Sex Education : Season 3
Might contain spoilers.
This season starts out incredibly well before floundering. There’s always good even in the bad parts, but it just doesn’t hit the same highs after the opening.
What a stellar opening that is, though. The montage at the beginning is brilliant. Otis and Ruby
were great together in their last season; I was thrilled to see them in a
non-relationship, and just as shocked and overjoyed as Eric when Ruby openly kisses Otis.
Ruby herself has less of an edge compared to before, which I quite like—never mind how badly she
treats Otis initially, and how rude she is to him and everyone else—and Mimi Keene deserves an award
for her performance. Alongside Adam (more on that later), she’s the star of the season. Her love for
Otis is heartwarming. Their break-up is by far the most devastating, beautiful, and authentic scene
of the show. The words might be specific to the situation, but everything rings true: the way she
nurses her broken heart and avoids Otis; the pillow in her lap as a barrier; the distance between
them on the bed; the vulnerability on her face; his awkward attempts to be fair when she doesn’t
want to hear it; how she breaks when he says it and she can no longer deny it; his pointing out
they’ve only dated for a little while; her telling him she introduced him to her father as proof
that she loves him; his trying to say they should go on as they were, finally snapping her heart in
two as she responds that he should leave
for good… the accelerated timeline is all too
familiar. True to life, it was really over the moment he didn’t say he loves her back.
Ruby’s pain is on full display in the few moments she gets over the following episode, although Mimi Keene is mostly confined to heartbreaking glances: the show does a disservice to Ruby by practically erasing her from the story for the second half of the season. Her only notable reappearance (apart from being present for the big kiss) is the inexplicable sequence after episode 7’s disastrous performance when, for no apparent reason, she decides to follow Hope, physically fight her to keep the performance going, and disappear once again.
At least time brings perspective. Otis is Ruby’s first love. Her life will go on. She’ll have other loves too. I can remember now that there is life after a broken heart.
Meanwhile, this is, unsurprisingly, the sweetest Adam has ever been. His admission to Eric that he wants to be penetrated rather than to penetrate is disproportionately moving. So is his asking Ms. Sands to help him be better at school. His relationship with Eric—both the good and the bad—coaxes him out of his shell and, like his father, he begins to find out what he enjoys in life. It’s nice to have Ola be the person Adam can talk to; unexpected, but logical, and particularly nice when he speaks of her as a friend on the double date (even prompting Otis to reach out to her). Connor Swindells breaks my heart when his face simply crumbles after Eric breaks up with him. His joyous smile after the dog show in the finale is lovely.
I don’t like how much time the show wastes on developing Adam’s new friendship (of a sort) with the unfortunate Rahim. I loathed the disgusting subplot on the bus in episode 5 that cements their relationship. I wish all that time had been spent on something more interesting and rewarding instead, and less nauseating to boot.
I’m glad Eric is finding himself and develops a fulfilling relationship with Adam. I’m still not happy that this follows years of Adam tormenting him, but I suppose all we can change is the present. I don’t think I can dismiss his cheating as easily as the show wants to. He uses the fact that they feel differently about their sexuality as a deflection, but he transgresses in a predictable, significant manner, and never truly shows any remorse over it.
On a tangentially related note, I can’t imagine anyone except Ncuti Gatwa playing the role. His ability to unify Eric’s different aspects and his total mastery of code switching are the pillars on which the character rests. Even something relatively small in theory, like Eric dancing around as he tries on outfits and not quite stopping as he goes to see who’s at the window, is elevated by the performance.
Jean’s storyline is tolerable, I suppose.
I’m keeping this child and I feel empowered by that
choice, but you can choose to be involved or not doesn’t make a lick of sense. I can’t condone the
idea of having baby solely to continue being a mother, either—when she wonders whether she made a
mistake in keeping the baby, the answer is a resounding yes. I can’t believe how long she takes to
recognize that she and Jakob are strangers to each other. Meanwhile, the
mum, stop trying to
therapize me routine with Otis in episode 6 is a tedious repetition: their relationship is fraught,
she needs to stop therapizing him, and he isn’t a great son. We’ve seen all this before.
I used to find Jakob pleasant but bland. Season 3 lends him character, from his shock at the revelation that Jean is pregnant to his awkwardness and impatience with the therapy. The bit with the coffee machine in the fifth episode is a great spot of physical comedy in the midst of an unsympathetic stretch. His unfolding realization that he wants a paternity test is lovely: he clearly hates every word he says and hates himself for saying it, but can’t stop himself. I also like him solemnly reassuring Otis after he breaks up with Ruby that it was the right thing to do. Jakob opening up about his wife is sad and hopeful; his scene with Ola when Jean might be dying is blunt and nakedly saccharine, but effective and appropriate for their characters.
Lily and Ola’s storyline is sadly extraneous and uninteresting. Ola has for the most part regressed
to the placeholder of the first season, while Lily’s story meanders until it’s time for Hope to
impose stricter school policies, at which point she becomes the embodiment of the personality and
uniqueness the school loses in the attempt (and, to my bafflement, not a single person says the
obvious: there’s nothing
dirty about what she wrote). Watching her take down all her
things in the penultimate episode—after an animated opening sequence that holds nothing back—is
heartwrenching. Thank goodness Otis finally goes to talk to her, in a very well done scene.
No one wants to like Isaac after what he did at the end of the last season, but you sort of have to anyway, despite what he’s done (and in spite of the fact that his ‘heartfelt’ speeches are all rubbish). That’s the magic of this show. Him and Otis competing with each other when they go to ‘support’ Maeve as she speaks to the police about her mother abducting Elsie is a little forced. It’s not hard to swallow the self-centeredness of teenagers in love, but it’s too much to believe that the two of them would take it to such an extreme in such a situation.
The sex education class in episode 4 is hilarious, terrible, and insidious all at once, as are Anwar
and Olivia’s visits to the sexual health professional. Ruby’s subsequent horror as she shouts,
Not now, Otis, I need to protect my vagina… from your penis! had me in splits.
Hope Haddon is an excellent villain: imposing, a bit bizarre, extremely neurotic, very human, and very much the hero of her own story. Like Mr. Groff, she has demons to deal with, and in her eyes she’s always trying to do the right thing in the face of insurmountable odds. She doesn’t get anything akin to Michael dancing in the hallways in season 1, but she very briefly plays the hero when she promises to find the funding for Maeve to study in America (never mind that it’s an overt attempt at controlling her). Until she fails, of course. Now, I have no sympathy for people who spend so much time, money, and effort on trying to have their own children, but regardless, the sequence at the hospital displays her vulnerability before the descent into darkness, namely: branding the three ‘troublemakers’, outright locking Cal in a room, and having a physical altercation with Ruby, no matter how much she may hate herself for doing those things. Jemima Kirke’s portrayal of her eventual breakdown is one of the few truly great moments in the sub-par finale.
Jackson’s come a long way over two seasons. I like that he and Viv are now friends who can continue to have friendly conversations even when she steals the head student position from him. It’s an interesting choice to have him fall for the trans Cal. I like that the relationship isn’t in any way facile: they encounter natural obstacles. It’s sad when things end between them, but it’s sweet, honest, and quiet, including his oblique conversation with his mother. Jackson just isn’t ready, and Cal can’t be expected to carry him, but, critically, it doesn’t feel final. The only disappointing note is that Cal has no real character outside of being the object of his affections, though at least they have that nice scene where they show Layla a safer method for binding. (It’s important to acknowledge that Cal never once gives in to Hope’s attempt to pit the two of them against each other.)
Aimee’s story, while on the periphery, concisely demonstrates that sexual assault isn’t just
something that happens once and can be forgotten. I’m glad Jean is able to help her. I feel for
Steve—he spends the entire season holding her purse before being dumped. At least we get that
side-splittingly hilarious moment in the first episode when Maeve asks Aimee who the goat in the
back seat of her new car is and she responds with surprise,
Maeve… that’s Steve.
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I feel bad for Michael Groff (and I can’t believe how much fun Jason Isaacs has as his even more obnoxious and boorish brother Peter either). His is a particularly interesting journey. It presents itself as a typical redemption arc, complete with Peter as antagonist. His sessions with Jean are enjoyable and insightful. His growth is hard-won. Nevertheless, in the end, he isn’t simply rewarded with Maureen—his current transformation doesn’t erase his past as a terrible husband and father. He isn’t entitled to have his life back. Not yet, at least.
Finally, Maeve. Sex Education mostly continues its tradition of torturing her for our viewing pleasure. Her mother hates her (at the outset), Isaac confesses the truth about deleting Otis’s voicemail just when she decides to trust herself enough to like him, her mother abducts Elsie, Otis and Isaac make perfect cakes of themselves when she needs them the most… it’s all in keeping with past seasons.
However, that’s not the whole story this time. She gets to make out with Isaac in an amazing scene that patiently winds its way to a staggeringly intense climax. And then, in the moment we’ve all been desperately wishing for since 2019… she and Otis kiss!
Except, sadly, even this falls flat. However much we wanted it, however hard the show might work to lend it weight, it feels lackluster. The first kiss happens during an episode that’s both very sombre by the show’s standards—all about pain, anger, and emotions festering and changing the course of people’s lives, as well as how recovering from those things and remembering the good things can set you on a happier path—and disgusting (thanks to the subplot with Rahim). It comes right after Otis has broken Ruby’s heart, and he does it again with this kiss. We’ve already seen Maeve’s incredible chemistry with Isaac and Otis’s with Ruby. We get what we wanted, to be sure, but it’s a crushing disappointment.
Their second kiss is undercut, too, by the possibility that, unbeknownst to Otis, Jean may be dying. That brings me to my core complaint about the season: this was once a show about an outsider with a novel perspective forming an unlikely bond with an ostensible troublemaker and helping people. The story still considers Otis an outsider, but now he’s friends with or acquainted with all the cool kids. Everyone seeks his advice (Jackson even asks him to manage the performance). He speaks as an equal with people in positions of authority, whether that be Hope or his own mother. The most popular girl in school starts a casual relationship with him and develops feelings so he can break her heart. The quirks, neuroses, and profundity have almost vanished in favour of him simply being unpleasant to everyone. Otis is no longer interesting or especially sympathetic. (It doesn’t help that Asa Butterfield playing a high school student is beginning to strain credulity even by Hollywood standards.)
Maeve also suffers greatly as a character. She spends the season biting her lip, scrunching her face, and having things happen around her. You might say she took the initiative in her love life, but it’s Isaac who always pushes their relationship forward (whereas she hardly stays angry at him for one episode upon learning he invaded her privacy and tried to destroy her relationship with Otis), and she only kisses Otis under ideal circumstances, after he’s poured his heart out to her and recreated the voicemail (following which she spends one episode being confused). She begins the season by wanting to go America, thinks she can’t because of the money, thinks she can because Hope will arrange it, thinks she can’t because her ineffectual outburst in the sex ed class put her in Hope’s bad books, then suddenly can because her mother unexpectedly hands her all the money she needs. And even then, she isn’t planning to go to America until Aimee decides for her. Her biggest conflict in the season is Aimee paying for her school trip.
Sex Education has become an ordinary teen soap opera with exaggerated soap opera problems. As mentioned earlier, the principal locks a student into a room, Maeve’s sister is abducted by their mother, and Jean briefly seems to be dying. Everyone’s cheated, everyone’s got bad blood between them, and the school has to be saved from being shut down. The plot is mainly a quick succession of important events, inexpertly handled within roughly a single episode. That’s not to say the show ought to be slow or ponderous—the actual length isn’t at issue. The best scene (Ruby and Otis breaking up) was over in a flash but masterfully executed. Too many key scenes pass by without evoking the same care and skill. By the end, that once-perfect balance of humour, heart, and insight, apparent even in the first two episodes of the season, is thrown into disarray.
The sad truth is that I no longer crave more. Each of the previous two seasons left me practically
No! at the thought of how long I’d have to wait for the next one. Not so this
time. Every loose end has been tied up, too, except for the uninteresting questions of who the
father of Jean’s baby is and what will happen to Moordale Secondary. I would probably watch more if
it came, but without any sense of urgency.
One thing I’ll say in Sex Education’s defence is that Jean didn’t ultimately die, which would have completely obliterated any remaining goodwill I had towards it. Another is that, while Maeve and Otis are indeed separated again, the torture does seem to end at last. They’re together now. They’re not breaking up, exactly. It’s very different from the forced separations and miscommunication of prior finales.
A few stray thoughts: episode 2’s use of Sound of da Police by KRS-One is genius. I like that Kyle gets some character growth when he’s bowled over by the thought of the young soldiers who died in the war. It’s sweet how Emily turns Colin’s marriage proposal into moving in together. Viv proudly showing off Eugene is hilarious. I like how the double date in episode 3 goes so quickly from hopeless to salvaged. Dex being forced to run around the school absolutely naked is a genuine nightmare come to life. I understand that we’re talking about high schoolers, but what exactly did the students expect would happen after their performance? It’s a wonder the investors don’t just shut down the school.
I simply cannot understand why shows keep killing pets. The cat in episode 3 dies in such a horrific fashion (granted, the story was well executed). As far as I’m concerned, that was the beginning of the end.
It’s taken me four months to translate my notes into this entry (hence the recent silence). I’ve been busy with many things, primarily lots of work, and on top of that, my notes had steadily grown more detailed and voluminous over time. I only noticed after this how I had practically turned them into blow-by-blow summaries. I’ve tried ever since to only make relevant notes, but this one was particularly long and detailed, requiring more thought and effort to assemble into a coherent entry than I was willing to invest on most days. It’s only now that I decided I had to tackle it and progress.