The End of Hulu's 'PEN15' Is a Tragic and Beautiful Heartbreaker
Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine lean into the trauma of their "traumedy" in the last-ever episodes of their Hulu series.
This article contains major PEN15 Season 2, Part 2 spoilers.
When you're a preteen, one thing adults will have you know is how much middle school sucks and how mean middle school-aged students can be. It can take years, sometimes well into our own adulthoods, to be capable of processing how difficult that time period can be. That's one of the reasons Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle's Hulu series PEN15, which they call a "traumedy" and finds them playing seventh-grade versions of themselves amongst actual seventh-graders, has been so effective from the beginning. Ever since the show premiered in 2019, they've been able to both make fun of how cringe-worthy that period was, specifically during the early-to-mid-2000s, and genuinely explore how brutal it was through a mature lens that acknowledges these events stick with us long after school's out.
While the show hasn't shied away from exploring difficult topics since the beginning, from bullying and divorce to sexuality and race, the back half of Season 2 that recently hit Hulu are the saddest episodes of the show's run. Fans originally turned to the Lonely Island-produced series for its cringe comedy concept and jokes about AIM, but it ends in a way that reminds us that the traumas kids experience at the time, particularly girls, are legitimate and often still need to be processed as adults, especially when there aren't the right words or feelings to describe them at 13.
The seven episodes that dropped on December 3 explore tough themes throughout (like death, older men taking advantage of young girls, or considering one's own class for the first time), but the finale "Home" is by far the most affecting. Earlier in the season, Anna and Maya start dating their first boyfriends, high schoolers Steve (Chau Long) and Derrick (Bill Kottkamp)—Anna having met Steve through the school play and Maya really only dating Steve's BFF Derrick by proximity. With the opportunity of double dates, it's all very exciting at first, but it's clear Derrick doesn't have much interest in Maya, and Maya is never all that comfortable with Derrick.
In "Home," we're confronted with a disturbing scene in which the girls end up at Derrick's house and, while Anna and Steve are making out on the couch, Maya thinks she might finally get her first kiss. But alone in Derrick's room, he denigrates her "lack of experience" and, exploiting the embarrassment he makes Maya feel, pressures her into performing fellatio on him. In a long and graphic scene, Maya's confusion, discomfort, and terror is foregrounded; she doesn't necessarily realize how Derrick is taking advantage of her. Then, days later, Derrick proves himself to be the scum of the Earth when he calls Maya, tells her to turn on the radio to the 1999 Rob Thomas (feat. Santana) hit "Smooth," and breaks her heart by telling her to think of how he's broke up with her whenever she hears the then-inescapable song.
Maya's traumatic experience and the depression that follows loom over the episode, but PEN15 returns to the one thing that tends to lessen everything that makes middle school suck: the friendships that got us through it. After seeing her moping at the lunch table, Maya's friend Sam (Taj Cross) asks what's wrong, and suggests they egg Derrick's house. When their plan is a go, Anna invites Steve, but because he refuses to come, she makes the hard decision of breaking up with him to side with her friend. A horrible experience begets a delightful moment of catharsis as Maya, Anna, and their friends egg Derrick's house (well, "squid" his house because it's all Maya could find in the fridge).
As everyone runs away and hides behind different bushes, Maya gets her first kiss with Sam, who has had a series-long crush on her and who she's crushed on in some capacity since Season 1. Pulling the ultimate 12-year-old sweetheart move, he places the headphones from Maya's Discman over her ears and plays "Smooth" as he tells her to think of what's about to happen when she hears the song, laying one on her after he asks for her consent. It's a kiss worth a diary-full of journaling—and while it can't make Maya forget what her first sexual encounter was, its sweetness is sure to hold its own place in her memory.
While PEN15 ends by going deeper into its "traumedy" concept more than ever, it also ends up being oddly beautiful. Maya and Anna's friendship becomes the ultimate coping mechanism; through mean girls, first periods, and shitty boyfriends, the two are always there for each other. In the series' final moments (now that Erskine and Konkle have decided to end the series), the girls are left wondering if they'll stay friends forever. It's the kind of question that's almost off-limits in girls' friendships—being too painful to realize a time when they don't share inside jokes and secrets—and for a moment, it's as if the two inhibit the adult-versions of their characters, thinking about how they'll become depressed and cynical one day, or they'll grow sick of each other and drift apart. Then, in a moment as bright as a gel pen, they snap back into preteen Maya and Anna, fantasizing about sharing college dorms, having a double wedding, and helping to raise each other's children, as a home video of their childhood dance recital plays on the TV.
The heart of PEN15 has always been Maya and Anna's friendship. In recreations of Spice Girls videos, pool parties, and, as Anna says in the last moments of the finale, their ability to "protect each other" is what has carried the series. Whether they look into what will be their one day post-middle-school future with excitement or fear, their friendship in that moment holds the power to help carry them through anything.