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  • Writer's picturecasey

Heartstopper episode 2.03 "Promise"

This is the most I’ve looked forward to a new season of a show in a long time. I watched it all in a day and it filled my heart right up. To be a YA romance about two high school boys, it hits strikingly close to home. I was instantly enamored with season one, and my experience with it made me realize that I had actually never seen this part of myself on screen so completely before (I’ve been clinging to Olivia Wilde’s Thirteen on House for a decade). They’re high schoolers with high school problems, yet everything they go through feels significant without veering into melodrama. In fact, I think the reality of what they’re facing is so challenging, and all of these characters deserve so much credit for how they face them.

Joe Locke and Kit Connor in Heartstopper. Image courtesy of IMDb.

Especially Charlie. Charlie’s the unspoken protagonist of this story- when we watch this show we step into his shoes- and I think that sometimes leaves him overlooked. We empathize with all the characters on occasion- the show is really good at that- but Charlie was the one with the crush, the constant victim of unwanted attention; it’s easy to imagine ourselves in that position. But like no one’s favorite character is Harry Potter (except mine), I think Charlie can come across as two dimensional if we get too caught up in the self-insert nature of the story; like everything happens to him without him doing anything. But he’s a great dude, tbh.

And in this episode, he’s taking care of everybody else. The term is finally over- everyone in Nick’s year has just finished exams, and Charlie is ungrounded, just in time for a big party in the woods. Before leaving school, Tao declares his feelings for Elle with a new haircut and flowers, asking her on a date to the movies before the party. Elle accepts, and he takes her to see Moonrise Kingdom, a movie he hates but she loves. They both have nervous butterflies, but Elle is thrown off by the tension in the air and doesn’t like that Tao isn’t acting like himself.

They awkwardly agree to go to the party, where it’s revealed that Elle has invited her new friends, fellow prospective art students. Tao explodes, declaring that she’s forgotten all about him, and storms off (we’ll confirm later that Tao’s fear of abandonment stems from the death of his dad when he was 12; not everyone’s behavior is excused, but there is a reason that every character acts the way they act). Still reeling, Tao bumps into Charlie, who’s been separated from Nick in the chaos of the bonfire. Tao bursts into tears, declaring that he “tries too hard and talks too much and ruins everything”. Charlie wraps him in a fierce hug, and Tao sobs into his shoulder.

William Gao and Yasmin Finney in "Promise". Image courtesy of IMDb.

Nick, meanwhile, has been struggling with this night from the start. He’s plagued by the pressure he’s put on himself to come out, supplemented by Ben whispering in his ear all term that he’s treating Charlie the same way Ben used to. Nick’s taking his own promise to Charlie from season 1 very literally and feels increasingly guilty with each passing time he tries and fails to come out to someone in his life. Today, he’s promised again to come out to the rugby team, and Tori pulled a big sister move, threatening Nick if he didn’t look after Charlie tonight. The stakes are high, and he’s feeling them. He tells Charlie he just has a headache and can persevere.

But they quickly lose each other in the crowd, and while Charlie is comforting Tao, Nick is getting more and more distressed. While looking for Charlie he finds Tori instead, who skeptically points out that he’s not doing a very good job looking out for her brother. More broken promises… He finds his way into the center of the crowd, being jostled by a bunch of the rugby boys. Thoroughly disoriented, he’s endearingly still trying: “guys… there’s something… I need to tell you”. But suddenly Harry is next to him, throwing an arm around Nick and asking what they’re talking about.

Nick loses what’s left of his nerve at this point, but before he can find anything to say, Charlie appears and pulls Harry off of him: “Nick doesn’t want to talk to you, Harry, piss off!” Surprised, the other boys give them enough space for Charlie to ask Nick if he’s okay, and for Nick to say, “I feel really unwell”. Charlie declares that he’s taking him home and leads Nick out of the crowd. In the end, he’s not the one who needed looking after tonight. In the previous episode, Charlie apologized for not standing up for Nick when his brother started harassing him. In this episode, he proved that he actually learned from that moment and changed his behavior.

Joe Locke in Heartstopper. Image courtesy of IMDb.

I want to give Charlie so many points for the way he treats not only Nick, but never forgets about his friends while in the throes of his first real love. He gives Tao his full attention tonight, just like he will in Paris when he clips the Charlie + Tao lock onto the bridge, and just like he will at prom when he pulls Isaac into a group picture.

But with Nick especially, he is so genuinely supportive. Nick isn’t anything like Ben, and maybe it wouldn’t be fair for Charlie to express it, but there’s definitely something a little triggering for him about having another secret boyfriend. Nonetheless, Charlie not only takes Nick home and tucks him into bed with a cup of tea, but he makes the executive decision that they should stop trying to come out right now. He sees what it’s doing to Nick (and ignores what not doing it is doing to himself), and the relief in Nick is palpable.

But as selfless as it is, Charlie’s right: it is Nick’s coming out. He should be able to do it on his own terms. The tea is just that being gay is hard, and being in a relationship where one person is more out than the other is going to have painful moments for both people involved, and it isn’t either of their faults. And even though not everything is going according to plan, Nick is moving mountains himself. He really didn’t bat an eye before abandoning his entire friend group, not even caving for the more auxiliary members of the rugby team until they apologized and earned their way back into his life. Instead, he fully embraced Charlie’s friends, forming his own relationships with all of them.

And I’m really glad that the show doesn’t minimize the all-consuming fatigue involved with coming out. Nick doesn’t just want to do it for Charlie; he wants to be out, holding his boyfriend’s hand and kissing him whenever he wants. There are moments throughout the season where we see his own frustration with himself. But it just isn’t something that comes up naturally in conversation. It’s always awkward. It’s always at least a little bit scary. You have to bring the conversation to a stop and make an ‘announcement’, something that feels self-important and overdramatic, while doing nothing feels like keeping a cowardly secret. Struggling to come out doesn’t make Nick a bad person, and Heartstopper shows us exactly how and why.

Kit Connor in Heartstopper. Image courtesy of IMDb.

I love the way this show romanticizes all the right things, depicting both gay pride and gay struggle without one diminishing the other. Heartstopper is ultimately so full of love; this entire friend group is made up of really good people, and for everything that gives these kids a hard time, there’s something else propping them up. For every Ben Hope, there’s a Nick Nelson, for every overbearing brother there’s an overprotective sister, for every absent father there’s a perfect mother. It’s both guttingly relatable and rejuvenatingly hopeful, and while I personally will never get tired of a wholesome story, we still have far from enough queer content in this world that just makes you feel nice. If you love Heartstopper, please tell me everything you like about it and why :) <3

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