The second season of Laurie Nunn’s remarkable Netflix show Sex Education begins where season one left off: Otis Milburne is masturbating. And he can’t stop.
If the first season focused on sexual repression, then the second focuses on what happens when that repression starts to subside. It’s a deeper, more complicated season in which people hurt themselves, hurt others, and face consequences.
Otis (Asa Butterfield) wasn’t perfect in season one, but this time around he’s terrible. He’s selfish and whiny and frequently cruel to his girlfriend Ola (Patricia Allison), his ex-crush Maeve (Emma Mackey), and his mother Jean (Gillian Anderson). Ola explains that he so badly doesn’t want to be an asshole – so badly doesn’t want to be his father – that it’s exactly what he’s become. Like with masturbating, once he allows himself to give in to his impulses he realizes that he never learned how to stop.
This isn’t the only time the show states the psychology of its characters. This is a big show in style and scenario. And this sense of heightened reality allows the show to go beyond realism towards something deeper and more poetic. It reminds me of the best therapy sessions. “Aha” moments aren’t subtle, but they can be surprising.
While Otis is floundering in his masculinity, the rest of the cast are on their own journeys of self-discovery. Jean starts aiding in actual sex ed at the school. Maeve deals with the return of her mother. Eric (Ncuti Gatwa) finds romance with new student Rahim (Sami Outalbali). Ola begins to question her sexuality. And Jackson (Kedar Williams-Stirling) attempts to leave behind self-harm and join the school play – with the help of new friend Viv (one of season two’s standouts Chinenya Ezeudu).
There’s a lot going on in season two – far more than I just described – and each of these storylines is handled with that same sense of importance. Like in its first season, Sex Education insists on the great value of our unique relationships to our bodies, to sex, and to each other.
One of the most affecting storylines of the season for me was Aimee (Aimee Lou Wood) getting assaulted on the bus and her subsequent PTSD. She’s riding to school carrying a cake she lovingly made for Maeve’s birthday when she notices a man masturbating right behind her. He ejaculates on her favorite jeans and she rushes off the bus. She insists that it wasn’t a big deal, but as days pass she finds herself unable to ride the bus and uninterested in sex with her boyfriend. She feels unsafe and out of control.
I don’t have a car, so I frequently ride the bus. Being a woman in public is always a liability, but my transness makes it even more fraught. I’m talked to, touched, and harassed to an extent that makes me always just a little tense.
This started before I transitioned. Conversations about trans women and male privilege are complicated, but what I do know is that for years I was harassed at the same frequency as my cis women friends – much to their confusion. I told myself I was a man and that made me safe, but I didn’t feel safe.
One night when I was riding the subway a man put his penis on my shoulder and urinated down my back. By the time I realized what was going on my shirt was soaked through and the man – and most of the bystanders – were laughing. Just a crazy New York experience, I told myself. But riding the subway never felt the same again.
I watched Aimee’s storyline with my heart full – feeling the level of connection so many of Sex Education’s relatable characters instill in me. I understood her fear. I understood her trauma. Most women do. In fact, the show makes the point that all women do.
Towards the end of the season several of the girls are being held in detention tasked with the assignment of coming up with something that unites them as women. The very different individuals can’t even agree on liking chocolate. But amidst the bickering Aimee finally breaks down. She shares how she’s been feeling. She shares that what happened on the bus has affected her more than she wanted to admit.
The girls comfort her with their own stories – stories that range from slut shaming, to being groped, to being followed home late at night.
Again, I watched this scene feeling understood and comforted, relieved by their sisterhood.
But then Lily (Tanya Reynolds) says, “At least we can go home now,” and reaches for her notebook. She summarizes all of their stories with a single word: dicks.
The connection of genitalia to gender is so pervasive I barely would’ve registered this line on another show. It’s only because Sex Education is otherwise so smart about sex and so comprehensive in its inclusivity that I felt disappointed.
It felt especially off coming from Lily, the most sexually open-minded character on the show, who this season is established as queer. If anyone would be trans-inclusive – would understand that gender is not defined by genitalia – it would be Lily. A few moments later popular girl Olivia repeats the sentiment and if it had only been said by her I might have cringed but not felt so sad. Coming from Lily it felt like the show’s point of view rather than that of just one character.
What’s incredible about Sex Education and especially this second season is that its ambition is to include everybody. It’s a show about sex and it’s a show about the varieties of ways people have sex and the varieties of people who have sex – or don’t. It’s a lofty ambition and I admire its ambition so much, as well as how much it fulfills.
This season introduces two new characters with identities we rarely see on TV – or, at least, rarely see handled well.
Florence (Mirren Mack), the self-identified best actor in the school, asks Otis for advice, because she has no interest in sex. He tells her to ignore the pressure of her peers. He tells her that when she meets the right person he’s sure she’ll be ready. This isn’t helpful.
She goes instead to a professional – Otis’ mother. Florence tells Jean that she thinks she’s broken. “Do you know what asexuality is?” Jean asks her and Florence shakes her head.
“It’s when somebody has no sexual attraction to any sex or gender. Sex just doesn’t do it for some people,” Jean explains. “Some asexual people still want romantic relationships but they don’t want the sex bit. And others don’t want either. Sexuality is fluid. Sex doesn’t make us whole. And so how could you ever be broken?”
Florence isn’t the first asexual character to appear on TV – most notably there are characters on BoJack Horseman and Shadowhunters – but it’s still all too rare. And it’s especially impactful for a show so consumed with sex to clarify that its interest is not sex itself but rather all of our individual relationships to sex.
The other new character – and one of my personal favorite aspects of the new season – is Isaac. Isaac and his brother move next door to Maeve and his own sardonic wit causes them to quickly go from enemies to friends to maybe something more. Isaac uses a wheelchair and he responds to the discomfort of the abled people around him with that same sense of humor. Upon first meeting Isaac, Aimee asks what happened and he replies deadpan: “It was a horrendous incident involving the wind.”
Isaac is played by George Robinson who is himself disabled – something that should simply be expected in the year of our lord 2020 but unfortunately still is not. Robinson and Mackey have so much chemistry by the end of the season I’d lost all loyalty to Otis and was fully rooting for Isaac instead.
But what’s most exciting about Isaac is that some viewers are going to hate him. His disability doesn’t preclude him from being involved in the same kinds of selfish – and self-destructive – behaviors we’ve seen in Otis and so many of the other characters. The show is often about the terrible things boys do because they think they’re good guys, and that commentary doesn’t stop with Isaac. He’s not a saint. He’s not a villain. He’s just a person. Again, this should be normal, but when looking at the landscape of disabled representation in media, this is still note-worthy.
Isaac and Florence are just two examples of the show’s casual commitment to inclusivity. A couple of transphobic lines don’t negate that. But they do hurt.
After all the girls bond over their experiences, the episode ends with them riding the bus together in solidarity. Sharon Van Etten’s “Seventeen” perfectly fills the soundtrack. Maeve grabs Aimee’s hand and Aimee lets herself smile and cry. The music swells. As I watched this perfect moment I wondered with a tinge of melancholy if there was room for women like me on the back of that bus.
Last year I wrote an essay about how much Otis reminded me of my teenage self – and I certainly wasn’t the only trans woman to joke about him being trans. I think this has less to do with the actual character and more that, of course, an open-hearted show about sexual shame, sexual discovery, and gender performance would appeal to trans people. It also doesn’t hurt that Ezra Furman – an incredibly talented trans musician – acts as the musical narrator of the show and has a small cameo in the first season.
I hope next year the show not only refrains from lines of dialogue like Lily’s and Olivia’s but actively fights against stigma with explicit inclusion. There’s room for trans people in Sex Education’s ever-growing ensemble of confused teens and stunted adults.
During the finale, the show’s villain Mr. Groff interrupts the incredible – I don’t want to say anything spoilery but really it’s incredible – school production of Romeo and Juliet: The Musical. He calls the very sexual show filth and blames Jean. He shouts, “They’re children for god’s sake! They don’t know what they want!”
As debate continues in the world – but with a specific sharpness in the UK – about medical treatment for trans kids, this line and the dismissal of this line feels more important than ever. Trans kids know as well as anybody that there shouldn’t be an age requirement for bodily autonomy.
Sex Education has done so much to normalize the complicated desires of teenagers. As trans people, we’re a group deeply in need of that normalization – especially from a show as funny, beautiful, and generous as this one.