Sex Education, one of the most creative and exciting shows to come out of Netflix’s original series scheme, came to an end last week. The fourth and final season dropped on Thursday 21 September 2023 and reactions have been mixed, to say the least.
Sex Education has helped to launch a number of British stars, although, of course, Queen Gillian Anderson didn’t need any of their help. Ncuti Gatwa, for example, is now the new Doctor on Doctor Who, Emma Mackey recently starred in Barbie and Aimee Lou Wood has taken over the West End.
SPOILER WARNING: I will be discussing the whole plot of season 4, so if you haven’t watched the series yet, get lost.
Moordale Secondary School, the place where the first three seasons of the show took place, never made sense. It was quintessentially British and heavily American all at once. This was an attempt, by Netflix more than the showrunner, one imagines, to create a mid-Atlantic setting, somewhere legible to both British and American audiences.
The new school is, improbably, even more diverse than the previous one. And for a state school in rural England, this feels like a utopian fantasy. It occasionally feels like a tick box exercise in representation—a student body designed specifically to give a Daily Mail columnist an aneurism.
I do nonetheless think that this is precisely what such a show should be doing, though. So what if all these people existing in one space is unlikely? For queer, BIPOC and disabled representation on television, Sex Education has been a high watermark. Let’s hope Netflix continues with this.
Some of the show’s trans politics are particularly precarious, given the (supposed) age of the characters: much gender-affirming care isn’t available to minors but they are careful to note that all surgical intervention was done after turning 18.
The Guardian, in its review of this season, made an odd criticism clearly derived from ‘gender critical’ talking points. It has since deleted this line and turned off comments on the piece. Nevertheless, it’s vital to note this, not only to make clear how older audiences think about the show but also the environment that this series exists in. To have a young trans for trans (T4T) couple experiencing both difficulty and joy was heartwarming to see.
I think season 4 examined toxic positivity—and how institutions will pretend to be open and accepting but don’t put money behind such sentiments—very well. Although, again, such criticisms might be better levelled at trendy startups and zeitgeisty millennial brands rather than underfunded public education. The discussion on ableism was, again, acute and very necessary, but failed to think about the systematic underfunding of such resources by the government over the past decade and a half. If it’s systematic change that’s needed, take aim at the system, right?
Certain themes are important, if not vital, to include within the discourse that Sex Education is a part of: asexuality, open relationships, and coercive control. Does it make sense to examine all of these topics in a sixth-form environment? Probably not, but it doesn’t hurt to try. The show was never scared of being brutally honest about the realities of teenage life, particularly in that awkward phase of being 16 or 17, when you’re not yet legally an adult but can have sex and drive.
Maeve’s pseudo-college creative writing course is still baffling—do such programmes actually exist for 17-year-olds, in lieu of secondary education?—but her choosing to leave was certainly the correct decision for her character. While the romantic tension between Maeve and Otis was the driving force of the show in its early seasons, it felt trite and forced by the end.
Let’s be honest: Otis is probably the least interesting and least likeable of all the main characters. Whether it was intended from the outset or not, it was the secondary and even tertiary storylines that gave Sex Education its heart.
The Groff family get their own dedicated storyline, despite being largely removed from all of the other characters at this stage; it feels out of place, yet somehow still necessary. Michael and Adam were, at different moments, the villains of the show—it seems like Laurie Nunn, Sex Education’s creator, is keen to conclude the show with the sentiment that no one is beyond rehabilitation and that everyone deserves a second chance.
Aimee’s storyline is probably the most complete, with a fully rounded character arc that developed neatly over the four seasons and had a fitting and satisfying conclusion. Played by Aimee Lou Wood, with charisma, flare and immense sensitivity, Aimee’s pivot to art as a way of examining and exorcising her trauma was wonderful, and her blossoming relationship with Isaac felt real. Similarly, Eric’s grappling with his faith and sexuality—with its magical realist tones—felt both original and authentic. It’s no surprise, I think, that both Wood and Gatwa are rising stars.
Jackson’s cancer scare was handled really well, with the trippy, sometimes disturbing visuals adding a corporeal thrust to the experience. But Cal’s disappearance (the culminating act of this season and, with it, the show as a whole) felt sudden, unearned. Dua Saleh’s performance is brilliant, and the character is essential, but their sudden disappearance and the plot points surrounding it just didn’t quite make sense.
I wanted to like this final outing more than I did. Usually, such a show would end with final exams and results and prom. The cast of characters would get their results and go off to the big wide world, to university and into work. That wasn’t the case here. Instead, just mock exams and a big fundraiser. This was a refreshing move but also a bit of an anticlimax: why exactly is the show ending here?
There were so many new characters introduced in this final season while other interesting and already-developed characters were dropped, suddenly and largely without mention. Dan Levy and Hannah Gadsby felt under-utilised—wasted even.
It felt like this should have been the first half of the final season: spend some time setting up these new characters, new rivalries and tensions, and give them space to breathe. Then, pivot to working out how the various storylines best come to a satisfying conclusion. The whole thing felt rushed and forced and not in keeping with the flavour of the show, which had developed so well over the previous three seasons.
Perhaps they’re deliberately setting up a spin-off or follow-up: I, for one, would love to see Aimee at art school. Of course, all good things must come to an end, and these actors in their mid-to-late 20s can only play teenagers for so long. But, despite their advertising campaign, a satisfying ending this was not.