Perhaps THE most important thing to know about season 3 of Sex Education? Otis’s (Asa Butterfield) moustache doesn’t stick around for more than an episode. And thank goodness for that; my spirit could not have borne more of that lifeless lip-caterpillar. Why do wispy moustaches often look so creepy? That’s rhetorical. Only our guts know the answer.
Anyway, mous-takes aside, this season of Sex Education does not disappoint. In fact, it may be the best one yet. The thing that really stands out in the writing and storytelling is exactly how much respect the show’s creators have for the teenage characters. Maybe that sounds like a funny thing to say about a series with a scene featuring mega-poo clogging a bus toilet, then being fished out with a sock-covered hand, and—in an attempt to conceal the fetid evidence—getting flung out the window where it sails straight onto a…
You know what? To protect you from getting smacked broadside with a spoiler, we’re going to leave the poo suspended mid-flight for now. My point is that the series accepts these characters as they are—raunchy, horny, confused, intelligent, frightened, angry, lost, short-sighted, and, yes, poo-filled—meets them where they are, and respects and celebrates their strengths and weaknesses. To me, one of the stand out messages of this season is: Woe be to the adults who don’t respect, listen to, and include adolescents in their decision-making and attempts to make change. It’s a message I’d very much like to broadcast far and wide to the adults of the non-fictional universe as well.
We pick back up with our Sex School fiends, I mean, friends, at the end of summer. Otis has been spending his time secretly smashing with Ruby (Mimi Keene). He’d be more than happy to share the news far and wide, but she’d prefer to keep their affair strictly off the books, mostly so Anwar (Chaneil Kular) and Olivia (Simone Ashley) don’t find out. Otis most certainly enjoys the sex with Ruby, but it’s possible he’s also using her to distract himself from Maeve (Emma Mackey) and their ongoing non-friendship. He’s convinced himself that he’s just done with meddling in other people’s lives, and that’s the reason he shut down the sex clinic—even though the students of Moordale High still desperately need his advice. Also it’s pretty damn obvious his advice freeze has more to do with avoiding Maeve at all costs than anything else. Basically, it’s all about Maeve for Otis.
And what about Maeve? She’s living in the caravan park by herself while her younger sister stays with a foster family and her mother, maybe, gets her shit together. Meanwhile, Maeve has developed a routine of sorts with Isaac (George Robinson) and his brother Joe (George Somner). It involves toast, jam, and a lot of flirting with Isaac for breakfast—who she still doesn’t know kept Otis’s declaration of love from her—usually followed by more flirting after school. Isaac is paralyzed below the waist and has limited use of his hands and arms, but his disability is not, and this may stun you, his sole character trait. He’s kind, sarcastic, shy, nervous, jealous, and eager to impress Maeve. You know, the actual full range of human emotions. Plus, he’s not infantilized when he needs assistance doing things like cooking a special dinner. Maeve also clearly has the hots for him and there’s a great scene when they finally give in to their obvious horniness for each other. He carefully explains how and where he likes to be touched in a way that is both vulnerable and electrifying. All too often it’s assumed that disabled people are incapable of or uninterested in having sex, so the visibility of a disabled actor in sexually charged love scene like this feels important and necessary. In addition to just being a very good plotline.
Meanwhile, Aimee (Aimee Lou Woods) is still processing the trauma of the sexual assault that happened on the public bus. She finds it hard to engage in any kind of sex with a partner, but she is able to throw herself fully into educating herself and others about labia and all their “waggly bits.” She and Steve (Chris Jenks), in an effort to save their floundering relationship, get a commitment goat to bring them closer together. I love Aimee and her absolutely unadvisable ideas. In a much more advisable idea, she starts to see Jean for actual therapy, where she also learns more about vulvas.
Adam (Connor Swindells) and Eric (Ncuti Gatwa) have spent the summer happily ensconced in doing all the sex things except sex—of course Otis is quick to remind him that virginity is just a social construct—but Eric just really wants to do the actual deed, so Otis and his social constructs can fuck off. Meanwhile, Eric is also gearing up for a big trip to Nigeria for a family wedding that will open his eyes about how the wider world sees homosexuality and about himself. Adam is still floundering and doesn’t feel secure in himself, which is probably why he can’t seem to find a way to come out to his parents. Obviously, I won’t give away too much about what happens to him this season, but I did love where he ends up and just the small ways the show shifts the whole Adam Groff perspective. This isn’t a change heralded with high kicks and marquee lights. No, it’s just a line of poetry so vulnerable that it leaves your throat a little raw. And it’s a win for Adam so pure and well-earned that maybe your shriveled heart swells three sizes for this fictional boy you absolutely hated not twenty-four episodes ago. Dear Commitment Goat, this show is so good!
You see? This is what I mean about respect for the characters and their plights and meeting them where they are! I mean, even Kyle (Jojo Macari) has a moment of humanity and understanding on a battlefield memorial in France. (He is high on mushrooms, but that’s just true to the character.) Kyle! The guy who lights the crotch of his jeans on fire in the middle of the school hallway, among many other ill-advised pursuits.
It can’t all be boinking and butterfly-like metamorphosis for the entire season, of course. When new Head Teacher, Hope Haddon (Jemima Kirke) shows up, the students are initially taken with her folksy charm. She struts on stage to music! She says they can call her Hope instead of Ms. Haddon! She was once a student at Mooredale like them! Those were the best years of her life! (That’s a giant red flag!) She has most of the students nodding along with her initial speech while I was waving my arms at home trying to telepathically let them know that they should not look directly into her eyes because it was a trap and they would be turned to stone. Turns out Hope’s job is to rid Mooredale of its “Sex School” reputation and ensure that the investors don’t pull out. (Ha! Sex pun most assuredly intended.) Instead of, say, engaging the students in an open and honest dialogue, she wants to solve their perceived problems by imposing norms upon them.
She tries to get Jackson (Kedar Williams-Stirling), who is now head boy, and others to act as moles, reporting on their fellow students’ nefarious activities. She enacts a series of more and more severe regulations without warning or explanation—lines dividing the hallway; razing the derelict bathrooms used by everyone for various covert needs; drab, soul crushing uniforms; banning multicolored hair—that are designed to drain the students of agency and individuality. Watching Lily (Tanya Reynolds) be slowly drained of her zany weirdness is particularly affecting. When faced with a new self-assured non-binary student named Cal (Dua Saleh), who refuses to accept that they must use the girls’ changing rooms or wear a body-concious uniform, Hope triples down on her authoritarian approach, which you can feel in your bones will eventually help to foment a revolution.
(Cal reminds me that there is just so, so much in this season that I want to talk about, but there is really not enough space or time and there are (in all fairness to you) too many spoilers. But let me just say that the introduction of several non-binary characters this season is quite welcome. As is the relationship that develops between Cal and Jackson over the course of the season. And as a very much non-sequitur that might make sense if you watch the season, I absolutely love when Viv’s (Chinenye Ezeudu) boyfriend shows up at the end. Because, damn!)
Hope is far from the only adult this season seriously fuck things up. Jean (Gillian Anderson) is pregnant, but can’t get up the nerve to tell Jakob (Mikael Persbrandt), so she drives past his work every day until he finally catches her. Jakob has trust issues so big you could drive three of his adorable little plumber’s vans through them, but he doesn’t want to talk about them.
Michael Groff (Alistair Petrie) is unemployed but trying to trick everyone into believing he is actually employed (spoiler: it’s not working) and trying to be just as uptight as ever, but at the same time needing to ask for help from people, which really doesn’t work. You know? Let me say, though, that when you’ve watched someone be a complete stick-up-their-ass jackass for three seasons, seeing them let loose and enjoy themself doing something as simple as making a pie can be kind of transformative. It goes without saying that adults have as much to learn from the teenagers as the teenagers do from the adults—if not even more. Yes, the adults have the wisdom of experience, but I think the teenagers are ahead of them on the concept of open communication, and accepting the people they care about as they are with all their naked idiosyncrasies and freak flags flying.
Many cliffs are left hanging at the end of this season, and who knows what direction everything will take next season. What I do know is that I will be looking forward to wrapping myself up in the euphoric, brilliant, magical world of Sex Education again as soon as possible.