The shame of wetting your bed. The prohibitive costs of top surgery. The dilemma of being religious and queer. In its final season, Sex Education, the high school comedy-drama series created by screenwriter and playwright Laurie Nunn for Netflix, goes way beyond the bedroom to talk about the body in society. Moordale Secondary School has shut down, taking some key characters from the first three seasons with it. Those who remain are now at Cavendish College, a progressive high school with sound baths, yoga classes and students who don’t seem to want to be mean to each other. Of course, Cavendish already has a popular sex therapist of its own, O (Thaddea Graham), which leaves the series’ lead Otis Milburn (Asa Butterfield) feeling insecure about his own place in a new school. This is a confusing time for Otis – he is still awkward around Ruby Matthews (Mimi Keene), his girlfriend through most of Season 3 and now-classmate at Cavendish. He’s also negotiating a tenuous long-distance relationship with Maeve (Emma Mackey), who is away in the US on an exchange programme, where she finds new friends and new directions in her writing. Otis’ best friend and bicycling buddy Eric (Ncuti Gatwa), is suddenly in the popular circle, bonding with Abbi, Aisha and Roman, who are the ‘kingmakers’ at Cavendish. Oh, and besides his teenage angst, he’s also helping his mother, Jean Milburn (Gillian Anderson) be a single parent to his newborn sister, Joy. Things are happening to everyone, and this season of Sex Education holds space for all that they are and want to be.
As with the last 3 seasons, the opening scene of each episode is often a sexual encounter. But unexpected revelations in bed don’t just lead people to the doors of Otis’ clinic, they open up broader reflections on identity: as a personal construct and a collective impulse. Eric gets more involved with his church, discovering how his sexuality might be received differently by his peers within spaces of religion, by pastors and by members of his community. Some of them acknowledge him as queer and Christian at an individual level, but grapple with its broader implications within the church as an institution.
Meanwhile Cal (Dua Saleh) gets a period after being on testosterone for six months, their dysphoria etched into their very being: from their tightly wound and slumped shoulders, to their fixed, increasingly empty gaze. They lurk on the edges of other narratives: in Jackson’s (played by Kedar Williams-Stirling) reluctance to engage in post-breakup conversation, or in the gradual yet halting intimacy of dates with Aisha. Cal’s dysphoria is also fuelled by systemic gaps: the waitlists for gender-affirming surgery run for years and going via private providers can be very expensive, forcing them to inhabit a body they no longer identify with. Adam (Connor Swindells), who is apprenticing on a farm, is learning to assert his bisexuality, his new surroundings offering possibilities for being at ease with himself and holding space for those around him, including his father. Sex, gender and sexuality all intersect with our private and public lives, and this is a negotiation we’re constantly tackling as queer South Asians. We are often in the position of performing different versions of our lives and identities in different spaces – what Akhil Katyal terms the “doubleness” of sexuality, a tension between how sexuality is conceptualised and lived out.
Sex Education also spends time with its adults, particularly Otis’ mother Jean, who must contend with single parenthood and postpartum depression. She’s also beginning a new job as a radio show host, with comedian Hannah Gadsby playing her producer boss. Jean, the on-air therapist is distracted at worst and pedantic at best, prone to monologues on erectile dysfunction. But she is on air, speaking to everyone in Moordale, and her show unintentionally becomes a focal point for shared listening. Children hear their parents, lovers speak of each other, and Jean’s own sister calls in to share a traumatising childhood experience.
This collective consciousness, fleetingly harnessed in previous seasons, is something the show builds towards. Isaac, Maeve’s romantic partner through some of season 3, is also a student at Cavendish. Away from the school’s recklessly optimistic façade, every day, he steers his wheelchair down a lonely corridor and gets into a moody elevator, which is frequently out of order. He is not seen, in more ways than one. When he asks for change, it brings the students together, with room for all the complex identities they are negotiating.
Emma Mackey, playing Maeve, continues to anchor the show emotionally, finding the right balance of detachment and utter vulnerability as her character navigates teenage romance and personal tragedy. But for me, Ruby, played by Mimi Keene, is the breakout character of the season. She’s been on the fringes of the narrative for 3 seasons, glamorous, unapproachable, feared by many, and also mildly derided by others. In this season, we see another Ruby, spurred into action by a familiar face and a deeply unsettling childhood experience. Her past almost becomes a score for events at the school, and though she isn’t always at the centre of them, she’s always holding the strings, you realise. Even more than Otis, who is often a blubbering and defensive teenager (a role Asa Butterfield plays well) – the kind of character I tend to grow impatient with – Mimi Keene as Ruby keeps the busy season going.
This series of Sex Education is about sex, but in a bigger way, it is about life, and about learning that you are many things, messy things, and that difference is okay.