who’ll listen. The girls may have picked up the adult habit of casually calling each other “slut,” but they clearly don’t understand that the social triumph of getting Brandt to admit to the hookup comes with a cost.
That cost is made clear in the excruciating final scenes, as the girls are confronted in gym class about their “threesome.” (Presumably, that definition has changed now that every 13-year-old has instant access to Pornhub, but it’s pretty accurate for how kids would have interpreted it at the time.) Still jealous over Sam’s obvious interest in Maya, Jenna informs them that their “freaking” at the dance is the talk of the school and that everyone thinks they’re “desperate sluts.” Worst of all, they’ve “changed” — which is just about the worst thing you can say to a teen girl desperately craving an ounce of constancy in her life.
Maya and Anna are smart enough to know they should strenuously deny these allegations but also to know that they are completely screwed. They have changed — they’re experiencing sexuality for the first time, after all — but as with last season’s masturbation episode, they’re part of a society that has no capacity for the young women they’ve changed into. They’re sluts, while Brandt’s a player. Being interested in sex has made them sexually untouchable.
From an adult perspective, this seems both obvious and a little comical. But PEN15 is great at making you really feel those old feelings all over again — including the first time you ran up against a double standard and realized it was insurmountable. A ’90s childhood may have had its carefree moments, but they came at a price. Time-traveling with PEN15 is a good reminder, and might even make you a little more grateful for the freedom, however chaotic, of your adult life.