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PEN15 Recap: Chain of Fools

PEN15

Three

Season 2

Episode 4

Editor’s Rating

4 stars

Photo: Hulu

One of the hardest things about adulthood is making new friends, likely because childhood is such bad preparation for it. When you’re a kid and you’re circling around a new friend, you just sort of mutually agree that the friendship has already happened — you both like the same TV show, or soda, and from there it was just meant to be. Friendships are legitimized before they’re cemented, instead of the other way around.

“Three” really nails that dynamic, and the sometimes thrilling, sometimes uncomfortable feeling of suddenly having a new best friend you didn’t even know the week before. Maura (Ashlee Grubbs) just suddenly appears in Anna and Maya’s corner like an avenging angel, deftly putting one of their bullies in his place before lavishing them with Ring Pops and compliments. Confident, opinionated, and generous, she’s the answer to a social pariah’s prayers.

She’s also a grade-A spoiled brat. While Anna and Maya are far from poor —they have their own bedrooms, computers in the house, on-trend outfits and plenty of toys — their visit to Maura’s house genuinely summons that feeling of awe when you got invited over to a really, really rich kid’s place. The soft-focus glide through Maura’s fully loaded pantry felt like Proust’s madeleine; I could practically taste the Gushers.

I remember being equally awed by the laissez-faire discipline in those kids’ houses, though Maura — who calls her mom a cunt for trying to make her friends a quesadilla — takes it to another level. The camera lingers on each seductive aspect of her lifestyle, from the Limited Too ensembles to the take-no-shit attitude with both parents and bullies. Like a tiny, powerful tyrant, Maura sees anyone who dares challenge her as a “fool,” and she isn’t afraid to say it. A lot.

At the same time, Maura feels off-brand for PEN15. This is a show that prides itself on granting full humanity to every character, acknowledging the complexity that drives even their worst actions. We see hints that not all is well with Maura, like when she tells Anna and Maya about an obviously fake best friend who’s Arizona’s answer to Doogie Howser. But there’s no acknowledgment of what’s behind her frenzy to insert herself as their third bestie, and the rampant lies she’s willing to tell to make that happen. It’s possible that’s waiting for a future episode, but in the meantime, she comes off as a full-on sociopath, which is very much not PEN15’s way.

Interestingly, this same episode offers the most nuanced depiction yet of PEN15’s most unsympathetic character: Anna’s mom, Kathy. Yes, she’s still as self-absorbed as ever, thinking it’s more important to “heal” Anna’s energy fields than to reassure her about the looming possibility that they’ll lose the house. Her sledgehammer subtlety in trying to get Anna to open up about her crushes, or her feelings about the divorce, is equally hard to take. But it’s clear that Kathy does care about Anna’s feelings, and about the kind of person she becomes. Like Maya’s mom, she has a sixth sense that Maura is bad news. When Anna calls her a cunt for not letting Maura ride home with them, she’s not so much angry as protective, redirecting her fury towards whatever brought the word into Anna’s consciousness. (Maya, snickering: “I cun’t remember.”)

The conflict over Maura comes to a head when the two mothers and daughters go thrift shopping, an attempt at bonding that backfires spectacularly. Newly brand-conscious thanks to Maura, Maya is furious when her mom won’t let her buy the “loaded” Tommy Hilfiger tee she covets. Kathy presses Anna into a revealing outfit, then takes offense when Anna calls it (and by implication, her) “slutty.”

The tensions culminate in a full-scale meltdown at another store, with Maya calling Yuki ugly, Yuki calling Maya a bitch, Kathy defending Yuki, and Anna calling Kathy a cunt again, this time for embarrassing Maya. It’s pretty hard to oversell the grim honesty of this scene, which felt like an acid flashback to my own teenage years. Erskine and Konkle have set a high standard for accuracy in their performances, but their whininess, sullenness, and writhing are on another level here. This is about as real as adolescence gets, and it is very, very tough to watch.

But for Maya — who actually does have a good relationship with her mom, at least by tween girl standards — the moment is also a sea change. She’s tried on the role of Maura, and unlike the more insecure Anna, found she doesn’t have the stomach for it. Maura hammers that home by mocking Maya’s clothes and Yuki’s accent, raising Maya’s hackles enough that it seems that the spell might finally be broken. But Anna is still invested in the friendship, so Maya decides to let it go.

The episode ends with an unexpected win for the girls: a class superlative for “Best Best Friends.” But the joy is tempered by Maura’s inclusion in the group, which Maya and Anna are unaware she purchased through Ring Pop bribery. The symbolism of the moment is a little pat, as Maya is encouraged to don a Kangol hat that doesn’t fit and trade in her omnipresent best-friend necklace for a new threesome version. But that’s middle-school friendship for you: the only thing worse than having a bad friend is having none at all.

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