The final installment of PEN15, the show about middle school that stars two women in their 30s as 13-year-olds, is one of the more brutal episodes of a coming-of-age series to air on television. And that’s saying a lot, since PEN15 often starts from a baseline of preteen brutality.
Note: This is the part where there will be nothing but spoilers.
After running away from home following arguments with their mothers, Anna and Maya, played by Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine (who created the series with Sam Zvibleman), wind up at the home of Maya’s older, sort-of boyfriend Derrick (Bill Kottkamp), along with Steve (Chau Long), Anna’s own high-school-age boyfriend. While Anna and Steve are making out, Maya retreats to Derrick’s bedroom, where she performs oral sex on him in a believably awkward scene that, while technically consensual, comes across as a robbery of Maya’s innocence.
That feels even more true when, later in the episode, Derrick breaks up with Maya over the phone. “Do you hear this song?” he says cruelly, while Santana’s “Smooth” plays on the radio. “Every time you hear it, I want you to think of me breaking up with you. Because that’s what I am doing now.” Even writing this out gives me a full-body shudder.
It turns out that moment is actually based on reality, which perhaps is not surprising considering how much Konkle and Erskine drew from their own experiences throughout the course of the series. The two recently joined me on a Zoom call to talk about the blowjob scene and breakup moment, as well as whether it’s possible to experience true love at 13 (possibly, if you’re Maya and Sam?) and an adolescent habit of Erskine’s that didn’t make it into the show. We also discussed the final scene of the series, in which Anna and Maya look at old photos and home movies and contemplate whether they’ll remain friends once they’re grown-ups.
When you were writing these episodes, did you know they were going to be the very last ones, or did that decision come later?
Anna Konkle: Yeah, we knew it would be the last ones. I think our language at the time was, “You never know what’ll happen in the future,” and we still feel like this. But we wanted to tie up the story in a way we felt was appropriate and write the episodes in a way that we would be proud if they were our last ones. If, in the next ten years, there are any other stories that come to us and we’re like, “Oh, we have to tell this,” this frame allows for that. But the characters are in seventh grade forever, and the show’s just not going to go on forever. That was always the idea.
There are a lot of themes of death threaded through the season, and that leads up to the finale with these end-of-innocence moments. With Anna, it’s protracted through her parents’ divorce. And Maya, with that horrible breakup and the blowjob — were you trying to reach a point where it was like, “Okay, childhood is over for them”?
A.K.: That’s exactly what we were doing. And then there was a feeling we wanted to end it with: a coming back home.
Maya Erskine: When I told my partner, “We’re going to have Maya give a blowjob, and she’s going to give it before she has her first kiss,” he was like, “No, don’t. Why would you do that to her? She’s a kid. I can’t see that.” Now, of course, he feels differently having watched it. But to essentially kill her innocence with that act feels really shocking.
And like we do with a lot of our experiences — not to make it an after-school special, but — we rewrite history slightly. Anna’s talked about it a lot with her parents: She would watch them fighting but not have a friend beside her. So we’re rewriting history by adding sweetness, through their friendship, to get through these tough moments. Like the blowjob: having Anna there to support her and all the friends come back to get revenge in some way, and she gets the beautiful first kiss with Sam that I never got — to give that as a gift to Maya felt like this parting gift to the show and to these characters. You can still come back to innocence. You can still come back home after going through something like that.
After the blowjob happens, Maya’s in shock. Then there’s a moment when she’s alone in the bathroom and she breaks down — it seems like she actually did realize in some part of her brain, “I’m a different person than I was 20 minutes ago.” Was that what you were going for?
M.E.: Just the idea of, I just did something I wasn’t ready for. I really want to go home. I’m not even ready to talk about it. There’s no words to put to it to even share with my best friend. Anna is always there to comfort Maya through her traumatic situations. This is the one time I felt she shouldn’t be.
Anna wants to be there, but she doesn’t have the tools to be there for Maya, and Maya doesn’t have the tools to express this very adult thing she went through, which to me is the exact dichotomy of this show: At this age, you start to experiment in sexual things, drugs, whatever, that you are not emotionally ready for and you don’t have words to express how you feel about. It’s just gone, and it’s pocketed somewhere, and it’s going to be released later, maybe when Maya’s older. She’s going to talk about it in therapy or talk about it with a friend. That’s all very intentional.
A.K.: I relate to that even as an adult, of going through a sexual experience — the processing is so often delayed. You want to say, Everything’s fine and I enjoyed that. There are experiences that years later, I’m like, Oh, that makes me feel bad that that happened. I would take that back if I could. He wasn’t listening, or I wasn’t comfortable speaking up for myself. To me, we were always in the pursuit of truth, and that way of storytelling definitely felt like the most honest — especially in the year 2000, when you’re not learning about consent.
M.E.: When you learn about blowjobs, it’s all about, “Oh, yeah, I got dome. I got head.” As a girl, you’re hearing that constantly.
A.K.: You just want to achieve what other people have done. That’s what I wanted. I was embarrassed that I hadn’t done something that someone else had. It’s like a badge.
Also, if it’s the first time you’ve done it, to your point, you want to seem like you’re cool with it.
M.E.: And you’re good at it.
A.K.: You didn’t do it wrong.
M.E.: You made him come. That’s the goal.
A.K.: It has nothing to do with —
M.E.: It has nothing to do with my pleasure. Oh no, no, no. Even up through my 20s, consent was like — I wasn’t even thinking about my own pleasure for years.
A.K.: No. Me neither.
M.E.: It was all about, “What does this person want? Am I doing it right? Is he still going to think I’m pretty after? Oh, no. I’m not good at it.”
I wasn’t sure that Maya was into Derrick at all. It was more like, Anna has a boyfriend. This is his friend. If he’s paying attention to me, that’s cool. But it didn’t seem like she really had feelings for him, necessarily, and I don’t even know if Anna had feelings for Steve. I’m curious what you both have to say about that.
M.E.: I think you’re right on the money about Maya not having true feelings for Derrick. It’s a person who’s there, who is older, who is showing interest. She’ll take anything she can get. I mean, that’s where she wants any validation: You like me. Great. You like me without my glasses? Okay. I’ll do whatever you say. Which is really sad to watch. Then to also see Sam on the sidelines offering these really sweet words to her, getting more mature himself — in the beginning of the show, they would be mean to each other and neg each other as ways of showing that they like each other. Maya doesn’t really stop that, but Sam starts to mature, I think, in this later part of the season. He really is kind to her, and she just shuts it down, shuts it down, shuts it down until she’s beaten down by this awful guy, Derrick.
A.K.: I don’t know if it’s still like this — I would think that it, unfortunately, probably is — but going through [adolescence] for me was a part of my life where who I was was conditional on how much somebody else, especially guys, approved of me. I see Maya’s character very much going through that and Anna, too: of getting older, of getting attention from a guy and needing to keep the attention because it makes me feel whole.
With Steve, I feel like this is Anna’s first love. In terms of what she knows about love — and especially the way I relate to it, too — the home is not super-stable and she’s not seeing a lot of love, yet she had this relationship that, for the most part, was supportive and constant. That is pretty big for being 13 or 15 or 16.
Do you think that, at that age, you can have a romantic relationship that is substantive? We don’t know what happens with Sam and Maya afterward, but I could see that being a very special relationship for both of them.
M.E.: With each of your relationships, you can look back and be like, “I wasn’t in love. What was I thinking?” At the time, at that age, Maya barely loves herself, let alone another person. I don’t know what her capability of giving generous love to another person is. But for that age, her capacity to love, her perception of what love is? Yes, she was in love with Sam. At that time, that is a love, and that is a relationship. It does have substance, just like Anna and Steve. But if you look back years later, you’d be like, No, that wasn’t real.
A.K.: It’s relative. This isn’t really a relationship, but talking to each other at recess or going to the movies once with a mom or, as I got older, my dad driving me and this other guy to the movie theater — those memories were the beginning, the seeds, of what being in love would be as I got older. There’s something beautiful about that, and hysterical and sad, because there’s so much lacking.
M.E.: Can I tell you my favorite thing I used to do? Daydream about relationships. Every night I would pick a different boy, and I would look different. My favorite part of the day was when I was in bed and thinking of a life that I could have.
A.K.: That’s a fucking episode. Are you kidding me? I never knew that. That’s genius.
M.E.: I know. I can’t believe I never told you this, but I realized I used to do that every night. It was like I couldn’t wait to lie in bed, because I’d be like, “Now I get to …” Which is another version of —
A.K.: That’s like Flymiamibro.
M.E.: Right. But it’s like you said, it’s a series of moments that are seedlings of what your concept of love is or what it feels like to be attracted to someone.
Maya, were these boys that you knew?
M.E.: Yes, all boys I knew. So many boys. It was a big list from my grade, older grades. I did real boys who would probably never pay attention to me or a boy I had a dance with when I first shaved my legs — we almost break-danced, then nothing ever happened with him. But I would imagine what could have been with this person, what we’d be like coming back from spring break, and I’d have a new tan.
A.K.: [Laughing] I’m so pissed. That’s brilliant.
M.E.: I miss those days of daydreaming.
A.K.: I didn’t let myself daydream like that. I was like, They either have to like me or they don’t exist. I don’t know what that says about me.
M.E.: I love that.
A.K.: It’s very protective, I think. I wouldn’t let myself fantasize.
I do have to ask about the absolutely horrible breakup of Derrick and Maya. Did that come from anything resembling your real lives? I hope the answer is —
A.K.: My best friend growing up, Courtney, she was my Maya. She is my Maya. I asked her before this interview if I could talk about it. I remember getting the call. She told me what had happened and was hysterical, obviously.
M.E.: It’s so wild.
A.K.: In retrospect, I think it’s hurt people experimenting with their identity and who they are. Certainly there are things I look back on that I’m not proud of. I know most people have that. This scene is an extreme, but I can believe it in the prism of middle school and experimenting with who you are romantically. Especially within the patriarchy: What is it to be super-male and tough?
M.E.: It’s also that time. I was just rewatching a movie of that era; it was so chauvinistic and the humor was so cruel. I was like, Ah, this is reflective. I’m remembering why our time felt particularly mean. I’m not saying that middle school isn’t always mean, but I do feel like in that time period, it was very acceptable and encouraged to have mean humor.
A.K.: We talk about it like a circus. People are going through these massive shifts and highs and falls of, I’m this person. No, I’m this person. I’m trying on this identity. I’m the mean boy. I can’t tell you the amount of people that one day were one identity and a week later were completely different people. That’s specific to middle school: People would be taking these wild swings of, What is my narrative? What do I believe? I never saw that happen in elementary school or high school.
Your friend Courtney — the words he said to her during her breakup were basically the same as we see in the show?
Did the guy also play “Smooth,” by Santana?
That’s the other part of it that’s especially horrible. You could not escape that song. It was everywhere.
A.K.: [Laughs] I know. I’m laughing because it’s so unbelievable that it really happened.
For Maya’s kiss with Sam, I know that when you do those kinds of scenes with the younger actors, you’re very careful about how you shoot them, like using body doubles to replace the kids for certain cuts. Did you approach anything differently for this scene? This was the most poignant, romantic moment we’ve seen for either Maya or Anna.
M.E.: We didn’t want it to feel like Anna’s first, where it’s grotesque and also funny. We wanted it to feel innocent and real, but at the same time, filmic and cinematic. But we were like, “How do you do that when you’re filming with a minor?” because we still needed to shoot it separately. That’s why I think we have a wider, faraway shot, where you can’t really see it happen. We did use a body double. But it was just in the way that we shot it and edited it. It felt different than showing the grotesqueness of what a first kiss can be. It just was the simple act of kissing, and I feel like we still followed the same rules that we do with all the other ones.
A.K.: We kind of put highlighter on the fact that we used body doubles in past shots; even using our real-life partners, and then the kids have some beard stubble or something — just a little hint that there’s a departure from reality. For the very last episode and for the last moment and the sweetness of it, we were using the same protocols, safety all the way, body doubles. But cinematically, committing to the beauty of it was more —
M.E.: Wanting the audience to be transported and really believe it’s Sam, but not be taken out of it, like, “Wait, is that the actor?” Just really be in the moment. That was the hope.
It reminded me of something from The Wonder Years, which is not something I would say about anything else in the show.
A.K.: I love that.
The last scene, where Anna and Maya are together and imagining what’s going to happen with their relationship: I have to think that was incredibly emotional to film.
M.E.: I remember being very intimidated to shoot it, actually, because it was the ending and it was an idea we weren’t sure would actually work. It was one of those things of not knowing: Do we go out of character for a second? When we’re talking about the future, are we our kid selves saying these things?
There were many ways we could go about it and that intimidated me in terms of getting it right. Anytime you’re encountering the last scene of anything, there are those fears or worries. But once we were in it, we were trying to just give into the scene, the words, and each other and not overanalyze it. Yes, it got very emotional, and we cried through it. We cried a lot when watching it. Every single time we would watch the scene, it would hit the nerve, and we’d both be crying.
A.K.: There is sort of a departure from being 13. There’s a moment of letting in our 30-year-old perspective. Then it drops away and you get back to the child’s fantasy of what life will be like. That was the emotional part.
M.E.: You’re talking about when we’re actually kids again and then talking about things that will never happen, but what our fantasies are. That is heartbreaking.
A.K.: That was the heartbreaking part, yeah, leaving the 34-year-old self in there for a minute and then going back to the innocence in the scene of saying, “We’ll take care of each other always, and we’ll live together.” Then it gets even more extreme: “There’ll be clouds around the houses.” It gets clearly into fantasy. That was where it got really, really sad. I think we were going through the same loss of innocence, or at least I was, in the scene. I’m the 34-year-old woman playing a 13-year-old, feeling the loss of a 13-year-old perspective as I play the character. That was really beautiful, but really intense, and going through things as adults that you hopefully don’t go through as a child — they’re hard. And feeling all of that coming up too: “Fuck. It’s hard out here as an adult sometimes.”
M.E.: It’s my childhood friend in the video we’re watching where we’re like, “Oh, look, that’s when we met.”
I was wondering about that.
M.E.: I was just like, Oh my God. This girl who was my everything and so impactful in my life, and thinking back, I’m so grateful to her now, but how easily we just went on different paths. She was my world, and then all of a sudden it’s like, Oh, we’re both over here and we have different friends and we have different lives. The love is still so strong for me when I think about her, but we don’t hang out as friends. That’s something that kept coming into my head when filming it.
Do you think that Maya and Anna, the characters, will maintain a relationship as they get older, or will they go in different directions?
M.E.: I like to think they do. I mean, I think I wanted it to be vague, like, You never know. It could go either way, so that people could relate.
A.K.: Right, right, right.
M.E.: But I do think they stay friends.
A.K.: I do, too, because the way I relate to it is like, we’re still very close with our childhood best friends. The people that I felt that soul connection with, they’re far and few between, and there are plenty of other best friends that came and went like you’re talking about, who I have a soft spot in my heart for and who were really important for me, where I’m like, What are they doing now? Where are they? But we were lucky enough to find soul-mate connections, I think, that we also found with each other later in life. I think it’s inevitable that these characters also lose touch at times or aren’t friends at times or have tough times. But I also think you’re right, Maya, that just because that’s our instinct of what happens, who knows? There are two characters, and maybe they don’t become friends forever, and people should identify with it in whatever way feels truthful to them.
M.E.: I hope so.
A.K.: The point is for them to be conduits of a lot of experiences.