Few shows began quite like Sex Education. The British pseudo-rom-com followed a group of teenagers over four seasons as they dealt with the pressures of growing up. Of course, sex and relationships occupy their mind, but the power of the series always came in the ways the relationships between each character evolved. With the cast beginning to achieve success away from the show, it was time for Sex Education to end, but the power of these bonds will stay with us long after the final credits role.
After their old school was sold as part of a development deal, Otis (Asa Butterfield) and Eric (Ncuti Gatwa) head to a new school. They enroll in Cavendish Sixth Form College with a handful of their peers, including Aimee (Aimee Lou Wood), Ruby (Mimi Keene), Jackson (Kendar Williams-Stirling), Viv (Chinenye Ezeudu), Isaac (George Robinson), and Cal (Dua Saleh). Otis begins a showdown with another sex counselor – O (Thaddea Graham) as Eric becomes a popular student. Meanwhile, Maeve (Emma Mackey) balances her long-distance relationship with Otis and her new classes in America. Jean (Gillian Anderson) struggles with a new baby, a new job (working for Hannah Gatsby), and the unexpected arrival of her sister (Lisa McGrillis). Adam (Connor Swindels) begins working on a horse farm while his dad (Alistair Petrie) tries to move on.
The cast bursts at the seams, and for the most part, Sex Education gives everyone their due. However, it also continues adding more characters and storylines to the fray. It’s easy to criticize the choice, as it also results in some fan favorites (Tanya Reynolds & Patricia Allison) disappearing from the series. However, Sex Education uses the opportunity to deepen the relationships between those who stay together.
In another sense, the move to cut and add new characters is closer to reality. Sex Education cannot end definitively because these characters still have many years of life ahead of them. Instead, it leaves doors open, avoiding the process of closing doors when so many possibilities remain. It’s a smart move that may ultimately frustrate some audiences.
The best work in the season comes from three of the women leading the show. Wood once again steals the series. An equally comical and emotionally crippling storyline shows how far the character’s grown. Yet it’s Wood’s empathetic performance that ties it all together. She handles the tonal shifts gracefully and never leaves us feeling a false note in her performance. It’s a wholly lived-in character and frankly might have been Sex Education‘s greatest triumph.
Mackey gets an opportunity to deliver a blistering emotional performance throughout the season. She continues to lay the groundwork for a long career as a leading lady. 2022’s Emily proved her talent as a dramatic performer, and this season, she delivers barn-burning emotional breakdowns. After an incredible third season, Keene proves that the increased screen time last season was not a fluke. She gets to dig into nuanced territory, and when the camera focuses on her, she electrifies the scenes. The three women deliver extremely different yet complimentary performances that showcase Sex Education‘s incredible writing.
On his way to becoming The Doctor, Gatwa delivers his best performance to date. The struggle between his sexual identity and faith becomes one of the bedrocks for the season to rest upon. Without this incredible turn, Sex Education would be good but not great. It’s been a lurking problem his character would have to confront, and in the process, Gatwa unloads three seasons of baggage. In his final moments in the series, he fulfills every bit of promise we predicted in Season 1.
While the performances throughout Sex Education are excellent, the storytelling is inconsistent. There are genuine questions about the other characters in the series and whether there’s enough of an arc for those who remain. There is a lot of time spent setting up characters for dark payoffs in the series’ final minutes. However, one does wonder if there could be a more efficient way to move forward with the stories rather than drag out issues over several episodes (when the impact could come within a couple of episodes). Perhaps most frustrating, the previous story beats leave characters apart for too long, only making it more evident that they need to share the screen to be in the best position possible.
As Sex Education concludes its final episodes, the journey of two young men and a woman feels far grander. Series creator Laurie Nunn allowed her series to become as fluid as her character’s sexuality. It minted future stars and provided showcases for guests. It introduced a new generation of TV goers to the talented Gillian Anderson. Sex Education pushed the limits of sexually explicit material on television and streaming in an era where sex is treated like a dirty secret. Nunn and her team opened the door to more meaningful conversations than most shows ever will. Few shows feel as instantly consequential in Netflix’s history.