[Warning: The following contains spoilers for the Season 2 finale of Sex Education. Read at your own risk!]
I never thought I'd have to have The Talk with Sex Education, a show that should know better than "impossible" pregnancies, much less impossible pregnancies that only exist to complicate the life of a woman played by Gillian Anderson. But in the colorful dramedy's Season 2 finale, Jean (Anderson) discovers that she's pregnant, despite the fact that her former partner, Jakob (Mikael Persbrandt), had a vasectomy. "That's impossible," she protests. Raise your hand if you've heard that one before. This is, by my count, the third time a Gillian Anderson character has been shocked by a pregnancy she didn't think was possible and the second time in the last two years alone. I'm not mad; I'm just disappointed.
The twist is particularly frustrating given how often — and how explicitly — Sex Education insists that women's bodies belong to them alone. In Season 1, Maeve (Emma Mackey) gets an abortion, and Aimee (Aimee Lou Wood) joyfully discovers masturbation. In the new season, which premiered Jan. 17, the girls come together to support Aimee after a man jerks off against her on the bus; she finds release when they take her to smash things in a junkyard. Jean, meanwhile, strikes up a friendship with the lonely Maureen Groff (Samantha Spiro), reassuring her that she deserves sexual pleasure and inspiring her to end her suffocating marriage. For everything men put them through, the women of Sex Education are encouraged to own and enjoy their bodies. And yet it's difficult, at least at this stage of the story, to view Jean's unexpected pregnancy as anything other than a punishment.
There's the near impossibility of it, for starters — vasectomies are almost 100 percent effective at preventing pregnancy, per Planned Parenthood, and Jean is entering perimenopause. But her emotional state is more damning than the statistics: Jean, who already hates admitting that she's vulnerable, is mourning her recent breakup with Jakob, and the pregnancy makes it even harder for her to deal with her feelings. At the news, she cries on her doctor's shoulder: "That makes the whole heartbreak thing so much more complicated." Wherever the story goes in a potential third season and however well it's handled, so far Jean's pregnancy is just a season-finale shocker with one narrative purpose: to make her heartbreak more complicated. And yet earlier in the episode her doctor reminds her that a broken heart has physical symptoms — that just being sad is a diagnosis that should be taken seriously. Her heartache could have been enough.
It's a bizarre pattern for Gillian Anderson: playing another woman who gets pregnant (impossibly) because her life isn't hard enough already. The X-Files did it twice. At the end of the Fox drama's seventh season, Mulder (David Duchovny) was abducted right as Scully found out she was pregnant, despite the fact that her own abduction had supposedly left her "barren." The chief dramatic purpose of Scully's miracle baby was to make Mulder's absence more tragic for her, and she eventually gave up their son for adoption when the show ran out of things to do with him. The second season of the X-Files revival, which aired in 2018, faced up to how the original series had dropped the ball with Mulder and Scully's son — but just as the family reunited, the show decided only a new baby could heal them. The show ended with Scully suddenly and miraculously pregnant again at 54 years old.
The X-Files, even in its glory days, had a bad habit of canonizing Scully for not having sex — a '90s overcompensation for over-sexualized women in media. It wasn't the text of the show, but it was always the subtext: Scully wasn't like other girls. Scully was pure. She had a single one-night stand and nearly died. It seemed in the revival like The X-Files had finally moved past the whole Madonna-whore dichotomy — Scully owned, and I cannot emphasize this enough, a vibrator, and she and Mulder had sex twice. But her surprise pregnancy was a lingering symptom of a mindset the show couldn't let go of: A woman's pleasure was not enough of a story on its own. The show always seemed worried sex would debase Scully's intellect. It didn't share that concern for Mulder, an Oxford graduate with a porn habit. I can't imagine why.
Sex Education, which premiered a year after Scully's second immaculate conception, is an antidote to The X-Files' obsession with purity. Jean is a sex therapist. She's an uninhibited hippie mom with phallic statues in her office who once used a zucchini to demonstrate a sex act on camera. She holds authority on everything The X-Files wouldn't touch with a 10-foot pole. Jean's pregnancy is far less egregious than either of Scully's because it isn't a miracle; it's just a shock, and it's easy to trust that the choice will be in her hands from here. But this pattern is going to keep me up at night. Three "impossible" pregnancies! One actress! Conspiracy? Probably not. It's a wild coincidence though, proof that even the most enlightened shows have a hard time not treating women's bodies like plot devices. The X-Files punished Gillian Anderson's character for sex. Sex Education wouldn't dare — but it did punish her for love.
Sex Education Seasons 1 and 2 are streaming now on Netflix.