It’s easy to be skeptical that entertainment can save a life.
Especially now, when the world’s problems seem impossible, it seems naïve to suggest a television episode can wield such transformative power. Coincidentally, naïveté is a criticism also levied against Heartstopper, the popular Netflix series about a group of British queer teenagers exploring their identities. The consensus is that Charlie Spring’s (Joe Locke) and Nick Nelson’s (Kit Connor) love story is precious, with its flittering animations and tender interactions. However, some wonder if their romance is too precious. The Independent recently suggested the series’ sexlessness doesn’t accurately reflect Gen Z teenage life, compared to more risqué series like Euphoria and Sex Education.
The critique misunderstands who the primary audiences for Heartstopper and its suggested contemporaries are. Heartstopper is a series for young teens, signified by its TV-14 rating. Meanwhile, Euphoria seeks older teens and adults with its plum HBO Sunday primetime slot and TV-MA rating. Both series are Emmy winners in different areas; Heartstopper and Kit Connor cinched wins at the Children’s and Family ceremony, while Zendaya’s two Emmys come from the Primetime section. Both series touch on similar themes, notably queer love, but their approaches are tailored to their audiences. Heartstopper’s accessible, blushing warmth and Euphoria’s gritty, heightened realism are equally valid expressions of the teenage experience.
If Heartstopper isn’t terribly naive, is it possible that the show is capable of more? Could it actually save someone’s life?
The question comes into sharp focus in Heartstopper’s second-season finale. The series continues its embrace of its unabashed, joyous affirmation of queer identity while advancing and evolving its themes. One such thread is the complex trauma stemming from Charlie’s experiences with homophobic bullying. While the couple deals primarily with the nuances of Nick’s coming out, Nick also realizes how little he knows about what Charlie went through before they started dating. He notices markers of Charlie’s eating disorder, gently confronts him about it, and offers his emphatic support. That overture, among other aspects of their season-long journey, leads them to a consequential conversation after their first public outing at prom.
Alone in Nick’s bedroom, Nick asks Charlie about the bullying. Charlie fudges, insisting that it’s in the past and he’s fine. Nick pushes, gently but firmly, invoking their conversation about Charlie’s eating disorder and their promise to talk about their problems. With Nick sitting in front of him, quiet but intently listening, Charlie shares more than he has with anyone about the bullying’s effects on him. It made him feel “disgusting” and hate himself to the point that he occasionally cut himself.
The framing of the revelation is deeply significant. The camera is close to Charlie’s face, occasionally cutting to Nick’s face to observe his reaction. Charlie is the sole focus when he speaks, ensuring viewers match every word to the tense, resigned pain Joe Locke beautifully conveys. When Charlie discloses his self-harm, the instinct is to cut immediately to Nick’s reaction and capture his shock. Director Euros Lyn resists the impulse, holding the camera on Charlie, centering the confession’s enormity on him. Charlie’s pain matters most in that shattering moment, and there’s no hiding from it. When Charlie says he doesn’t want to feel worthless anymore, there is a palpable sense of release, an unburdening that Charlie had never felt worthy of until that second.
Only then does the camera shift to Nick as he pulls Charlie into one of their trademark hugs, the context of which is even more profound. Kit Connor, as is his specialty, wears Nick’s complicated mix of emotions plainly on his face. Instead of a dramatic torrent, the heartbreak, fear, desperation, and fierce need to protect seep out of him like the solitary tear that runs down his nose into Charlie’s shirt. Even then, Charlie’s comfort is paramount: in how Nick asks Charlie if he still self-harms and in his light teasing about the “S” word when Charlie apologizes.
As powerful as Charlie’s disclosure is, what follows pushes the scene into the emotional stratosphere. In Kit Connor’s most extraordinary moment on screen, Nick asks Charlie to tell him if he ever feels as he did when he was self-harming. The request is emphatic but gentle, Connor’s voice barely above a whisper. The phrasing is also very intentional. Nick doesn’t ask or beg Charlie not to self-harm, even though his desire to do just that radiates from him. Instead, he frames it as wanting to support Charlie through his feelings. Charlie again tries to obfuscate but with more shattering honesty. He doesn’t want to burden Nick with his pain, nor does he want pity or to be fixed. The irony of that sentiment is devastating when you consider Charlie’s goal this season was to “fix” Nick’s coming out process. It’s a self-loathing symptom of Charlie’s bullying manifesting in real time.
You sense that Nick sees this as he answers Charlie’s fears. His response is a step forward from their conversation at the Louvre about Charlie’s eating disorder. Nick insists that he would never pity Charlie or regard him as broken. He credits Charlie’s remarkable strength for helping him come out, and he wants to support him in kind. Nick even uses the same language from the Louvre, the simple but affecting statement, “You’re my boyfriend.” Connor’s delivery this time is heavier and fragile, as if he understands the impact of his words. Connor’s voice finally succumbs to the whisper as Nick uses the nickname “Char,” a motif in their most vulnerable moments. It’s a beautiful one.
After Charlie promises to share his feelings, the two embrace again, and Nick presses a kiss to Charlie’s forehead. It’s a lovely moment in a series defined by them. Still, there’s another layer that even the most astute media consumers might undervalue. One Twitter user discussing the scene notes that Nick’s forehead kiss directly comforts Charlie’s mind, the source of his persistent pain. You can imagine that reading invites the same kind of cynicism that has regularly nipped at Heartstopper’s heels. And yet, you can also imagine younger viewers coming away with the same thought. It is a stunning, rewarding coda to a scene awash in naked truth, emotional honesty, open communication, and validation of one’s darkest feelings.
Charlie and Nick’s final conversation of the season is Heartstopper’s finest moment. It is beautifully written and directed, with precise intention in every frame. Joe Locke and Kit Connor deliver raw, intimately honest performances that nearly exceed their tender ages. Most importantly, in all its tender affirmation, the conversation has the potential to touch anyone open to accepting it. It is a staggering validation for young teens who might share Charlie’s experience. The teens who might be causing said pain will see how deeply wounding their words can be up close.
Heartstopper is optimistic and warm, even akin to a fantasy. However, the empathy and acknowledgment the series offers its intended audience, even those beyond it, is powerful. The second season demonstrates how deep that power can reach, deep enough to change and, yes, even save a life.
The latest season of Heartstopper is currently streaming on Netlfix; view the full scene below.