Sex Education Season 4: Happy Endings

The case of Sex Education in a promotional photo, holding books
Courtesy of Netflix

The following review contains spoilers for Sex Education Season 4 on Netflix

Editor’s Note: This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the series being covered here wouldn’t exist.

Sex Education began with the premise of an on-campus, student-run sex therapy clinic. It is how Maeve (Emma Mackey) and Otis (Asa Butterfield) started hanging out and teasing the audience with their will-they-won’t-they storyline. We’ve taken many turns from there, but in Sex Education Season 4, we’re back to the basics.

Otis arrives at his new school, Cavendish Sixth Form College, to find there is already a student-run sex therapy clinic on campus run by O (Thaddea Grahm). This trivial rivalry rocks Otis’s world, and he becomes consumed with taking the competition down to his relationships’ detriment.

Maeve is in the United States studying at a very prestigious school for writing. Getting into this program was a pivotal part of her arc throughout the past few seasons. Now that all the talk of her great potential is being tested at a new school, she’s hit with the possibility that it was all for nothing, especially with Professor Thomas Malloy (Dan Levy) critiquing her every word.

With Otis pulled in so many directions—O’s rival clinic, Maeve’s exitus,  and his mother Jean (Gillian Anderson) post-natal depression—BFF Eric (Ncuti Gatwa) is again feeling abandoned. Thus, at this wildly progressive new school, Eric gets pulled into the popular and queer clique, the Coven, where he’s seen and understood for every intersectional nuance of his identity.

Sex Education Season 4 puts our three leads through the ringer.

Emma Mackey as Maeve Wiley in Sex Education Season 4.
Cr. Thomas Wood/Netflix © 2022

As Maeve struggles with the pressures of her new course, she’s hit with the devastating news of her mother’s overdose. Just as quickly as Maeve was overseas in the colonies, she was back on British soil to cremate her mother. Maeve’s journey throughout Sex Education has been a rough road, and at every step, Emma Mackey has stunned audiences with her performances. So it was no surprise that at Maeve’s mother’s funeral, Mackey gave a spectacular eulogy.

The emotional rollercoaster Sex Education Season 4 sends Maeve on from Episode 5 to Episode 7 was perplexing. There was an uneasy mixture of emotions and adventures for her character; it was a unique portrayal of grief. Although, I don’t think there was a cohesive journey for Maeve’s story here. I think some of it had far more to do with other characters’ journeys than hers. Despite this, Emma Mackey delivers every line, monologue, expression and tear with brilliant craft.

Eric and a priest look at each other with a cross in the background between them
Cr. Thomas Wood/Netflix © 2022

Each season of Sex Education has forced Eric to face a part of his identity and heritage to make forthcoming decisions about his sexuality. In a nutshell, Eric has spent the last four seasons coming out. With his school life being enthusiastically queer, and his family knowing he’s gay and loving him all the same, the final piece of the puzzle is his life at church. With his mother adamant he get baptized, Eric begins a spiritual journey fit with prophetic visions of God (Jodie Turner-Smith), leading him to destinations and situations that push him beyond the boundaries of his fear.

The magical realism involved in Eric’s journey is a visual technique Sex Education hasn’t used before and, at times, feels out of place even if the framing of refracting lights of different colours and religious iconography all lend themselves well to the foundations of the show’s previous formula. Eric’s narrative this season is the most symbolic and artistic storytelling we see on the show. However, its nature in contrast stylistically to the rest of the show made it feel like a disconnected piece. Ncuti Gatwa captures a bit of confusion—which the audience may feel—in his performance, and carries on humorously with periodically sombre notes.

Like Emma Mackey, I think Ncuti Gatwa performed admirably with the material given. However, I believe that whatever emotional growth and dramaturgy Gatwa gave was slightly overcrowded by intruding stories from elsewhere. I think it’s fair to say that Sex Education Season 4 may have tried to do a bit too much in its last hoorah and dimmed the shine of its strongest players in the process.

Sex Education Season 4. Asa Butterfield as Otis Milburn in Sex Education Season 4.
Cr. Samuel Taylor/Netflix © 2022

Otis suffers from main character syndrome in a show where he so clearly isn’t interesting enough to warrant being the main character—apologies to Asa Butterfield. You’re a great actor and probably a good guy, but this show shouldn’t be about you.

In Season 1, it made sense. In 2 and 3, the show really became an ensemble. In Sex Education Season 4, I think it was a mistake to try to replicate the main-character-energy of Otis from Season 1. It’s not even that Otis is a terrible character; he’s sweet and charming, awkward and genuine. The problem is that the ups and downs of the issues in his life are so trivial compared to so many of the “supporting” characters in the show that he constantly has to be pulled into other people’s issues to seem interesting.

The grand character arc for Otis is that he realizes he’d been jealous, egotistical and selfish in his dealings with O and Eric. Like, he straight, white man’d himself. I don’t want to seem like I’m minimizing this character growth; I’m not. The show did by including all these new and incredible characters and stories with perspectives we haven’t seen before.

When the final moments of Sex Education played before me, I was left feeling like something was missing. I realized it was because the last thing we’re given is Emma Mackey’s voiceover with Asa Butterfield alone in Otis’s bedroom, looking out at the immaculate view of that gorgeous house. I was missing the ensemble. This show felt incomplete because Otis is but 1% of Sex Education‘s heart. I would have been happy with many alternatives: Eric and Otis riding their bikes to school, Otis and O sharing the sex clinic, or Otis eating lunch with Aimee and Isaac. A FREEZE FRAME OF OTIS DANCING WITH EVERYONE AT THE FUNDRAISER/PROM! LITERALLY ANYTHING BESIDES OTIS ALONE!

Sex Education Season 4. (L to R) Chinenye Ezeudu as Viv, Kedar Williams-Stirling as Jackson in Sex Education Season 4.
Cr. Samuel Taylor/Netflix © 2023.

It’s hard for me to say there was too much going on in Sex Education Season 4 to end the season like this because I liked everything the show was trying to do and say. Regrettably, I think the writers’ room bit off more than it could chew.

All of Adam’s (Connor Swindells) and his parents’ storyline, though beautifully done, was much too distant from the rest of the ensemble; it felt like stepping into an entirely different show. Though Jackson (Kedar Williams-Stirling) and Viv (Chinenye Ezeudu) were on campus with Otis and Eric, their stories also felt disjointed. Where Jackson’s felt too thick and dragged out, Viv’s felt too quick and cut short.

Otis’s mother, Jean (Gillian Anderson), and the introduction of her sister, Joanna (Lisa McGrillis) was, again, a beautiful tale with delicious themes and social commentary. However, yet again, overshadowed and overcrowded. Of the supporting cast from the OGs, Aimee (Aimee Lou Wood) had by far one of the best-structured storylines through the season, but that may have been because it was simple in its continuation of her arc from seasons prior.

Alas, Sex Education Season 4, though brave in its themes and climactic finishes, was structurally overwhelmed and disappointedly failed its fundamental characters’ proper goodbyes and send-offs. I still enjoyed the ride nonetheless. There was humour in good taste and invaluable lessons along the way, just as we like education to be. I’m fond of this show’s neurotic personalities and bizarre obsessions with sex. I’m sad to see it go, but I’m glad it got some happy endings.

Written by Isobel Grieve

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