Pen15 Review: The Final Episodes Provide a Beautiful Ending — and Help Explain Why Its Time To Go

Pen15 Review: The Final Episodes Provide a Beautiful Ending — and Help Explain Why Its Time To Go

Part 2 of “Pen15’s” second season is also its last — its last part, its last season, its last anything. Buried the week of release in a New Yorker profile of series leads Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, the trades verified the news and a narrative for “why” soon formed: Erskine and Konkle wanted to end the series after three seasons, but the pandemic — which caused a delay in production and split Season 2 in half — sped up the timeline. Hulu reportedly wants more episodes, leaving the door open for a return someday, but both stars are in-demand, lining up acting gigs and creative commitments elsewhere.

Thankfully, the writers, directors, co-creators, and stars made their decision in time to film a proper ending. Episode 15, “Home,” is a fitting, offbeat series finale, even if the preceding episodes play slightly more melancholic, given the news, and the final scene (which is spoiled in the profile) comes across as a bit sudden. After all, the design of “Pen15” seems counterintuitive to a temporary stay. As 30-something performers playing seventh graders among a sea of actual adolescent actors, Erskine, as Maya Ishii-Peters, and Konkle, as Anna Kone, aren’t meant to blend in with the cast; the actors’ committed performances and entrancing spirit bridge the obvious age gap, amping up the humor inherent to their all-consuming crushes and fearsome friendship while allowing for moments of maturation to resonate more fully. Having adults play 14-year-olds makes “Pen15” funnier and, oddly enough, more genuine.

It also makes the series sustainable (a contention Erskine disagrees with). Even if their actually young co-stars age faster than the fixed world around them, Maya and Anna won’t. They could keep playing seventh graders, well, not forever — the physical transformation is already taking a toll on the two leads — but barring injury, a more typical run of four, five, or six seasons seems not only plausible, but beneficial; that many seasons could reflect the lasting effects of our formative years. (Seventh grade is only a year, but the surrounding era of adolescence sure feels longer.)

But Erskine and Konkle see it from the opposite angle and argue accordingly in the final episodes. For those who’ve witnessed the characters’ rich, rapid growth across the first 18 episodes, an ending this early shouldn’t feel out of the blue. It’s certainly less perplexing after watching Season 2, Part 2. Driven by both leads’ impassioned turns and steady, awkward laughs viewers have cackled and groaned over throughout, “Pen15’s” closing hours can seem like Erskine and Konkle are trying to escape their own show, as Maya and Anna turn to the future, whether they’re ready to or not.


“Pen15”

Courtesy of Hulu

Starting with the animated episode released in August, where Maya and Anna embark on a Florida vacation with Anna’s dad, Curtis (Taylor Nichols), Part 2 features consistent attempts to flee the past and form new identities in the future. Soon after their return, they begin dating high school boys. Steve (Chau Long), who Anna bonded with during the school musical, and Derrick, his shady best friend, check plenty coveted boyfriend boxes: They’re older, Derrick has a car (which means added independence), Steve is very into Anna, and Derrick feigns just enough interest in Maya for her to believe he likes her. (Though his selfish intentions are obvious to viewers.) Most importantly, Anna and Maya dating two best friends means they can still hang out while dating — they remain the most important people in the world to each other and having their closest ally nearby while navigating their first “adult” relationships proves more valuable than the romantic relationships.

Teenagers are typically eager to shed their childish identity and be treated as mature, capable individuals, but Anna and Maya aren’t just looking to get a jump on their high school lives; they’re dealing with questions and subjects typically saved for when you’re living on your own, without parents, and long after. Anna experiences her first bout with fatalism when her mother, Kathy (Melora Walters), tells her heaven and hell may not exist. Maya struggles with her identity as a Japanese American when her younger cousin comes to visit. In the two-part finale, they run away from home, trying to survive without parental assistance while being bombarded with situations they’re still too young to properly assess.

But perhaps the best example of Konkle and Erskine using Anna and Maya to explore topics beyond their seventh-grade sensibilities arrives in Episode 11, when “Pen15” literally shifts to an older, wiser perspective. Simply titled “Yuki,” the 32-minute entry follows a similar construct as episodes of “Ramy” and “You’re the Worst,” where a supporting character is given a solo spotlight. Here, we see Maya’s mother, Yuki (played by Erskine’s actual mother, Mutsuko Erskine) spending her morning wrangling ungrateful children before a daylong dalliance with an unexpected visitor from her past. Erskine’s performance is physically subdued yet emotionally telling, helping to bolster her character’s backstory as Yuki reflects on who she once was, who she’s become, and the decisions in between. Written and directed by her daughter, the episode in and of itself is a treasure best discovered, not explained, but the respect shown for each character (as well as a beautiful ending that smartly diverges from similar stories) makes it both memorable and moving. (The younger Erskine is also great, imbuing Maya with an extra dose of teenage silliness, as if directing her mother to such a measured turn stoked her own desire to really cut loose.)


PEN15 -- "Vendy Wiccany" - Episode 203 -- Anna and Maya discover secret powers within, allowing them to control rocky aspects of their lives through magic. Yuki (Mutsuko Erskine), shown. (Photo by: Erica Parise/Hulu)

Mutsuko Erskine in “Pen15”

Hulu

“Yuki” pairs well with the finale, which provides closure (especially by tying together loops opened in the pilot) without setting the knots too firmly. The ultimate ending is a simple, sweet scene, given added resonance in how it reflects the show’s unique duality. On the one hand, Erskine and Konkle playing teenage versions of themselves allows the series to recognize the meaning behind these early, formative moments; as adults, they have the benefit of hindsight, and the creators are savvy enough to implement visual and performance cues to share that insight with their adult audience. But they also never betray Maya and Anna as teens; their characters carry the reckless abandon of youth, clinging to happiness and hope with both hands, even if that just means pulling your best friend close enough that they’ll never be able to break free.

Such unencumbered exuberance combined with an acknowledgement that it doesn’t last is what’s made “Pen15” achingly funny throughout. Perhaps it could’ve gone on for a few more seasons, and it certainly deserved a longer build-up to its goodbye than a few days notice, but Season 2, Part 2 is a far cry from the series’ beginnings. Gone are the pop-punk ballads punctuating the series’ 2000 setting, and episodes rarely build to big comedic climaxes, preferring tender, significant connections instead.

“Pen15’s” ending speaks to the repeated fears that kids are growing up too fast; that those few precious years where you can be unabashedly yourself, knowing there’s at least one person who will love you for it, are as fleeting as they are indispensable. At the same time, Erskine and Konkle never paint the past with rose-colored glasses; “Pen15” acknowledges the pain, awkwardness, and fear underlining that turbulent portion of life. Both aspects speak to the necessity to move forward sooner rather than later. Part 2 helps illustrate how the creators’ ambitions and interests are growing, as well as why these characters can’t be trapped in the same grade forever. As hard as it is to say goodbye to “Pen15” this soon, it’s easy to see why it’s time to go.

Grade: B+

“Pen15” Season 2, Part 2 premieres Friday, December 3 on Hulu.

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