Pen 15: Analysis of random episode for Alcohol, Tobacco and Drugs (ATOD).
October 19, 2020
Most of the television shows and movies I watch contain a preponderance of alcohol, tobacco or drugs. Many of them are integral to the plot itself. Platforms like Netflix and Hulu (among many, many others), free and clear of network restrictions, opened Pandora’s Box in terms of sexual and violent content. To say nothing of the Internet.
Some of the most popular and/or critically acclaimed shows on any screen are predominantly about illicit drug use, alcoholism and related topics: Breaking Bad (Methamphetamine), Shameless (ETOH) and Euphoria (<ATOD) One needn’t be a pearl-clutcher to say it’s difficult finding mass-appeal content that doesn’t feature ATOD’s.
But I tried.
“PEN 15” is a serial on Hulu about two awkward adolescent girls navigating the perils of middle school. The conceit is that the two leads are actually adult women playing themselves from that time period. It’s actually pretty good.
In the episode I watched the two girls find them selves hiding in the girl’s bathroom at school to avoid bullies (a constant threat for them), when they find a cigarette on the floor. This lone cigarette proves to be a catalyst for all manner of awkward, ridiculous and potentially scandalous ADULT behavior.
Later, the girls are playing with dolls together when their entire childhood gets called into question. Old behaviors suddenly seem boring to them –childish.
They toss the dolls onto the floor and reach for the cigarette.
But in order to smoke it they will need a lighter. So the girls decide to dress up to look older and this becomes a whole scene onto itself. Using makeup they took from their parents and the “flyest” clothes they can muster, the “ladies” glam up in order to venture to the corner store in their neighborhood. They believe looking older is necessary in order to purchase a Bic lighter. There, one mocks a child who is line with his mother for being “with his mommy.” The two adolescents ape all manner of supposed older behavior –costume, makeup, attitude- all because of the still un-smoked cigarette they found in girl’s bathroom at school.
As it has been for countless adolescents, the cigarette symbolizes adulthood. PEN 15 (a combination of characters intended to mimic “penis”) is a coming of age comedy and the cigarette portends all that await these two awkward kids on the cusp of being teenagers.
The show then introduces another concept familiar to every kid who ever got the talk about ATOD: that smoking cigarettes is a gateway to even more scandalous behavior. The girls show up at the hangout of a group of 8th grade girls and ask if they can join them “to smoke.” The older girls invite them in. After a lot of posturing (in order to impress the older kids) one ends up chugging a beer. The other tries a whippet (inhalant) and passes out.
Not only has the still-unsmoked cigarette lead to alcohol and inhalants it has also presented the viewer with a classic case of peer pressure and its effect on young people regarding drinking and using drugs.
Then the boys show up. In a painfully awkward scene each boy chooses a girl ostensibly to pair off and make out: the ultimate taboo! The two girls reluctantly pair up with two boys and, while they don’t “hook up” per se, the promise of illicit sex hangs in the air. We see brief scenes of the 8th graders canoodling in the dark.
A parent shows up and “busts” the party before anything else occurs. The two hero girls end up taking the fall for the beer and bad behavior. A be careful what you wish for moment for the two aspiring teenagers. Here, getting busted is also an iconic plot point in the age-old tale of experimenting with drugs. In shows like Breaking Bad and Shameless people get arrested or even killed for getting caught, Of course, in this story nothing like that remotely happens. The two are sent home to their mothers.
Handled briefly here, a poignant scene featuring one of the girl’s mothers frowning sadly at her daughter. She does nothing but walk away. Yet, her silence speaks volumes, more punishing to her child than a scolding. A parent’s disappointment is yet another trope in such stories (and in reality). The sad, helpless mother is an indelible part of the ATOD narrative.
The final scene of the episode has the two girls back in their playroom… pondering the unlit cigarette that started it all. They decide to put it away in a jewel box, saving it for another day. They resume playing with their dolls. Roll credits.
To be sure, the ending is sweet. Yet, it’s interesting to note that they do not dispose of the cigarette but rather hold onto it. The butt caused them nothing but trouble yet the trouble was a shared memory of an adventure that bonded the two girls. Romanticism is an inextricable part of ATOD’s. Always was and maybe always will be.