For aging millennials, PEN15 can feel like a time capsule for both early 2000s culture and middle school trauma. The show’s music and costumes — from puka shell necklaces to prized Tommy Hilfiger shirts — transport viewers of a certain age back to an era when crushes were gossiped about on AIM instead of iPhones.
But while the cultural and technological references may only make sense to some, other elements of the middle school experience PEN15 explores are universal: the consuming emotion of first crushes, the awkward shame of puberty, and — most prominently this season — the existence of seemingly sweet but secretly scheming interlopers who look to insert themselves into friendships like parasites and bring them down from the inside.
“A hill I am willing to die on: you either had a Maura or were a Maura,” one viewer tweeted.
As the second season of PEN15 debuted on Hulu earlier this month, the new character of Maura (Ashlee Grubbs) has stirred a bunch of online chatter — and repressed memories — for many reflecting on their middle school experience.
Maura appeared in a two-episode arc in the middle of the season in which she slowly weasels her way into the friendship of Maya and Anna (creators Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle) by using her family’s wealth and her finely tuned gaslighting skills. Armed with a kitchen cupboard full of forbidden junk food, she hands out endless Ring Pop lollipops to kids in a sickly sweet attempt at bribing them to vote in their class superlatives contest for her, Anna, and Maya as “Best Best Friends.” A compulsive liar, she insists they’ve been best friends since they were 2 when really she’s known them for just two days.
Once she’s infiltrated the pair’s friendship, dazzling them with angora Kangol bucket hats and a fridge stocked with Powerade, she begins slowly pulling them apart, quietly hanging out more with Anna as she insults Maya’s clothes and mother, but always with the smile of someone who insists she loves you. “You guys are my number ones,” she insists. “Love you, fools.”
Rebecca Shaw, a comedian in Australia, tweeted with a hint of lived experience that Maura was one of the top five villains in TV history. She told BuzzFeed News that PEN15 perfectly captures the nuances of how a bully can operate within a friend group.
“I think it’s because we most often get depictions of bullies at school being the hot popular girls who are just straight-up mean, so it’s very black and white,” Shaw said. “But there’s girls like Maura who are manipulative, who make you care about them, and make you think they care about you, who are then in a perfect position to be able to absolutely ruin you emotionally.
“Every beat and note of her character felt true — and terrifying.”
All the attention is delighting actor Ashlee Grubbs. “For this to bring back memories for people just let me know I did it right,” she told BuzzFeed News in her first-ever interview. “It makes me so happy. It makes me so ridiculously happy.”
Grubbs, 15, said she’s been acting in plays since she was around 6 or 7, having developed a taste for drama when her babysitter got her a nonspeaking role in a local high school production of Into the Woods. She’s appeared onscreen a few times now, but PEN15 is her biggest and most complex role to date.
The 10th-grade student has just resumed online classes at her school in Las Vegas, where most recently she’s been studying Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. She said she sees parallels between Maura and Cassius, the manipulative instigator of that play’s assassination plot.
“I love villains so much, especially complex antagonists,” Grubbs said. “My favorite antagonist is the one that does things that are scary and terrifying, but you understand them and you understand why they’re doing it. I think that’s chilling. To play a complex villain like that is so fun.”
The young actor said she had firsthand experience with “toxic friends” like Maura, which she drew upon to bring the character to the screen: “You get all attached to this person and you think they’re super, super cool, and then you start to realize something isn’t right, but you don’t quite know because you’re not experienced enough to get that, but things start to feel weird, and they start playing with your emotions and all of a sudden it’s not fun anymore.”
Despite being just 15, Grubbs is able to break down her character’s motivations and psychological profile with all the expertise of a veteran actor. To her, Maura is just a desperately lonely only child who’s never been able to build real connections and instead puts on a facade and buys people over — skills she learned from her quesadilla-peddling mom.
“She’s trying to win people over and often the way she does that is she guilt-trips people, she makes them feel like they owe her something or they want to apologize because it makes her feel validated,” Grubbs said.
Maura’s manipulation is on full display at a sleepover her character hosts for the girls and two others as little by little she ratchets up the drama until she eventually wakes them all up at 4 a.m. to blame (correctly) a clogged toilet on Maya’s attempts at hiding her period. When Maya’s secret bloody wad of toilet paper lands like a grenade on the carpet and she is forced to own up to it, Maura comforts not her but Anna, having recognized a chance to make her believe she’s been the victim of Maya’s deception.
“She likes upsetting people indirectly through manipulating others,” Grubbs explained, “and making it look like it’s the others’ fault and then she’ll comfort the person who’s upset because she knows that’ll make them feel closer. It’s just another tactic to win them over.”
“She frankly doesn’t know how to keep a healthy friendship,” Grubbs said. “It’s really quite sad.”
While Maya and her mother start to see through Maura, it takes longer for Anna to discover the deception — perhaps, Grubbs believes, because she’s looking for easy connections with others as she tries to fill an emotional void created by her parents’ ongoing divorce. When Anna finally discovers the truth in a truly tense scene involving a magazine cutout, Maura lets out a bloodcurdling scream as she is restrained by her mom and swelling horror music plays.
“She’s had a lot of friendships and not one has worked out,” Grubbs said. “She’s always known it’s because of her, and every time she gets more and more desperate and her attempts get more and more frantic and she gets more clingy and codependent. She’s very desperate for a connection, and she can never figure out if she’s just herself then she’ll find someone who loves her.”
On set in Los Angeles in November, Grubbs said it was easy to form chemistry with Erskine and Konkle due to their uncanny ability to play 13-year-olds despite being in their early thirties. Often, she said, she forgot they were adults.
She’s glad the show and her character are resonating with people much older than her, but she hopes that other kids her age also sneak viewings of the adult comedy so they realize they’re not alone in navigating middle school drama — and manipulative characters like Maura.
“Even though it’s R-rated — and I can definitely see why it’s R-rated — I really wish 13-year-olds would watch it,” she said. “It’s kinda like a hug. Watching the show when you’re actually going through that makes you feel less alone.”