PEN15‘s Final Episodes Are a Soulful, Sensitive Goodbye

TV Reviews PEN15
Share Tweet Submit Pin
PEN15‘s Final Episodes Are a Soulful, Sensitive Goodbye

Premiering in 2019, Hulu’s PEN15 was at first a gross-out comedy relying heavily on the sight gag of its 30-something lead actresses playing 13 and interacting awkwardly with their middle-school-aged castmates. The series instantly struck a chord with anyone who related to its hyper-specific depiction of junior high in the early 2000s, particularly young Millennial women like co-creators and stars Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, who (along with co-creator Sam Zvibleman) have drawn from their own lives to play fictionalized versions of themselves. But the second season—split into two parts—even surpassed its stellar first, as classic comedy beats gave way to more emotional arcs. The series has continued in this more serious trajectory for its impressive final episodes.

Season 2 Part 2 leaves us with an emotional and satisfying conclusion to the beloved series. Our final moments with Maya and Anna are fraught with conflict, ranging in importance from bat mitzvah drama and failing Dance Dance Revolution routines to Anna’s parents’ contentious divorce and Maya’s deep insecurities. Like any middle schoolers, Anna and Maya perceive every small inconvenience as a catastrophe, but no matter how immature the situation, PEN15 always approaches the girls’ perspective with immense care and respect. The years separating Erskine, Konkle, and Zvibleman from their time in middle school haven’t trivialized junior high dramatics; instead, they’re now able to thoughtfully reflect on the impact these arguably momentary experiences are having on Maya and Anna’s lives.

At the end of Season 2 Part 1, Maya and Anna had just rekindled their relationship after the school play nearly tore them apart. When Maya earns the starring role and Anna is made stage manager, each firmly believes they’re the most important person in the production. Still fighting when the play begins on opening night, a mid-show mishap reminds the girls they truly need each other to succeed. In the time between Part 1 and 2, when the pandemic impacted their ability to shoot an episode in Florida, PEN15 released an animated special that bridges the gap between the halves of Season 2 well, emphasizing the deep impact the divorce is having on Anna and the girls’ ongoing struggle with self-image.

As always in PEN15, the idea of a young girl’s self-worth being intrinsically linked to male validation plays a heavy role in the final batch of episodes. Anna finds herself with her first boyfriend, a high school freshman named Steve, who supplies her with alcohol and introduces her to group therapy. Her preoccupation with Steve puts a strain on her relationship with Maya, who feels relegated to being the third wheel. But feeling alone amidst her parents’ separation (and after learning about the Holocaust sends her into a Nihilistic spiral), this budding romance is something in Anna’s life that actually makes her feel hopeful. Trying to find footing in Anna’s new world, Maya begins fawning over Steve’s best friend, eventually leading to the series’ rawest and most upsetting moment.

Similar to an episode in Ramy, another underrated gem produced by Hulu, PEN15 dedicates an entire episode this season to Maya’s mother Yuki. Played by Erskine’s real-life mother, Mutsuko Erskine, Yuki has always been a scene-stealing character. Maya often expresses resentment of her Japanese heritage, which makes her different from any of her classmates, but her relationship with her mother helps soften these feelings. Of course, at age 13, Maya is not particularly great at communicating with her mother, often exploding into bursts of I hate yous and you hate mes. But even when they butt heads, their relationship remains a guiding force in PEN15. In “Yuki,” we get to see what Yuki’s life looks like while Maya and Shuji are at school. The episode is entrancing and exciting, like when you stay home sick from school but still accompany your mother on her errands and get a peek into a world you never get to see. But this is not just a typical day in her life—a reunion with a special person from her past takes Yuki on a journey throughout the episode. Both written and directed by Maya Erskine, this episode is a wonderful love letter to her mother and a worthwhile departure from the show’s primary plotlines.

In its final episodes, PEN15 isn’t afraid to double down on its emotional turn. Earning three Emmy nominations for Season 2 Part 1, the risk has paid off already, and those who enjoyed Part 1’s deeper, moodier tone will feel satisfied by this series’ conclusion. Despite Maya and Anna’s surface-level conflicts throughout, PEN15 reiterates its simple core belief: that with a best friend you’ll get through anything, whether it’s the sudden death of a loved one or being taken advantage of by someone you were vulnerable with, or any of the other million problems we face in our lives, big or small.

In the last moments of the series, Maya and Anna have a tearful conversation about their future and what it will be like when they grow up and start families and stay friends forever. You simply can’t remain 13, and the real-life event of Erskine and Konkle giving birth to their first children earlier this year, just months apart, feels like a bittersweet but perfectly fitting goodbye to their alter egos.

All 7 episodes of PEN15 Season 2 Part 2 premiere Friday, December 3rd on Hulu.

Kristen Reid is a writer, covering television for Paste Magazine, Vulture, and Film School Rejects. She’s been known to spend too much time rewatching her favorite sitcoms, yelling at her friends to watch more TV, and falling in love with fictional characters. You can follow her on Twitter @kreidd for late-night thoughts on whatever she’s bingeing now.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.