Welcome back to Vulture’s coverage of everyone’s favorite full-body panic attack of a show, PEN15. I’m Bethy, and I’ll be running out the clock with you fine folks. Hulu announced that the second half of season two would be the show’s last, as Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine were kind of done being their middle-school selves. And can you really blame them? As much fun as this show can be, it has to be at least mildly hellish to put yourself through your adolescence again.
As the show begins its final bow, we see Maya and Anna drifting even further apart. For most of season two, it felt like Maya was going through (extremely traumatic) teen problems, whereas Anna was being thrust into adult problems before she could handle them. She became a mediator, bargaining chip, and sounding board for her parents’ divorce, and it’s really done a number on her.
Anna and Maya are both going through it, but on different levels. Maya wants a first kiss, Maya is coming to grips with her socioeconomic status, Maya wants Dippin’ Dots. Anna is acting as a go-between for her mom and absentee dad. (Anna’s dad appears to have stayed in Florida with Aline. Maybe he’s still a cartoon; he’s certainly two-dimensional.) She is also giving up on God. These are not developmentally appropriate issues! But neither is the Holocaust unit that kicks off Anna’s existential crisis.
Time and time again, I am struck by the depraved indifference of this school’s faculty. Mr. O introduces the concept of the Holocaust to the class with a classic lack of sensitivity. The kids immediately derail the lesson by declaring who’s Jewish, and Mr. O lets it happen. He tells the kids to bring the one item they’d bring with them to the death camps, because that’s how we teach empathy? Maya is indifferent to schoolwork, much more focused on Becca’s bat mitzvah and the overheard intel she gathers about how gross poor people are and how Becca can only wear Swarovski. Anna, however, internalizes the suffering in the world. To her baby brain, the Holocaust and her parents’ divorce coalesce into a realization that the world is indifferent to suffering and nobody knows where we go when we die.
It’s interesting seeing a pre-9/11 existential crisis for an American teen. The late ’90s were all about feeling that end-of-history vibe. Intolerance, war, and suffering were all in the past; now was the time for smart drinks and parachute pants. Meanwhile, the seeds of every awful thing to come are in this school. In this episode, we get subtle class warfare and a one-dimensional understanding of the Holocaust, but the show has already shown us racism, morality policing, sexism, and homophobia. It’s all bubbling under the surface, ready to metastasize in the years to come. You can’t tell me Brandt wouldn’t support Gamergate, or that Anna’s mom wouldn’t think 5G is responsible for COVID-19. Anna eventually brings a bullet to school, saying she’d want to kill Hitler with it. The class debates the merits of violent interventions to stop fascism, and oh God, the future is already here.
Maya ignores her mother’s attempt at explaining World War II’s Japanese internment camps, entirely focusing on buying an expensive gift for Becca. Becca, a girl who has never not looked at Maya and Anna with condescension. Maya clashes with her mother over buying the expensive necklace as a bat-mitzvah present, utterly oblivious to how little even the Hope Diamond would mean to Becca coming from her.
At the party, Maya is overcome with the glitz and glamour of a Broadway-themed bat mitzvah. Becca is carried into the party singing “Whatever Lola Wants,” which is still thee show tune for declaring one’s nascent sexuality. Anna, meanwhile, has a panic attack at the thought of doing the Electric Slide. The gulf of experience between Maya and Anna is visualized by one of Pen15’s classic artsy turns: The dance floor goes black. Only Maya and her innumerable glow sticks remain. She dances like a madwoman while Anna freaks out from the strobing light.
Anna goes into the hallway to try and undo her panic attack, where she runs into Steve, the techie/Bruce Lee guru. Steve teaches Anna triangle breathing and shares his stolen crème de menthe. The minute they cast the 27-year-old Chau Long for the high-school freshman Steve, I knew we were in for some smooching. PEN15 famously uses body doubles for any intimate contact between the show’s stars and their much younger co-stars. Steve is clearly going to be a big part of the back half of season two, one that can kiss Anna in a wide shot.
And kiss they indeed do. Anna and Steve lock lips while Maya stands right next to them. Maya suddenly decides to steal her present back, and the three of them slow-dance to the good version of “I Swear.” We’ve all been at least one of those people in middle or high school, right? Trying to make the third wheel feel okay while still being too horny to function? Steve says he doesn’t usually go for younger girls, but Anna is “different.” You know, that thing all older men say to every younger girl they encounter. A bone-chilling thing to hear as an adult, but such a compliment to a young, desperately sad girl like Anna.
After the dance, both Maya and Anna reconnect with their mothers. A shitfaced Anna finally expresses that this divorce is causing her emotional unrest. Kathy suggests talking to her, but what she really needs is therapy. Maya gives the pendant to a sleeping Yuki and apologizes for spending so much. It seems likely the mother-daughter of it all is going to be in sharp focus for what’s left of this gross, wonderful, excruciatingly painful show.