Like many young loves, it takes a few moments to settle into Sex Education. If you’re anything like me, it’s easy to enter the series wondering if Netflix’s new Brit teen comedy is an affront to 2018’s perfect same-genre The End Of The F***ing World and, more simply, what year is it at Moordale High? Then “Episode 3” comes around, unraveling the story of heroine Maeve Wiley (Emma Mackey) and her abortion.
“Episode 3” sets Sex Education apart from the rest — and points towards exactly where the portrayal of abortion on TV should head next.
“I’m really glad they did a whole episode on it. It's very easy for a subject like that to be sensationalized quite a lot and turned into these big, dramatic things,” Maeve’s portrayer Emma Mackey told Refinery29 over the phone of her character’s medical procedure. While Maeve’s abortion may be a big decision, it’s not treated with Very Special Episode theatrics. In “Episode 2,” Maeve realizes she is pregnant after secretly hooking up with sports star Jackson Marchetti (Kedar Williams-Stirling). After the revelation, she continues having sex with Jackson during “2.”
Then in “Episode 3,” Maeve finds the time after school for the procedure, which is free through the UK's National Health Service. “She’s very pragmatic like that, which I really like,” Mackey noted. “There wasn’t like a whole ‘What do I do?’ She just gets on with it because she has to. She can’t look after a baby.”
Sex Education itself is equally pragmatic about the abortion. By following Maeve through every step of the way, it reveals exactly what the medical process is like in England, shedding light on a step-by-step process often avoided by pop culture. Maeve dodges the invasive pro-life protesters outside the clinic, fills out medical paperwork, and waits outside an operating room in a hospital gown with thee other women. That waiting creates one of the most moving moments in all of Sex Education, when an older patient named Sarah (Lu Corfield) holds Maeve’s hand and makes her do a mini stadium-style wave. It’s reminder to smile during one of the most intense moments of a woman’s life. “It’ll be alright,” Sarah promises.
Inside the operating room, Maeve scooches into her chair, gets hooked up to a blood pressure machine, and is injected with a sedative. After joking with the doctor about her hobbies (“crochet, illegal cock-fighting rings”), Maeve is asleep and connected to an oxygen machine in seconds. The next time we see her, she is waking up in a recovery room and accepting a chocolate mousse cup. She is also no longer pregnant. Minutes later, Maeve is ready to go back into the world.
“It’s really cool that we actually show the process you might have to go through,” Mackey said, confirming Sex Education even had a clinical expert on set the day of “Episode 3” filming. “It de-sensationalizes [abortion] and makes it a bit less mysterious, which hopefully will help [viewers] get a better picture of what it’s like.”
As with Glow’s “Maybe It’s All The Disco” — which is similarly clear-eyed about the abortion process, albeit in a vintage way — “Episode 3” works because it’s not simply about an unnecessarily taboo subject. Rather, the emotional heft of the installment comes from Maeve’s unspoken feelings about family, mothering, and love. “The whole reasoning behind [“Episode 3”] is that it actually focuses on the relationship between Maeve and her non-existent, non-present mum,” Mackey pointed out. “The vulnerability and emotion that she does show during that episode comes from the fact she is also a little girl who needs her mum sometimes.”
The abortion, on the other hand, isn’t an emotional weight. That’s why Maeve’s short relationship with Sarah, to whom she only speaks for a few minutes, is one of the most memorable encounters of the entire series. For once, someone is caring for Maeve, and she doesn’t exactly know how to react. She has a similar reaction when Otis shows up to take her home. For Otis, waiting for Maeve to finish her procedure would be obvious; for Maeve, his kind behavior is a shock.
“It’s crushing to see her not expect someone to be waiting for her — for someone to actually care about her,” Mackey admitted. “I hope people see the focus is really on that: her struggle with accepting genuine love from people.”