(Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “Sex Education” Season 4, including the ending.)
“Sex Education” does not end with a graduation. The finale isn’t centered on a wedding or a death. Laurie Nunn’s Netflix import has long eschewed traditional genre labels (like “teen comedy” or “high school drama”), fitting snugly within its own sweet and inquisitive, challenging and enlightening depiction of our peak hornt years of adolescence — so why not do away with rote landmark moments, too? Rather than force any resolutions upon its characters, as so many TV shows choose to build toward over their final seasons, the eight-episode kicker excavates emotional closure for Otis (Asa Butterfield), Maeve (Emma Mackey), Eric (Ncuti Gatwa), Adam (Connor Swindells), Jackson (Kedar Williams-Sterling), Aimee (Aimee Lou Wood), Jean (Gillian Anderson), and many more.
For a show preaching the benefits of talk therapy, could it have gone any other way?
Likely not, though as the eighth episode’s last shot drifts away from Otis, his astonishing riverside home, and the cozy British town of Moordale, it’s best to take the show’s chosen ending as a gentle nudging. Maybe this isn’t the end. Not really. These characters will live on, perhaps in the roles they’ve planned for themselves, perhaps in others they’ve yet to dream up. Do you have to believe Eric, whose Season 4 arc sees him sprinting toward unknown pleasures (sometimes wearing only his briefs, taking a literal leap into the deep end), will end up a pastor? Is Aimee’s photography a lifelong passion or a door-opening hobby? Will Adam blossom into a bonafide Horse Girl (and thus expand the symbolic nature of equines beyond the hyper-masculine understanding Swindells’ character in “Barbie” witnessed)?
The beauty of “Sex Education’s” ending is that you can answer these questions anyway you want. You can always imagine Otis as a counselor for confused teens or Maeve as a published author… or you can remember that’s who they were in high school, taking comfort in knowing they’re happy and on a path to future, unknowable happiness. Nunn’s series has always been about discovery: kids discovering the world around them whilst discovering their own emerging identities. Driven by open-mindedness and encouragement, the four seasons take plenty of unexpected pivots (Otis and Ruby’s lengthy affair among the shockers) while staying as honest as a fictional narrative can to their core selves.
So rather than dwell on the ending, let’s take a moment to savor the journey — the integral aspects of “Sex Education” that are either difficult or impossible to replicate in other series; the kind of moments that memories are made of, since that’s what so many people walk out of high school cherishing most. Here are 10 bits of “Sex Education” we’ll miss — starting, as the series did in Season 1, with Adam Groff.
1. Adam’s Looks
If you, like me, finished “Sex Education” Season 4 and immediately went back to remind yourself how the series began, then you were met with two key “discoveries”: First, it’s that Dan (Daniel Ings) — aka Joy’s birth father — is in the pilot. He runs into Otis the morning after sleeping with Jean, a fact I’d completely forgotten despite remembering a vague history between the two. The second, though, is even subtler: It’s Adam’s face. The first shot of “Sex Education” sees Adam having sex with Aimee, sans any emotion whatsoever. (He even fakes an orgasm — and not well!) Seeing Adam like this, so stoic and lost, shouldn’t be that big of a surprise. After all, Adam’s stoicism is central to his being. He’s always been the quiet type: reserved, if not flat-out inarticulate.
But Adam grows so much over the course of “Sex Education.” Yes, he gives up bullying and confronts his bully of a father, but he also learns how to communicate — and not just through words. An enormous amount of what makes Adam endearing is crafted through Swindells’ soft, tender, oft-overwhelmed face. He can flick his eyes with the best of ’em, implying more than words can say or opening himself up unexpectedly, and when a smile does creep across his broad jaw, it’s all the warmer for how much is held back. Given his recent roles in “Barbie” and “Emma,” I’m sure we’ll see a lot of Swindells himself going forward. But he’s aged out of this specific life stage. Thankfully, he captured it perfectly.
2. How People Text
In the grand scheme of “Sex Education,” this is a minor victory, but it still deserves acknowledgement: TV has been slow to grasp how people, especially young people, text each other. Messages are either overly formal or too time-consuming. Sometimes they’re represented in weird visual flourishes that feel dated before the show even comes out. Other times they’re discarded as frivolous exchanges absent the form’s oh-so-particular interpretations. Yes, everyone uses the anticipatory “…” of an incoming message, but what about the slang? The emoji? The blaring significance of using an exclamation point instead of a period, or the inscrutable frustrations tied to texting with someone who’s bad at it?
“Sex Education” understands all this, but it also treats texting as the nearly unconscious act it often is: When Jackson has a panic attack about a lump in his testicles, he still replies to an incoming text; he just never stops thinking about his balls in the process. Williams-Stirling, as Jackson, picks up his phone, types out a boilerplate reaction, and tosses it aside again, all without breaking from his frenzied anxiety. Accompanied by a clearly labeled word bubble (filled by a simple yet distinctive color), the texts become exactly what they feel like in real life: a natural extension of conversation. Key word: natural.
Speaking of colors, “Sex Education” is awash with them. In an era where hourlong dramas are trapped under permanent cloud cover — as if every cinematographer’s dream is to return to black-and-white moviemaking (only without the sharp contrast that makes classic films, well, classic) — Costume Designer Daniella Pearman, Production Designer Paul Spriggs, and Season 4 D.P. Andrew McDonnell bring out the sun. Together, they fill frame after frame with a kaleidoscopic radiance that’s the perfect fit for characters bursting with love and a story filled with compassion.
4. Gillian Anderson, Farting
To say we’ll miss Dr. Jean Milburn — an ideal adult and nightmare mom (both forthcoming about sex and a total smokeshow, Jean is not the parent a coming-of-age boy wants his friends to meet) — is obvious. To say we’ll miss Gillian Anderson is misleading, as like so many of the exceptional cast members, she’s not going anywhere. But the role did offer our two-time Emmy winner opportunities other parts did not, be it her honest portrayal of a postpartum single mother in Season 4 or her delightfully indelicate bursts of comedy — very much including every single time the good doctor let one rip.
Season 3 may have been the high-point for humorous toots, as Jean’s pregnancy led to many-a-scene ending with a relieved release of hot air, but Season 4 saw fit to bring it back via sisterly bonding. More to the point, her expressed flatulence was yet another example of “Sex Education’s” honesty: Not only do women fart, but very hot women fart. It’s something that we all do, and it’s not something that should be shamed, especially when it can’t be controlled. I’ll remember many aspects of Anderson’s “Sex Education” performance, especially her fierce love for Otis and exasperated attempts to open people’s minds about sexual well-being. But I’ll also cherish the farts.
5. The Sex Is Good (and Funny, and Scary, and So Much More)
The current, confounding, and (I have to believe) minority backlash to sex in movies and TV shows began after “Sex Education” premiered, so the show’s frank depictions of intertwined couples isn’t exactly a response to anything. But it is an example of why the prudish argument is as dangerous as it is dumb. Seeing sex in its many manifestations is key to eradicating the shame and fear tied to one of life’s most intimate acts. Parents, churches, governments, and plenty more institutions lead with scare tactics instead of truthful information, often at a young age, making it difficult to process the universal emotions tied to an extremely common — and extremely rewarding — activity.
The characters in “Sex Education” have good sex and bad sex, kinky sex and routine sex, passionate sex and disconnected sex — and it’s all captured with specificity to the moment. Some sex scenes are set to rollicking music, while others are intimidating in their silence. Teens have sex, straight couples, gay couples, nonbinary non-couples, adults — everyone is having sex, because everyone is having sex. (Everyone, that is, except for those who identify as asexual, and they’re included, too!) To deny as much is to deny an essential aspect of not only growing up, but living. Sex positivity, what a concept! “Sex Education” gets it, and gets it good.
6. It’s So Freaking Gay!
Season 4, even more than in the past, embraces a nearly utopian vision of queer teen life. Otis and Eric’s new school, Cavendish College, is keenly inclusive, where LGBTQ+ students are the popular kids — Otis actually wins over his classmates by repairing Abbi (Anthony Lexa) and Roman’s (Felix Mufti) relationship — and teachers (aka adults with outdated mindsets, like Jemima Kirke’s Hope from Season 3 or even Adam’s dad, Mr. Groff, from Season 1) are barely even seen. But rather than feel like some impossible fairy tale, the fresh environment remains rooted in the very real conflicts each character faces, be it in romantic anxieties or oppressive outside forces. Abbi and Roman struggle being honest with each other. Cal (Dua Saleh) suffers through body dysphoria, which only mounts when they learn how expensive the top surgery they need will cost.
But really, Season 4 isn’t that big of a shift. “Sex Education” has made inclusivity a priority all along, as we mentioned in our Season 2 review:
The more aspirational elements of “Sex Education” — its natural queerness; wide array of races, ethnicities, bodies, and religions; and sex-positivity — seem that much more realistic, even though the real world is far more complicated. “Sex Education” imagines a more colorful, more livable, and more loving world. Even if it wasn’t also hilarious, charming, and chock full of heart, that would be reason enough to love it.
This isn’t to say other shows can’t or won’t acknowledge queerness as a common part of everyday life — others certainly do and will. But the ways in which “Sex Education” celebrated LGBTQ+ culture is certainly powerful, welcome, and special.
7. The Soundtrack
Massive props to music supervisors Matt Biffa and Sobhan Afghari for piecing together a toe-tapping blend of familiar bangers and lesser-known gems. Teen shows often lean on their soundtracks to best convey the overwhelming emotions felt by their characters, and “Sex Education” hit just the right notes time after time. (The montages alone are worth revisiting.) Plus, any series that’s unafraid to play “Footloose” at the big high school dance (OK, it was a fundraiser, but still) and let their co-leads break into Kevin Bacon’s signature dance — inspired. Bless this show.
8. Aimee’s Air-Brained, Heartfelt Confessions
Squirrel cupcakes! Based on the squirrels that built a nest in her car! And then died! Aimee is so full of love, it’s mind-boggling. And I love that for her. And us.
9. Eric’s Laugh
Among all the joyful elements that make up “Sex Education,” perhaps the one that best personifies the show’s spirit is also the simplest: Eric’s laugh. Ncuti Gatwa brings it, start to finish, in scenes dramatic, comedic, and everything in between. He’s a star that’s just getting started on his trip across the sky, but I will miss the exuberant, crescendo-ing howl he crafted for Eric — the one that can burst from his mouth the second Otis drops another embarrassing tidbit, and the one that builds and builds as the good times roll. Perhaps he’ll unleash it again in the future (it certainly sounds like Gatwa’s natural expression of delight), and yet it so specifically defines this character, I doubt any “Sex Education” viewer will forget when they first heard it.
10. Jodie-Turner Smith as God
Need I say more?
“Sex Education” Season 4 is available to stream on Netflix.