Twice before on this blog, I have written long, analytical essays about fictional relationships that struck me as being particularly memorable. First I wrote about Pippin and Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings and how their juxtaposition and unlikely friendship contributed to mutual character growth than goes largely uncommented on because of the more obviously important twosomes in that series. Then I wrote about Andy and Erin from the sitcom The Office, detailing how the strong buildup to their romance is ultimately let down by poor writing choices and baffling character regression.
It has been a while since I wrote an involved essay of this kind, but I recently finished season three of the Netflix series Sex Education and had a lot of thoughts, particularly about the relationship between Adam and Eric. After my sister and I discussed and analyzed the series over text for something like four hours, though, I decided that I didn’t actually want to write about Adam and Eric specifically, although that will certainly be a large part of this piece. Actually, I’m interested in Adam and the masterful way the Sex Education team developed and refurbished his character from the bully everyone hates to the heartbreaking hero (almost) everyone agrees deserves better.
For obvious reasons, an essay about a lead character’s development which encompasses all of his significant relationships is by necessity going to be much longer than one about a specific relationship between two secondary characters. For that reason, I have split this essay into two parts. Part I, this one, covers seasons one and two. Part II, which will be out later, is all about season three. I have also created a table of contents with links that will let you jump to specific sections within parts.
Table of Contents
This is an extremely long post, so here’s some navigation to let you skip around to the parts you’re interested in:
- Adam and Michael: The Bullied Bully
- Adam and Eric: Overcoming Homophobic Bullying
- Adam and the Military: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell
- Adam and Rahim: Setting a Love Triangle
- Adam and Ola: Bi/Pan Solidarity
- Adam and Eric: Closing the Triangle
Adam and Michael: The Bullied Bully
Despite anchoring a major emotional storyline in season three and wrapping up as a fan favorite, Adam at the beginning of Sex Education sits somewhere lodged awkwardly between sympathetic villain and antagonistic antihero. It would be easy to say that he begins the show primarily as a homophobic tormentor. For much of the first season, many of Adam’s scenes have him tormenting Eric, the openly gay best friend of the show’s lead character Otis. Adam is the school slacker. He cheats on his schoolwork and is apathetic whenever he’s not stealing Eric’s lunch money. It would be easy to immediately write him off as the one-note bully that every teen drama needs.
Even from the start, though, Sex Education doesn’t let the viewer slot Adam neatly into that role. Along with his season one girlfriend Aimee, Adam is the first character we see onscreen. We meet Adam before we meet Eric, or even before we meet Otis. It’s not always true, but it is often the case that fiction will open with its primary character, the one with whom we are going to navigate the story. That’s not generally true of Sex Education, which usually opens with Otis’ client for the episode, but in s1e1, we don’t know that yet. We open with Adam struggling with his sexuality, and we’re therefore primed for sympathy. It’s only in Adam’s second scene—his first with Eric—that we see the school bully. Even then, the scene is queercoded. Of course, there’s a whole history to the closeted homophobic bully, but Sex Education does seem to want to let Adam land comfortably there, either.
Even as he’s viewed through Otis and Eric’s eyes as a bully and an idiot, the viewer gets a little more context for Adam; episode one is Adam’s episode. It’s carefully built so that, as much as it’s easy to hate him, there’s the hint of something less despicable underneath.
AIMEE: Ruby and Olivia think I should dump him. They say he’s bringin’ down my social status, but… the thing is, he can be really sweet when nobody’s watchin.’Sex Education season 1, episode 1
Adam being sweet when no one is watching is something that recurs with him, and it introduces the idea that at least some of his assholery is performative. Then there’s the fact that the rest of the episode, basically, is about Adam owning his narrative. Adam’s problems start the whole show. He’s Otis and Maeve’s first client, and we are forced to listen to him explain his problems through Otis’ therapeutic ears. It’s the rare situation when you sit in a therapy session with the antagonist. Sex Education does not create a monster and then try to retroactively redeem him. From the start, it builds his insecurities into his character (and also keeps Adam from being the only source of homophobia; most of the homophobes are minor straight characters, which avoids the dangerous all-homophobes-are-closeted-homosexuals trope that might’ve prevailed if it had just been Adam).
OTIS: It’s interesting you mention your father. How does being the headmaster’s son affect you?
ADAM: Well, it’s shit, obviously… Everyone’s watching me all the time. Everyone’s like, ‘There goes Adam Groff, headmaster’s son. He’s got a big massive elephant’s cock.’ I’ve got feelings. I guess that… I wish I could be a normal kid. With a normal dick, and a normal dad.Sex Education season 1, episode 1
Then Adam owns his narrative and Aimee dumps him because he’s a social liability. We’re sympathetic, because that must hurt. Adam’s speech to the whole school and his promise to Otis to leave Eric alone prime the viewers for a redemptive turnaround. But then he goes back on his word and resumes his bullying, and it again becomes very, very difficult to root for him. Because Sex Education immediately builds Adam the bully and Adam the victim concurrently, it’s hard to totally hate him, but it’s impossible to actively support him.