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Sex Education - Season 3 - Spoiler Review: "Heart-warming and relentlessly hilarious"

Full spoilers for Sex Education season three follow.

In the space of 16 months, from September 2017, Netflix released two very similar but very different shows. The first was Big Mouth, a grotesquely animated, low-brow humoured and for two out of four seasons mostly entertaining series which received harsher criticism than it actually deserved.

The other was Sex Education, a heart-warming, relentlessly hilarious teen drama in the mold of a soap opera, which blended intimate, thoughtful and very frank discussions about sex with charming and powerful characters.

Season three takes all of the strengths Sex Education possesses and turns them up to eleven. The humour, the embracing of sex-positive attitudes, the emotion and the heartbreak. It’s an absolute rollercoaster ride which simultaneously feels slow in the way things progress, but which aims to keep sight of its characters and the Joy it brings.

We pick up this season with big change at Moordale Secondary: the sex clinic is no more, much like Otis and Maeve’s friendship. Otis is having casual sex, and later a relationship, with Definitely Touchable Ruby. Adam and Eric are together, Jean is progressing with her pregnancy and there’s a new head teacher, Hope Haddon (the delightfully smarmy Jemima Kirke).

It’s that last change which causes so much tension and angst among our characters, and which sets up so many of the important conversations around this season. Chief among them is the introduction of Cal Bowman (multi-talented Dua Saleh, in their first on-screen acting role), a non-binary student who’d have thrived with Jean Milburn’s approach but who suffers under Hope’s thumb.

Hope’s a mirage; the smiling evil villain who feigns empathy for those she needs to use and takes no restraint in lambasting students for the most minor things. Pam Ferris looks on in awe. What starts out minor frustrations and poor mannerisms towards the students quickly becomes a much more sinister approach, one which focuses on public humiliation and emotional torture. It’s grim from start to finish as she insists on abstinence teachings, has no place for discussions of sexuality or gender identity, and forces characters like Lily back into a shell they had done so much to come out of. Despite destroying Moordale, the students’ presentation is wonderful not just because it’s empowering but because it finishes Hope.

But there’s a tragedy to Hope. It’s not just that she’s teaching in the 1950s, but she’s living in the 1950s. Despite everything, it’s sad to see her emptiness at being told she can’t have another round of IVF treatment. And it’s genuinely heart-breaking, as Otis tries to comfort her, to hear her describe her life as “a failure’ because she cannot have children. “Because my body won’t… It doesn’t do the one thing it’s supposed to do.” There’s more to life and to womanhood than this, and her achievements as a headteacher – hard to believe based on Moordale, to be fair – are deserving of praise. Much as Michael Groff is so heartless as an adult because of his abusive childhood, it’s likely Hope’s perceptions of sex and her self-worth come from things learned at and before the age she now teaches. The students of Moordale aren’t the only ones in need of some sex education.

Otis is the exception, of course. His and Ruby’s blossoming relationship is a real strength of the first half of season three. The spoiled, Untouchable brat of early episodes has mellowed – or, rather, we’ve seen deeper into her soul. We saw behind the icy exterior when she first slept with Otis; in season three every waking moment is a more intimate look. Ruby has so much internal pain that she deflects and replaces with an opposing persona. Her anguish over her multiple sclerosis-suffering dad and feelings for Otis she’s never experienced and doesn’t know how to handle make her one of the season’s most fascinating characters. For Mimi Keene, it’s a chance to show off a marvellous range as she redefines who Ruby Matthews is.

What is a shame is that all the good work drifts away into the background in the second half of the season. Otis and Ruby’s break-up is a turning point in her character but it takes a back seat very quickly, once he kisses Maeve in France, and so we’re left to wonder how she’s coping* with rejection by a boy she loves and the sight of him almost instantly kissing another girl. Her broken heart would be painful to see more of, but we should have seen it.

*Apart from with violence against Hope, that is, in an epic and hilarious fight.

And so to Otis and Maeve, also known as “endgame,” also known as “the central pairing,” also known as “the two who are more important to the show than anyone else.” Insert your own here.

For two seasons Sex Education toyed with them forming a relationship without it going anywhere; the near misses of the bridge and the finale of season one, the admittance of feelings to one another and, of course, that fated voicemail. (More on that in a moment: put away your Isaac pitchforks, please.) It’s here that Sex Education feels the most soap opera, the most cliched, yet the electricity between Asa Butterfield and Emma Mackey is such that it works.

It always felt like we would end up here. Their kiss in Episode 5, after Otis recounts the key parts of the voicemail, is long overdue and beautiful when it arrives – unexpectedly, it should be added – and makes what came before all the more worthwhile. Credit to the show too for recovering this pairing two episodes later with a lovely rain kiss*, after spectacularly fumbling everything in Episode 6.

*Mackey’s wide-eyed look, complete with sunshine-like smile and a breath so deep it would deprive oxygen from a small room as Otis says he wants them to be a team again – it’s subtle but sensational.

Love triangles never work: the angst it causes between characters who suddenly act recklessly and thoughtlessly trying to one-up their rival is never worth it. For Otis, that’s a sweet moment – cycling Maeve to Anna’s – which transforms into arguably the biggest effort towards him messing it up, fighting with Isaac while Maeve’s sister is missing.

For Isaac, it’s a step towards undoing all of the strong character work done in this season. His admittance over the voicemail when initially hooking up with Maeve was a surprise, to be sure, but a welcome one, and though he’s forgiven somewhat too easily it’s difficult not to feel sympathy for his motivations. This is a man who doesn’t get the same life as most in this show, and whose experience makes him so unique and so few people understand him. Maeve is one of those, and they share that. It’s only human to be desperate to keep hold of that. George Robinson is a wonder throughout this season as Isaac goes from the character everyone hated most into one of the more likable.

By the finale, Otis and Maeve are on the road to being a couple but, as ever, there’s an obstacle. Maeve being accepted in the Gifted and Talented Program is a fitting obstacle, at least, the obvious progression for a character whose modesty is nice but who clearly deserves the spot. And having fumbled the love triangle, it’s a relief to see the show – in spite of what would feel so satisfying – opt to send Maeve to America instead of staying for Otis. What is it they say about therapists and their own advice? It probably doesn’t apply to 17-year-olds, and not one with a friend as good as Aimee. Maeve’s decision and goodbye “see you soon” to Otis caps an emotional finale.

There have been plenty of dark moments in three seasons of Sex Education – think Eric’s season one beating or Aimee’s second season assault, and the death of Jonathan the cat this season – but few compare to the tension surrounding Jean’s childbirth here. For a show that, for all its depth and poignancy and solemnity, is regularly light-hearted*, the death of such a central character is unthinkable. The concept of orphaning the main character is unthinkable.

*Netflix’s subtitles often refer to “whimsical music”, which really is the only way to describe it when Otis is continually awkward or Goat does something she shouldn’t.

But there is a long stretch of the finale – and indeed the final moment of the penultimate hour – where it seems a genuine possibility. It’s the most heart-wrenching and nervy element of the season. Eric once said that Jean gives him life. It’s remarkably true of the show’s mere existence, given the role she plays in Otis taking up sex therapy, and, frankly, it should be true of every viewer. Her relationship with Otis is complicated and she readily admits that, but Jean is such a presence, Gillian Anderson so charismatic. Killing her would be a stunning mistake.

Mistake not made, but it gives Butterfield his platform to shine brighter than ever before on this delightful show. His breakdown at the hospital vending machine and his shaky and cracking, broken souled voice as he tells Jakob he wouldn’t want to live with his father should Jean die is immensely powerful. Butterfield so often carries Otis like a 17-year-old with the spirit of a sage old man, but here he is once again the teenager: vulnerable, terrified, with so much life ahead of him but at that moment nothing ahead of him. Losing Jean to us is unthinkable; to Otis it is so much worse.

Speaking of unthinkable, let’s address Maeve. Mackey has hinted that she may leave the show ahead of a potential season 4, the fate of which is still up in the air. We should clear this up right now: Sex Education doesn’t exist without Maeve. Forget the relationship tension between her and Otis, because that’s secondary. It’s the dynamic they share, the role they play together in the concept of the show. It’s the mostly unbreakable friendship she has with Aimee and the mental rings she can run forever around anyone she meets. It’s her kindness and her heart and her bravery and her stubbornness.

All the while Mackey is sublime. She’s 25 and this was her first major role but you would never know it. In three seasons she has continually been one of the best performers; here she is the one bright spot in a solitary quality dip – that nauseating love triangle in episode 6 – and a shining star amid a galaxy for the remainder of the season. Her hammer-like bluntness meshes into her soft and gentle touch – both physical and spiritual – and always feels like two sides of the same coin. She’s a marvel and, for all Sex Education’s acclaim and brilliance, Mackey will go on to much bigger and better things during her career. We can only hope she does one more season here before moving on.

It's disappointing that his friendship with Ola seems to be a forgotten thing, but Adam’s progression as he better comes to terms with who he is proves strong. Painted as a brainless bully in season one, we see a completely different side to him in season three. He deals with anger issues and struggles to get out of the bottom set at school, but he knows he needs to better control his feelings and he badly wants to be better academically. Even when he learns how better to express himself, it’s a touching moment.

This is why it’s such a shame to see the way things end between he and Eric. For Eric, this does make sense: he chose this, yes, but we see constantly throughout the season his adaptations away from being himself to better his relationship with Adam. He noticed it quickly with Otis towards Ruby but takes far longer for himself. Cheating feels neither in or out of character – he did abandon Rahim for hand-holding Adam, remember – but the spirit of it, in embracing his camp side and enjoying his sexuality is very much in character. That was never going to work in this relationship and it’s sad to see the surprisingly kind-hearted Adam sink so low.

So much happens in this season. Jackson is positioned well enough in the background given he features in very little of the central characters’ stories. His connection with Cal makes for a nice running thread; their drug trips are a lot of fun and the exploration of a queer relationship between non-binary Cal and straight guy Jackson is fascinating. He’s always been a people-pleaser and though Viv is right that he’s initially led by his crush on them, their friendship remaining a friendship by the end works.

His fairly willing dismissal of head boy quickly after he sees what a curse it is shows good growth from the first season, and he helps Viv see the same thing. From the outside it’s easy to question Viv sticking by Hope so long and while she should certainly turn sooner than she does, her personal desires are understandable. She just can’t use Hope as easily as Hope can use her.

Lily’s change of heart over her love of aliens is one of the season’s lovelier moments. Her and Ola are a sweet couple and to hear her break – “I was happy not having any friends. And then you came along and made me feel like I wasn’t so strange after all, but it was just a lie” – is moving. Their relationship takes one of the biggest hits this season but remarkably comes through stronger, neither Ola nor Lily seeing or appreciating the other until guided into doing so. It’s a rough season for Ola, dealing with a new family and returning thoughts of her late mother, and Patricia Allison is great throughout.

Aimee Lou Wood is forever the beacon of light in this show. Randomly adopting goats, making vulva cupcakes, paying for Maeve’s France trip (albeit against her wishes). Anyone who says they don’t smile whenever Aimee is on screen either has a heart of stone or is a liar. But her continued progression in recovering from her assault, helped by Jean, is inspiring viewing. Sex Education dealt with it so well in season two and is smart not to drop the ball here by pretending she’s fine. She’s not, and that feels very normal. As Jean puts it, healing Aimee’s relationship with her body is a key part of overcoming her trauma, and seeing her try to do that is an important part of this season.

And let’s not forget Michael, who should probably change his last name to Suft. From the gruff, angry demeanour of seasons one and two, Michael’s fall from grace is tragic. Living with his “shit” of a brother Peter (made remarkably and instantly hateable by powerhouse Jason Isaacs) and admitting to Jean he has nothing to provide him joy – it’s easy to forget how stern he was at Moordale. Realising the error of his family’s ways, discovering a love for cooking (yes, making a salad counts), reconciling briefly with his ex-wife. Things are far from perfect but he seems on the right track, and for all that Alistair Petrie previously made Michael seem horrible he achieves the opposite in equal measure here.

There are times in season three of Sex Education where it feels like things – characters, relationships – have been forgotten. Yet this is still a terrific season which I blitzed through, experiencing and loving every emotion it sent me on. It’s so regularly funny, so regularly heartfelt, so regularly handling with care topics of incredible sensitivity. Perfect? No. But it’s still so damn good.

If Mackey were to leave and this be the end, or even if it were to simply just be the end, it would be a crying shame. The world needs a show that can bring so much happiness while also dealing with such important storylines.

Here’s hoping this isn’t goodbye. It’s see you soon, Sex Education.

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