How Sex Education's most unlikeable characters actually carried season 3

By now we’re sure you’ve watched the latest instalment of Sex Education, or at least heard all about it on your newsfeed. Season three of the sex-positive Netflix show has captured hearts around the world.

But what has come as a shock to many viewers — us included — is how much they’ve loved characters they once despised. In fact, the transformation of Adam Groff (Connor Swindells) and Ruby Matthews (Mimi Keene) is one of Sex Education’s biggest triumphs yet.

Adam has been a controversial character ever since he was introduced in 2019. He was the school bully in season one, regularly singling out Eric Effiong (Ncuti Gatwa) and making him the primary target of snide remarks and physical attacks because of his sexuality.

Meanwhile, Ruby: the sassy leader of the Untouchables, the Queen Bee of Moordale and, well, that bitch. Ruby 1.0 was a regular tormenter and slut-shamer of Maeve Wiley (Emma Mackey), and would gate-crash Aimee Gibbs' (Aimee Lou Ward) home under the guise of a fake friendship.

But all of that changed in season three. Who could've predicted the major, stop-in-your-tracks, 180° turn, which saw the internet quickly fall head over heels with both of them?

Photo credit: Sam Taylor/Netflix
Photo credit: Sam Taylor/Netflix

One of the best things about Sex Education is the writers’ ability to create complex, layered and loveable characters. They manage to transform these people who appear one-dimensional at first into more nuanced human beings.

It would have been easy for Adam to remain the bully for the entirety of the show, but the writers recognised that they could give us so much more. As the series has progressed, we’ve learnt that Adam’s behaviour might stem from his dysfunctional relationship with father Michael, or his being uncomfortable with the fact he’s bisexual. While it doesn’t excuse all of his actions, this backstory humanises Adam and shows that there’s a chance he could change.

Writers have continued to flesh Adam out in season three by showing his insecurities, desires and interests. We finally saw a multidimensional character who watches Keeping up with the Kardashians with his mum (who doesn't love Kim?) and enters his family dog into Crufts-style shows. We also see the deep desire for acceptance from his father ("Don't tell my dad I didn't win a real award.")

Similar to Adam, season three of Sex Education expanded Ruby’s character in a way that felt truly authentic. We learned that the queen of hair-flicking and killer outfits is more than just a hallway bully, and has her own complex issues to deal with. At the end of season two, she and Otis Milburn (Asa Butterfield) were sleeping together casually. Then, as she softens, aspects of Ruby’s personality began to fall into place.

We see Ruby comes from a humble household and has never invited anyone over because of the insecurity attached to that. We see (spoiler alert!) her heart being broken. We see a side to Ruby that shows us women can be strong and vulnerable at the same time.

"Ruby’s quite different this season," actress Mimi noted in a recent interview. "There's a lot more of a deep dive into her character. It's not just the hard, mean exterior that we've seen from her up until now.

Photo credit: Netflix
Photo credit: Netflix

"I think in the last season we saw a little glimpse of another side to her and this season really looks into that, focusing on other aspects of her life, like her home,” she said.

Sex Education is the perfect example of how superb writing can make you question everything. It demonstrates how to properly transform a previously unlikeable character into someone viewers actually care about through the use of good writing, strong acting and compassion.

We can only hope that these characters continue to develop in season four, where we’d love to see Ruby and Otis get back together (we’re team Rotis over here) and Adam finally be comfortable with who he is.

Sex Education seasons 1 - 3 is on Netflix now

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