[Warning: The following contains spoilers for Heartstopper Season 2. Read at your own risk!]
If the assignment for the second season of a television series is to expand the scope of the series' world while maintaining the essence that made its first season work, then Alice Oseman's Heartstopper passes with flying colors — preferably ones inside a whimsical doodle or two. The first season of Heartstopper, based on Oseman's U.K.-set young adult webcomic of the same name, follows the unlikely romance of recently outed outsider Charlie Spring (Joe Locke) and popular captain of the rugby team Nick Nelson (Kit Connor), who ends the season calling Charlie his boyfriend and coming out as bisexual to his mother Sarah (Olivia Colman). It's a story told with such joy and earnestness, you'd hate it if every aspect weren't so completely endearing.
Season 2 keeps the Charlie/Nick love story at the show's center while also making room to dive deeper into some of the other supporting queer love stories introduced in Season 1 — most especially, and successfully, the burgeoning romantic feelings between best friends Tao (William Gao) and Elle (Yasmin Finney). Heartstopper doesn't miss a beat. None of the magic or brightness of Season 1 is lost, and somehow, in eight episodes that all run around 30 minutes (bloated TV episodes, please know I'm giving you the side eye), every character in the ensemble feels well served. Actually, using the word "somehow" is wrong — it's clear how this magic trick is pulled off: Oseman, who writes all eight episodes, and the ensemble of young actors have taken great care to not only expand the show's world but the characters themselves. Every main character feels deeper and richer than before (although a few newly introduced supporting characters feel a little thin).
Part of this is surely due to the fact that, despite Heartstopper's sunny disposition, it isn't afraid to give its characters some major issues to deal with. Season 2 alone explores the highs and lows of coming out, homophobia, parental emotional abuse, eating disorders, depression, and asexuality, and honestly, I'm probably missing a few big ticket items. Queer joy is still the order of the day, but that doesn't mean there aren't some heavier moments and subject matter tackled. But Heartstopper also shows off its maturation in small, nuanced ways, especially within its performances. Does any other show know how to infuse as much emotion into a thumb wavering over the Send button in an Instagram DM? The series even lets its signature doodles expand into darker territory to help tell its story; it's very effective. It's this balance between effervescence and weightier material that makes Heartstopper such a lovely viewing experience and a welcome positive depiction of adolescence. (It remains absolutely wild that Heartstopper and Euphoria are both high school shows; there, I said it.)
There's no better example of how Heartstopper's natural maturation has made an already pretty great show even better than in the final moments of Season 2's finale, "Perfect," when Charlie and Nick reach a new level of vulnerability. The bulk of the season deals with Nick processing how and when to come out publicly. Throughout the back-and-forth of it all, Charlie is as supportive as a boyfriend can be. Nick is repeatedly told by Charlie, and others in his life, that there's no timeline for coming out. Regardless of what Nick decides to do, Charlie's feelings for him won't change.
Still, as the season moves along, Nick begins to notice that the whole idea of coming out is taking some type of emotional toll on Charlie — not because he wants Nick to be out, but because he fears what will happen once he is. Eventually, Charlie begins to put together that the severe bullying Charlie faced when he was outed — something we've only heard about in vague terms — is still very much causing him pain and anxiety. Although they never explicitly say the phrase "eating disorder" out loud, it becomes clear that Charlie developed one during that time and he's having a relapse now, if he ever really got a handle on it to begin with. When Nick learns that Charlie has never really spoken about what the bullying was like with anyone — not him, not even Tao — he's worried. Charlie always wants to keep things happy and upbeat; he wants everything to be fine even when it is clearly not, so Nick knows he's going to have to force the conversation.
So, on prom night, once their friends have gone home and Nick and Charlie are alone, he broaches the subject. Nick takes Charlie's hands and reminds him that they promised they would talk to each other about even the not-so-rosy things going on in their lives. Finally, Charlie is able to tell Nick just how bad it got, ultimately confessing to him that he began to hate himself so much he started cutting himself. Teary-eyed, Nick takes Charlie into his arms and asks him to make another promise: that if he ever starts feeling that way again, he'll tell him. "I've done so many things that were scary in the past few months because you were there holding my hand, and I want to be that for you, too," he tells Charlie, again, pleading with him to make that promise to him.
It sounds intense, right? And it is. It's a conversation full of competing emotions — love and fear and anxiety and a desire to be brave — that would be overwhelming for almost anyone, let alone teenagers. Yet the scene isn't overwrought or melodramatic — it's quiet. It's done in whispers and subtle physical reactions. There's no screaming or sobbing here (although if someone knows how to not openly weep any time Kit Connor's eyes remotely begin to well up, please contact me privately; thank you so much). The quiet honesty and vulnerability in the dialogue and performances are more than enough to get across the gravity of not only the subject matter, but the leap these two are taking as a couple. Their relationship isn't just about physical attraction anymore; it's deeper than that now, and you can see on both of their faces that there's no going back after this.
It's not just the characters with this newfound layered development, either. Both Connor and Locke deliver such gorgeously nuanced performances here (seriously, Heartstopper hit the casting jackpot with these two as its leads) that illustrate their maturation as actors along with a deepening in the material itself. It's so lovely that perhaps someone you know couldn't stop themselves from repeatedly yelling, "My sweet boys!" at her television screen throughout this scene. (It was me, I did that.)
But true to form, Hearstopper takes time to remind us that as intense as this step forward is, it also calls for joy. In the season's final moments, Nick sweetly lists things he loves about Charlie, stopping short of saying those three big little words, and the two can't stop smiling like idiots as they kiss goodnight. The episode, and thus the season, ends with shots of the boys on their own: On Nick's face, there's a sense he's overwhelmed with either his realization of how much he loves Charlie or this new responsibility he feels to keep Charlie safe — probably both. Meanwhile, outside, Charlie happily, excitedly contemplates messaging 'I love you' to Nick. It gives visualization to what the series has seemed to be getting at all season: If you want something real, joy and pain are going to be intertwined; that's just life. Embracing and exploring this truth by allowing Nick and Charlie's relationship to grow has only made Heartstopper a stronger series in its second outing. And, lucky for us, since Heartstopper presents us with a world in which joy typically wins out in the end, it's been able to do this without losing any of the warmth and hopefulness that made it so easy to fall for in the first place.
Heartstopper Season 2 is now on Netflix.
If you or someone you know is using self-harm or experiencing symptoms of an eating disorder, visit Netflix's Wannatalkaboutit.com or the National Eating Disorders Association website for support and resources.