Taking a half-hour car ride from Cardiff, the capital city of Wales, will bring you to a small, sleepy rural town called Caerleon. It is there that Sex Education, the show that quickly became a sleeper hit when it arrived on Netflix in early 2019, is filmed.
The series, led by Asa Butterfield and Gillian Anderson, was equal parts raunchy and earnest, British in tone yet clearly influenced by American pop culture and style; laugh-out-loud hilarious and at times deeply serious.
Now, Sex Education is back on the streaming platform that birthed it, and the highly anticipated second season is chock full of just as many, if not more, embarrassing sexual hijinks as the first. The show picks up right where season one left off—Otis (Butterfield) is still Moordale High School’s go-to underground sex therapist, Eric (Ncuti Gatwa) is feeling out a first love, and Maeve (Emma Mackey), who has quit school, finds herself working at a local mall food court.
But all of its comedic escapades aside, this season’s most dramatic subplot slowly burns through the doe-eyed, easygoing Aimee (Aimee Lou Wood). In the beginning of this season’s third episode, Aimee stands on the side of the town’s lush forest-green road, holding on to a birthday cake for Maeve. When the bus arrives and she boards, she is assaulted by a man who masturbates on her leg. By the time she delivers the cake to her best friend, Maeve tells the happy-go-lucky Aimee that she has to go to the police, which she brushes off in an attempt to forget it ever happened at all.
As much as grown adults can enjoy Sex Education, it is in moments like these that one remembers who this show is really for—teens and young adults who, while mature in many ways, are still young and impressionable. Often praised for its stealth pedagogy, Sex Education pivots to teaching a more overt lesson about assault via Aimee’s season two storyline.
In between takes at an abandoned university campus in Caerleon, Aimee Lou Wood, who plays Aimee, spoke about the joy and difficulty of playing a character who she found to be quite close to her real self. In the first season, Aimee experiences a liberation of sorts when she finally learns the triumphs of self pleasure. “Once she has a wank, she’s a different person,” Wood explained. “She’s empowered herself in that way. She’s masturbated. She’s gone to her boyfriend and assertively told him what she wants sexually. So all that stuff starts to leak—oh, that’s the wrong word to use in this context,” she said with a laugh, before adding, “it affects the rest of her world. It emboldens her.”
But this newly emboldened Aimee is nearly crushed in season two when she is the victim of assault on the bus, and doesn’t open up about it to anyone. “She’s looking back on the memory and trying to think how it was her fault. She’s trying to edit the memory so it’s no longer got that much power over her,” Wood said. “The way she thinks she can do that is by being in denial—and she even says he was probably just lonely or not right in the head. I related to this a lot. When something happens to you like that, you feel so powerless and so helpless, there’s a part of you that doesn’t want to admit it wasn’t your fault, or it was really unfair and unjust, because then you’re surrendering to the fact that it hurt you, and it’s traumatized you. That’s a scary thing to admit.”
It takes Maeve badgering Aimee to not only tell the police but also accept the incident for what it was—assault. “She looks up to Maeve. I think Maeve has a lot of qualities that she feels like she doesn’t have—but she does. That assertive, no bullshit, not people-pleasing kind of vibe,” Wood said. “And Maeve thinks Aimee has this amazing optimism, lightness and hopefulness that she doesn’t have, but actually they both have all of it going on, they just don’t know it.”
In real life, Emma Mackey, who plays the fiery Maeve (a character who works through her own drama this season when her mother, who previously abandoned her, turns up unexpectedly), and Wood are just as close. Mackey believes it’s the nature of the collaborative set—the entire cast spend their summers filming the show and the characters they all play, and they would end up as real friends anyway. “You get to see our real-life chemistry come to life through different characters. We’re all quite close,” she admitted, in between shooting scenes from the season’s second episode, after her character has ditched her mall job and returned to school, no longer bleach blonde on the outside, but just as plucky on the inside. “Aimee is just naturally a joy, and we have a lot of fun together, but she’s also an extremely perceptive, mature, beautifully rounded soul.”
For the next four episodes, Aimee quietly struggles to get over being assaulted by a stranger in public. And when Aimee finally cracks, it’s while she and her fellow classmates are banished to an after-school detention and assigned to write an essay about what they each have in common (it’s an obvious nod to The Breakfast Club, one of the show’s many ’80s American teen comedy influences). In some ways, this traumatic experience brings her closer to her classmates. “I think she thinks the worst thing is having a moment where she just explodes and all eyes are on her,” Wood said. But when Aimee—who is very comfortable in the sidekick zone—finally opens up, she finds that every other girl in detention has had at least one experience similar to her own.
“I will remember that episode for the rest of my life,” Mackey said over the phone, months after filming the scene. “The conversations that we had in that episode are not far from the conversations that we had among ourselves about our own experiences. It was really moving to be in a room with just young women my age. We all look so different, and we’re from such different backgrounds, that it was kind of historical on our local level.”
Wood said that while filming that scene, what she could tap into the most was “that absolute embarrassment” that Aimee feels having an outburst in front of her classmates. “It’s just this kind of shame and humiliation that she’s shown that side of herself. It’s a sadness,” Wood continued. “But what’s so amazing is that the response that it gets makes her realize that actually she’s allowed to feel like that and she should express it more—because look at what she gets: She gets all these new friends, real friends who truly see her for who she is. It’s through this horrendous, traumatic experience that she realizes she’s got so much to give, and that people truly love and value her.”
While this episode teeters on the verge of becoming Sex Education’s “very special episode,” it actually wraps up a central question quite nicely, and in a way, that is just as easy to understand for adults as it would be for adolescents.
Wood said she wants everyone who watches Sex Education, and especially Aimee’s story, to understand “that female rage is allowed. And we don’t have to be sweet and digestible all the time.”
“Aimee is very right and so perceptive,” Mackey echoed. “The idea of female rage is—I can’t think of any word other than ‘healthy.’ All of this rage is a product of years and years and centuries of suffocating patriarchy that exists everywhere we look.”
“Aimee goes through this very physical thing. We see the element of going to the police, and then we see the long-lasting effects of PTSD and how an event like that can change someone’s life,” the actress continued. “In Maeve’s world you have this idea of single parenthood and her mom coming back into her life, and there’s addiction and recovery, which also affects a tremendous amount of people on a day-to-day basis. And then you have Jackson’s storyline, and the idea that a young black man is dealing with anxiety and it’s leading to self harm. All of these things are [being brought] to the forefront in this show, [which] feels very of our time,” she went on. “If they’re dealt with in a sensitive way, then I hope it will affect people in a way that is long-lasting and keep conversations going, and give these topics the attention that they deserve because they affect so many of us. This show is out there to make people feel less lonely and less scared, perhaps.”
“When shit happens, we should talk about it and we should share it,” Wood said, “because the only way to get through that and the only way to heal is to feel less alone, and the only way to feel less alone is by sharing and listening to other people’s stories. Women are trained from so young to not take up that much space, and to be accommodating. Even on the bus before it happens, Aimee keeps saying, ‘Sorry, sorry, sorry.’ She’s apologizing for just standing there. She doesn’t want to take up room, and she realizes that throughout the season.”
At the end of the day, Wood said she “would love people to see that women have to take up space and just how powerful talking can be” when they watch what happens to her character throughout this second season. “It’s quite a British thing, as well, to have that stiff upper lip. And that ‘keep calm and carry on’ thing, we do that a lot,” she went on. “We don’t want to talk about the unpleasant stuff—just want to keep it cheerful and self-deprecating and plow on. But we have to address the painful parts of life, in a way that is optimistic and hopeful.”