'Awkward's "After Hours" Dredges Up Jenna's Feelings For Matty, Proves Moving On's Not Easy

When I first sat down to watch the pilot of Awkward, it would have taken a pretty big cognitive leap to imagine how I'd feel about the show four seasons in. I tuned into that first episode in part to gauge the offensiveness of its premise, for one — the tagline involved a meshing of faked suicide and popularity, so I was skeptical — and, in part, because I was unable to shake my deep attachment to teen shows. I didn't expect much from Awkward, and though my enjoyment was relatively immediate, if you'd told me in the first season that Jenna's relationship with Matty would be one of the most nuanced, interesting boyfriend/ex-boyfriend/best friend relationships on television right now, I'd probably have asked if we were watching the same MTV show.

But MTV has, a decade after giving up on the "music" in its name, finally started to find its groove, and that groove is in the teen shows on its roster right now. I won't get into Teen Wolf right now, because my feelings are plentiful and very mixed — and because you'll get plenty of them when my recaps start up in June — but Awkward and Faking It are nailing something essential not just about the teen experience but about the human experience. They're getting teen media right. And there's a deep, abiding joy in how consistently surprised I am by the complexity with which they're treating their core relationships.

At one point in this week's episode of Awkward, Cool Girl Eva says, in reference to tattoos she claims to have gotten but then had removed, "things change, you need to cleanse." And that's true, in a sense: This season of Awkward has been heavily exploring the motif of a girl going through a year that unavoidably ends with her saying goodbye to great big chunks of the world she's grown up in. But there's another, equally important motif in these most recent batch of episodes that render Eva's comments naive: You can't just wipe away everything that came before.

As Jenna acknowledges at the beginning of this episode, she's kind of got it made this year: A hot new college boyfriend (the kind so charming it makes this writer envious), a great year with friends, and — or so she asserts — the blessing of being over Matty. But that's the thing: You can move forward with your life, and you can even have no plan to look back at what came before, but neither of those things actually erase the past. In fact, Matty's still very much in the present, and, as we saw last week, his past with Jenna remains one of the most intimate things either of them has experienced. It might have started out of insecurities and high school tropes, but what came out the other end was an impressively nuanced, beautiful human connection that stretched beyond their romantic one. And that doesn't go away just because you're dating other people.

And so Jenna, who started the episode determined to set Matty up with the glorious Eva, comes to the conclusion that she does indeed have lingering feelings for Matty. Because of course she fucking does. This is a teen show, for one, and that's how that goes 90 percent of the time. More than that, though, it just makes sense: Jenna's all grown up for the most part, but she's still very much living high school, and she's been in a heap of denial about that. Feelings don't just go away because you meet a new cute boy, and the way things ended with Matty last season left things any which way but closed.

Is it great that Jenna went (momentarily) back to Matty-pining? Eh. It certainly regressed her at least back to Jenna 1.5 from the evolved Jenna 2.0 for a chunk of the episode, but it's not like it pushed her back to Jenna Beta. And it's pretty telling that by episode's end she was moving forward with her life again.

But what kind of makes me love it is how realistic it feels even under its obvious construction: There's a direct emotional through-line here, so what could feel like an archetypical rehashing of old stories instead just feels like a human backslide into emotions that aren't easily buried. Matty and Jenna have an earned intimacy that Jenna and Luke have no way of accessing at this point in a relationship. Does this mean she should dump Luke and be with Matty? Hell no. But does that then mean that Matty should be shoved to the side and forgotten? Also hell no. It's never that simple.

Love triangles are a tricky business. In fact, they're a damn tired business, and incredibly overused. But this somehow doesn't feel like a love triangle, despite the fact that it falls into all the parameters. It just feels like Jenna's next step.

Images: MTV (3)