Sex Education season 4 review: A fitting finale about moving on
Panic over! Against the odds, the hit coming-of-age series sticks the landing.
Much like the start of a real school term (if you can remember that far back), returning to Sex Education can feel rather daunting. Such was the case with the Covid-delayed third outing, and even more so with this concluding instalment.
In both cases, I'd argue the reason for that trepidation is a gnawing feeling that Laurie Nunn and her team may not be able to recapture the magic of this coming-of-age series.
That possibility looms particularly large in season 4, which carries the pressure of being the final run, while juggling a new setting, several noteworthy departures and a cast that truthfully grew out of their teenage roles some time ago.
Against these odds, Sex Education delivers a fitting climax (sorry). While many high-profile shows have slapped us with rushed or unearned endings over the years, this one feels carefully paced and plotted with a strong through line. From the very beginning, this season is all about moving on.
Initially, our returning characters – including Otis (Asa Butterfield), Eric (Ncuti Gatwa) and Aimee (Aimee Lou Gibbs) – are turning a new leaf following the closure of Moordale. This drops them unexpectedly in a very different kind of environment, with the student-led Cavendish Sixth Form representing the polar opposite of their buttoned-up, socially conservative secondary school.
The gender-neutral toilets alone would be enough to give failed season 3 headteacher Hope Haddon (Jemima Kirke) and, I suspect, several newspaper columnists a heart attack. But the campus also boasts its own established student sex therapist, mysteriously named O (Thaddea Graham), who soon becomes a natural rival to Otis.
For the most part, Graham is superb in this brand new role, displaying an initial warmth that periodically morphs into something darker, making her a highly watchable enigma. That said, not even an actor with her considerable charisma could pull off a thoroughly misjudged rap number, which unintentionally plummets into the realm of cringe.
She is one of several major additions in season 4, including a popular LGBTQ+ clique nicknamed the Coven. This group is comprised of trans couple Roman (Felix Mufti) and Abbi (Anthony Lexa) and their glamorous bestie Aisha (Alexandra James), who brings prominent deaf representation to the series.
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These characters are unlike any we've seen on Sex Education before, and their larger-than-life personas instantly command attention, which proves slightly jarring at first as we're more concerned with getting reacquainted with our old favourites.
However, as the season progresses, it's hard not to be won over by their infectious positivity and charm, which Gatwa's Eric also finds himself drawn to – raising some interesting questions about his friendship with Otis.
Our incoming Doctor Who star is a scene-stealer, as ever. It's a joy to see Eric navigate a colourful and thriving queer scene – even if rural Moordale becomes less plausible by the day – but he also has some harsh realities to face as he wrestles with his religion.
It's a fascinating journey that will resonate strongly with LGBTQ+ people of faith, as well as those who walked away from it, although some surreal scenes shared with Jodie Turner-Smith utterly jump the shark (or whatever the sex pun equivalent is).
Many assumed that Sex Education season 4 would revolve around the question left hanging by the preceding finale: Will Otis and Maeve get together?
But to the show's benefit, it doesn't get bogged down in this one storyline, with virtually every major character facing a similarly gargantuan conundrum – and that aforementioned theme of moving on crops up in all of them. It makes for some emotionally weighty material with real stakes attached to every choice.
Emma Mackey ties with Gatwa as the season's ultimate champions, with Maeve's departure for the States not being the effective write-off that some fans feared it would be. She's gifted a powerful arc and some truly stunning scenes, in stark contrast to Butterfield, whose character has firmly run his course.
He still demonstrates strong comic timing, with his awkward physicality often adding to the gags, but the character of Otis is so unlikeable that he becomes tough to watch at times.
Of course, the whole point has always been that he's a therapist whose life is as messy as his patients – we're told as much straight down the lens at one point – but his utter obliviousness in season 4 crosses a line of believability and, more damningly, any real sympathy.
Of course, Sex Education isn't all about the kids, with Gillian Anderson also being one of the show's most beloved stars. Here, we see a different side to Dr Jean Milburn, with the one-two punch of a newborn baby and the sudden return of her younger sister drudging up some difficult emotions.
Although the suave and unflappable Jean of earlier seasons was an absolute delight – and is missed to some extent – you have to respect Nunn and her writers for not just playing the hits, but instead pushing their characters into uncharted and, at times, uncomfortable terrain.
Kedar Williams-Stirling (Jackson), Chinenye Ezeudu (Viv), Aimee Lou Wood (Aimee), George Robinson (Isaac) and Dua Saleh (Cal) also get moments to shine in this capacity.
Alas, the cast is so sprawling that not everyone has something substantial to get stuck into. For example, after a compelling redemption arc in seasons 2 and 3, Mimi Keene's Ruby is just along for the ride in this entry – rehashing some earlier stories to diminishing returns.
Likewise, we really wouldn't lose much by cutting Adam (Connor Swindells) and his parents out of these final episodes entirely – as we know, Nunn had no qualms about doing that to several other characters.
Sure, there's some closure to the Groffs' dragging family drama (if anyone still cared?), but it's so separate from everything else going on that it feels like a predictable afterthought.
This arc is also weighed down by some clunky dialogue, which occasionally crops up in other places – often when the show is trying to deliver a social message.
It's important that these are in here to give a voice to grossly underrepresented groups, but one can't help but wonder if there was a more organic way of tackling these topics than simply inserting regular public service announcements.
These imperfections notwithstanding, Sex Education season 4 is a wholly satisfying conclusion to one of Netflix's best original shows to date. Nunn successfully launches a raft of new characters at this late stage, while taking much of her existing roster into bold and compelling new directions.
Tears will be shed in the second half, which is only right for a fond farewell – although Otis is one character you might be glad to see the back of.
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