While the fourth and final series of Netflix’s sex-positive teen drama features several prominent trans characters, their stories feel disappointing and limited, writes Eli Cugini
Across its four-season run, Sex Education has carved out its own niche in the teen-focused educational-drama-comedy sphere: less sensationalist than Euphoria, more straight-edged and feel-good than Skins, more risqué than Heartstopper or Disney’s teen fare, and held together by a startlingly talented young cast (including breakout star Ncuti Gatwa, whose tenure as the fifteenth Doctor Who incarnation begins in the spring), its charm, eccentricity and emotional power have won it substantial public fondness and critical acclaim. So why has the show’s final season, which hit Netflix last month, been somewhat of a disappointment?
Season 4 gets some things right: the story is, in places, strong, with particularly affecting and nuanced arcs for Gatwa’s Eric and Emma Mackey’s Maeve Wiley, and many of the actors are so good that just seeing them on screen feels like a gift. But the show feels muddled and stretched too thin, flitting to and fro between its cast members, dropping threads, spending time it doesn’t have on bit characters (why am I watching Hannah Gadsby accidentally apply chili oil to their genitals?), and seeming utterly clueless about what to do with its new elements, including Cavendish, the new hyper-progressive school its cast attends after the closure of Moordale Secondary in Season 3.
The season has problems on multiple levels; I could go on about the bizarre characterisation of sex therapist O, who flips from a near-sociopathic manipulator to a master of empathy on the turn of a dime, or the ways Maeve’s America storyline is rushed and stretched past credulity (if you’re going to spend a whole season discussing the financial viability of Maeve’s two-month study course, it makes no sense for her to suddenly decide to move there permanently out of nowhere). But season four’s faults and limitations, and the ways they’re tied up with its good intentions, are perhaps best encapsulated by one of its new characters: Abbi, a trans girl and Cavendish’s Queen Bee.
Sex Education can do trans storylines: Cal (Dua Saleh), a nonbinary person struggling with not being able to access top surgery, is a good and nuanced character, and the show conveys the intensity of their pain while also showing enough of their activities, thoughts and everyday conflicts to not make their story flat or maudlin. It feels like we know Cal, at least a little. But with season four’s new trans characters, Abbi and her boyfriend Roman, the show bites off more than it can chew, because it tries to take on the baggage of new young trans characters without the knowledge or screentime to let us get to know them.
Abbi and Roman are beautiful, popular, visibly and happily queer, and essentially pointless. They are in the show constantly – presumably because of what they visually represent – but have almost no interiority or interesting dialogue. Roman at least has a couple of fun moments in the last two episodes, because he’s, at heart, a frivolous character; his family are supportive and affluent, his school is supportive, he’s had top surgery, and therefore – within the show’s canon at least – he has no problems, particularly in contrast to Cal, who can’t afford surgery. The show appears to have an unspoken desire not to depict transphobic abuse – which I do appreciate; I’ve seen enough of it – but this becomes a problem when the show doesn’t give us any insight on what things are like for Roman outside of his bubble, creating the false sense that Roman’s life as a visibly queer and trans man of colour is somehow safe and cushioned (conversely, one of the show’s most emotionally powerful arcs – Aimee’s – is about a cis white woman processing the abuse she has experienced from strangers). Plus, the show mishandles a crucial scene where Cal and Roman discuss difficulties in accessing trans healthcare, because Roman is made to explain a bunch of information to Cal that anyone in Cal’s position would already know, making it clear that the show doesn’t fully understand its own trans characters or their inner lives.
Abbi, meanwhile, is a trans Christian who has been thrown out by her family post-coming out, and is now living with Roman’s family (the show is vague on how long she’s been there, but Abbi’s actress is visibly three-plus years into transition, while the move is implied to be relatively recent – I’m not sure the writers fully considered the practicalities here). Accordingly, Abbi does have problems, but within the show all she generally gets to do is be supportive of other characters, be good at everything, and say “yaaas” when her friend puts on a good outfit. Her overall storyline is that she’s a little too insistent on positivity, to a cloying extent, because she doesn’t want to deal with her past trauma – this is explicitly stated in the final episode – but when another character encourages her to not be so restrictively sunny all the time, her big cathartic moment is… telling her boyfriend he has bad breath.
This is where the limitations of the show become apparent: Sex Education wants to feature Abbi, wants her to be beautiful and popular and confident in her transition and not to experience transphobia on screen, but it also lacks some fundamental knowledge about trans women and doesn’t have the leftover screen time to devote to her – particularly since she doesn’t have a neat, singular issue that they can resolve on screen. Unfortunately, this means Abbi gets treated very accurately like a trans girl: helps everyone else, can’t put a foot wrong, and can’t have an unsightly meltdown, because then people might get some bad ideas about trans people. And yet, she still doesn’t get to be likeable, because the show also consistently frames her in antagonistic ways.
Sex Education ultimately wants us to root for its main character, Otis. Moreover, Eric and Otis’s friendship has been at the core of the show since the pilot. We are primed to oppose anything that gets in their way. So, when Eric starts spending all of his time with the popular queer kids – Abbi, Roman, and their friend Aisha – it is significant that Abbi and Roman don’t just invite Eric over; they actively encourage him to abandon Otis for them. That means that every time we see these queer and trans people on screen, having fun, we are being primed by the show to feel bad and anxious, because their happiness means Otis is being left out. There isn’t even any real reason to believe this; Abbi and Roman don’t actually have a problem with Otis, and hang out with him and Eric later without issue. But because the show’s loyalties lie with Otis, the installation of conflict between Eric and Otis unwittingly means that, for a large part of the show, seeing a bunch of queers dancing makes us feel uneasy. Combine this with Abbi’s relentless ‘put a pound in the gossip jar!’ positivity, and her status as an avatar for a peppy new school we don’t really understand and aren’t sure if we’re supposed to like, and the result is that she is the one regular character who consistently doesn’t feel good to watch. That’s not the treatment the show’s only trans woman deserves.
Sex Education season four wants many things it is laudable to want: to convey a range of important life experiences, to make us fall in love with a brilliant and diverse cast, to reach a wide array of people, to teach us things we don’t already know. As such, it is part of perhaps the next wave of mishandled trans stories: unlike those that dehumanise trans people or make them punchlines, there is good here – interest, some basic accuracy, a short and lovely trans sex scene. But as long as shows don’t put in the work to depict us as real, have the confidence to let us be messy, or remain conscious of how we’re being framed, a lot of trans storylines will still come out feeling disappointing – and will reflect the technical limits of the show as a whole.