Sex Education's creator and cast take us inside the sexy yet educational third season
Sex Education is back in session.
Season 3 of the Netflix sexy yet educational dramedy returns Friday, Sept. 17, and boy, do we have a lot of learning to do. At the end of last season, Otis (Asa Butterfield) had a moment of growth and finally reached out to Maeve (Emma Mackey) to tell her how he felt. But the voicemail he left never actually reached her ears, thanks to Isaac's (George Robinson) meddling ways. Maeve was a little preoccupied anyway, dealing with the fallout with her mom (Anne-Marie Duff) after she reported her to Child Protective Services. Elsewhere, Jean (Gillian Anderson) was surprised to find herself pregnant, and Eric (Ncuti Gatwa) and Adam (Connor Swindells) decided to make a go of their relationship following Adam's grand romantic gesture at the school show.
With all that to deal with, plus a new headmistress in the mix who's ready to bring some morals back to Moordale, it's a crammed curriculum for the students. "Otis has got some new things on his plates that have shaken things up a bit," Butterfield tells EW. "He's gotten a lot more confident in himself. He's standing up for himself a bit more." He's even embarked upon a casual relationship with an unexpected partner. "He's found his mojo a little bit more and has a little more sass," says Butterfield.
"Sometimes Otis doesn't get it exactly right when it comes to his romantic relationships," notes series creator Laurie Nunn. "The central conflict within himself is that he wants to be a good man and it's hard for young men to find their center when there's so many conversations around toxic masculinity. That's very much what Otis as a character is grappling with this series and, because he's 17, sometimes he gets it right, sometimes he gets it wrong."
Unsurprisingly, he's grappling a little with finding out his mother (Anderson) is expecting a baby. "There's a lot of new things going on in the family and unlike season 1 or 2, he's matured a bit and is dealing with them a lot better," says Butterfield. "He's almost supportive of his mom. But seeing him be a bit more grown-up about their relationship was a massive development for him."
Otis isn't the only one Jean has to worry about though. There are reservations across the board about her pregnancy — and she still has to find a way to break it to her baby daddy, Jakob (Mikael Persbrandt). "Once he finds out, it's very moving for him, but it's not as simple as she might have hoped," says Anderson, adding that even "people Jean encounters on the street have mixed feelings about the fact that a woman of her age is pregnant and they have quite a lot of judgment about it." But rest assured that Jakob is keen to participate. "What that actually means and how they will negotiate that is all to be decided though," says Anderson. "Jean would ultimately be willing to try raising the baby under the same roof with him, but also — based on previous experience — she doesn't know if she wants that either." But it's Jean's originality and unorthodox decisions that keep Anderson invested in the character. "She certainly doesn't settle, which I appreciate," says the actress. "She continues to be incredibly complicated. Getting to do a character that is so complex, who's not a straight line, that always makes for good drama."
There's parental drama for Maeve too as she tries to reconcile her guilt about calling the police over her mother's inability to look after her younger sister. "It weighs very heavily on her," says Nunn. "The thing about Maeve is she's a teenager that has to make a lot of very adult decisions really before she should. She's never really allowed to just be that 17-year-old girl who makes mistakes. She needs a break." Over the course of the season though, we see Maeve forgive herself and come to terms with her decision. "We see her grow within that whole dynamic," says Mackey.
Maeve might find a way to speak truthfully to her mother, but when it comes to Otis, there's still a lot left unsaid — or deleted, in the case of last season's voicemail. For Nunn and the other Sex Education writers, it was fun to figure out when and how that "story bomb was going to explode" — but before you get too excited, truths aren't exactly going to be aired quickly. "It definitely doesn't get resolved straight away — it's Sex Ed., so why would it?" jokes Mackey. "It's something that develops and is obviously a point of contention and will inform how Maeve's friendship with Isaac evolves as well, even though Maeve is unconscious of it at the beginning of the season."
Meanwhile, after Adam finally stood up and admitted his feelings for Eric publicly, the couple has spent the summer trying to figure out how to be together. "They're solidifying that relationship — not as much as Eric would like," says Gatwa, perhaps hinting at their sex life. "They've come a long way and are on an equal footing now and we're starting to see wherever they're right for each other. You see them struggle to give each other what the other needs." Nunn enjoyed exploring how teenagers can often choose the wrong person because they're blinded by the connection they have to another person. "This season is about working out what happens after that big romantic gesture," says the creator. "Now they have to work out, can they actually be a couple?"
Okay, so that pretty much covers the sex side of the show. As for the education? Well, Moordale has a new headmistress. Hope (played by Jemima Kirke) — she's cool and lets students call her by her first name — arrives with an agenda to get Moordale back to the upstanding pillar of excellence it was once, with family values aplenty and certainly, no sex plays. "Jemima really manages to create a character that you don't really get at first," says Butterfield. "We realize her morals or her reasons for doing things are a bit weird, but when she explains them, you see why she believes them herself. I think the best antagonists are the ones that genuinely believe in what they're doing."
The arrival of Hope and her new rules and regulations gave Nunn the opportunity to explore the students' personal expression and identity. "From her perspective, she completely thinks that she is behaving in the right way and that she is helping the students of Moordale," says the creator. "A lot of the younger generation's conversations around sexuality, identity, and sex-positivity are moving and changing all the time and, even though Hope is only a generation older, she's just a little bit behind the times when it comes to those conversations."
One of the students left feeling entirely misunderstood by the new headmistress is newcomer, nonbinary student Cal (played by Dua Saleh). "What's really important with Sex Education is having characters that are not completely defined by how they identify," says Nunn. "Through introducing a nonbinary character with Cal, we get to explore some really interesting aspects of their identity, as well as this great story about them developing a friendship with and feelings for Jackson (Kedar Williams-Stirling)."
Nunn hopes that this season, and the show in general, will serve as an antidote to the abysmal sex ed classes many of us received in high school. "I'm in my thirties now and I still feel like there are so many questions that I don't know the answer to!" she says. "When I was 16, I was taught absolutely nothing about my body, female pleasure, or desire. It's really important that our show continues to look at those topics and tries to give people of all generations a different perspective on them. The show says there's nothing to be ashamed of, everybody has a body and everybody feels like they don't fit in sometimes. That's something that should be celebrated."
Sex Education season 3 arrives on Netflix Friday, Sept. 17.