Pen15 creators discuss why they wanted to end the show now (and that bl--job scene)
- TV Show
Warning: This article contains spoilers for the final season of Pen15.
In the end, Maya and Anna's friendship survived seventh grade. Together, they navigated terrible haircuts, incredibly stressful AIM conversations, first boyfriends, divorce, loss, low-rise jeans, and so much more. Hulu's coming-of-age comedy Pen15 ended with the two besties — played by series creators Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine — simply playing in Anna's room as they imagined their lives together, long after they stopped playing with Tamagotchis.
EW spoke with Konkle and Erskine about the final run of episodes and why they decided to end it now.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Over the seasons, what was the hardest thing to write about and/or relive for you all?
MAYA ERSKINE: Weirdly the writing part of it never felt hard or emotional for me, which is probably a bad thing, but it wasn't until we were on set acting it out, when you're looking all around and there's things from your bedroom, some characters are saying the same things that were uttered by certain people, it's like immersive therapy. It can bring out these emotions that you think are buried deep but are actually very close to the surface. For me it was always when we were on set that that would become really difficult, but also really healing. The "Posh" episode was the first time it was really hard. Or any time something's hard for Anna, it feels hard for me. When we were filming the witch episode, watching my friend go through that pain and then imagining her 13-year-old self next to me, that was so hard to film.
ANNA KONKLE: The weird thing about it is, some of the hardest things are life events in your 34-year-old life that are happening as you're going back and playing autobiographical aspects of yourself at 13, and versions of people around you. Even the first time walking into Anna's house pre-divorce with all these manufactured family pictures, that was really hard. I remember filming those episodes pre-divorce made me feel emotional, especially the happy times. You're acting with ghosts, especially if life has changed a lot from your childhood, and for me it has in multiple ways. But it's therapeutic, I think, ultimately. Sometimes masochistic, but ultimately therapeutic.
You knew you were crafting the end of the series when you started writing these episodes, so what was your goal for those final episodes?
KONKLE: We knew that we wanted them to mature, or feel like they were maturing in a way that we both related to more in high school but that was happening in middle school for people that we knew. There's the exposure to older guys, drugs, more drinking, more sexual acts, and not that all of those things equal losing yourself, but I think in high school and then again in my 20s I had experiences of getting farther away from myself. Those things don't necessarily equal that, but I think for whatever reason there are chunks of time in middle school, high school, my 20s where I was getting my sense of self from outside validation. And especially in middle school for that first experience of: I'm only worth as much as that guy thinks I am. We wanted to make sure we didn't skip that more illicit content that felt really truthful. We also wanted to bring a little more of a hint of a documentary feel. Then by the end of the season we want the feeling of going back home. Going back home to yourself, re-establishing our innocence again.
ERSKINE: It's that thing of thinking of it as the three chapters, even though they're in seventh grade forever: It's sixth, seventh, and eighth grade, in a way. The first part is the first time you're entering middle school, you're straddling the two spheres of like, "Wait, I still want to play with dolls but I also want to get my first kiss, how do I do both?" Seventh grade you're trying to find your identity, you don't know who you are, who your friends are. In the final chapter it's like now we get to experiment and now I want to see how far I can go for things I might not be emotionally or mentally be prepared for. To see the girls struggle with that but then also be able to come home to each other was really exciting for us, and a challenge that we wanted to try.
I have such vivid memories of the first time I had a boyfriend and he put his arm around me or did anything, but also the pressure that comes along with said boyfriend and what if you don't want to do something? You all did such a great job capturing that.
KONKLE: In 2000 we were conditioned to think, "I should want to do whatever this guy wants to do." I was called a prude, ice queen, all those things because I didn't have sex until college. There's the expectation of what we're supposed to be doing and also the irony that I think is very f---ing funny is how many sexual things I did for the first time in the same room as my best friend. With blankets as walls.
ERSKINE: But see I was the friend, I wasn't getting any action.
KONKLE: I was the third wheel too!
ERSKINE: I've had friends have sex next to me in the same bed and I'm just pretending to be asleep. What's ironic is that I wanted to get action and do what everyone was doing and I didn't get it, but I didn't really want to. You're conditioned to think, "Yeah, I gotta give him good head. I gotta get to that first step." And it's like, why?
KONKLE: And without thinking, "What is my pleasure?" It's just, "Am I doing this right?"
KONKLE: Dark times. It feels like society is opening up and that's changing for the younger generation. It will always be something as long as it's the patriarchy that we're coming up against, but it does feel like it's changing, and I really hope that for future generations.
I'd like to congratulate you both on creating the most realistic bl--job scene I've ever seen.
[IN UNISON]: Thank you!
I'm interested in the conversations surrounding "How far do we go with this?"
ERSKINE: We've been having these discussions since day one, even before we started writing the first season. We had done a presentation where Maya did go a little farther.
KONKLE: Like a short film.
ERSKINE: Yeah, before we filmed the show and we were like, "Okay, that's too soon." We always knew we wanted to explore the R-rated sexual things that have happened between middle school kids or stories that we knew of. I will say it wasn't our experience, so these are borrowed stories and things that we can relate to at later times but we did know that we needed to do that but we couldn't do that with kid actors. The kiss was one thing, but doing other things wasn't something we wanted to do. So how far do we go? How do we do it? So high school boyfriends opened that up.
KONKLE: And casting other adults in those roles.
KONKLE: And I think it was exciting and scary, but mostly exciting, to tell the story of a first bl--job, or any bl--job. This thing that in movies and TV is so often told through the male gaze, and it can be funny, but I don't know of one that I've seen that feels real and from a female perspective, in a way. Even though we go between showing Maya and Derek's literal points of view, the writing of it and the perspective of it is very intentionally the woman's. We talked about hearing how to give a good bl--job a lot. Keep eye contact. Always keep eye contact! And the logistics of that are f---ing hilarious.
ERSKINE: And no teeth!
KONKLE: That was the fine line of finding the comedy out of the truth of things that aren't being talked about enough and then also the devastation in moments, the unrealistic expectations on sexual acts and how perfect it should be. How perfect and how for-the-man it's all supposed to be. It was about allowing it to be all these different shades of truth that are funny, f---ed up, sad.
ERSKINE: I find it devastating in a way. I thought it was a big choice that we made to have Maya give a bl--job before her first kiss, so that's cruel, and also you're watching in real time. You're watching this loss of innocence happen right before your very eyes. It's something that I find really sad to watch. There's funny moments in it, but I'm happy that we got to show that because we didn't treat Maya and Anna as these perfectly precious characters that are never going to do things that might hurt them or corrupt or whatever. They go through these things and you're going to have to see that. That's what happens at that age. It was scary, though, to commit to doing that. And it was a crazy, wild thing to film.
KONKLE: You're amazing in it. So amazing.
ERSKINE: It was a dildo, by the way. And it burned my mouth and my throat.
KONKLE: Didn't they give you the wrong lube or something?
ERSKINE: I don't know what, but I was like, "This is burning."
Switching gears entirely, another thing you did in this final season that I really loved was the "Yuki" episode. Where did the idea for that come from?
ERSKINE: We always wanted to do a bottle episode, and "Yuki" was an exciting one to try just to see this different perspective, but one that is so connected to one of our main characters. We had talked about maybe Gabe, so we played with other character's perspectives a bit with these other story lines, but to dedicate a whole episode to it was so amazing. I'm so happy we got to do that.
KONKLE: The writing of it was scary in that it's such a different tone, but I think the story was always so strong that that left me feeling exciting and proud. And then Maya's directing and writing, everything took it to a level that for me was mind-blowing. I'm usually on set constantly. With this episode, I was never on set. So I didn't know what the result was going to be because I wasn't there for the first time in all the seasons.
ERSKINE: That's true, you weren't there every day.
KONKLE: So to watch it come together when the director's cut came in, I was blown away!
ERSKINE: That's very nice. The episode has taken so many shapes in my mind, the first intention was to be telling this story from a different perspective: You want to see your mom not as a mom, as a person. Who is Yuki as a person outside of Maya's tunnel vision? Being able to experience that in life while I was directing her, I had that same experience of learning about my mother as a human being, as a person, and not seeing her as just my mom. That was a really humbling, eye-opening experience.
There's a version of this show that follows Maya and Anna through high school and even college. Why end it now?
ERSKINE: I think if each season they changed grades I would keep going with it. But we're sticking to the idea that they're in seventh grade forever. The whole conceit of the show is you're in this interminable hell forever and they can't escape seventh grade. But at the same time we wanted them to evolve, so this was sort of our three-chapter way of seeing that evolution of kid to teenager without having them actually go into those different grades. It's fun to leave it to the imagination of the audience members of "Who do they become?" I think this is where naturally the story ends for them.
KONKLE: Yeah, and I think too, so much of the show is autobiographical. We were only 13 for so long. It's something we've gone back and forth with, but it does feel like you just don't want to stretch the premise too thin and keep the integrity of the show.
ERSKINE: You don't want to jump the shark.
KONKLE: Yeah, so that's the main reason. We always say that if there's more that comes to us and feels like we genuinely have to tell those stories, we will. But it is scary trying to wrap my head around what's next. We came up with this 10 years ago. This has been a huge part of our lives. For this to be the first major writing endeavor, I've learned a lot. I just have to not be afraid of failing, because that's how Pen15 came to be.
ERSKINE: I know I'm going to fail after, and then that failure will hopefully lead to another thing. For now it's going to be a lot of misses.
Let's talk about the final scene: Why did you want to end it there?
ERSKINE: I always wanted it to end where you don't know if they're going to be friends forever or not, which sounds sad but I wanted that ambiguity of: There's this incredibly strong love here, and say they grow apart in 10 years or say they stay together until they die, nothing will take away how strong that love was and how impactful they were for each other. Because I've had both. I liked the idea of playing with that. We both agreed that we didn't want to say exactly one way or another, but we wanted to honor their friendship.
KONKLE: I think it struck a balance of all the different things. We both dreamed of other, bigger endings and then decided ultimately to stay in the simplicity of the thing we'd created. There are a lot of right ways it could've gone, but I like that we step out of reality for a second and still hit that note of: What is their future? They fantasize and go into a child's mentality of what their future will be that we all know as adults isn't accurate. That was heartbreaking to film because you feel that loss, acting as a kid being like, "We're going to live in the clouds and I'm going to take you to the doctor." That was one of the hardest scenes to film for that reason, but that scene really means a lot to me.
ERSKINE: It also ends where we started in the first season, in your bedroom.
KONKLE: Yeah, we wanted to go back to the beginning.