The highly anticipated final season of Netflix’s Sex Education has dropped! Since its debut in 2019, this show has been a revolutionary darling of critics and viewers alike; combining humour, sincerity, and hyper-realism to make something quite unique.
We sent two of our writers to watch the initial episodes…find out if they think the show is holding up in its final chapter…
In 2019, when Netflix’s Sex Education was first released, I was sixteen, just like Otis at the start of the show. I remember being shocked: the first series opens with (the now beloved) Adam Groff being asked, “Do you like my tits?” by Aimee. This unfiltered, youth-specific, vision of sex set the tone for the next few seasons. And then, on the 21st of September: the final season. But has the show’s celebrated ‘authenticity’ run out?
Now, in 2023, ‘Moordale’ school has closed, and the remaining teens (Otis, Eric, Jackson, Aimee, Ruby, and Isaac) must attend the sparkling Cavendish College. We follow them for much of the series, though new characters are introduced, including a rival sex therapist, ‘O’.
The students’ environment in Cavendish is certainly different. The youngsters have left the more traditional assembly halls of their previous school, for the plant-ridden, multi-million dollar white building of the student-led college. For much of the series, the students walk around with tablets fixed to their chests, like iPad babies. (The catch? No working lift, as Isaac and Aimee discover.)
The scenes in Cavendish almost become a parody of the show itself, and I was unsure, when watching, whether gen-z were being celebrated, or laughed at. In the school halls, people waltz around in Lucy and Yak jumpsuits, and discuss polyamory. When Otis, our familiar, good-natured straight man, attempts to give his classmates cookies, he is met with cries of “I’m gluten free”, and “I can’t have sugar”. Halfway through this viewing, I felt as if I had entered an alternate high school reality --- miles away from the stifled, often repressed experience I, and many of my friends, had --- and had been instead inserted into a new world. A strange, hyper-cliché, one, where, in Cavendish College, straight people are the minority, and students are ‘eco-shamed’ for driving their car to school. Here, it appears as though many scenes have been written as if to prove the existence of this generation’s “snowflakes”, to make a satire instead of a positive spin on this generation’s desire for change.
But it’s not all bad. Sex Education still has things to say to young people –-- not merely laughter, and grumblings about ‘kids these days’. One episode sees Otis talk to his ‘client’ about the importance of enthusiastic consent, turning what was initially a question about sexuality (“[can I still be straight if I like being fingered in the arsehole?]”) into a discussion about the necessity of communication in the bedroom. The show does not merely hand out this information; it is used minutes later, to great success. It is a clever way to show audiences their message, subtly, without appearing like it is being preached. If only the other scenes were presented with that same level of depth.
Part of what made the old Sex Education so great was the unpredictability of the characters: the popular jock would return home and have a panic attack; the ‘good’ guy, our beloved Eric, would cheat on his boyfriend. Everyone was as messy, and as multi-dimensional, as people tend to be in real life. In season four, however, everyone feels as if they have been reduced for the sake of cramming as many characters into the show as possible. I was disappointed --- it almost erases the truly interesting, truly new, areas of the show.
I’m sad to be two episodes in and already casting doubt on whether a fourth volume of Sex Education was necessary, but here we are. Gone are the show’s hammy, unique strengths, as it now feels too self-aware of the buzz it rightly courted from its taboo-busting and frank chats. Last season, I was mesmerized by the dizzying peaks Laurie Nunn and co reached in their storytelling. Now, certain choices raise concern about whether Netflix’s darling can go out with a bang.
The most questionable move that’s left me underwhelmed is the school shift to an “Amsterdam in space” sixth form, with no tolerance for gossip. This completely kills the programme’s jewel: its drama in the corridors. Seriously, with no space for whispers about who’s getting with who, or French-revolution-like-revolts for freedom – as per the fight against Hope’s regime previously – where are the stakes? The jeopardy? I miss the urgency such scenes created about its cast’s coming of age, be this Otis’ quest for balance or Maeve’s swings of heart. Speaking of which, their electrifying chemistry is squandered by Maeve’s Stateside trip, though their phone sex scene hit.
It does feel like this cast have moved on. You’ll have caught Ncuti Gatwa, Emma Mackey AND Connor Swindells in Gerwig's Barbie. It doesn’t help that everyone looks so much older than the 17-year-olds they’re meant to be playing. There’s a sense the best growth for the stars is behind them, which makes me question whether moving on to focus on newer characters like Cal would have been a better approach. Sex Education was starting to carve out a second niche in shining light (finally!) on the experiences of trans, non-binary and bisexual people, with care. It should have stuck with that niche.
I confess, that care still has me applauding when it shows. I admire the maturity – and comedy – taken with Otis’ nerves to send nudes, and the plethora of chuckle-worthy problems in episode two nicely recalls season one’s spirit, where advice was all the rage. Those moments absolutely still play: talks about high testosterone and anxieties on sexuality remain given room to breathe. It’s charming as hell, its speakers and hearers alike left less afraid of the world.
THAT’s Sex Education, a programme far more affecting and impactful than any biology lesson you would have had last decade. Never has earnest television not caused cringe in its young audiences, at least how I see it. Rather, the vibe each binge has apparently produced is one of exceptional anticipation and gratitude for the show confronting our bedroom and identity Jenga puzzles one by one.
I guess I have hope, but advise caution if you’re still to dive into the first two of these final chapters. Yes, you’ll see sexy titles and Aimee Lou Wood’s one-liners. Dan Levy and Hannah Gadsby also pop up, as the budget clearly got a raise.
I’m disappointed, though, at least six viewings from knowing the end. I hope the victory lap ahead reminds me why Sex Education is one of a kind.
Edited by Sophie Chapman-Smith.