‘PEN15’: The Animated Episode is a Perfect Snapshot of Adolescence

Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine touching heads at a 'PEN15' press conference.
Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine touching heads at a ‘PEN15’ press conference. | Vera Anderson/WireImage/Getty Images

The most recent episode of the Hulu comedy ‘PEN15’ is animated, and it’s the perfect encapsulation of adolescent struggles. From the fact that it takes place during a vacation to its bittersweet ending, it’s a great addition to a series that has already done an excellent job of conveying the challenges of the early teen years.

PEN15’s animated episode is set away from home

As the only animated episode of the series, it makes sense that ‘Jacuzzi’ would take place away from Maya (Maya Erskine) and Anna’s (Anna Konkle) typical surroundings. That allows the episode to exist on its own, without having to take the show’s larger story arcs into account too much. 

Maya and Anna have gone with Anna’s dad, Curtis (Taylor Nichols) for a vacation at a Florida hotel. During the episode, they awkwardly try to flirt with cute boys in the jacuzzi, get made fun of by popular kids at a club, and deal with insecurities around their appearances. 

The episode delivers an entire roller coaster ride of emotions. It gives us a stand-alone story that perfectly encapsulates the many emotional ups and downs that most of us experience during middle school.

Maya and Anna’s appearances change

The episode makes a powerful statement about impossible beauty standards and how they impact young women.

It begins with our characters, still live-action, driving to their destination in the new convertible Curtis recently bought. They transition into animated characters who look quite similar to the actors. But that changes after Maya and Anna decide to buy a drawing of themselves from a caricature artist.

The artist draws Anna as having an enormous nose, and Maya as having a very large, round face. They take the drawing to heart, wondering if the artist’s assessment of their looks is accurate.

After that point, they appear in the episode looking like their drawings. But no one else reacts to their changed appearances, leading viewers to understand that they haven’t really transformed, they just see themselves differently now.

It’s a powerful choice because it quietly highlights the way that media and societal representations of female beauty can make women, and especially young girls, feel about themselves.

The ending is perfect

Early in the episode, the girls meet two boys their age at the hotel’s jacuzzi. They awkwardly flirt a little and then never see them again. As a result, they feel rejected, jumping to the conclusion that the boys never really liked them at all.

At the end, they encounter the boys again and find out that they had tried to make contact again, and that they truly enjoyed hanging out together. The boys give Maya and Anna their AOL Instant Messenger screen names, and the girls end the episode on cloud nine. However, as the car drives away, the pieces of paper with the screen names written on them fly away. Easy come, easy go!

The fact that so much of the girls’ happiness depends upon the approval of the boys is heartbreaking but very true to life. Like so many of us at their age, they haven’t yet developed a robust sense of self-worth. So while we’re glad to see our protagonists feeling happy once again, there’s also a tinge of sadness that feels genuine. It’s an accurate representation of the experience of adolescence.

The twist at the end with the screen names is also spot on. To end the episode on the high note the girls had reached when they’re pulling away from the hotel would have been too saccharine. Having them lose the screen names fits in much better with the overall tone of the comedy series.

The first two seasons of ‘PEN15’ are streaming on Hulu.

RELATED: ‘PEN15’: Why Maya Erskine’s Real Mom Plays Her Mother On the Show