The battle in episode XY013 of the Pokémon anime starts off with a curious stipulation: if Ash loses, he has to accompany his opponent to a destination of their choosing. If his opponent were a shadowy man in a trench coat, this would be severely alarming, but since his opponent is a pretty lady who keeps calling him sweetie, it’s only alarming for Serena.
Though I phrased that introduction in a humorous manner, it’s a scenario I find especially peculiar for the sheer fact that Ash’s opponent, Penelope, refers to him as sweetie for the duration of their battle and then never again. The reason she does so is obvious: to get Serena jealous, since she’s hot on Ash. But that reason exists not within the framework of the show’s narrative, but outside it. Put in less technical terms, Penelope has no desire or interest in making Serena jealous, but she does so because it gets a rise from the audience.
Nothing spices up a romance better than drama, and what better syringe for injecting drama than a love rival? It’s no secret to the viewer that Serena has a one-sided crush on Ash, so Penelope seeming to take an interest in and invite him to who-knows-where for who-knows-what flusters her and hooks us, the audience, into the episode’s premise. We want to see what theatrics go down and why Ash seems so chill for it all.
But it’s all bait-and-switch, because Penelope, it turns out, is a kindergarten teacher who brings Pokémon, usually wild ones, to her students so that they can befriend, learn about, and grow accustomed to them. Ash and his gang’s Pokémon happen to be that day’s lesson.
I’ve watched all 140 episodes of the XY anime, yet that conditional battle, and its juxtaposition with the remainder of the episode, stands out in my mind clearer than anything else from that season simply for the metanarrative aspect of it. Pokémon has never been so clever as to flirt with such a storytelling angle, and the culprit behind Penelope’s vague language of “coming with her” and calling Ash sweetie is incompetent writing. The pen behind the script took advantage of Serena’s romantic feelings in order to compel the viewer in, and even when you learn that Penelope is just taking advantage of some passing trainers, you’re liable to suspect she still might have a thing for Ash, which won’t be revealed until the episode’s on its last minute. It’s happened before.
Had the episode been about Serena competing with a more mature woman trying to take her man—Hell, if Penelope just called anybody younger than her sweetie, that whole setup would’ve been fine. Serena would then learn that not every girl is trying to swipe Ash for themselves. But it’s a fake-out little different than when the bushes start rustling in a horror movie, only for a stray cat to dart out. It’s not the most egregious crime the show could’ve committed, but the battle’s aftermath smashes promises it had no intentions of keeping, and I finished that episode, because of its early tease, betrayed and unsatisfied.