Story by Sophie Mertzel
Illustration by Isabelle Wong
Season four of Sex Education was released this year on Thursday, Sept. 21 on Netflix as the conclusion to the beloved series. First aired in 2019, the show follows teenager Otis Milburn (Asa Butterfield) as he navigates the classic teenhood in high school with a twist: his mother’s profession as a sex therapist. Otis, along with Maeve (Emma Mackey), realizes he can make use of his above average understanding of consent and reproductive systems and sell it as a service. Thus, Otis’ sex-clinic was born. The show’s fans have sung its praises for well done representation integrated throughout the show in the past. This season, however, its success in the field is mixed.
One stand out, multiseason plotline is that of Adam (Connor Swindells), as he deals with his relationship with his father Michael (Alistar Petrie), and both learn how to be more kind and value what brings joy. Their dynamic began as terse and distant and only escalated. In season three Adam’s mother, Maureen (Samantha Spiro), decides to separate from Michael. Rather than leaving behind Michael’s character, the writers used his moving out as the beginning of Michael’s arc of learning to be a better person.
In season four, Michael attempts to reconnect with his son. They begin to rebuild their relationship, as Michael learns that his time spent on himself has not necessarily “earned” him his son’s forgiveness. The season ends with a long awaited moment of connection between them. Their hug is indicative of growth not only in its intensity, but in how alien the idea of that contact was to the characters at the start of the show. In addition, a parallel storyline shows Maureen and Michael also rekindling their relationship.
It is refreshing to leave the series feeling their dynamic was treated with care. Their family is not given a simple fix, but follows through their struggles, and stays true to the original characters. All three actors put their most into the roles, portraying the seriousness and emotion of the plotline. More impressive still is that this arc is almost entirely separated from the rest of the cast. Not many shows can succeed in audience engagement while having a very split apart plot.
While some story lines felt like they were given their time, others felt underserved. This is only amplified by the fact that some main and many side characters were only introduced for this last season. The character turnover went both directions, and many loved characters were left behind, such as a personal favorite of mine, Lily (Tanya Reynolds), and some viewers felt a lack of attachment to the new main players.
O (Thaddea Graham) is introduced in this season as the current sex therapist of Cavendish College. O seeks to continue her health clinic, and Otis works to open his own. O acts as a foil for Otis as he feels his role has been stolen, and they become rivals. O is viewed overwhelmingly negatively throughout the show, and as a result by the audience, creating a disappointing portrayal for such an impactful character.
In a pivotal moment of the season, O comes out as asexual to the entirety of Cavendish, describing her fear and confusion in sharing her identity which some may view as contrasting with her role as a sex therapist. What was meant to be a moment of clarity was received by some fans as excusing behavior. Yasmin Benoit, asexual activist and creator of O’s character, described the reaction.
“I’ve finally had time to watch the season and was disappointed to see that some important moments were cut out or changed,” Benoit says.
Benoit’s comments tell a picture of what changes were made. While O and Otis resolve their conflict in the last episode, it is clear that many scenes of Otis’s poor behavior were cut, while the reactionary behavior by O was left in. In addition, greater context into O’s motivations and experiences were left out and shortened. What was meant to be a back and forth conflict, became a villain arc.
Benoit says she created the character based on herself, and the notable lack of representation for asexual women of color in the media. The consistent depiction of asexual people as cold and unfeeling is incorrect and harmful, but unfortunately end up perpetuated. There was clear intention and great potential put into her character, and it was disappointing to see the way her arc was handled. While there may not necessarily be blame to place, this lack of attention to harm is distressing, and the effect on the ace community cannot be understated.
Sex Education is so much more than these two plotlines. With such a large ensemble cast, many large characters and fan favorites were not even covered. Otis’s best friend Eric (Ncuti Gatwa), a vibrant and hilarious character, grapples with his pride in his sexuality and his religious beliefs over the course of the series. Aimee (Aimee Lou Wood), one of the most adored characters, has a multi-season storyline of deadline with the trauma of sexual harassment and assault, and loving who she is and her own body. This show has been a space for many to feel seen, laugh, and sit with stigma over four years. The teens are growing up, and so are we.