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Heartstopper Refuses to Put an Age Limit on Self-Discovery

Watching the Netflix romantic comedy with a mix of yearning, envy, and recognition.
  • Joe Locke and Kit Connor in Heartstopper (Photo: Teddy Cavendish/Netflix)
    Joe Locke and Kit Connor in Heartstopper (Photo: Teddy Cavendish/Netflix)

    As a thirtysomething gay man who grew up in the south, I don’t exactly long for the days of high school. Don't get me wrong, it wasn't a horror story. Aside from some unimaginative name calling and a daily fear I accidentally wrote my biggest secret on my forehead, I guess some would say I was lucky. I wouldn't, because you lose a part of yourself when you feel you have to bury your feelings for the benefit of others, especially when you're a kid.

    But again, I don't long for the days of high school. Which is why I was so confused by the indescribable feeling that wedged itself into the center of my chest after watching Neftlix’s British teen love story Heartstopper in one sitting last year.

    Just to be clear: I love this series, which is written by Alice Oseman (who also created the webcomic it's based on) and follows the burgeoning relationship between out teen Charlie Spring (Joe Locke) and his closeted bisexual rugby-playing classmate Nick Nelson (Kit Connor). "Euphoria" feels like a dirty word when applied to anything in high school these days, thanks to the HBO drama series, but it is apt in describing the sensation of watching Heartstopper. It is a tender love story that is delicate and hopeful, and builds upon a declaration that it’s OK to give yourself permission to be who you are.

    And yet, when it was over, it felt strange to be left with an emotional hangover that amounted to something just north of sadness. On a second watch, that balled-up fist of a feeling in my chest unclenched a little when I realized I wasn't heartsick over running out of episodes in Charlie and Nick's high school romance. I was mourning the fact that I never had one of my own. I didn't come out fully until I was 21. Even then, I took the anxiety over engaging with that part of myself that I had so deeply forged in high school into my mid-20s. But I came to learn how to wrap my arms around who I am, and I made peace with the lost part of my youth I spent walled off.

    It wasn't until I watched Heartstopper a second and then a third time that I realized I did so with envious eyes. Charlie and Nick's story isn't perfect, even if there are cartoon butterflies circling their heads as they stare deeply into each other's eyes. It deals with the exterior pressures of coming out, the threat of close-mindedness and the isolating feeling of being the Other. But in spite of all that could close them off to the world, these two characters share something. An experience, a connection that I and so many people never had — and that I found myself longing for. It's not because I haven't found connection as an adult. But rather, there's something formative about young love or something like it when you haven't yet been jaded by the world.

    Somewhat expectedly, my viewing experience of Heartstopper Season 2 (now streaming on Netflix) came with an interesting rush of excitement and apprehension — one that propelled me through another one-sitting binge. All the hallmarks are there in Season 2. Charlie and Nick revel in the electric thrill of something new as they contend with the labels of boyfriends, Nick's gradual coming out process, mounting schoolwork, family dynamics and the increasingly complicated romantic lives of their friends. It remains a sweet series that rightfully leans into Oseman's voice and never betrays the scale of its grounded story.

    Fisayo Akinade and Nima Taleghani in Heartstopper

    Then comes Episode 6, titled "Truth/Dare." The kids are in Paris for a school trip, one of the many perks of being a bus ride away from the City of Love when you live in the U.K. While there, they are chaperoned by Mr. Ajayi (Fisayo Akinade), Charlie's confidant and art teacher from Season 1; and a new character, Mr. Farouk (Nima Taleghani), a stern but kind teacher whose demeanor leaves something unspoken.

    That something gets its moment in Episode 6 when Mr. Farouk and Mr. Ajayi catch Charlie and Nick in a passionate moment in the hotel's vending machine alcove. Sending them back to their room, the two teachers laugh off the inescapable cloud of hormones hanging over the teens in their care. But in the dull neon of the vending machine lights, a familiar look washes over Mr. Farouk. I recognized it instantly.

    "When you don't figure out you're gay until your late 20s, you tend to miss out on those beautiful gay teenage experiences," he says. "It's probably a bit late for me to have any youthful moments of discovery."

    Those words spoke directly to the feeling that had burrowed in my chest after Season 1. As Heartstopper's star rose in 2022, I saw plenty of gay men and others on Twitter express similar emotional responses. I was never alone in feeling that simultaneous affection for the series and yearning for something that was never part of my story. But to hear that perspective spoken out loud by a voice in Charlie and Nick's world meant something as a viewer. It meant the show had been listening.

    I hold a fondness for Heartstopper that I couldn’t quite put into words last year. I'm grateful not just for the arrival of Mr. Farouk, but for Oseman's keen understanding of who their story reached in Season 1 –– and it wasn't just teenagers. Mr. Farouk's vocalization of his limited-but-working-on-it queer experience is in the graphic novel, but giving it this moment in the TV series is important. He is speaking to those of us who see ourselves reflected in that longing, as much as he’s expressing it to himself.

    Mr. Ajayi's flirty response came with its own brand of validation: "I don't think there's an age limit on those." And he's right.

    I don't long for the days of high school, and Heartstopper — no matter how many therapy-level breakthroughs it leads to — won't change that. But I do long for a different story for my younger self. It is nice to know young people out there (fictional or otherwise) might not be as petrified as I was to share in a youthful moment of discovery. And for those of us long past that time, it's helpful to remember we'll never be as young as we are today.

    Heartstopper Season 2 is streaming on Netflix. Join the discussion about the show in our forums

    Hunter Ingram is a TV writer living in North Carolina and watching way too much television. His byline has appeared in Variety, Emmy Magazine, USA Today, and across Gannett's USA Today Network newspapers.

    TOPICS: Heartstopper