Better understood: Eric (Ncuti Gatwa) in ‘Sex Education’. Image: Netflix

Sex lives of the young and middle-aged

Netflix’s ‘Sex Education’ has finally climaxed. Here’s what made it such an enjoyable ride
October 4, 2023

The risk with a series like Sex Education, which has a clear guiding premise for its storylines, is that, once you see it, it can start to feel formulaic. In the new, final season, as with the previous three, the formula is: person deals with—and ultimately overcomes—a hot-topic sex and relationships issue. Here we see a man dealing with erectile dysfunction; there a girl extracts herself from a jealous dynamic with her boyfriend; elsewhere a teenager enjoys but is troubled by prostate stimulation.

These B-plots can feel a bit telescoped. There is a sense that certain supplementary characters are only introduced in order to explore an issue (the jealous boyfriend Beau, new to this season, for instance). But the show has managed to retain its magic over four seasons by the richness of its other elements. Yes, there’s still a lot of sex in it: dick pics and orgasms and all the rest. But in this last season, sex no longer feels like the main focus of Sex Education. It feels like a gimmick it successfully outgrew, or perhaps grew around.

In this new season, Moordale secondary school has closed down, and most of the core cast have returned to attend Cavendish College instead. Cavendish is a much more forward-thinking place than Moordale was, a utopia of own-clothes, yoga classes and progressive politics. The currency is not bitchy gossip and teenage posturing, but inclusivity, kindness and recycling, things of that nature. The story arc of the season is how each of the characters finds their place in a new environment. Otis (Asa Butterfield) now has a rival for the position of student sex counsellor in the form of O, a smug but accomplished teenager from Belfast, and his friendship with Eric (Ncuti Gatwa) is challenged by Eric finding a new group of queer, gender non-conforming friends who seem to understand him better. Maeve (Emma Mackey) has begun her prestigious course at an American college, and she and Otis struggle with their long distance relationship. 

But I found some of the most moving material in this new season not in the travails of the kids themselves—but of their parents. Otis’s mother Jean (Gillian Anderson) has a new, unplanned baby that is taking up attention she would otherwise want to be giving to Otis and to her work. Adam’s father, Michael Groff (Alistair Petrie), is trying to find his way as a single man in later life, while trying to repair his strained relationship with his bisexual son. In one touchingly awkward scene, Michael offers an olive branch to Adam, while they eat a picnic lunch half-way through a driving lesson, by saying that he thought he was gay for about a week once in his teens. Jackson’s mothers (Sharon Duncan-Brewster and Hannah Waddingham) wrestle with how much to reveal to their son about his origins—an affair one of them had with a married man.

Mums have watched it and learned things about their kids, kids have watched it and learned things about their mums

How sex and love impacts the parents’ lives and their relationships with their children is done well, in a show that could easily have left the inner lives of the adults by the wayside. It’s part of what has made the show feel unique, and why it’s found an oddly wide viewership for a show ostensibly about teenage sex problems. Mums have watched it and learned things about their kids, kids have watched it and learned things about their mums. 

Inevitably, given the warm, hopeful tone of the show, there’s only so deep they can go in exploring the long tail of dysfunctional family dynamics. In the world of Sex Education, life is full of problems but they’re solvable with enough good will and effort, which is regrettably not how real life works. Adam and Michael have a long father-son hug, and Jean manages to balance Otis, the new baby and her job by the close of the series. But the writers go as far as a show like this can, I think, which is laudable.