The phrase “coming-of-age” has always been a bit lacking. It implies an easy progression, a sort of natural blooming. In reality, growing up can feel more like being pushed. There are moments when teens teeter on the edge, anxious and exhilarated, only to find themselves tumbling into a new phase of life that they don’t understand. In part 2 of its second season, PEN15 captures this feeling with painful precision.
With its final seven episodes, the Hulu series displays an acute awareness of that often-unstoppable shove towards adulthood. PEN15 has always been a warts-and-all portrayal of adolescence — one of the best since Freaks & Geeks. The back half of Season 2 is made up of uneasy defining moments. It’s rife with perfectly impressionistic memories that adults could point to and say, “That’s when I wasn’t a kid anymore.”
PEN15 communicates a keen sense of emotional intimacy. In an early episode, for example, seventh-graders Anna (Anna Konkle) and Maya (Maya Erskine) attend a sleepover that goes on far too long. The show’s writers tap into a hyper-specific feeling of over-exhausted melodrama that’s too real for comfort. So when PEN15 gets darker, as it often does in Season 2B, it’s a darkness that’s easy to absorb and tough to shake off.
Anna’s parents broke up. Her dad lost the house, and she says she’s worried about what he’ll do if he feels like he’s lost her, too. Maya has just received an ADD diagnosis, and she spins out into tantrums whenever reality starts to feel too real. The adult lead actors (who also co-created the show with Sam Zbibleman) continue to embody facets of their teen selves with easy authenticity. Maya and Anna are at once perpetually self-involved and earnestly concerned. They’re distressed by the idea of cancer and the Holocaust, but they also giggle their way through funerals. They’re simply unable to put a lid on the all-powerful force of their friendship.
When Anna gets her braces off at the beginning of the penultimate episode, the world starts to see her differently. PEN15, too, begins to careen towards painfully formative rites of passage with purpose. Anna goes to a modeling audition that’s almost certainly a scam. Maya is led into a dark room by an off-putting high-school boy. If the show’s superpower is its ability to transport us back to middle school through the specificity of storytelling, these last episodes should come with a warning label. There’s a scene in the finale that’s perhaps more upsetting than the show’s creators intended. Still, our heroes shake it off in a realistic way. Maybe growing up means wandering through trauma without realizing its impact. Laughing together about it now so you can cry a little less about it later.
It helps to have someone to laugh with, and PEN15 remains an excellent ode to adolescent friendship. Anna and Maya might still be seventh graders, but their identities aren’t quite as fragile as they once were. Insults don’t crush them anymore. They’ve learned to tell each other they’re beautiful, and they are starting to learn to believe it. They’re braver now, but they’re also not as afraid to speak up about their needs. At one point, Konkle and Erskine said they wanted to keep the characters in seventh grade forever. But the Anna and Maya we see on screen are too vibrant and too world-hungry to stay in a cartoon-like stasis.
In the end, PEN15 is a series of snapshots. Some moments in the show ring so clear and true that writers may as well have pulled them from viewers’ own gel-pen-covered diaries. If these final episodes are sadder than usual, it’s because the end of childhood is a bitter pill to swallow. PEN15 takes universal experiences, like questioning friendships or realizing your parents don’t see you as a kid anymore, and lends them a breathtaking, taboo-shattering quality.
The show shares big, vulnerable feelings with us, the kind that can only be conveyed through whispers after midnight. We’re lucky to have been invited to this one-of-a-kind sleepover, which wisely chose to end before it wore its guests out.
PEN15 Season 2 Part 2 (a.k.a Season 2B) is now streaming on Hulu.
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