Sunday night’s Emmy Awards were, on the whole, kind of a snooze: few major upsets, no red-carpet scandals, a whole lot of adult women dressed like valentines. That’s not to say there weren’t memorable moments, from Michelle Williams’s powerful pay-equity speech to Billy Porter becoming the first openly gay black man to win the Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama award, but on the whole, things went pretty much as expected.
One aspect of the ceremony that critics called early was the near-total domination of Fleabag; Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s dark comedy earned Emmys for Outstanding Writing in a Comedy, Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series, and the big one: Outstanding Comedy Series. Waller-Bridge’s wins were 1,000% deserved, and it was beyond exciting to see a show about women’s complex, often-messy interior lives rewarded with TV’s highest honor. Still, Fleabag’s win for Outstanding Writing in a Comedy broke my heart a little bit, because its success was Pen15’s loss.
To be fair, Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle’s Hulu series isn’t an obvious candidate for an Emmy winner; it’s the definition of “small-scale,” set in a suburban middle school and featuring Erskine and Konkle as tween versions of themselves (surrounded by real-life tweens, which provides an extra layer of hilarity by recalling the uneven torment of junior-high growth spurts). While Pen15 garnered rave reviews from the likes of The New Yorker, it wasn’t a Game of Thrones–style smash hit: no dragons, no wild sex, just an achingly accurate presentation of what it felt like to be a girl in early-aughts America.
The episode that Pen15 was nominated for, “Anna Ishii-Peters,” is perhaps the greatest example of what Pen15 is good at: excavating emotions from the tweenage years that have lain dormant for so long, but still feel painfully acute when they’re resurrected onscreen. While plenty of Pen15’s episodes dwell on expected topics like boys and cliques and AIM screennames, “Anna Ishii-Peters” is superb because it eschews typical after-school-special territory to focus on the raw nerve of family dynamics—and when you’re 13, what could possibly be more elemental or important than how you get along with your family?
Pen15 is, at its core, a study of the total, deranged platonic love that can exist between young women, and “Anna Ishii-Peters” starts out on that note, with Anna and Maya exultantly discussing their upcoming school-day sleepover in tones normally reserved for poring over the details of a recent lottery win. But Maya is about to experience the phenomenon of having her family seemingly like her BFF more than they like her (whom can relate?). Anna is the definition of a good guest; she clears the table, actually likes the Japanese food that Maya’s mom cooks, scats with Maya’s dad, and even has the audacity to bond with Maya’s older brother Shuji over...disgusting bodily functions. Maya is left out, and her resentment is palpable; all of a sudden, the family she resents and the heritage she denies hold value, and she doesn’t quite know what to do about it.
As I watched “Anna Ishii-Peters,” I felt myself responding as a tween, not as an adult (why does Anna get to use the phone during dinner—just because she’s a guest?). I was Maya, banished to her room and ostentatiously messaging my AIM boyfriend, but I was also Anna, desperate to find a toehold in a more stable family while hers is on the brink of dissolving. When, in the episode’s final moment, Anna can’t reach Maya and calls a popular classmate instead to process her parents’ divorce, I teared up, remembering the almighty importance of my own tween friendship dramas back when the world was no bigger than the distance from my house to my best friend’s.
There are other brilliant episodes in Pen15’s first season—“Posh,” in particular, stands out as a deep-dive into casual racism—but “Anna Ishii-Peters” nails the quiet, universal agony of feeling like you don’t belong, whether in your family or within a friendship, and the episode’s cliffhanger packs as much of an emotional punch as anything I’ve seen on a prestige drama. The show is bittersweet precisely because older viewers know how complex female friendships can get: The truth is that Anna and Maya are unlikely to stay each other’s “rainbow gel pen[s] in a sea of blue and black writing utensils” forever, not when periods and divorces and all the difficulties of adult life are still on the horizon.
While Fleabag pitch-perfectly portrays the loneliness of being a woman on her own in the world, Pen15 goes back in time to explore the coexistent suffocation and solace of being one half of a whole. The writing of “Anna Ishii-Peters” nails the itchy discomfort of growing up and wanting out, only to want back in when the world proves too scary. Luckily, the show has been renewed for a second season, so maybe we’ll get to watch Erskine and Konkle take the Emmys stage next year. Until then, at least we have the entire, near-perfect first season on Hulu.
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Originally Appeared on Vogue