“Sex Education” is Revolutionary Teen TV. Maeve Wiley Is the Best Part.
[Sorry for the delay on this post. Moving was, unsurprisingly, completely all-consuming and in my spare moments, I was busy rewatching “Sex Education”!]
Netflix’s “Sex Education,” which released all eight episodes of its third season a few weeks ago, is one of the best shows about teenagers on television today—or perhaps ever. It perfectly encapsulates the genre of “woke” Gen Z television in terms of its message, characters, representation, and themes. It’s also laugh-out-loud funny, explicit, and filled with touching moments of friendship, romance, and everything in between. The UK-based show is about students at Moordale Secondary, centering around awkward wallflower Otis Milburn (Asa Butterfield), who starts giving his classmates sex advice, inspired by what he’s overhead from his mother, Jean (Gillian Anderson, stunning), a sex and relationships therapist. Despite Otis’s lack of sexual experience, his classmate, Maeve Wiley, sees he has a “gift,” and decides to monetize the operation.
Almost like a procedural, in the first two seasons, each episode sees Otis help a different individual or couple with a different issue they’re facing—typically, issues around sex that they feel are abnormal or shameful—but it almost never feels pedantic or teachy. But as he’s offering sex advice around campus, he’s having a problem of his own: he’s 16 and finds himself physically incapable of masturbating.
When “Sex Education” first came out in 2019, it was a sleeper hit for Netflix. The first season is a marvel, with a perfectly drawn narrative arc, airtight writing, and enough tension and suspense to make it hard to stop watching. It’s also unrelentingly good-natured, filmed in bright and colorful hues, setting it apart from more cynical teen shows of the early aughts. Though also about British teens, it couldn’t be more different than “Skins,” which like American counterparts “The O.C.” and “Gossip Girl,” went out of their way to show how shocking and debaucherous teens could be. Plus, the adults in “Sex Education” are also treated seriously, with their own struggles and plotlines. In “Skins,” the adults were laughably out-to-lunch and in some cases evil, but always one-note. That’s not the case with “Sex Education,” where, for example, Otis’s mother struggles with how to respect her son’s boundaries. They argue, but they also apologize to each other.
The second and third seasons of the show are still great, though in some ways they start to fall into some of the trappings of standard quality teen television. The plot starts moving a little too fast and the misunderstandings sometimes smell of drama for drama’s sake. There’s also one unfortunate plotline I won’t talk about too much here, but let’s just say I agree with all the critiques.
But a mediocre season of “Sex Education” is still better than most shows, and absolutely worth watching. If you’ve made it to the second season, you’re already attached to the show’s many lovable—yet flawed!—characters and their believable struggles.
The character I’ve grown most attached to is Maeve Wiley (Emma Mackey). She’s first introduced as a punky bad girl, an iconoclast with a bad reputation who people both slut shame and fear. Maeve has been dealt a difficult hand in life, but she’s slow to open up about it. It isn’t until late in the first season that she agrees to show her boyfriend at the time, Jackson, where she lives—in a trailer park, basically alone, despite being just 16. Her mother, who struggles with addiction, is in and out, and her brother is just as unreliable. Her dad isn’t in the picture. When we meet Maeve, she’s writing essays for her classmates for money so she can afford to pay rent each month. No one expects that Maeve, a “bad” girl, would be capable of writing A papers. But as the show wears on Maeve further embraces and develops her intelligence. Maeve’s many more layers unfold as the show goes on. She doesn’t always make the right choices, but the beauty of a show like “Sex Education” is that it never judges, unlike “Skins” and its ilk. All its characters have many dimensions, explored as the seasons wear on.
Growing up, teenage girls on TV could basically be one of two things: smart, well-behaved nerds (Rory Gilmore), or sexy, misunderstood hot messes (Melissa Cooper). Because the two shows are so often compared to one another, it’s interesting to think about alongside a character like Effy Stonem on “Skins” (2007), played by the alluring and beautiful Kaya Scoledario. Both are female protagonists on their respective shows, and are Hot Girls with lots of eyeliner, big attitudes, and “fuck off” energy (For Maeve, “Hi dickheads” is a normal greeting). Emma Garland wrote a great essay about Effy’s ongoing appeal last year in Vice. I admit it’s a small digression, but the lede of this piece is so well-written I have to quote it here:
Before Lana Del Rey’s “Summertime Sadness”, there was Effy Stonem. [She] became an instant pop culture icon in the late 2000s – the Patron Saint of teenage girls, typically found smoking behind the science block and communicating mostly through eye contact.
Effy is an enigma, a train-wreck, a femme fatale whose allure is inherently bound up in her own undoing; Marissa Cooper if she had a sense of humour and partied in Stokes Croft. Her magnetism comes from the conflict between how she really feels (deeply) and how she acts (as though she doesn’t feel a thing) – a façade recognisable to the audience, but very few characters in the show.
Maeve’s magnetism also comes in part from the contrasts she embodies, but her anger is quick to give way to sympathy, whereas Effy’s cool detachedness eventually gives way to a mental breakdown. It’s hard to take the comparison much further, at least between Maeve and Effy, because “Sex Education” is earnest and good-natured, while “Skins” was, overall, about bad things happening to bad people.
And unlike Effy or characters like her from earlier shows, Maeve can’t be boiled down to one archetype for a female character, because in a way she embodies all of them. She is all at once the bad girl, the rebel, the girl-next-door and the romantic interest. And because “Sex Education” is the show it is, being sexually active or not isn’t treated as a value judgment.
In the third episode of the show, Maeve discovers she’s pregnant, and goes to get an abortion. The plotline is treated with sympathy, warmth and seriousness, but it also doesn’t make abortion out to be a huge, life-altering event in her life. In a humorous twist of events, Otis, who has gone to pick her up, ends up getting harassed by a couple of two born-again Christian protesters at the clinic (one I recognized as Anjana Vasan, who later plays Amina in “We Are Lady Parts”!). Maeve hasn’t told Otis what exactly he is meeting her for, and he arrives in a suit with flowers, thinking she’s asked him on a date.
At the clinic, an eccentric middle-aged woman starts up a conversation with Maeve in the waiting room. Maeve is annoyed but eventually ends up forging a connection with her, a mother of three who doesn’t want to have more children. Later, in their hospital gowns, the woman grabs her hand, and what could be a more serious or saccharin moment becomes humorous yet touching when she forces their arms into a wave, forcing Maeve, usually quite serious, to laugh in a tough moment.
This plotline felt especially germane to the political moment in the U.S., where abortion has grown increasingly criminalized, particularly in the wake of the new Texas abortion law. Of course, “Sex Education” takes place in the U.K., a place with a socialized healthcare system, where Maeve doesn’t have to worry about paying for her abortion, as someone in her position in the U.S., depending on where she lived, might. There is also less stigma around abortion, and sexual crimes are treated more seriously, at least for some people (you can see this play out in more detail in “I May Destroy You”). But it still feels quietly revolutionary to portray a teen getting an abortion in such a matter-of-face way on a popular TV show. There’s a similar scene in the Hulu show, “Shrill,” where protagonist Annie (Aidy Bryant) gets an abortion in the first episode of the show, based on creator Lindy West’s own experience. “Shrill wasn’t the first show to put an abortion on TV, but I believe it was the first to feature an abortion in a pilot episode, and it joined a short list of shows that have presented abortion without high drama, anguish, or regret,” West wrote in LitHub in 2019. “Sex Education” fits into that category, which feels all the more important given the current moment.
As the series wears on, some of Maeve’s walls come down, only to be built back up when she’s let down by the people around her. Her trust issues are both deep-seated. In the first season, her brother shows up only to wreak havoc and disappear, even after Maeve takes the fall for him when he sells drugs at her school dance. In the second season, her mother comes back to the trailer to stay with Maeve, along with Maeve’s toddler half-sister, Elsie. Maeve tries to keep her distance and remain skeptical of her mother, who has trouble staying clean. But ultimately she is a 17-year old girl who needs her mom. How it all plays out is ultimately heartbreaking for Maeve and her family.
Given these struggles, there are things that people like Otis, and Maeve’s loopy best friend Aimee, don’t understand, especially when it comes to money and class. Maeve has no outside support, and often can’t afford to pay for gas to light the stove. In the second season, Isaac, a young man who is partially paralyzed and uses a wheelchair, moves into the trailer across from her, and the two bond over their shared experiences of having parents with addiction and having to fend for themselves as kids. Though Otis and Maeve are the main “will they or won’t they” couple in “Sex Education,” the show also takes care to develop her relationship with Isaac, and make the audience understand their connection. (I was also moved by the love scene between Isaac and Maeve. Especially when disabled people are so often treated as non-sexual or even infantile, “Sex Education” makes room for us to see that this is not the case. Scenes like it feel extremely rare on television. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen one like it.)
The fact that Maeve is poor while Otis and Aimee are wealthy brings up some interpersonal issues, especially between Maeve and Aimee in the third season, when Aimee pays for Maeve to go on a school trip to France that she can’t afford. Aimee doesn’t see why it’s a big deal that she paid, but Maeve is offended. The two end up getting into a fight, which leaves Maeve feeling more isolated than ever. She doesn’t want to “accept charity” from anyone, in part because she’s had to be so independent her whole life, but Aimee accuses her of being “too proud.”
Aimee is a true friend, but it makes sense that Maeve would be wary. I wish the show had delved more deeply into the issue, or taken it further. While the show does address class issues, it doesn’t really talk about the how or why some characters are wealthy and others aren’t–due to different levels of education, opportunities they’ve been given, family support they’ve received. That is, how capitalist society determines the haves and the have-nots. The show is also lacking in any intersectional or race-based analysis, save perhaps for portrayals of Eric’s immigrant family, limiting the ways in which the show ultimately challenges the mold. As Noah Berlatsky recently wrote:
The show's idealism can sometimes feel a little over the top, however — especially when it comes to systemic cultural problems. ‘Sex Education’ is clear-eyed about the ways the rhetoric of safety, protection and responsibility can be used to police those who are different. But when it comes to depicting actual law enforcement, the show is much more credulous.
That Maeve seems to be trusting of this kind of authority rings a bit false, given the fact that someone of her background would probably be accustomed to negative experiences with the cops or other state institutions like child protective services, who Maeve ultimately calls on behalf of Elsie when she finds out her mother is using again. (For a more nuanced exploration of the limited options available for kids with ‘unfit’ parents, see Malika’s plotline in “Good Trouble,” or the heartbreaking movie, “The Florida Project.”)
Of course, one show can’t tackle every issue, and the main goal of “Sex Education” is to normalize sex and issues around it, and destigmatize and de-shame. From its title alone, you know that the central thesis of the show is to act as a direct rejoinder to abstinence-only sex education, and the vast harm it can provoke. This is critical content in a time like this.
Even though Otis is the one dispelling the sex advice, Maeve Wiley is the heart of the show, who demands our sympathy and support. At the end of the third season, she wins a scholarship to the U.S., which she chooses instead of pursuing a relationship with Otis, something that feels pretty rare for the main love interest of a show. While this could be just another plot device, the writers have carefully carved out a nuanced, complex female character that I could have used on TV growing up.
What I’m Watching This Week:
I’m watching “Starstruck,” a British rom-com on HBO about a Kiwi millennial who sleeps with a movie star. It’s cute but feels a little like a half-baked “Fleabag.” It’s a fun time but I’ve found myself scrolling on my phone while watching it.
Recommendation of the Week:
I just started “Reservation Dogs,” a show about Indigenous teens on a reservation in Oklahoma who resort to petty crime to try to get out and have better lives. With an all-indigenous cast of mostly unknowns, it’s different than anything I’ve ever seen.