Cast: Asa Butterfield, Emma Mackey, Ncuti Gatwa, Gillian Anderson, Connor Swindells, Aimee Lou Wood, Chinenye Ezeudu, Alistair Petrie, Mimi Keene, Dua Saleh
Creator: Laurie Nunn
Directors: Alyssa McClelland, Krishna Istha, Dominic Leclerc, Laurie Nunn
Available on: Netflix
What would it mean to pull out hierarchy from a story, lower the stakes, and be enmeshed in niceties? In its first three seasons, Sex Education trudged a line where it portrayed the consequences of prejudice in a hetero patriarchal leaning ecosystem while also rendering everyone as ultimately nice. The hectoring, sexually repressed Principal Michael Groff (Alistair Petrie) and the cruel disciplinarian Principal Hope Haddon (Jemima Kirke) became stand-ins for the oppressive institution the students have to scrimmage against, as they awkwardly navigate their libidinal issues. The third season ended with the end of Moordale Secondary School, after the students put on a sexually explicit, sex-positive show on Open Day, and investors withdrew their funding from the school. The triumph of the students, of their deliciously progressive and provocative dissent, was countered by the oppressive power of a shadowy real world. At the end of this encounter between two worldviews, there were no real winners; there was only chaos, with the students having won the battle in Moordale only to find themselves forced to scatter and disband when the school shuts down.
Where do they go now?
For the characters that the makers of Sex Education were interested in following — namely Otis (Asa Butterfield), Eric (Ncuti Gatwa), Aimee (Aimee Lou Wood), Vivienne (Chinenye Ezeudu), Jackson (Kedar Williams-Stirling), Ruby (Mimi Keene) and Cal (Dua Saleh) — the answer is Cavendish College, a progressive, eco-conscious, student-led school that feels like the opposite of Moordale. Michael Groff, on a redemptive journey, also joins Cavendish College as a teacher. Queerness and queer aesthetics appear to be the norm here.
Outside school, Adam is an intern at a farm, learning to be a horse-riding instructor. Jean Milburn (Gillian Anderson), struggling with postnatal depression, decides she’s going to take on the offer of hosting a radio show — the role of her producer is played by Hannah Gadsby — even though Jean is barely managing everyday life with her newborn child and is in denial about her postnatal depression. Meanwhile Maeve (Emma Mackey) is attending the prestigious Wallace University in America, where her tutor is the famous author Thomas Molloy (Dan Levy).
The New Normal of Season 4
Unsurprisingly, the new normal isn’t working for anyone. Cavendish is a delight for Eric, whose friendship with Otis falters as he quickly finds himself embraced by the cool, queer Cavendish kids, led by Abbi (Anthony Lexa), Roman (Felix Mufti) and Aisha (Alexandra James). Ruby, the queen bee of Moordale, finds herself an outcast. For Otis, the biggest shock is that Cavendish already has a student sex therapist: ‘O’ aka Sarah Owen (Thaddea Graham). And she’s good. In an uncharacteristic display of ego, Otis decides there isn’t room for the two student counsellors in one school. The silly and low-stakes contest between the two of them is basically an excuse to plunge Otis into swamps of embarrassment, like when he does a presentation for the whole school and by mistake, ends up putting the dick pics he’d taken for Maeve (but not sent to her because of his body image issues) on a giant projection screen.
Otis and Maeve’s attempts at a long distance relationship are frustrating. In addition to being left on read by Otis, Maeve’s other problem is that for the first time, she’s struggling with her schoolwork. Thomas is a harsh tutor who disguises his cynicism about publishing and literature as reality checks. When he tells Maeve she doesn’t have what it takes to be a writer, it breaks her and she dumps the chapter that she’d laboured over (and which Thomas savaged) in a trash can.
In the middle of all this, Eric is also seeing visions this season — God (Jodie-Turner Smith) keeps appearing intermittently to lead him on the path to become a pastor. As he becomes more and more flamboyant in school, Eric has the uncomfortable problem of figuring out how to fit in with his Christian church, which would rather turn a blind eye to his queerness.
In the grown-up world, Jean’s sister Joanna (Lisa McGrillis) shows up after Otis secretly calls her with a plea for help. The sisters have the kind of sibling squabbling that always feels good-natured, without any threat of any actual cruelty or darkness. Principal-turned-substitute-teacher Michael is determined to fix himself, and he’s found a course that gives him step-by-step guidance.
We also have a season-long arcs for Cal — who is dealing with disorienting gender dysphoria as they start taking testosterone and struggle with the pace of their bodily changes — and Jackson, who decides to find his birth father after discovering a lump in his testicles.
Little Sex, A Few Contrivances
The season is also plagued with inconsistencies. Ruby, who is initially struggling to convince the cool table to squeeze her in, at the end of the season, is dancing with the cool kids as if they are her new friends (How? When? They make it clear during the season they don’t like her). Jean, whose poor hosting skills were responsible for low ratings, comes barging into her boss’s cubicle, telling them that she wants to host the show on her own terms, or she walks out. This is confusing because her boss’s feedback was sensible, and it was also made clear to her that she is not irreplaceable when she joined.
Most importantly, sex takes a backseat this season. Whereas previously, sexual issues were consequential enough for the creators to spend a generous amount of screen time on investigating the social and emotional grounds for the complication, here there is little emotional payoff. It’s introduced as a formality to integrate the complication into a bigger arc. Maeve and Otis’s very real sex-related issues are quickly set aside as tragedy forces Maeve to leave America and return to Moordale. In the liberated atmosphere of Cavendish, the sexual problems seem to be fewer and in any case, there’s O, with her spa-like counselling room.
When Otis decides (following a nudge from Ruby) that he’s going to score against O by bringing together Abbi and Roman, whose spats cause concern to ripple throughout Cavendish. It seems like the school needs these two trans kids to remain a couple just so that everyone else can believe that queer love stories can be happy. It’s a lot of pressure to put on two teenagers who, clearly, have other issues, which Sex Education doesn’t ever address. Instead, it opts for facile resolutions. Otis casually saunters up to Roman, who has a lot of social currency, in the gym and has no trouble getting Roman to open up to him. In the next scene we see Abbi and Roman gleefully holding hands as they walk out of the successful therapy session with Otis. Their popularity gives Otis the badge of acceptance he needed, and suddenly, he’s got a queue of clients while O has no takers.
Not Enough Bad To Be Good
In its final season, Sex Education suffers from weak villains. One of the biggest villains of the season, along with Maeve’s professor, is the school administrator who is incompetent, and inconsiderate towards Isaac (George Robinson) — yes, he’s also in Cavendish — who cannot reach many of his classes because the lift keeps breaking down. Neither Thomas (despite being played by Levy) nor Cavendish’s school staff are given the space to make much of an impression. Also, the problems are never allowed to feel important. Thomas’s behaviour is quickly forgotten because much bigger tragedies strike Maeve and in Isaac’s case, being stuck in a lift ends up sparking a new friendship.
How do you create stakes when inherent goodness is always easily available to rear its kind head?
The presence of the regressive principals in the previous seasons not only personified what the students of Moordale were up against, they also acted as a unifying strand for the story. (Adam, who does not go to school with them, might as well be part of a spin-off story.) In the fourth season, everyone’s individual personal dramas come to the fore, but the writers aren’t able to weave them together and the show’s narrative feels scattered.
There’s little context given to how Cavendish became this queer and non-conforming haven and initially, the unwavering niceness of the college along with all the students’ shared impulse to cancel people for being problematic feels distinctly artificial. The markers for what makes one rise an inch above the rest are ambiguous and frequently feel superficial, like when O’s popularity shoots up because she puts out a slickly-produced video, in which she raps about the her therapist skills.
Ultimately (and this really subverts the whole point of having a place like Cavendish), everyone misses Moordale. One of the season’s more moving scenes is when Maeve and Otis break into their old school, only to find that it really is out of bounds for them. We miss the characters who were not a part of this season and the world that felt like just the right balance of idyllic fantasies and real-world darkness. And we sorely miss the sexual dilemmas, as well as the detective treatment they got. By removing the authority figures, there is little for Sex Education to thrust against, except, perhaps, abstract concepts. And Maeve discovers early on, thanks to the giant dildo that Aimee sends her as a gift, the friction that comes from going up against something tangible is a good thing.