Over the course of four years, Sex Education has created numerous stars (hello, Ncuti Gatwa and Emma Mackey), gallons of cringe and more graphic moments moments than any other mainstream show on the streamers. But now, sadly, it is time to say goodbye to the sex-mad pupils and teachers of Moordale Secondary School.
Trading off the UK education system’s woefully inadequate PSHE lessons (who else remembers being taught to put a condom on a banana?) when Sex Ed launched in 2019, it dared to imagine a world where teens could actually get reliable advice for the issues that plagued them – even if that advice came from an underground ‘sex clinic’ run by one of the pupils trading knowledge for cash.
This is Skins reimagined by Gen Z. Gone is the gritty realism and casual sexism of the Noughties; in its place are pastel walls, Fifties Americana interiors and a wholehearted embracing of every form of sexual and gender expression.
And it really took off, becoming one of Netflix’s most popular comedy dramas. It’s easy to see why, with brilliantly funny and moving writing about loveable characters. From reformed bully Adam coming to terms with his bisexuality, to Cal’s nonbinary identity (not to mention their struggles to be taken seriously by Moordale’s uptight headmistress), this was a safe space for teens and adults alike. Hell, there was even a storyline about marital breakdown and depression for Alistair Petrie’s forlorn Headmaster Groff.
But with the arrival of series four, the show has reached its climax, and the creators have cheerfully described it as a “banging final season”.
While season one started with Otis and Eric as social pariahs at Moordale, this time around they’re entering their final year of sixth form at the brand-new and decidedly more liberal Cavendish Sixth Form College.
They’re in for a bit of a shock. The uptight Otis (Asa Butterfield) is harbouring dreams of restarting his sex clinic but is in for a rude awakening in the form of Thaddea Graham’s O: a professional sex therapist who rules the Cavendish roost with an iron fist.
While they feud, there is a spaghetti junction of storylines and all manner of new arrivals to get to grips with in the meantime: it’s bold, given there are only eight episodes left to wrap up more than 10 character arcs.
Which is a shame, because there are some fantastic storylines that should really have been given more space to breathe. The ever-fabulous Eric (Gatwa) suddenly becomes one of the popular kids after falling in with Cavendish’s it-couple, Abbi and Roman (Anthony Lexa and Felix Mufti); Ruby (Mimi Keene) struggles with the loss of her Queen-Bee status; Cal (Dua Saleh) begins their journey to transitioning and Jean (Gillian Anderson) becomes the host of a brand-new radio show.
For the most part, these storylines are deftly juggled, bringing characters together in new and interesting ways to see what kind of sparks fly: the best example of this would be Isaac (George Robinson) striking up a friendship with the scatterbrained Aimee (she of the therapy goat and vulva cupcakes, ably played by Aimee Lou Wood). Unfortunately, the sheer volume of narrative threads inevitably mean some also fall to the wayside.
Emma Mackey’s Maeve is one of these casualties: she is banished to America for the first half of the season, studying on the prestigious writing course she got onto at the end of season three. Deprived of Mackey’s fizzing, off-kilter presence, the rest of the show struggles slightly – despite Dan Levy making an amusing cameo as her snobbish writing tutor.
And what’s happened to Jakob (Jean’s hunky Swedish plumber love interest) and daughter Ola (Patricia Allison)? Despite being a pivotal part of seasons one through three, they don’t even make an appearance, for reasons that are only hinted at and feel rather shoehorned in.
In this kaleidoscope, Gatwa’s Eric is probably the biggest scene-stealer: magnetisingly watchable, trying to reconcile his faith with his identity as a proud gay man (which gives rise to some of the series’ most off-the-wall moments), and coming to terms with the fact that perhaps he and Otis are growing apart. If they ever managed to convince Gatwa to do a solo spin-off, I’d watch the hell out of it – as it is, I’ll have to settle for his upcoming star turn in the new season of Doctor Who.
This being Sex Ed, no topic is off limits. Over the course of four years, the show’s producers have discussed everything from assault (Aimee, in one of the show’s most moving storylines) to being caught masturbating in a parent’s car (Otis, in a scene we’d probably all rather forget).
In that vein, both meaningful and eye-watering moments can be found in this season too. While Jean (Anderson, magnificent as ever) is struggling with post-natal depression after the traumatic birth of daughter Joy, Otis accidentally displays one of his dick pics to the entire school, in a scene that made me physically want to rip the plug socket out of my television.
It all feels like the show is operating on warp speed: ticking off incidents of meaningful growth, romance, the fear and excitement that come with growing up into adulthood.
Fortunately, there’s more than enough chemistry left to make things work. The cast are all on top form, and it’s impossible not to root for them, and (joy of joys) Sex Education resists the temptation to settle for the easiest endings. Instead, it wisely chooses to embrace change – Sex Ed may be gone, but the lessons it taught will remain.
Sex Education Season Four is streaming now on Netflix