Growth is a group project: Thoughts on Sex Education (season 3)

(image courtesy IMP Awards)

As series accumulate seasons, they either go one of three ways.

They either keep going solidly, and too often stolidly on a BAU basis, or keep trying to push the boundaries until all resemblance to the first season iteration is lost, or, and this is where the nuanced, emotionally-rich brilliance that is Sex Education sits, you take the heart and soul of the show and build assiduously and affectingly around it, creating in the process a show that keeps it soul while growing and developing even more profoundly good than it was before.

The third season has just debuted in full (eight episodes in total) – Netflix, unlike Disney+ and Apple TV+ is sticking to its iconic binge model – and it is clear as you watch the beautifully and thoughtfully crafted stories that form an impressively immersive narrative arc throughout, that the show has retained the sass and cheeky pushing that made it so popular in the first place, and combined it with the emerging insightfulness and poignantly expressed emotional resonance that had begun to make its presence more fully felt in the second season.

Season three is in many ways the perfect distillation of season 2’s trend towards more mature storytelling.

While the kids of Moordale Secondary School are still very much front and centre in the show, the writing has also allowed more time to be given to the older members of the cast, some of whom like ex-head teacher Michael Groff (Alistair Petrie) were little more than cardboard cutout ogres for the kids to rail against in the first season.

They are from that now.

Groff, for instance, has become a fully three-dimensional character with perhaps with one of the most achingly sad arcs of any character, and that’s saying something in a show that is not afraid to keep things light and in your face, especially when it comes to things of a sexual nature, as he navigates the loss of his job, his wife Maureen (Samantha Spiro) who assumes her own greater prominence in the narrative, and son Adam (Connor Swindells) who has gone from straight bully and tormentor of out and flamboyantly proud gay teenager Eric Effiong (Ncuti Gatwa).

At the same time he is also grappling with the dawning realisation that much of the sorry state of his life can be sheeted home to his bullying elder brother Peter (Jason Isaacs) who made his life hell and doomed Michael to a life of emotional repression and acting as a cruel distillation of his demeaning authoritarian father.

(image courtesy IMP Awards)
(image courtesy IMP Awards)

His arc is emblematic of a third season that continues to uphold the right of people, especially just beginning to deal with the bewildering complexities of life, with life as it actually is and not as conservative ideologues or anyone else with a particular line to push, thinks it should be.

Groff spends the eight episodes of the show coming brutally and yet tenderly face-to-face with the state of his life as it actually is, something that happens to a great many other characters in an vast ensemble show that seems adroitly able to be able to juggle a slew of interlocking storylines without once doing a disservice to any of them.

Maeve Wiley (Emma Mackey), one of the two key characters in Sex Education, along with the other half of the will-they-won’t-they couple at the heart of the show, Otis Milburn (Asa Butterfield) is proof of how well the show writes all of the many characters that populate its rich and engaging narrative.

Maeve is a highly-intelligent young woman with the world at her feet if only she could get past her loving but wildly inconsistent junkie mother (Anne Marie Duff), her trailer park home and her own self doubt about her clearly evident (well, to everyone else) abilities.

Her story, like those of Otis, Ola (played by Patricia Allison), his stepsister (and ex-girlfriend; look, it’s complicated OK with Otis’s unconventional sex therapist mum, Jean, played by Gillian Anderson, and Ola’s handyman dad, played by Mikael Persbrandt, finally getting together for *spoiler!* reasons), Otis’s bestie Eric, Adam, and a host of others like Lily (Tanya Reynolds) and mean girl Ruby (Mimi Keene), is made all the richer by the show’s dual willingness to make them fully-formed characters from the get-go but then to let them grow and develop in ways that stay true to who they are but which also reflect that everyone changes fast in their formative years.

Ruby, interestingly, is one of the characters who goes through the most dramatic transformation.

Nothing more than mean girl punchline in the first season, along with Anwar Bakshi (Chaneil Kular and Olivia Hanan (Simone Ashley), Ruby comes very much into her own in the third season as she dates Otis – yes, one of the nerdiest and yet most caring and thoughtful kids in the school – and we are taken behind the curtains of her brutalist persona to see the vulnerable person who lurks behind.

She is a brilliant example of the show’s ability to take what was built at the start and to make it infinitely richer, something which happens to the alien-believing gorgeously idiosyncratic Lily, onetime swimming superstar and head boy Jackson Marchetti (Kedar Williams-Stirling) and Aimee Gibbs (Aimee Lou Wood) who are all allowed to grow and change in ways that make sense to their characters and which give the show the chance to explore issues like sexual assault, bullying, social ostracisation and self-determination.

(image courtesy IMP Awards)
(image courtesy IMP Awards)

Sex Education is in many ways message heavy, never more so than when highly conservative new head teacher Hope Haddon (Jemima Kirke), who herself has a marvelously nuanced backstory that turns her from obvious villain to flawed antagonist, tries to remake the most renegade, sex friendly of schools into a learning institution pleasing to risk averse investors, and discovers what happens when kids who have been taught to express themselves by teachers like Emily Swati Sands (Rakhee Thakrar) and Colin Ray Hendricks (Jim Howick), decide to definitely and decisively express themselves.

What makes the show less polemic obsessed and more organically socially incisive is that it lets the characters and subtle but meaningful narrative momentum, drive the delivery of these messages, with sanity and emotional balance emerging from life stories that are never forced or manipulative but organic and affectingly authentic.

Hence, when it tackles queer sexual diversity through the dual characters of Cal Bowman (Dua Saleh) and Layla (Robyn Holdaway) it doesn’t feel like some sort forced wokeness being shoved to the front of a dense but always accessible storyline, but a touchingly real exploration of what it is like for non-binary young people coming to terms with the fact that they are not even close to fitting very narrow mainstream ideals.

The same dynamic applies to the character of Vivienne Odusanya (Chineye Ezeudu) who initially looks like an overly ambitious sellout as she takes over the position of head student from Jackson but who emerges, through some gloriously well-nuanced storytelling, as someone from the relatively wrong side of the tracks who has to do what she can do realise her life goals and to Maeve’s short-lived disabled boyfriend Isaac (George Robinson) who is presented as some who knows his worth and is willing to stand up for it in ways that ring true at every point.

Vivienne particularly is, like all the characters, beautifully and thoughtfully well-rounded, imbuing Sex Education with a character-driven aesthetic that grants its a real richness of storytelling and which allows it to be bother winningly grounded and audaciously out there, the two dynamics sitting very comfortably in a third season that wins your heart over very quickly.

It is well nigh impossible not to care deeply and with real attachment for all these characters, especially Maeve and Otis, who sits at the heart of the show without dominating it, and to mourn the passing of eight, supremely satisfying episodes, simply because this is brilliantly insightful, thoughtful, richly human storytelling at its very best that knows how to say something important but to do it with a cheeky sense of fun, a heart in all the right places and a soul that knows the value of a person and is willing to fight for it in every way that counts.

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