Adolescence is all about its ups and downs, and I admire PEN15the will to face the latter head-on. But while this season has managed to incorporate dark humor into every episode, the genuine, childlike flashes of joy that give yin to PEN15‘s brutal realism yang. This makes “Opening Night” a welcome change of gears, showcasing an ecstatic moment of fulfillment in the girls’ lives without pretending it avoids everything they go through.
Taking place over a single day – the premiere of ‘The Days Are Short’ – this oversized 36-minute finale moves quickly, incorporating almost the entire show and tying together a number of intrigues from this season. . It’s impressive when you consider that it wasn’t even meant to be the final; the back half of this season remains in post-COVID limbo, awaiting completion for a 2021 release date.
The biggest achievement of “Opening Night” is its ability to take a very predictable storyline to an unpredictable place. “The Days Are Short” is the epitome of a disastrous, wildly overworked school television play far too mature for a group of seventh graders to comfortably perform. On top of that, Maya and Anna experience an equally cliché separation, as their newfound fascinations with acting and directing bring them into direct conflict. Add to that Gabe’s continued reluctance to kiss an increasingly impatient Maya, and you have the makings of a theatrical disaster.
And of course, disaster is coming. Maya looks ridiculous in her oversize Mad Men getting up, blowing all his signals, sending Anna’s tech team into a mess. Gabe chokes on the big kiss, putting his hand over his mouth. In shock, Maya interrupts her next line. Public discomfort is mounting.
This is the part where most of the shows would cut off the post-game sequelae. But PEN15 is ready to sit down with the awkwardness, offering the fresh and authentic perspective that even the worst teenage disaster isn’t the end of the world. Anna feeds Maya on her cue, and the rest of the play doesn’t just go smoothly, it’s a huge success.
The show renders this transition like a surreal ‘dream ballet’, emphasizing the mechanical interaction between the cast and crew, and between Anna, Maya, Gabe and their families in the audience. It sounds cheesy on paper, but the show embraces awkwardness with such confidence that it becomes eerily moving. You don’t have to see the room itself to understand how it changes everything, you feel it.
It’s a brilliant use of artistic elision, delicately shifting almost any relationship in the room without an ounce of unnecessary exposure. This allows the episode to be part of the cast with the table fully prepared for the events that follow and execute them with the precision of Anna calling out clues from her workbook.
It all starts big with a fun bookend for the first of the season: Anna and Maya walk through the doors of Yuki’s van again and embark on a long dolly, passing through a suburban pizzeria full of admiring family and friends. Recorded on the contagious “December 1963” of the Four Seasons (which had unexpectedly redefined at the time), it is a moment of pure delight all the sweeter as the darkness preceded it. Every little moment of reconnection – Shuji enthusiastically praising Maya; Sam joining Gabe and Jafeer to discuss Weasels magazine’s plans – feels as resonant as it would have been from a tween’s perspective.
But as usual, PEN15 is lucid in recognizing that there is bitterness in the sweet. Sam finally offers Maya a real apology – and admits that he wished he had been in Gabe’s shoes for that kiss on stage – but Maya is too wrapped up in her feelings about Gabe to recognize it. (In hilarious embarrassment, she takes a chair to hold it between them as he tries to move.) Anna convinces Maya to give Gabe another chance, who she believes was probably as nervous on stage as Maya was. was. . The couple sit comfortably in the backseat of Anna’s dad’s new midlife crisis convertible, but Gabe can’t bring himself to do anything more intense than Maya’s clumsy jawbone (with a stuntman, well sure). He gives Maya a pretty impressive “it’s not you, it’s me” speech by tween standards, but the damage to her first grief is done.
As for Anna, she is once again caught up in the war between her parents. Her father skipped the room to buy his new car, without telling Anna or her mother first. The other kids, especially Steve, are in awe – unbelievable as it sounds, the Solara was a cool car back then – but Anna is crushed. It’s a moment that reveals how thoughtful and deliberate the show was in portraying Curtis and Kathy Kone. Neither will win parenting awards, but Curtis comes off as the good guy first: the one who “receives” Anna, compared to his nervous and often deaf mother. Still, as the season progressed, it became clear that Kathy is the one who goes out of her way to take care of Anna as low as possible, even if she sometimes does it the wrong way.
Realizing her mom showed up on her big night and her dad couldn’t be disturbed is a real moment for her, one that intensifies after she takes a few sips from Steve’s flask and hears about it. of hers. separation of parents. Emptied by his confession that his mother is “the strongest woman [he] knows, ”Anna sincerely apologizes to Kathy for the way she treated her – and acknowledges that her father is the one who really should apologize. Kathy also apologizes to Anna, for letting her see more of the fallout from the divorce than she ever should have. Anna Konkle and Melora Walters are both so charming in this scene, delicately rendering the sweet moments that can emerge amid thorny battles between teenage girls and their moms.
As with the rest of this season, the finale ends on a dark note. To the titles of “One Fine Day” (another favorite of the 60s turned 90, thanks to the romantic comedy George Clooney-Michelle Pfeiffer of the same name), the girls get into Curtis’ car for what should be a triumphant ride home. Instead, Maya is deflated by the breakup, and Curtis tells Anna that Kathy will be keeping the house, and she will have to decide which of them she wants to live with.
The final shot lingers on Anna as she looks at her own arm, wishing the surface was cold the same way Steve does. Like the whole episode, it hinges on the pivot of heartbreak and hope, reality and magic, a child’s family ties, and the romantic aspirations of an adult. It’s perfectly adolescent – and perfectly PEN15.