Set in a dreamy, sylvan fiction of a town in the United Kingdom, Sex Education revolves around teenaged geek Otis (Asa Butterfield), who is raised by his mother, sex therapist. Dr. Jean F. Milburn (Gillian Anderson). While Jean often displays a poor sense of boundaries around her son, she’s a successful professional and Otis does seem to be a chip of her block, despite his misgivings about his mother’s occupation. Otis’s two closest friends in school are Eric (Ncuti Gatwa) and Maeve (Emma Mackey). The three of them band together to open a sex therapy clinic for students where Otis doles out advice to troubled students.
These libidinal vexations can have one season long arcs, but generally, a character’s sexual conundrum tends to be tidily wrapped up within the span of an episode. What makes Sex Education so compulsively watchable is its insistence on yanking out the orifice-related issues, dusting off the shame, and dignifying the root of those issues through empathy.
In the first season, we are introduced to Moordale Secondary School, where Otis and Eric are placed slightly lower on the social ladder. Maeve, a self-assured, brilliant student at Moordale, persuades Otis to start a sex clinic in the abandoned bathroom stalls. Since Maeve handles the “appointments” and fees, Otis’s identity remains anonymous. It is a good economic opportunity for Maeve, who lives on her own and has little money to her name. All this unfolds under the nose and behind the back of Principal Michael Groff, who is authoritarian, and sexually repressed. He has a son, Adam (Connor Swindells), who also attends Moordale and is a homophobic bully.
Moordale’s students have a coterie of problems, including but not limited to Lily’s (Tanya Reynolds) vaginismus, Adam’s inability to cum, and leaked photos of Ruby’s genitals. There’s also the season-long problem that Otis has: He can’t bring himself to an orgasm when he masturbates.
The charm of the show is how seriously it preoccupies itself with dignifying these issues, which could easily have slipped into gags (because the show is also very funny). We learn, along with Lily, that her vaginismus stems from her inability to lose control, Otis’s failed attempts to cum seem to be connected to an, ahem, overbearing parent, thanks to whom he constantly feels like he is being scrutinised.
Tension and Release
Over the course of the season, Otis develops feelings for Maeve, which leads to tension between Eric and Otis with Eric feeling ignored. Meanwhile, Maeve is in a lustful dynamic with Jackson (Kedar-Williams Stirling), a popular jock. When Jackson comes to Otis for advice, he gives the other boy terrible advice, but things still work out for Maeve and Jackson. Maeve later finds out Otis was advising Jackson on how to woo her, and decides the sex clinic gang should disband because she feels manipulated.
Otis also starts a romantic relationship with a girl called Ola (Patricia Allison), who has recently transferred to Moordale. What he doesn’t know is that his mother Jean is lusting after Ola’s father, which later leads to complications between Jean and Otis.
One of Sex Education’s stand-out characters is Eric, who lives in a conservative family and is seen trying to figure out his self-expression. By the end of the season, Eric’s parents come around to accepting his flamboyance. Not that this simplifies his life entirely since Adam, who has been bullying Eric, also seems to want to … kiss him. Otis and Eric also reconcile during the homecoming dance.
The season ends with Adam being sent off to a disciplinarian military school and Otis finally being able to cum.
Jean joins Moordale as a counsellor temporarily and soon finds out there is a “sex kid” who is already doling out advice to students, that too for a hefty fee. During her time as counsellor, she often has run-ins with the sexually repressed, and aggressive Michael Groff, who only becomes more unhinged as he loses access to his son, and control over the school.
Otis and Maeve’s will-they-won't-they situationship persists this season. The season starts off with Otis and Ola dating, as are her father and his mother. Maeve is pining for Otis, and confesses to him how she feels, but Otis is less than welcoming of this confession. Ola and Otis’s relationship is weighed down by his lingering feelings for Maeve, sexual incompatibility and the awkwardness that comes of knowing their parents are also seeing each other. Ola and Otis consciously uncouple. Elsewhere, in a plot twist, Otis ends up losing his virginity to Ruby, who has a lot more social currency than him at Moordale.
Maeve starts dating Isaac (George Robinson), who comes from a similarly incapacitated background as hers, and also erases a voice message from her phone that has Otis professing his love to her. It becomes an additional and tiresome hurdle for Otis and Maeve.
Twists and Triumphs
After coming out of military school, Adam is seen courting Eric, which makes Otis uncomfortable. Sex Education gives intelligently and empathetically written redemption arcs to its morally grey characters (this includes Adam’s father, Principal Michael Groff, who is also a bully), and has you rooting for fumbling, trying-to-do-good Adam. When Eric finds himself drawn to a new kid in Moordale, we couldn’t help but worry for … Adam.
This season’s star is Aimee (Aimee Lou Wood), who has to deal with the trauma of being sexually assaulted in a bus. She shares this with some of her female classmates and the scene in which they sit with her on the back seat of the bus (in a bid to reclaim public spaces for women) is utterly heartwarming. However, true to its style, Sex Education doesn’t let you believe that the trauma can be erased so easily.
The season ends with Michael Groff being temporarily removed as the principal from his school, and Lily, the resident sci-fi geek, putting on a play called ‘Romeo and Juliet’ which is full of phallic images. Jean, triumphant in Moordale but grappling with her own intense situation with Ola’s father Jakob (Mikael Persbrandt), inches towards self-sabotage. Jakob breaks up with her. At the end of the second season, Jean finds out she is pregnant.
The sex clinic is disbanded, and Moordale Secondary School has a new principal — Hope Haddon (Jemima Kirke). Although she initially seems to be just what the school’s students need after Michael Groff, it is a clever hiring tactic by the investors of the Moordale Secondary School who want to hide their oppressive traditionalism behind the face of a young woman. Hope imposes uniforms, demotes Jackson from the role of student body representative and gives that title to Vivienne (Chinenye Azeudu). She is particularly cruel towards Cal (Dua Saleh), a non-binary student, dismissing their gender dysphoria.
Otis and Ruby are canoodling in secret, and once Eric comes to know about this, the gossip spreads through the school. Ruby and Otis decide to give it a go anyway, but Otis, predictably, still has feelings for Maeve. No one should be surprised when that Otis and Ruby fall apart.
Elsewhere, Michael Groff is similarly processing the end of his marriage, and his relationship with his estranged son. He turns to his brother (played by Jason Isaacs), who turns out to be the one who bullies Michael. The relationship between the brothers gives us more context for Michael’s authoritarian tactics, but without asking us to absolve him. Desperate to change, Michael goes to Jean for guidance and slowly, with her help, learns to become more laid back. Also in Jean’s parlour is Aimee, who is in a wholesome relationship with her boyfriend Steve (Chris Jenks), but realises she needs to focus on healing herself.
In Moordale, Hope finds herself faced with openly protesting students who show up in genitalia-themed costumes and paint vulvas on walls. The controversies lead to investors pulling their funding out of Moordale, leaving the school open to the possibility of redevelopment (which would mean the students have to find other schools).
Darkness and Light
One of the more troubling subplots of the third season sees Eric and Adam trying to deal with Adam’s anger management issues. Meanwhile Eric is “ready to fly” and ultimately, Eric decides to end their relationship because he doesn’t want to lose more of himself by staying with someone who has just begun to explore his identity. Adam is heartbroken, but undeterred on the gentler path he has taken to understand his queer identity.
Jean’s pregnancy brings Jakob back into her life and into Otis and Jean’s home. When she’s in hospital, Otis and Jean have a heart-to-heart in which he admits that he feels a certain thrill when his advice causes a good shift in a person’s life. Otis tells Jean that he wants to become a sex therapist and hopes to open a free clinic.
At the end of season 3, Jean realises that Jakob is not the father of her baby. Otis and Maeve finally get together, but have to navigate the hurdles of a long-distance relationship because Maeve is leaving to study in America.
What We Know About Season 4
In the trailer, we see Maeve and Otis run into some roadblocks in their long-distance relationship because Otis is feeling very awkward about sending his nude photos. Eric, putting his relationship with Adam behind, is seen hooking up with random people. There is a slight hint of Otis and Ruby picking up something romantic with the other — whether the two would be endgame, or just another complication for Otis and Maeve, will finally be confirmed. Aimee, who is on a journey of knowing herself better (she started therapy in season 3), is seen making an entry in a masturbation journal. The OG sex therapist Otis, who had no competition at Moordale (except, briefly, his mother), finds out that there’s another sex therapist at his new school — and they’re pretty good at their job. “You should try and enjoy the journey,” Otis says. “It doesn’t last forever.”