Netflix’s droll, witty, refreshingly honest tale of teen sexcapades returns for more insight and warmth.
Late in Sex Education’s sophomore season, lovable space weirdo Lily (Tanya Reynolds) is about to have sex with her girlfriend when she suddenly recoils in pain. Her girlfriend is concerned: did she do something wrong? Should they stop? “It’s not you, it’s me,” Lily explains. Lily has vaginismus, which makes penetration excruciating. It’s not that she doesn’t want sex, or doesn’t want it with her girlfriend; it’s just that sex hurts.
If season one of creator/showrunner Laurie Nunn’s teen sex comedy was about communication in relationships, this new batch of episodes is about how those relationships can cause us pain. No matter how good we may be at expressing feelings and establishing boundaries, those feelings and boundaries can still come into conflict. In this season, characters confront desires that they know will hurt the people they love, but which they must pursue for the sake of their own happiness. Love hurts, but we choose to love anyway. Season two sees our beloved characters grapple with the fallout of that choice.
Firstly, we have Otis (Asa Butterfield), whose relationship with his mother Jean (Gillian Anderson) is even more foregrounded this season than in the last: in a Riverdale-esque twist of absurdism, Jean has begun dating handyman hunk Jakob (Mikael Persbrandt), who is still very much the father of Otis’ new girlfriend Ola (Patricia Allison). This strain on the mother-son relationship is only compounded when Jean takes up residence as a sex-ed curriculum consultant at Moordale, inadvertently replacing her son as the student body’s go-to sexpert and continuing her streak of invading Otis’ boundaries.
With Jean stealing all of Otis’ clients, the first season’s patient-of-the-week structure almost immediately dissipates. Instead, Otis enacts the role of client much of the time, as he puts theory to practice in his newfound relationship. It’s a welcome contrast to last season when Otis routinely counseled other people despite having zero real-world sexual experience himself. Here, we get to see him learn from others and even take his own advice as he explores who he is as a romantic and sexual being.
The rest of season one’s main trio are back as well, of course. Sunny Eric (Ncuti Gatwa), newly confident in himself after the trials of last season, gains a new romantic interest; meanwhile, independent Maeve (Emma Mackey) is dealing with lingering feelings for Otis and the reappearance of her newly sober mother (Anne-Marie Duff). But with the dismantling of the first season’s centralized format, Sex Education opens up into a huge ensemble show involving almost every character we’ve met at Moordale and beyond. As Nunn takes full advantage of the relationships, storylines, and personalities her writing team built across the first season, Maeve and Eric’s plotlines become just two among many – and that’s not a bad thing.
One of the highlights to come out of this expansion is Aimee (Aimee Lou Wood), Maeve’s bubbly best friend who this season shoulders a nuanced #MeToo plot. After being sexually assaulted on a bus early in the season, Aimee struggles to articulate and address her trauma, her anxiety building until it disrupts not only her sex life but also her ability to function in public at all. Sex Education is known for its wholesome and upbeat attitude, so this comes as one of the season’s darker turns where content is concerned.
Love hurts, but we choose to love anyway.
That’s why it also comes as one of the season’s bigger feats when Nunn and her crew deftly navigate the fallout of Aimee’s assault without breaking the tone of the show. Wood nails the balance between Aimee’s cheerful facade and the confused terror beneath it, and Ben Taylor’s direction of her story’s resolution is such a sweet demonstration of community and love that I couldn’t help but grin all the way through it. I’m still tearing up writing this. Aimee is that good this season.
But the show’s biggest standout by far is Adam (Connor Swindells), who finds himself adrift and sexually confused following last season’s transformation from blockhead bully to possible love interest for Eric. As Adam (whom I have nicknamed Sad-am) feels increasingly rejected by society, he finds himself longing for something, anything, to belong to or feel good about. He doesn’t know what he wants, and he’s terrified that voicing the queer desires he does have will invite further rejection.
One of my qualms this season is the heavy reliance on love triangles, but the contrast between Adam’s down-low survival strategy and Eric’s boyfriend Rahim’s (Sami Outalbali) unapologetic directness provides a genuinely interesting dynamic by which Adam’s insecurities are measured. Swindells brings his absolute best to this version of the character, breaking my heart every time he resigns himself to having fucked something up with a tiny, thought-suppressing nod. In a show so heavily driven by immersion in the world of Moordale, the fact that my favorite plotline featured a character who spends most of his time outside of the school is a testament to the craftsmanship involved.
There are, of course, a plethora of other things I could point out about why Sex Education remains one of my favorite Netflix shows. Despite the more serious content this season, the overall tone remains upbeat and hilarious, lending a continued reprieve to traditional stories about teenage sex. Like most Netflix shows, it’s fun to look at, with a poppy palette of primary colors that imbues Moordale with a classic John Hughes-y feel. Matt Biffa’s music supervision remains on point, with classic-but-not-overplayed pop and rock choices that blend seamlessly into Nunn’s world.
Season two also continues to educate as much as it entertains, with the introduction of ace, bi, and pan characters as well as the active normalization of subjects ranging from vaginismus to mutual masturbation to tentacle fetish (and that’s all just in Lily’s arc!). As one student notes about Jean: “I fucked some warm fruit, and she said I wasn’t weird.” If that’s not Sex Education for you, I don’t know what is.
But the switch to ensemble storytelling also has its drawbacks. With so many balls in the air, it’s tricky to give each character enough room to breathe while still getting emotional arcs where they need to go. As a result, more than a few plot developments end up feeling forced, especially in the back half of the season. The Jean plot suffers the most from this, and I never felt fully invested in the conceit of her role as Moordale’s sex-ed researcher. The choice to rip a literal page from Mean Girls for the season’s climax ultimately feels like an escalation that happens just to move the chess pieces around.
“I fucked some warm fruit, and she said I wasn’t weird.” If that’s not Sex Education for you, I don’t know what is.
Additionally, while Sex Education is incredibly wholesome where representation is concerned, with two seasons now under its belt I find myself surprised by the gaps that remain. Season 2 introduces the first fat character with any real screen time, but the show sidesteps every opportunity to feature Viv (Chinenye Ezeudu) in a romantic or sexual context. Similarly, the utter lack of trans or genderqueer characters is deeply puzzling, given the show’s penchant for addressing complicated negotiations of sex, love, and attraction.*
Sex Education season 2 presents itself as a different beast from its predecessor. Across eight jam-packed episodes, this new permutation has different strengths and weaknesses from season one. But it proves without a doubt that it has the same heart as the show we fell in love with last year. It’s comforting to live for a while in a world whose inhabitants’ core values are being honest with each other and helping each other grow. And while that honesty can be painful at times, Sex Education reminds us that pain — just like love — is part of what makes us human.
*For a stellar example of an equally horny show that does address those conversations, watch Work in Progress on Showtime.
Sex Education puts on another series of sensual salons on Netflix; season 2 premieres January 17th.