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COMMENT: Sex Education - Shippers are wrong: Season 4 is fabulous

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This article contains full spoilers for Sex Education.

On a purely psychological level, I find ‘ship’ culture fascinating: that passion and devotion for and to two particular characters, like a relationship of their own, is a powerful thing, and it so often it can help spread the love for that show to others. And yet there is an equally strong downside, leaning into that old saying: “love is blind.”

It is blind to flaws and it is blind to strengths. It is blind to the nuances of television, blind to the fictional world around it.

Specifically, this is about of Sex Education season four, in many ways the show’s strongest season; certainly its most ambitious and wide-reaching. In a very busy, very compact eight-episode final season, the show manages to take its several key characters on the next stage of their long journey through life, doing so powerfully and with care.

That’s my take, anyway.

Browse the comments on the show’s social media, and get very different takes:
• “How could you guys get it this wrong? Truly one of the worst endings and final seasons of any show ever”
• “You ruined the show”
• “Trash season”
• “The final season really ruined everything season 3 set up. Half the cast wasn't there and the ending is just crap”
• “This season was not it ruby and otis should've been endgame”
• “don't post about otis and maeve because you know what a mess you made with the ending 🙂”

Those last two are of particular frustration. TV shows operate on the basis of narrative, not of fan desires. They build on previous development and expand and improve characters. Fan service often feels forced and unearned because it is forced and unearned.

Let’s put aside the fact that of the three romantic endings for Otis (with Maeve, with Ruby, with no one) any single one would disappoint a significant chunk of viewers and therefore in this instance fan service simply cannot exist. Is the point of Sex Education not that you should love and respect yourself? Is it not that you deserve to be on the right journey for you, the one that takes you where you want to be, and is helped by those who you trust and who respect you for that journey?

Of course it is. And it’s why the ending for Otis, Maeve, and Ruby are all entirely correct, and the fury at no two of them ending together is, at best, grossly misplaced.

Maeve has always been the smartest in the room, the one with the skills to go where her ambition leads. Her dreams and talent have taken her to the USA, to a high-class school – Miss Sands describes teaching and watching Maeve thrive as “one of the greatest privileges of my career” – and to opportunities to become a successful writer. That’s huge, and Maeve deserves every minute of it. To sacrifice that for a relationship would be a betrayal of her character, even as she freely admits Otis’ connection opening her up from the cold, closed-off Maeve we met at the start of the show. Otis is selfish and self-centred but even he isn’t cruel enough to try and take that from her.

Ruby’s development this season is fascinating. Her past with O shines a light on her harsh exterior but we know from season three, and see it again here, that beneath the shell is someone who does show emotion, who does care. There was certainly a spark between Ruby and Otis, and at a certain point there was little begrudging them being together. But that feels a long time ago: before “That’s nice,” the roadside kiss with Maeve, the ghosting mid-campaign. Otis has seen Ruby at her lowest and most vulnerable and yet still treats her like an afterthought on so many occasions. Her decision in the finale to reject Otis as a friend commands incredible respect; she deserves someone to understand and appreciate her value.

So: Otis ends up alone. Is it sad that he has his heart somewhat broken? Sure. But O reminds us that this is the risk you have to take for love, and sometimes it isn’t easy. Sometimes we don’t get the perfect ending we think we will; that doesn’t mean an equally perfect ending isn’t somewhere down the line. This show is ultimately about a group of teenagers – at times exceptionally mature teenagers, but teenagers nonetheless – making and learning from mistakes as they begin properly navigating their lives. Otis has made a great many mistakes over the course of 32 episodes, especially when it comes to his own romantic life. All three characters’ endings fit for them.

But this is where the ‘ship’ culture issue causes problems. Investment in a TV show is just that: investment in a TV show. That means that the investment might not pay off in the way you want it to, but you are also in it for the show en masse. Of course you can be invested in couples. Of course you can want one pairing over another (*). Watching things only for one specific character or pair of characters is a hiding to nothing because what if you don’t get what you want? Such focus is blinding towards every other quality in that show.

(*) As a 17-year-old, Parks and Recreation’s Leslie and Ben were the first couple I actively rooted for, having spent much of my previous TV watching life being, at best, ambivalent to such things. With Sex Education, there are definitely stages where I’ve been in favour of a Maeve/Otis relationship, but I am always much more invested in the characters individually than anything else.

A show like Game of Thrones proves that even investing in plot and characters on their own comes with risk. It’s hard to believe narrowing yourself off to specific characters and specific relationships is beneficial when there is so much else to appreciate.

Take Eric, for example. He has been knocked down plenty over the show’s run, from his assault in season one through heartbreak and self-discovery, to a point where, when we return to him in season four, he is trying to be as secure in his own skin as he can. “You have to believe that you deserve good things,” he tells Adam. “And you have to love yourself.”

Through a slightly odd and clunky series of events – which include a possible God-is-a-homeless-woman narrative and a chaotic dream that would briefly confuse Jennifer Melfi – Eric reconciles his sexuality and personality with his religion, finally coming out fully to all of those in his community and deciding to be a pastor, to help shape the church into a better, more accepting place. That in doing so he becomes briefly detached from friendship with Otis is entirely in keeping with his development, and Ncuti Gatwa is a tour de force throughout.

We see regularly in seasons past and present that Otis’ commitment to his best friend can sometimes be non-existent, especially – as Eric points out – when Maeve is also in the conversation. The move to Cavendish is great for him: even at a glance, the place seems more suited for his vibrant personality. Moordale sometimes felt like a beige prison; Cavendish is a colourful playground, right down to the existence of a literal slide. So it’s no surprise that The Coven – of Abbi (Anthony Lexa), Roman (Felix Mufti), and Aisha (Alexandra James) – is appealing to him, given their own struggles in life and their sexualities. They understand and relate to Eric in a way that Otis does not.

Other strengths of the season:

Aimee: Her recovery from her sexual assault has been inspiring, and an appropriately slow build. Finding a way for her to express herself through art – specifically self-portrait photography – allowed the show to balance its most light and entertaining character between the comedy of painting very literal boobs to gorgeous imagery of her burning the jeans which haunt her. Her friendship, and later courtship, with Isaac feels a touch contrived, but generally well-suited.

Viv: Aimee’s journey finds some overlap with Viv by the end of the season, whose storyline with Beau (Reda Elazouar) was, for a large stretch, the one which felt the most disjointed. Until it didn’t. Beau’s obsession early on probably should have been a red flag; it’s just a shame Viv wore rose-coloured glasses. His emotional and later physical abuse was a dark moment and incredibly sad for Viv, who simply wanted to feel loved. Chinenye Ezeudu’s breakdown scene is devastating viewing.

Adam: The one storyline which seems to be universally loved, Adam continued his journey of self-acceptance and into a real life – not just sitting on the sofa, eating cereal and looking at pictures of his ex-boyfriend. Seeing him settle in (and fail) on the farm is great, his general aimlessness from before making way for what develops into something he actually cares for. And the closure he gets with Eric is nice.

Michael: The cruel treatment he received from his brother in season three helped make Michael one of the more sympathetic characters, and though it takes him until an angry rant from his son to lean back into cooking – one of his few passions – the self-improvement is clear to see. Is there an element of doing it to return to Maureen? On some level, yes. But it is at least in part self-led and Alistair Petrie carries Michael with such guilt, in such an aloof manner, that he simply has to be rooted for.

O: Like most of the characters on this show, good and bad is reductive. O initially comes across as the anti-Otis personality: upbeat, confident, secure with herself. The reality is different, having enabled bullying of Ruby when they were younger so no one would notice the asexual kid of colour. Thaddea Graham plays both sides of it well and despite Cavendish still doubting her through to Ruby’s speech, there’s definitely enough there to sympathise.
Jackson: Delving into health and parental issues alongside what has been previously explored with him from a sexuality perspective made for a nice change of pace. Probably for the best he didn’t have a complete identity crisis upon learning of his father’s disinterest.

Cal: This was fascinating, particularly their feeling of loneliness. The college protest around the broken lift highlights how little attention is paid to those who are differently abled – Isaac’s wheelchair denying him use of the stairs, Aisha’s deafness denying her basic safety requirements like a fire alarm – but Cal’s struggle to be accepted shows how hard it can be to cope when people consider you even a little bit different. There’s a lot of representation in this season and Cal’s is certainly the strongest.

Jean: Gillian Anderson remains an absolute joy, and her struggles remain an absolute heartbreak. Anderson spends much of this season in some form of teary state and it feels entirely appropriate and rightly gutting viewing in her situation: single parent of two with a history of depression whose loving partner has left. Jean, better than any other, highlights the need for conversation, for having people you can trust (and whom you believe) to give you the hard truths. She was blind to her own struggles. Likewise, Joanna needed a fight in the mud to realise something that we learn just moments before, and that her sister has known for decades: she was abused as a child, and her worst tendencies come from those unresolved issues. Kudos to Lisa McGrillis for making Joanna so unlikeable for so much of this season, then beautifully tugging at the heart strings during the phone-in.

There is so much to love about the brilliant final season of this fabulous show. That two characters did not end the season in a romantic relationship is not a reason to ignore all of the excellent work done elsewhere in it. Sex Education has been a thrill to watch, and this final season provided more than enough closure across the board.

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