Mild spoilers below in this Sex Education season 3 review.
Two and a half years ago I wrote an essay about the first season of Laurie Nunn’s groundbreaking Netflix series Sex Education. It was one of the first pieces I ever published. It got me staffed at Autostraddle. A lot of writers I admired sent me praise — including Laurie herself. It was called “Sex Education” Taught Me How to Masturbate and it had a literal happy ending.
It felt like a lie.
Don’t get me wrong — everything in it is true. All the anecdotes about helping others and not myself, focusing on other people’s pleasure and not my own, were all very true. And the ending where I fuck myself with a prostate massager and have an incredible orgasm was also true.
But essays are narratives and the narrative of that essay was that I’d figured out my problems — even though that night was a rare occurrence rather than a new normal. I still didn’t really know how to pleasure myself and definitely didn’t know how to accept pleasure from others. I spent the rest of 2019 having a plethora of experiences, a few good ones and a lot of bad ones. Turns out growth takes more than one orgasm.
This is what Sex Education is about. Growth and orgasms and how growth and orgasms are not always linear. It can take time to be our best selves and new best selves can always replace old best selves. It’s fitting a show that believes people can grow has done the same. It’s fitting that after a stellar first season and an even better second season, Sex Education is back with its best season yet.
Change is afoot in Moordale. Otis has spent the summer growing a mustache and hooking up with Ruby. Eric and Adam are sort of dating. Jean is pregnant. Maeve’s sister is in foster care. And Moordale Secondary has a new headmistress.
Hope Haddon (Jemima Kirke) has been brought in to rid the school of its reputation as a place of sexual debauchery and her cool teacher energy quickly gives way to more sinister goals. She institutes new uniforms. She replaces Jackson as head student with the more obedient Viv. And she begins antagonizing Cal (Dua Saleh), a non-binary student who wants to wear the uniform in a way that makes them comfortable.
Last season I bristled at some of the transphobic language on this show that otherwise is so smart about sex and gender. Well, this season is a masterclass in improvement. It’s not simply that the show includes a trans character — it’s the care and specificity given to Cal, Cal’s treatment from love interest Jackson, another very different non-binary student Layla (Robyn Holdaway), and their nemesis, Hope. This is not the blunt work of well-meaning cis people viewing us as mere curiosities. This is sharp storytelling from a group of pre-dominantly queer creators who listened to the non-binary people in the room including the actors and non-binary comedian Jodie Mitchell who acted as a consultant.
Throughout this season, the show explores changing rooms, fashion, proper binder use, respectability politics, romantic partners not seeing trans people’s true genders, and the most common kind of subtle transphobe. And it does all of this by centering the characters as people first and identities second. Saleh, Holdaway, Kirke, and Kedar Williams-Stirling as Jackson all do such lovely work as they elevate the already elevated writing. Given the transphobic climate in the UK right now, there are so many ways these storylines could’ve gone wrong — instead they’re some of the best trans storytelling I’ve ever seen on screen.
This is the sort of nuance Nunn and her team have always brought to these characters. It’s just even better when there are two seasons to build upon. Whether it’s Eric embracing the depths (and cultural specificity) of his queerness, Lily grappling with her unconventional kinks, Aimee working past her trauma, Maeve and Isaac exploring their connection, or Otis trying to find the balance between kindness and cruelty, the show continues to approach sex — and life — in all its beautiful complications. There are so many stories happening in Moordale and in just eight episodes the season honors them all.
In the two and a half years since the show’s first season, I’ve learned so much about my body, my pleasure, and my relationship to sex. I’m much closer to the (metaphorical) happy ending suggested by my essay. But, most importantly, I’ve let go of endings altogether. I’m not trying to Figure Out Sex. Like life and television, it is not something to solve.
Sex Education keeps getting better because it approaches storytelling the way it teaches us to approach sex — with curiosity, excitement, and a willingness to learn. By letting go of perfection, it’s become just about the closest thing we have to a perfect show.
In our creative lives — and our sex lives — let that be a lesson to us all.