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Inside the emotional scene 'Sex Education's' creator wrote to face her own sexual assault

Christi Carras, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

LOS ANGELES — As the creator and top-billed executive producer of "Sex Education," Laurie Nunn has collaborated with several writers while humorously weaving the awkward, messy sex lives of teenagers navigating the highs and lows of adolescence at a fictional high school in Wales.

But the seventh episode of Season 2 — about a student grappling with the trauma of a recent sexual assault — was an installment she knew she had to write alone.

"It was quite a personal story for me," Nunn said. "I had experienced a sexual assault on a local bus a few years before running that writers room, and I knew this was something I wanted to process in a cathartic way through writing."

Directed by Ben Taylor, the episode explores the aftermath of an incident in which Aimee (Aimee Lou Wood) is violated on a public bus by a man who masturbates and ejaculates on her favorite pair of jeans.

Throughout Season 2, the typically cheerful and sweet Aimee is haunted by hallucinations of her attacker, triggered by her boyfriend's touch and terrified of riding the bus. She walks to school every morning.

"We wanted this image of her not being able to get on the bus," Nunn said. "And this very small, everyday event becomes this huge mountain she has to climb."

Aimee's anguish finally catches up to her in Episode 7, which sees her, Maeve (Emma Mackey), Ola (Patricia Allison), Olivia (Simone Ashley), Lily (Tanya Reynolds) and Viv (Chinenye Ezeudu) serve detention for allegedly slut-shaming a teacher. While the other girls bicker over hobbies and boys, Aimee erupts in tears.

"I can't get on the bus," she whimpers. Instantly, her classmates forget their differences and go into support mode. All of them trade stories of sexual harassment and assault — the only thing they seem to have in common.

The "Breakfast Club"-esque detention sequence sets the stage for what fans of "Sex Education" have affectionately dubbed "the bus scene." At the very end of the episode, Aimee approaches the bus stop to find all five girls waiting for her.

"It's just a stupid bus," Maeve tells her visibly anxious friend.

The set piece ends on a close-up of a misty-eyed Aimee, sandwiched and smiling among her peers at the back of the bus.

"It was written in the script that the last shot was Aimee's face, and the line was something like, 'She looks like she's almost in tears. She's still feeling terrible, but she also knows she's going to be OK,'" Nunn said.

"This is still a very raw and vulnerable and quite a sad moment, but she is going to move forward. And I think having the girls in that line ... feels like such a strong image to get that feeling across."

Before the premiere of Season 3, streaming Friday on Netflix, Nunn, Taylor, Ezeudu and Wood revisited the bus scene, which marks the beginning of Aimee's healing process. Here's how the standout moment came together.

Nunn presented Aimee's Season 2 character arc to the "Sex Education" writers room in September 2018. By February 2019, a draft of Episode 7 was complete.

Nunn: Every year, I bring in a skeleton for what types of stories I want to explore for each character, and I knew that this was the journey I wanted to take Aimee on. I realized that Aimee was a really interesting character to explore sexual assault with, because, before the sexual assault happens, she's this very bright, sunny, quite innocent character who goes through the world really seeing the best in people. And even though it's heartbreaking, she was the perfect character to put through that experience because you really get to see a character's worldview completely shift from before the event to after the event.

It wasn't until after the writers room that I got into the writing of Episode 7, because that was one of the episodes I wrote from scratch, and it really did just happen in an organic way, knowing that I wanted to bring all the female characters together, and I wanted to get Aimee to understand that even though this thing that has happened to her is completely abhorrent and should never have happened, it's also really sadly a very common experience for a lot of women.

Taylor: Coming at it from the point of view of a male director, I was like, "OK, well, that's Laurie's story, and we're telling a version of that." It wasn't until I then started producing the series, and that storyline particularly, that I was very quickly educated how it was specific to Laurie but incredibly relevant and resonant for almost all the female cast on the show. So it immediately brought out a lot of discussion, probably more than any other subject or storyline we'd done before.

Nunn: The main point of discussion was about keeping Amy in a more passive state throughout the series and not having her come to the catharsis, or the resolution, until Episode 7 and Episode 8. This is the first time something like that has happened to her, and she genuinely doesn't know whether she's allowed to feel awful about it. She's like, "Well, I wasn't hurt. I wasn't raped. So why am I feeling so awful, and why am I feeling like nothing is right in my body?" That was the hardest part, trying to get back into her headspace and understand that was very much a process for her.

None of these girls really are friends. They don't really have a lot in common, but they understand that Aimee needs their help and their support in this moment, and it felt cathartic to have Maeve say, "I understand that you're finding this hard, but I'm gonna hold your hand, and we're going to get over this together." And Aimee just feels really seen in that moment. On the surface, it's just a stupid bus, but obviously, to Aimee, it's not a stupid bus. But we're all going to sit in that discomfort together and be there for each other. In some ways, it's a bit of a fantasy, but it made me feel a little bit less alone.

In June 2019, the second block of Season 2 scripts was delivered to the cast. Separately, they read the culmination of Aimee's story — including the cathartic bus scene — for the first time.

Wood: I didn't know where Aimee's arc was going for quite a while, and I was so intrigued to see where it took her. I was doing a play at the time at (London's National Theatre), and I remember getting the second block (of scripts). I was desperate to read it, and I was backstage, and I was devouring them. And then it got to Episode 7, and when I saw that all the girls wait for her, I was absolutely sobbing reading it.

Ezeudu: It is such a hard-hitting scene, and I think it's easy, as actors, to feel a lot of responsibility to portray such heavy topics like that. But I was excited to tackle it and give it as much respect as it deserved.

On June 30, 2019, the cast gathered at the London Welsh Centre in King's Cross for a table read of the second half of Season 2.

 

Wood: When we came back to read the last four (episodes), everyone was really open and generous. I remember reading Episode 7 — which was kind of everyone's favorite, really, because it was the detention scene and then the bus — so I remember everyone being in floods after we read that, because it was just such a beautiful episode.

Ezeudu:I remember people crying and having such a visceral reaction to the material, because I feel that everyone in that room and everyone in the world relates to what happened. I felt a lot of solidarity between everyone.

Wood:We knew how much it was going to mean to people.

On Sept. 8, 2019, the cast and crew traveled to the lush Cwmcarn Forest north of Newport, Wales, to shoot the bus scene. The cameras began rolling around 4:30 p.m. local time.

Taylor:I wanted it to be the last scene of the day, because you wanted the best light to give it this warmth and (sense) of nostalgia. When we get lucky with "Sex Ed," we get quite a few of these Welsh golden hours, and it felt really appropriate for that. However, I had messed up a lot earlier that day with really trivial stuff, so we got to the last scene on the bus with probably half as much time as I wanted. It wasn't that I wanted more shots, but I just wanted more time to do it.

Wood: I just remember feeling very trusted. Everyone in the crew was super respectful and kind of quiet. Everyone was trying to keep it as sacred as possible.

Ezeudu: (We were) being kinder to each other, because we knew what was coming. It was really focused as well. We knew what we were going to do and making sure we treated the material with the respect it deserved.

Wood: From the moment I walked down and saw Emma — when Aimee says, "What are you doing here?" and then (Maeve's) like, "We're getting the bus" — I had to really hold it back because it was so emotional. I'd spent so long with Aimee as a character, and I know her so well, and I love her so much. I made sure I was staying super present in the moment and connecting to Emma.

Taylor: The shot of Aimee in the bus is just a tracking shot down the center. The bus is moving. And then we did it again and changed lenses and pushed in until it was almost a clean close-up on Aimee. She was ready for it. I don't think we talked about it. We knew what we wanted.

Ezeudu: We held hands at one moment, and we had this squeeze, and we all felt the pulse. That meant we were supporting each other.

Wood: As much as the girls being there is a lovely thing, I wanted to make sure that (Aimee) is still afraid of getting on that bus. This has been a huge journey for her, and I knew how symbolic that was.

Taylor: We ran out of road, so the last frame you see of Aimee, before it cuts to credits, is the last frame of usable footage, because then the bus has to stop and reset. Every time I watched it, hairs on the back of my neck would stand up. It felt right and it felt powerful. But what inevitably happens if you send a good scene to an exec, they'll be like, "Oh, can we have more of that good scene?" So they said, "Can we just stay with Aimee for two or three more seconds before we cut?" And it's like, "That is literally it." That scares me a lot when you don't have options, but the relief was that it was enough.

Wood: There was kind of no acting required, to be honest. I don't remember thinking about it. I didn't plan anything. I just saw Emma, and then it just kind of happened.

We didn't do that many takes of it, either, because we wanted it to feel authentic. I'd done that story for the whole of Season 2. I'd spent months with it, so Ben — he calls me Woody — was like, "Woody, just go for it."

Taylor: It had this level of catharsis that we almost couldn't cope with. There's something about the images and the iconography of this and it being the last beat of the story. It transcended your average work day.

Wood: As actors, we were all holding back tears — especially because it was one of the last scenes we filmed. It was a picture wrap on loads of us, and so it made it doubly emotional. We were all just ready to f— burst into tears. ... When it happened, everyone was like, "This is the moment of Season 2 that everybody's gonna remember."

Season 2 of "Sex Education" premiered on Jan. 17, 2020. Within weeks, countless headlines, social media posts, poems and think pieces inspired by the final bus scene had surfaced online.

Wood: The day (Season 2) came out, my Instagram was all about that scene. I knew that girls and women were going to find it really, really emotional and moving, but what I was surprised by is how many guys were so moved by it and how quickly the conversation opened up. I remember getting coffee at a cafe, and people wanted to talk about that scene. It was kind of overwhelming, actually, but also amazing. I did know it'd be special, but I didn't think it was going to be so impactful.

Ezeudu: When we film things, we just play the truth in the moment, and we wait to see how it's received. But to see that it really resonated with viewers, it's just so, so great. And if it can help one person out there, then that's enough.

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If you or someone you know has experienced sexual assault, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at (800) 656-HOPE (4673) and visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) for more resources.

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