An Assemblage of Words in Response to: the Sex Education Finale

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Photo: Jon Hall/Netflix

An Assemblage of Words in Response to is a new, probably ongoing project in which I give myself a limited time period to write words about things.

Sex Education is a surprisingly deep show, in terms of its ensemble.

Otis, the sex therapist’s son turned high school sex therapist, is undoubtedly the show’s lead. And his relationships with his mother, his best friend Eric, and his business partner/romantic interest Maeve are the most important relationships in the show. But as the show introduced other characters, it becomes more and more invested in their lives: while some “clients” appear and disappear in the episode where their problem emerges as an episodic point, others like Adam, Aimee, and Lily become part of the fabric of the show. It adds richness to a show that could have become tired amidst the tropes it deploys in order to stake its claim to ’80s teen movie nostalgia.

But when it comes to its finale, the writers’ interest in their supporting characters couple of hiccups for Sex Education, wherein story developments didn’t necessarily have the effect the writers desired.

Matt Fowler of IGN tweeted this when watching Sex Education, which hits the nail on the head with one problem:

The reference to Scott Pilgrim here points to the difficult balance of simultaneously developing alternate love interests that feel like real people AND making the central will-they-won’t-they couple feel viable. Sex Education is clearly invested in this project, as creator Laurie Nunn explained to Thrillist:

“Hopefully I think if we’ve done our job right there should be Team Ola and Team Jackson. There should be some people who want Maeve to stay with Jackson and who want Otis to be with Ola forever.”

However, I honestly struggle to see how anyone would NOT be Team Ola or Team Jackson given the available facts? Ola doesn’t necessarily get fleshed out tremendously, but she’s a bright and positive presence, and has been given no complicating qualities beyond their parents’ pheromones. But Jackson is where the real problem is, because he gets fully folded into the ensemble, and fleshed out considerably. I felt like the season gave us real reasons to want Jackson and Maeve to be together based on what we learned about them, whereas the Maeve and Otis pairing was just “the default,” predicated almost entirely on his unrequited crush and her eleventh hour realization designed mostly to create a cliffhanger. They successfully created alternate teams, but I think they did so too well for me to feel like “Team Maeve” is healthy for Otis and his future.

But ultimately, I’d chalk some of that up to my general resistance to default will-they-won’t-they pairings, and say that for the most part the relationship stuff in the show worked well, and extends the show’s empathy and understanding in those situations. But the fleshing out of the supporting characters becomes more complicated with the finale’s big “twist”: trapped together cleaning a music room for detention, Eric and Adam’s physical confrontation turns sexual, a development that I frankly don’t buy in the slightest.

Nunn, for the record, had this to say to Thrillist, which I want to unpack a bit:

I think if you rewatch the series we very much were telling a love story through bullying with Eric and Adam. Even though in some ways in episode eight it feels like a twist it really is there throughout every episode, the feeling that they have with each other and how kind of confused that is. I think that Adam is just desperate for connection. He’s so isolated and alone. He’s probably one of the most lonely characters in the in the piece. He’s just so desperate for connection. The fact that he bullies people and in particular Eric is his way of looking for intimacy in the world. It will be interesting to see where that takes him now that he’s developed a new part of himself after episode eight.

I have no doubt that there are circumstances in which homophobic bullying can be masking elements of someone’s sexuality, and the whole “bullying into sex” idea was used similarly in the case of Shameless. But—and I’m speaking of the U.S. Shameless here having not seen the U.K. version—the difference in that case was that we knew very little about Mickey before he and Ian went from a fist fight to an intimate encounter. In Adam’s case, we followed him throughout the season, and outside of perhaps an unexpected amount of face touching within his bullying we saw no signs of any sexual fluidity. The show was largely focusing its signals on his daddy issues, and on how Eric’s acceptance by his father contrasted with Adam’s father’s disapproval, but nothing there prepared me for the “twist” in the finale.

But even if I accept that it is possible that Adam would explore a same-sex relationship in his quest for intimacy, the way the scene plays out felt strange to me. Perhaps it’s the byproduct of the scene playing out amidst various indepth psychoanalyses of sexual behavior, but how does none of Adam’s aggression manifest in their moments of intimacy? The idea that Adam is the one delivering pleasure instead of demanding it feels at odds with how the characters has been portrayed, and while I can understand the potential logic behind it there was nothing to lay a foundation for it. I’m open to the notion that rewatching the show might allow Adam’s actions to be read through a generic narrative of isolation and issues of intimacy, but the specifics of his journey lack any direct connections to sell me on this twist, and I’m not convinced a rewatch will change that. There needed to be more work done in that scene, and in the season as a whole, if this was their end goal.

Like a lot of Netflix series, Sex Education leaves a lot of balls in the air, knowing that its future depends on how quickly viewers burn through it, their willingness to demand more, and the likelihood of them telling their friends to watch. I think Sex Education comfortably passes those tests, and I appreciate the choice to end on Otis’ sexual awakening on his own terms as opposed to rushing ahead to the loss of his virginity. In the end, Sex Education deserves credit fleshing out its characters in ways that make you invested, but they did so swiftly enough that I was almost too invested for the eleventh hour plot developments that made those cliffhangers possible.

Cultural Observations

  • The choice to use ’80s aesthetics—the wardrobes, the cars—wigged me out in the pilot, but ultimately the show is very stylish and attractive, so I get what they were going for. But I found it odd that they didn’t take on opportunities with video games or music to be consistent with the retro vibe, and there was a bit too much social media-related storytelling for the anachronism to every truly fade away.
  • The idea that the entire school is part of the same Snapchat group who all simultaneously receive messages with push notifications and sound effects on is a fiction of the highest order, topped only by the scene where a kid hooks up his phone to a CRT television using some magical cord so his video could appear on the screen.
  • I don’t want these to just be complaining about things, so I will reiterate I really enjoyed the show and all of its performances and acknowledge that I am just permanently broken.
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