(courtesy IMP Awards)
Saying goodbye is never easy and that has never felt more poignant and obvious than during the final season of Sex Education, the fourth to be exact, in which a somewhat diminished cast spend much of their final year at school trying to better work out who it is they actually are and what they want, sexually and otherwise, from life.
Most of the gang have shifted schools from Moorland Secondary College to the far more progressive Cavendish College where everyone is encouraged to be positive, in touch with their feelings and hippie chick, kumbayah at peace with themselves and the world.
That’s the theory, anyway.
But while good intentions are wonderful and laudable, life is not always accommodating of them, with everyone having to grapple with some reasonably serious issues which are not easily resolved and which require a good deal of vulnerability, truthfulness and searing self awareness.
Thankfully Sex Education has always been the kind of show that is open to letting it all hang out, and while that does happen to a considerable degree and pretty much everyone gets their happy-ever-after (or should that be happy ending?), the road to all that enlightenment and fulfilment does not come easy.
At the centre of things as always, even in a rich ensembles show such as this are Otis (Asa Butterfield) and Maeve (Emma Mackey) who may be close emotionally after their season three romantic epiphany but who are geographically thousands of kilometres apart after Maeve takes up her prestigious writing scholarship in America.
While it’s a creative dream come for Maeve and Otis is, of course, supportive, they are teenagers and still trying to figure out how to make life work when all the pieces don’t fall into neat, easily arranged pieces.
Maeve, full of excitement for where her gift for writing has taken her, discovers that talent alone won’t smooth the road after some unexpected clashes with her tutor Mr Molloy (Dan Levy) and to complicate things further, she has to deal with some incredibly intense personal trauma which sees her temporarily back in England and with Eric but not really home.
Eric, meanwhile, is having to handle a new eight-week-old sister in Joy, his mother Jean’s post-natal depression which she is in significant denial about even as she attempts a new career in radio, and more than a little petulance on his part when he tries to set up a sex therapy service at Cavendish and he discovers there’s already some, ahem, stiff competition in the enigmatically-named O (Thaddea Graham) who has reasonably large issues of her own.
Orbiting around the closest Sex Education gets to two main characters are many of the faces you will be intimately familiar with in all kinds of healthily boundary crossing ways.
Eric (Ncuti Gatwa) is growing ever more confident in his sexuality, especially after he finds his new queer tribe in Abbi (Anthony Lexa), Roman (Felix Mufti) and Aisha (Alexandra James) but while his sense of who he is becomes ever more pronounced and liberatingly confirmed, he has some major struggles with reconciling his faith and his sexuality which, surprise, surprise, aren’t open to an easy fix.
All this while he and Eric have to sort out what they’re lifelong friendship is like now they are both older, on the cusp of real massive life change and no longer necessarily the complete centre of each other’s galaxies.
The theme is very much about being poised on the precipice of change and growth but thankfully Sex Education does feel compelled to bring everyone to the usual high school junction point of graduation; in fact, the season ends with everyone in the midst of their final year of school, emblematic of the fact that they are works in progress and that what they’re going through, and it’s a lot, will continue long after the supersized final episode has wrapped things up rather neatly and yet with capacity for future growth and expansion.
The queer part of the show, which honestly is almost the full scope of a show that welcomingly doesn’t accept the binary ideas of gender or sexual identity or emotional intimacy – having this portrayed in a thousand different nuanced ways is such a gift in a world still inclined to shout about binary normalcy from the rooftops, a happy oasis when you’re trying to navigate a world disinclined to upset the social cart – is in full swing and while some of it is small but important such as Jackson (Kedar Williams-Stirling) discovering he likes fingering, some of it is massive such as Cal (Dua Saleh) who is on testosterone and struggling with their transition to their true self.
One of the things that’s always been gloriously liberating about Sex Education is that it doesn’t pretend that all the good stuff like finding your true self, coming to grips with your innate sexuality (which is way more intensely complicated than conservative souls would have you believe) and realising it all is going to be easy.
Freeing yes, and wonderfully so, but easy? Nope, sorry, that just isn’t a thing.
Getting to the good stuff, such as dear sweet Aimee (Aimee Lou Wood) getting closer to Maeve’s disabled ex Isaac (George Robinson) comes with all kinds of pain and self-therapy, proof once again that life may offer up some true wonderful connection but only after you’ve put in some significant work.
That’s precisely what Aimee does as she discovers she has a gift for photography, for expressing herself through it and for using it to work through the lingering pain of her sexual assault.
If nothing else, Aimee is the emotional beating heart of a season that recognises how rich and fulfilling things can be but that the attaining of it is not going to be something you can simply skip in and out of.
This is evident time and again as Viv (Chinenye Ezeudu) has some serious issues with a guy she comes to like, Ruby (Mimi Keene) who really comes into her own now she’s freed from the deadweight of fellow Untouchables, Anwar (Chaneil Kular) and Olivia (Simone Ashley) who don’t go to Cavendish, has to work through childhood trauma and father/son Michael and Adam Groff (Alistair Petrie and Connor Swindells) have to navigate their way to a whole new non-abusive kind of relationship.
All the outcomes are good, and in fact, Sex Education goes pretty much full tied up with a pretty red bow in its final episode, but they are never at the expense of what really happens in life.
Sure, Sex Education is a bubble of queer normalcy in a world that largely can’t abide any deviation from the norm, but it’s also very grounded and real, promising, to borrow the name of a major queer movement, that it does get better but that getting there will take a lot from you.
That’s life, right, no matter who you are, and as we say a fitting and affectingly executed goodbye to some very finely realise characters, all of whom managed to have presence and time in a crowded ensemble, we can rest in the fact that Sex Education never took the easy road, it always told it like it was and it provided a road map to and reassurance to those outside the orbit of “normal” (shhh tell no one but it’s a heteronormative illusion) that their lives are valid and they matter and that in Eric, Maeve, Otis, Ruby and the rest they have people to whom they can look up to and to whom they can relate as they find their way through this messy but hopefully business called life.
Sex Education streams on Netflix.