For the month of November, Men's Health Awareness Month, TV Guide is presenting "I See You Man," a series of stories that take a deeper look at representations of men on TV today. Check back here throughout the month for more stories about men on television.
Eric (Ncuti Gatwa) and Otis (Asa Butterfield) of Sex Education — the former black and gay, the latter white and straight — are each other's ride-or-dies. Two outsiders in a small U.K. town, they gravitated towards each other as children, and grew up irrevocably entwined. Otis is the person Eric goes to with all of his baby queer dreams, since the only other out person in school despises him. Eric is the only person who knows about Otis's sexual dysfunction, because Eric understands Otis' frustration with his mother, smothering sex therapist Jean (Gillian Anderson). Like any pair of best friends, there's constant shit talking, cut ups, and jokes made each other's expense — like when Otis accidentally compares his date to an approachable house-cat and Eric brusquely concludes, "Women do hate you." — but in each other, they find a place to fall and bounce back. The worst thing in the world shrinks to a manageable size when they're by each others' sides. "Eric and I's relationship is kind of the heart and soul of the series," Asa Butterfield told TV Guide back in May. "[We're] able to show that sort of loving male friendship in its silliness, its goofiness but also its honesty and genuine love."
Showrunner Laurie Nunn told TV Guide back in January that she crafted Otis — a neurotic boy blessed with a wealth of sexual knowledge yet cursed with an inability to orgasm — as a "teenage girl's wet dream," since he uses his illicit knowledge to help teens overcome insecurities about sex, love, and desire in his underground sex clinic. He's a symbol of a kind, empathetic world where teens can recover after the major fuck ups that anyone who's gone through puberty will recognize.. Yet for all the awkward BJs, body issues and kink confusion Otis talks his clients through, the most tender and empathetic parts of Sex Education blossom in Eric and Otis's friendship. Unsurprisingly, that's also where Sex Education stages the show's most unique and explosive conflict: Otis accidentally stands Eric up on his birthday, which ultimately leads to Eric getting robbed, attacked, and stranded in the middle of nowhere. It's an unforgivable trespass, but Otis eventually finds the courage to say, "I'm sorry" — a hallmark of a revolutionary, emotionally intuitive, and difficult male friendship on TV. At a time when many young men are often defined by what dark corner of the internet they've stumbled into, Sex Education hinges on a nonjudgemental boy and his best friend.
"I loved the relationship between Otis and Eric," said Butterfield. "They were incredibly well thought out characters, and brillIantly funny." While Otis by himself was a lush role, innovative in a way that "we really haven't seen before on the teenage nerd spectrum," Butterfield instantly recognized that young men like Otis can only exist when the other male relationships in their lives are filled with the kind of boisterous and unapologetic love that Eric brings. Still, Otis can be "quite cold, even mean verging evil", Butterfield said, his abandonment of Eric on Eric's birthday — for his crush — the most egregious example. "As any teenage boy would be, he's driven by his hormones most of the time and can cause major upsets."
Their massive row began brewing when Otis gives Eric tickets for a production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch — a cherished yearly tradition that involves matching Hedwig cosplay. But this year, Eric can sense something off; Otis's attention is elsewhere, on someone with whom Eric can't compete. When the boys reunite at the end of the failed birthday — after Eric finally manages to get home safely with the help of Jean, and Otis nearly kisses Maeve (Emma Mackey) — Eric, understandably, explodes. Eric is shaken not just from the violent attack on his queerness, but also the fact that his ride-or-die wasn't there for him because Otis is beginning to explore romantic feelings for another person in a way Eric cannot.
To Eric, whose sexual growth is stunted by the lack of options in a small town, Otis' screw-up feels extra cruel, like a crime. Eric spits out through a bloodied lip that if Otis hadn't been bending over backwards for his crush, he wouldn't be having the worst birthday. Otis accuses Eric of being jealous that Otis has other friends. It's venomous and heartbreaking, especially since Otis' betrayal cuts right to the core of Eric's insecurities. For Eric, a black gay man ostracized at home and at school, his best friend's words remind him how naive he was to think the world would accept him, and reveal the horrifying idea truth that even his best friend sees his luminosity as a burden. Eric learns the one person he can fully trust can easily dismiss him for a chance at kissing a girl. While their fight is almost surgically personal, the scenario — best friends who love each other, but are having growing pains as they find themselves — is universal. "Those sorts of emotions which are often strongly linked with your younger years never really leave us," said Butterfield. "All these characters have their flaws, that's what makes it believable."
Over the next couple episodes, Otis goes on a big apology tour, but it takes several attempts before his mea culpa reaches Eric in a substantive way. Eric is fundamentally changed in the weeks after their fallout: he "butched up" to protect himself, punched out another student, returned to church, found himself again in a chance encounter with an older, out-and-proud, black man, and reconciled with his dad. By the time Otis approaches him for the third time, Eric has made a grand entrance at the school dance, resplendent in a gele and heels. This Eric isn't the same Eric as the old one; this Eric knows what it costs to be himself, and he's found the strength to stand tall as who he is. He doesn't even need Otis' apology at this point, which is part of the reason Otis' honest and very public acknowledgement is so pure and illuminating. Otis doesn't just apologize for abandoning Eric, he apologizes for trying to dim Eric's shine. "You think I'm attention-seeking," Eric accuses, standing regally in high heels and blinding highlight.
"I said that because I was jealous," Otis replies. "I think you're the bravest person I know."
In admitting the insecurities that pushed Otis into hurting his best friend, he not only acknowledges the damage he's done, but also how serious it is. There's no attempt to deflect how important they are to each other, no pride, no macho posturing, no beating around the bush. Otis tells Eric how much he means to him, and how much Eric inspires him. Wounds now soothed, they share an exuberant and affectionate dance, the way they would have if they had planned to attend prom together all those weeks ago.
"Apologizing is a big, big theme on our show," said Nunn, adding this was "really lovely" to write that journey specifically for young male characters. "Our show is saying, like no, talk to each other. Communicate," said Nunn. Butterfield added, "I think that's something that especially young men, probably younger than me, teenagers today can watch and maybe reflect on. [Sex Education] really is about teaching about some acceptance and everyone kind of being together. I hope Otis can teach people about respect, respecting other people's choices, respecting other people's bodies, and respecting the humans they love."
For young men struggling to navigate their emotions amid changing ideas of manhood, Sex Education's refreshingly honest portrayal of Eric and Otis's complex, turbulent, and wholesome friendship a major roadmap.
Sex Education is now streaming on Netflix.
(Disclosure: TV Guide is owned by CBS Interactive, a division of ViacomCBS.)