In the new season, Sex Education‘s characters wrestle with regressive sexual politics and communication issues.
The third season of Laurie Nunn’s raunchy, teen dramedy Sex Education kicks off with a montage of the characters engaging in all sorts of sexual activities—some with their partners, some with their secret lovers, and some with themselves. For a show that’s always had a positive attitude when it comes to sex, it’s a fitting choice. However, Sex Education has never been just about hormones and horniness. Since its first season, the show has also proven to be a charming, often heartfelt look at adolescence. In season three, it remains committed to that approach.
Since we last saw the kids of Moordale, their entire summer has passed. Otis (Asa Butterfield), having experienced his first heartbreak because of Maeve (Emma Mackey), now engages in a no-strings-attached sexual relationship with the most popular girl in school, Ruby (Mimi Keene). While she’s enjoying it, she also wants it to stay secret because Otis fails to meet her standards for cool. This new dynamic between the two characters takes center stage for the first half of Season 3.
It’s not exactly something we haven’t seen before, but it allows Nunn and her writers to give Ruby a more compelling arc. In the first two seasons, Ruby occupied the role of a Regina George-esque figure. This time out, the show offers insight into Ruby’s family background—at home, she has to take care of her dad by herself, making her a more empathetic character. And this allows Keene to play with more dramatic materials, a task she accomplishes effortlessly. Her sassy and hysteric turn is still a scene-stealer, of course. However, it’s now paired with moments of emotion and heartbreak that earn your empathy.
While Otis explores a new kind of relationship, Maeve spends a big chunk of this season focusing on other matters. First, there’s a new academic opportunity in the US. However, even that pales in comparison to her half-sister Elsie’s change in living situation, after social services removed Elsie from their mom’s (Anne-Mare Duff) care last season.
These stressors sideline the will-they-won’t-they dynamic with Otis for most of the first half of the season. But the tension remains. Both Butterfield and Mackey — who gives the best performance this season — play well in that space. They’re able to show the animosity between their characters without eliminating the tenderness underneath. You can’t help but root for them to be together.
Meanwhile, Otis’ best friend, Eric (Ncuti Gatwa), openly dates Adam (Connor Swindells), his former bully. This season shows them trying (and struggling) to discover themselves as a new couple. Sex Education came in for some criticism regarding Adam and Eric’s relationship in the previous season—and understandably so. For a show that’s always been progressive, having a storyline about a queer kid falling in love with his former bully is a bit problematic. That the show has made little attempt to explore each characters’ motivations made matters worse.
The show may focus mainly on characters still in high school, but it sure does have the wisdom of an adult.
Though the writers provide Adam with more depth this season, the show still does a poor job of making Adam and Eric’s relationship make sense. We still don’t know what attracts Eric to Adam. There’s simply no storyline that illustrates how these two characters fall for each other. Swindells’s muted performance and lack of chemistry with Gatwa certainly does not help either.
While Sex Education falls short in one queer relationship, it proves more adept with another. Otis’ ex-girlfriend, Ola (Patricia Allison), is now with the quirky, alien-obsessed Lily (Tanya Reynolds). Like Eric and Adam, the two are still trying to figure themselves out as a couple. Ola wants to please her girlfriend by always saying yes regardless of how she truly feels. When she can no longer pretend, her resurgent honesty affects their relationship.
So much of what happens in this season is about communication issues. Aimee (the outstanding Aimee Lou Wood), still reeling from the sexual assault that happened to her last season, refuses to open up to her partner Steve (Chris Jenks) about how she still needs time to heal. Otis’ mom Jean Milburn (Gillian Anderson)–now pregnant with Olla’s father Jakob (Mikael Persbrandt)—faces similar struggles with expressing herself. Through all these storylines, Sex Education shows how communication is a key in maintaining relationships. It argues that even if the truth may be uncomfortable at times, it’s still a lot better than lying and pretending.
The show may focus mainly on characters still in high school, but it sure does have the wisdom of an adult. In season three, Sex Education matures further by placing its progressive view on sex in opposition to a more regressive viewpoint. Following the news of the chlamydia outbreak at Moordale High, a new headteacher — ironically named Hope (Jemima Kirke) — arrives to repair the school’s reputation. Before long, her very conservative mindset clashes with the students. She shuts down Otis’ sex clinic, brings a new SRE curriculum with a lecture about abstinence, and even mandates the students to wear uniforms.
When a new non-binary character Cal (played by non-binary artist Dua Saleh), tries to rebel by wearing trousers instead of a skirt, Hope punishes them. This storyline can be unpleasant to sit through at times, but it’s actually where the show is at its most relevant. Ultimately, the season points out how harmful regressive sexual and identity thinking is, especially to the queer community. What’s remarkable here is how even though the topic is serious, Education tackles it without losing its humor and charm.
This season of Sex Education may still not succeed at the whole Eric and Adam storyline, and at times, all the plotlines of side characters make the show a bit hectic. But for the most part, it remains charming and heartfelt and even grows more mature as it goes on. No show currently on TV is as progressive as Sex Education. That makes it a gem.
Sex Education Season 3 calls class to session this Friday, September 17th on Netflix.
Sex Education Season 3 Trailer: