David Bowie’s banger ‘Changes’ feels like the right fit for Netflix hit Sex Education’s final run. With Moordale Secondary – the site of many an emotional battlefield faced by Otis, Eric, Aimee, Maeve, Adam, Jackson and co – closed after a student rebellion, the kids have been scattered to the wind.
Sure, sometime geek and accidental sex therapist Otis (Asa Butterfield) finally got it together with the caravan park goth girl of his dreams, Maeve (Emma Mackey), but she’s off to America to pursue her writing dreams after a nudge from Aimee (Aimee Lou Wood), who suddenly finds herself sans boyf or bestie for the first time in her life.
Eric (Ncuti Gatwa) broke up with Adam (Connor Swindells) for not being out of the closet enough, sparking soul-searching for them both. And Jackson (Kedar Williams-Stirling) broke up with non-binary partner Cal (Dua Saleh). Otis’ mum Jean (Gillian Anderson) has a new baby, dad undisclosed, and her ex Jakob (Mikael Persbrandt) has left town with his daughter Ola (Patricia Allison). Sadly, Tanya Reynolds’ delightful oddball Lily has gone too.
And this isn’t even all the plotlines up in the air. It’s a lot. Can showrunner Laurie Nunn land it?
Some things inevitably stick better than others with the change of scenery to new school Cavendish, introducing fresh characters, but there’s definitely a bit of bloat.
While it’s fab that Maeve’s doing her thing, it’s not immediately clear why she was written over to America while Mackey stuck around, granted in a reduced capacity. It does allow for a fun sexting interruptus season opener with Otis, which mostly sets up an amusing dick pic drama down the track.
None of her Maeve’s Stateside buds make much of a mark and, sadly, nor Schitt’s Creek star Dan Levy as her heinously immature tutor. When an unfortunate event brings her back into the fairy tale fold the core crew call home, along with fellow much-missed characters from previous seasons, the show really clicks back into place. It’s a short-lived reprieve, which is a downer.
Adam is similarly sidelined, and it’s a real shame, because he’s arguably been on the biggest journey from bully to wounded young man trying to find his place in the world. There’s some lovely stuff with his parents (Samantha Spiro and Alistair Petrie), but he never feels part of the gang again, which is sad, as a long-overdue check-in with estranged ex Eric glows.
Incoming Doctor Who star Gatwa is arguably the biggest breakout star of the show, so it’s no surprise he enjoys one of the season’s strongest storylines as he faces up to the fact he’s still in the closet when it comes to his mum’s church. It’s refreshing to see the vagaries of queer faith wrestled with in such a nuanced way, particularly in a stand-out scene between him and new character Abbi (Anthony Lexa), a trans woman wrestling with being rejected by her church.
Abbi’s dating Roman (Felix Mufti), also trans, and they rule the roost at Cavendish alongside deaf mate Aisha (Alexandra James). But unlike the mean girls of Moordale – only Mimi Keene’s Ruby returns, with Olivia (Simone Ashley) and Anwar (Chaneil Kular) sorely missed – they’re aggressively nice.
It’s a fun role reversal, but the valuable intersectionality they add does feel a little forced, a bit like Sex and the City sequel And Just Like That’s over-correction, particularly as Saleh’s storyline addresses a lot of this stuff more organically, with Cal now taking testosterone. That said, the new Cavendish trio fully embrace trans joy, and I’m here for it.
Williams-Stirling excels with the very well-handled way Jackson considers the changing dynamic with Cal and with the dramatic tension of a curveball thrown after a spot of unexpectedly enjoyed fingering. There’s great depth in his unlikely friendship with Viv (the low-key legend Chinenye Ezeudu). Keene gets to shine as Ruby, suddenly forced to pretend not to be a nightmare to make friends again.
Wood is the other real winner of this season. Aimee’s arc soars as she faces her demons, circling a certain pair of jeans in the wardrobe, and comes into her own artistically with a bit of help from Maeve’s ex Isaac (George Robinson).
To hark back to the Sex and the City analogy, Otis is this show’s Carrie, often stuck in a loop of poor behaviour towards his besties. But that’s the irksome engine that makes Sex Education work. Our frustration at him, despite his mostly sweet nature, drives it forward. It’s just clear by now that four seasons is probably the perfect place to leave things
New character O (Thaddea Graham), introduced as a rival school sex therapist locked in space-holding combat with Otis, never feels like more than a talking plot point, which is a shame given their rivalry underlines his tendency towards being selfish and, yeah, occasionally pretty sexist despite being in touch with other people’s feelings more than his own.
Ever the outstanding screen presence, Anderson works a lot of magic with a reduced role as Jean juggles caring for bub while sleep-deprived with a new job at a radio station, with Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby as her manager. But again, it’s a lot of plates, and some of them break.
This is a show about teens (even if the cast has rapidly aged out of that era), and those days are inherently messy. If season four isn’t quite the wrapped-up happy ending fans might crave, maybe that’s just the way it has to be. There’s plenty of beauty in amongst the chaos, and when a chocolate pancake smile call-back lands, it’s the most beautiful moment of all.
Sex Education Season 4 premieres on Netflix on 21 September, 2023