My viewing habits during qu*rant*ne have intentionally steered clear of anything that could be tethered to the current moment. We’re talking Sex and the City‘s non-distanced brunches. High Fidelity‘s unmasked walks through Brooklyn. And Normal People, the complete antithesis of whatever’s going (or not going) on in my love life. But from the start of PEN15‘s second season, the first half of which is out today, I knew my reality could be evaded no longer.
Over the course of the first seven episodes (a second batch will drop in 2021), I found myself transported right back to myself. More appropriately, into the insecure, yearning, confused, isolated 13-year-old version of myself, and I…liked it?
Things pick up two days after the season 1 finale, where Maya (Maya Erskine) and Anna (Anna Konkle) had a brief intimate encounter with Maya’s crush Brandt (Josh Beres) at a school dance. (Basically, he felt them up for about two seconds before dashing off and warning them not to tell anyone.) The friends are wading through the choppy waters of middle school, deciphering what it all means via a game of MASH, and debating their attendance at an upcoming pool party. (“We’re too good for it,” they muse at one point.)
Obviously, the pals go anyway—tip-toeing through the event, trying to be aloof, and failing miserably. Years after exiting middle school, all of those same awkward and unnerving emotions Maya and Anna experience have been made easily accessible by the pandemic.
PEN15 season 1, which aired last February and earned an Emmy nomination for its writing, left me shocked by the audacity of thirtysomethings Konkle and Erskine playing 13-year-olds while surrounded by real preteens in the other roles. It also had me reminiscing about my own adolescence, its awkwardness lingering with me hours after watching. But binging season 2 felt different, like putting a mirror up to the lost, seventh grade version of myself living just beneath the surface of the overpriced loungewear I purchased at the beginning of this isolation.
Right as many actual middle schoolers are skipping in-person learning for Zoom classes, the rest of us have been plunged into PTSD from the hellscape known as the sixth through eighth grade. It’s even been confirmed that the characters will forever be in seventh grade, never to age, just as we’re all trapped in this unknowable period indefinitely.
Throughout the season, Maya and Anna channel their misfit status into different outlets. First the wrestling team, then a three-way friendship with the gaslighting Maura (Ashlee Grubbs), before settling on the school play. We tried making sourdough, watching Tiger King, and swathing ourselves in tie-dye just to feel something.
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There’s always been something about the innate discomfort of middle school that feels akin to any major transition. It’s the bridge between elementary school and high school, between childhood and being a teenager. You wander around looking for clues as to who you’re supposed to be, what you should look like, and where you fit in the world. It’s the same reason that I couldn’t handle Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade just weeks after moving to New York. It was too raw a reflection of what it feels like to want to belong to a place so badly and aching at every point where you don’t quite fit.
These parallels are perhaps never more striking than in the season’s third episode, “Vendy Wiccany.” When tensions rise between Anna’s parents, who are separated but still living under the same roof, Maya drags her from the house and into a mystical forest. They seek refuge by practicing witchcraft, with Maya convincing a distressed Anna that they possess “magical powers.” By episode’s end, the pair is revealed to be, well, a little closer to home than we were led to believe, telling themselves stories to get through a difficult stretch in their lives. In one of the show’s most dramatic moments (of which there are many more in season 2 than the first), Maya holds Anna in her arms and reminds her that she’s really here, just as she threatens to slip away into despair. It’s a moment that resonates deeply as we play a kind of make-believe about the broader world while confined to our homes.
That episode signals a tonal shift in PEN15, from the gag of seeing thirty-year-olds in retainers to navigating more complicated terrain. But that feels therapeutic in 2020, a reminder that we’ve made it through a rocky coming of age before and we can do it again. There’s also strange comfort in tying the melodramas of seventh grade to the real-life anxiety of a pandemic, as I found myself doing time and again during season 2. 2020 feels like being trapped at a mean girl’s sleepover when you’re 13 and on your period. And sometimes something as simple as a Tommy Hilfiger T-shirt will inspire a full-blown meltdown.
The later episodes of PEN15 are more buoyant and overtly comedic. There’s Maya emerging from a duffel bag mid-sleepover in an homage to Ace Ventura. There’s a masked kiss that plays for laughs even amid its eerie prescience. And there’s our preteen heroines embracing themselves more fully, if even for a moment. Like Maya and Anna, I’m learning to be graceful with the parts of myself that are fearful the world won’t ever feel safe again.
We often run away from all those hurts, scars, tentative joys, and naive discoveries amassed in middle school. But the pandemic has shifted those hidden away versions of ourselves back into clear focus—for the better or worse. Either way, it’s liberating to see Erskine and Konkle play these roles and own their adolescent trauma. It makes me hopeful that we might be able to reclaim this wilderness period in our own lives at some point.
If 2020 hadn’t shown you yourself already, PEN15 season 2 is here with a mirror.
Watch PEN15 on Hulu
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