As the Netflix series Sex Education enters its third season, it’s better than ever: The show exudes raunchiness and boasts a naturally funny cast of inclusive characters who tug on the heartstrings. What started out as a show about a young, sexually stunted boy who decides to run a sex clinic with the brooding, feminist book nerd he eventually catches feelings for, becomes more engaging and emotionally driven when it focuses on those originally presented as the antagonists, or villains, of the series.
In season three, Otis (Asa Butterfield) and Maeve’s (Emma Mackey) will-they/won’t-they dynamic drones on once again. Meanwhile, the popular mean girl, the nit-witted bully, the militant headmaster, and even the boy trying to catch Maeve’s eye take center stage, all with their own complexities and ever-developing storylines. This year, the core group of characters become frustrating and worthy of derision as they circle around the same issues from the first season, while those previously on the outskirts push the story forward.
When we see Otis in the season-three premiere, he’s still heartbroken over Maeve (surprise, surprise), and has somehow started a casual sexual relationship with the most popular girl in school, Ruby Matthews (Mimi Keene). After requesting they take their relationship to the next level, Otis gets closer to Ruby than many of her friends, signified by her inviting him to her home, where he meets her father. The series of unexpected events gives viewers a new relationship to root for—the drama between Otis and Maeve has run its course, and we see Ruby really try to build a relationship with Otis.
However, Otis messes this up by being emotionally inept just as Ruby begins developing feelings. She understandably returns to her steely exterior, but the hurt Otis caused is felt through the rest of the season. The girl who was once filled with insults and judgment has cracked, and like many teenage girls, finds herself heartbroken over a stupid boy. Ruby ends up taking the prize for most memorable scene of the season when she gets into a physical altercation with the new head teacher, Hope Haddon (Jemima Kirke), as the students revolt against her new rules. Meanwhile, Otis stands idly by, much as he does throughout the season.
Another archetypal bully undergoes a massive transformation in the third season. Throughout season one, the former headmaster’s son, Adam Groff, was a brutal bully who antagonized Eric Effiong (Ncuti Gatwa), Otis’ best friend and one of the only openly gay boys at Moordale. Adam struggled to live up to the standards of his own bully—his perpetually disapproving father Michael Groff (Alistair Petrie)—and grappled with his sexuality, leading him to take his anger out on those around him. By the end of the first season, Adam’s true feelings toward Eric wre revealed, and they began their relationship just as Adam was sent off to military school.
While the series does play into the unsavory “bully to boyfriend” trope, Sex Education maintains Adam’s character development in season three. In making concerted efforts for Eric, Adam tries to become a better conversationalist and get in touch with his emotions, two things never encouraged in his household. He works harder in school, and through his actions becomes compassionate, courteous, and self-sacrificing. It’s Eric who becomes the overly harsh one at times, expressing frustration as Adam does not yet feel fully comfortable with his sexuality, offering little room for grace and understanding. This all leads up to Eric cheating on Adam as he looks for something more, inevitably leaving Adam heartbroken. One of the most heartwarming moments of the third season comes in the finale when Adam taps into his passion for training and takes the family dog to a local competition, after which he has the strength to come out to his mother.
In the most unexpected development, the series takes the rigid, emotionally closed-off former Moordale headmaster Michael Groff and turns him into someone who expresses compassion and humility. After two seasons of overly-critical behavior toward his family, not to mention antagonizing Dr. Jean Milburn (Gillian Anderson), Michael got what he deserved. He lost his job at Moordale, Adam severed ties with him, and his wife Maureen (Samantha Spiro) asked for a divorce. That could have been the end of Michael’s story, as there was no obvious need to bring him back into the fold. However, over the course of the third season, he becomes a character who garners empathy; now at rock bottom, he decides to look inward at his own life and behavior instead of continuing to lash out at others.
Season three paints a portrait of Michael’s life that’s pretty pitiful. He can’t get hired at another school and is forced to live with his asshole of a brother who seeks to emasculate him by calling him “Michaela.” His time out of the classroom allows him to reflect on how he got himself there, and how he needs to change. Later in the season, Michael earnestly apologizes to Jean, and expresses not only dissatisfaction with his life, but himself. Being the kind woman she is, Jean begins a session with Michael, where he opens up about the torment he endured at the hands of his overly masculine father and brother, and the gentle kindness of his mother. On Jean’s advice, Michael seeks out happiness, channeling the sweet memories of his childhood by learning to bake and cook, bringing new sides to the stoic hard-ass. Michael dedicates himself to being a better man, and after being diminished by his brother his whole life, stands up against him in the season finale.
Even Issac (George Robinson), the late-entering antagonist from season two, earns sympathy in season three. While he may have been in the wrong for going through Maeve’s phone and deleting Otis’ voicemail in the season two finale, he was never wrong about Otis misunderstanding Maeve and treating her poorly. He remains at Maeve’s side through her ongoing issues with her family, offering the support she needs. As he and Maeve begin their short-lived relationship, Issac offers stability and romance, giving her a shoulder to cry on and setting all his intentions on her. He even paints a portrait of her and helps Maeve mediate a relationship with her mother again. When Maeve falls back into the thrall of Otis without so much as an apology from him, Issac is once again right when he says he deserves someone who is certain about their feelings for him, and he does not deserve to be cast aside for someone like Otis. While viewers may have been initially frustrated by his jealous actions in season two, there’s little doubt that he was mistreated by Maeve, who always counted on him just being there for her.
The continued focus on Maeve and Otis and their nonsensical relationship is one of the only things that dulls the effectiveness of the season. While Maeve and Otis persistently dwell on past issues and hurt those around them, the outliers of the series gain more and more traction, coming to their own epiphanies and enduring growing pains. Eric had his own poignant struggle with his sexuality and home life in the first two seasons; he’s been where Adam is right now, so he could have a little more compassion for his now ex-boyfriend. But in season three, Eric is more focused on his own journey. While the trio of Otis, Maeve, and Eric provide most of the conflict throughout the season, for now, the heart of the show has moved to those previously considered heartless.