“Sex Education”: a mixed bag of captivating and cringey

This season sees actors make the most of absurd storylines

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A young adult man, dressed in a school uniform, sitting on a bus in a slouched position
Adam Groff’s character development is most apparent. Image courtesy of Netflix

By: Meera Eragoda, Editor-in-Chief

Content warning: mention of sexual assault in paragraph four

Sex Education returned to Netflix on September 17, 2021 for yet another comedic and, of course, sex-filled season. But it’s becoming a mixed bag of hoaky writing and great acting. The opening of this season sees Moordale High’s dynamic sex-advice duo Otis (Asa Butterfield) and Maeve (Emma Mackey) still not talking. The show also introduces new Umbridge-esque headteacher Hope Haddon (Jemima Kirke) who, in a storyline more fitting to a show set in the 1950s or earlier, attempts to rebrand the school and distance it from its “sex school” image.

Hope’s repression of sex means the show focuses a little less on it than previous seasons and more on the emotional and romantic aspects of the characters. The Peak previously wrote about season one falling into common YA tropes and season three finally sees a subversion of these, allowing characters to grow beyond their stereotypes.

The biggest development is evident in Adam Groff’s (Connor Swindells) journey to reconcile with his newly discovered sexuality and unlearn the toxic masculinity he’s been taught. Adam’s storyline is treated very tenderly, capturing the nuance and uncertainty of coming out. However, while Adam’s touching vulnerability and attempt at poetry is meant to endear the viewer, the show does this at the expense of Eric (Ncuti Gatwa).

From season one, Eric’s storyline has never been given the same amount of care as other characters. While season three continues Aimee’s storyline — reckoning with sexual assault and the long-lasting impact it can have — the show does not extend the same compassion to Eric. Season one saw him get physically assaulted while in drag, the repercussions of which were barely touched on. As Jason Okundaye writes for Dazed, “Sex Education [failed] to truly hold Otis accountable for leaving his friend alone and vulnerable, [missing] a vital opportunity to document how straight and/or white ‘allies’ can and must do better to protect their Black and queer friends from harm.”

Season two’s last episode showed Eric getting together with his bully, Adam, and season three kicks off with them together. This blurring of the lines between abuse and love normalizes it, overlooking the harm this message can cause. While I certainly appreciate Adam’s growth, it could have been done away from Eric. Sex Education unintentionally reproduces the differing treatment both white queer men and white women receive compared to Black men — a likely side effect of a lack of Black writers on the show.

The season doesn’t disappoint in every aspect though, giving us its first non-binary person of colour Cal, played by non-binary actor Dua Saleh. Through Cal, the show captures the reality of living in a binary society and having to largely advocate for yourself. Sex Education also acknowledges tokenization and the divide and conquer tactics used by institutions to separate people, but this could have been explored further. For instance, there’s a scene where Cal notices they are being pit against another non-binary student. However, Cal is Black and the other student is white and those multiple oppressions are never acknowledged.

Some of the storylines in the show, such as Hope’s arc and the trip the students take to France, feel like they were a desperate stretch, born out of a lack of inspiration in the writer’s room. To their credit, the actors portrayed their roles in engaging and charismatic ways despite the weak writing — Gatwa and Swindells, specifically, are always a joy to watch on screen.

While classic quirks like vagina cupcakes and alien sex are still around, it feels like the show is dragging on a bit.