PEN15 was a masterclass in working through adolescent angst
The final season offered a profound answer as to why it was unlike anything else on TV.
Just when you think it can no longer paralyze with its startlingly visceral evocations of teenage trauma, PEN15 gives us yet another gut-punch in its final episode: Maya’s first blowjob. In the new episodes of its second and final season, the show’s 13-year old protagonists Maya and Anna (played by the show’s adult creators, Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle) end up with high school boyfriends. In the finale, they find themselves at Maya’s boyfriend’s house late at night after the girls have run away from home.
When Maya’s boyfriend, Derek, a pill-popping slacker-sleaze, leads her down the hallway to his bedroom, she sees him from afar, as if at the end of a dark tunnel — leading her to a point of no return. A sexually innocent Maya is anticipating her first ever kiss, but Derek, she soon realizes, expects a blowjob. Maya awkwardly complies and the next few minutes play out what is arguably the single most uncomfortable sequence of a show whose appeal and genius is almost entirely built on discomfort.
Maya isn’t exactly coerced, but she undergoes the experience in no way feeling as though this is something she wants to do or feels safe doing — nor does she even comprehend as a possibility the idea of telling Derek that this isn’t what she wants. Yet part of the horror is that what Maya has gone through is in some ways unremarkable: for many young girls, an introduction to sexuality, even one that is welcomed, doesn’t happen entirely on one’s own terms — instead it is often an exercise in the unsentimental, unceremonious seizure of innocence.
Immediately afterward in the nearby kitchen, as Maya begins to process what just happened with Anna, she says she wants to go home. Fearful of their parents’ rebuke, she then delivers one of the most heartbreaking lines of the show: “Let’s call Shuji.” Throughout the show, Shuji has always been, like most older brothers, the annoying antagonist of Maya’s teenage life — except for when he can suddenly become your protector, a familiar manifestation of home that takes you away from a dark, strange basement kitchen.
The scene — one more in the show’s long line of instances that are revelatory and nuanced in exploring the ugly frictions of gender when it comes to growing up — occurs toward the end of these final batch of episodes that are among the most unwieldy of the show. This new half-season is arguably the least enjoyable, in part because it goes to the darkest places yet. You could say that it’s the weakest season, but that would be reductive, as it sticks the landing on closing out a show that remains entirely unlike anything else out there and once again features among the most underrated performances currently on television from its stars.
Yet, these new episodes contain some interesting turns down the road, to mixed results. Some play out as stand-out detours: an episode dedicated entirely to Maya’s mom (Erskine’s real-life mother, Mutsuko Erskine, who has always been quietly remarkable on the show) and her former life is singular, particularly in its final moments. Others, such as the episode that sees Maya’s cousin visiting or another focused on a relay-for-life cancer walk that Maya and Anna attend, feel incomplete in a way that is rare for a show whose episodes tended to each pack its own full, individual emotional arc. Along the way, while Anna is consistently forced to grow up quick, Maya becomes distractingly bratty — a feature of her character that in these episodes becomes almost off-puttingly dialed-up.
But if the show is somewhat less consistent this time around, it also appropriately mirrors the reality of this particular period. By season 2.5 (the second season was split in two, with the first episodes airing last fall), seventh grade has already been happening for a while, and the purgatory of middle school naturally becomes less predictable and far more unruly. The first season contained the most immediate visceral pleasures and pains because it literally cherry-picked all the defining and most narratively rich aspects that make this time period and age so novel: the first day of middle school; the first time drinking; the first time discovering masturbation; the first time logging onto AIM; the first school dance. And last year’s season 2.0 did much of the same while building much deeper, more profound emotional arcs, including the complicated push-and-pull of tenderness and internalized misogyny of mother-daughter relationships.
But by the time of this new season, there is less focus on the tension of Maya and Anna’s own friendship than on the tension of life seeming to constantly crowd in, suffocating the girls — Anna’s parents’ split gets messier; Maya’s cousin becomes a kind of doll that everyone in class loves to play with, forcing Maya to confront her racialized self-hatred; Anna’s ailing grandmother visits and soon after dies; Maya is diagnosed with ADD. But the show hits the mark the most in the finale, when it returns to its fulcrum in Maya and Anna’s companionship and the unmatched solace of leaning on each other when every issue feels utterly cataclysmic and, eventually, running away together is the only possible solution.
This is the most apparent in the final scene of the show, particularly in a small, but profound trick Erskine and Konkle decide to pull at the end. The girls, sitting in Maya’s room and looking over baby photos and watching home movies, begin to wonder aloud if they’ll remain friends years down the line. Suddenly, Maya and Anna seem to momentarily break character, each speaking with a kind of coherence that sheds their 13-year old personas as they reflect on the realities of life’s vagaries.
“What if after college you get a little bit depressed, and I’m a little irresponsible and we’re both so super dependent on each other and I can’t take it anymore and we don’t laugh like we used to?” Anna says. Maya responds, “Or, like, the things that we didn’t think would bother us about each other, or our parents, or the way that we see the world starts to eat at us and we just get like really cynical, and really just like wake up one day and we’re not friends?”
It’s a breathtaking moment and artistic choice that made me think of something that Konkle told me when I spoke to her and Erskine last fall. In an episode in season 2.0, Anna and Maya eavesdrop on an escalating fight between Anna’s parents, a situation of fear and dread that foreshadows their split, and that also mirrored Konkle’s real-life experience of spying on her divorced parents fighting. When a dish breaks from the fight, Maya protectively clutches Anna’s hand and pulls her away and off into the woods. As they sprint, their feet seem to momentarily gravitate, as if to fly off into another world. In real-life, Konkle told me, she never got to have her friend nearby, with a hand to hold — in the show, she is able to rewrite the experience. The truth is, in the finale, the girls’ theories about drifting apart are entirely plausible, even likely — Anna is maturing emotionally at a rate leaps and bounds away from Maya — but they can still imagine a different reality and at least allow their characters to cherish in real-time how much their companionship means regardless.
“Or!” the girls both exclaim after their sobering hypotheticals, suddenly snapping fully back into character. Or, what if they room together in college, get married and divorced at the same time, raise kids, and grow old with each other? “We’re just gonna protect each other from everything,” Anna says tearfully.
The final scene movingly reveals the answer to why this show more than any other, as its cult following can attest, unearths a kind of emotional reaction that can be frightening — how am I still this kid, still this triggered by childhood slights and adolescent tragedy? The reason is manifested by this flitting for an instant in and out of character, breaking the spell of Maya and Anna’s fake teen selves: a part of us is always reverting in and out of the child self — you get older, but life doesn’t necessarily feel less scary. That feeling of fear, and also of the saving grace of friendship, remains a core, visceral human truth regardless of whether you’re in middle school or middle age.
At the end of the season 2 episode that Konkle told me about, the girls are again pushed to the brink — this time they run back out into the woods in the dead of night and are going to cast a spell to disappear forever from this wretched earth. As Anna says she feels herself disappearing, Maya begins to cry, desperately telling Anna to stay. “You’re not going anywhere! Stay! Stop! Can you stop, please? ‘Cause I need you,” Maya says as she pulls Anna in and begins to sob.
Anna, of course, never disappears. But also, we realize, they never ran away in the middle of the night. As they hold each other, in an instance of visual trickery, the trees behind them fade to reveal Anna’s house. They had never really left or escaped to the woods nearby. They had just stepped out to the backyard. But amid existential terror, they still went somewhere, their feet miraculously picking up off the ground, peeling off to a fantasy land with a friend in-hand.