Sex Education Recap: Collective Action

Sex Education

Episode 7
Season 4 Episode 7
Editor’s Rating 4 stars

Sex Education

Episode 7
Season 4 Episode 7
Editor’s Rating 4 stars
Photo: Netflix/Samuel Taylor/Netflix

It was always a risky choice for Sex Education to abandon its central location in its final season. For three seasons, this was a show about more than any one individual character; it treated Moordale Secondary School as a living, breathing organism, an infamous “Sex School” that came together every year to challenge norms just by talking openly about sex. Season three, in my mind, may still represent the golden era of the show; as I discussed in my premiere recap, the Hope Haddon arc put these students up against their biggest opponent yet in the form of a regressive, nearly immovable bureaucratic force.

“Episode Seven” is the first real attempt to create a similar student-versus-staff conflict at Cavendish College, a school that, on its surface, seems much, much more progressive and laissez-faire than Moordale. We’ve seen throughout this season that despite all the school’s eye-popping features, it still fails to address student needs in some fundamental ways, like practically any institution. That crystallizes in this episode when Isaac can’t get to his exam on time because the perpetually broken elevator is, once again, broken. He and Aimee decide to take a stand, blocking off all the exits and pulling the fire alarm to demonstrate the necessity of accessibility.

With a show as progressive and well-meaning as this one, there’s always a risk of getting a little preachy. For the most part, though, I’ve been impressed with the way each season has avoided that feeling, toeing the line by always coming back to what it means to the characters, not what it means for “society.” The collective action that occurs in this episode maybe gets a little closer than usual to falling on the wrong side of that line — maybe because we just haven’t seen Cavendish come together the way Moordale regularly did, or maybe because ableism is a newer subject for this show to explore compared to sex. It all does feel a bit talky, with everyone basically turning over the floor to Isaac and Aisha so they can explain what Cavendish got wrong, and there’s little of the wacky humor that usually helps offset that vibe.

Still, the character moments do mean something. Accessibility should be a given. In fact, it’s Aisha’s story that really comes into focus here, even more so than Isaac’s. Because she sat in the front row during class, it took her several seconds to notice that an alarm was going off; by the time she stood up to evacuate the room, almost everyone else had left her behind without even realizing it. That’s a deeply isolating experience, especially because it doesn’t come from a place of malice, and it’s barely out of the ordinary. Just like Isaac, Aisha faces problems here every day, and nobody ever seems interested in making it easier for her to live her life.

Abbi, Roman, and Eric later apologize to Aisha, agreeing to try harder to support her. After hours of the students refusing to return to their classrooms for exams until Isaac can join them, Principal Lakhani puts plans in motion to replace the elevator permanently. Still, the lesson lingers: The institutions of the world rarely care about taking disabled people into account until they’re forced to.

As usual, the show also uses this larger story to touch on a number of individual character arcs. Eric, for example, is driven to reflect on his own interest in advocacy. He wants to make the world a better place for gay people, but being part of a fundamentally homophobic institution seems antithetical to that. And yet he can’t help the fact that he does care about his faith and community, and he does want to be baptized. When he discusses his feelings of guilt with Abbi, she assures him that he doesn’t need to be an activist if he doesn’t want to, even if everyone else at Cavendish seems so revolution-minded all the time. “Not everyone can fight, Eric, and that’s okay,” she says. She’s been there, too.

The protest also coincides with a tricky time in Otis and Maeve’s relationship. They have plans to have dinner at Otis’s house so that Jean can get to know Maeve better, but instead, they spend most of the episode separately, with Otis trapped in the broken elevator with O. It ends up being a smart choice for both characters, as each of them learns what they need to move forward.

With the two main candidates for student counselor universally deemed “problematic,” Connor becomes the unlikely presumptive winner. So when Otis and O get trapped, they’re finally on equal footing. O’s story is interesting: She felt alone when she first moved here from Belfast, with her accent, her asexuality, and the color of her skin setting her apart. She knew that she was different, so her solution was to befriend the popular girls and assimilate into their way of speaking. That meant throwing Ruby under the bus, but it also meant learning everything she could about sex and relationships. At Cavendish, she set up her clinic, which became a safe space for her until Otis snatched it away.

Otis can relate to O’s concern that people wouldn’t want sex advice from someone who doesn’t have sex; he struggled with the same issue early in the series, and now he’s back to feeling sexually inadequate. But O helps him realize that his issues stem from the fear that he’ll get his heart broken the way his mom did, that it could be him stuck crying in bed for days. “You can’t love anyone without risk,” O says, and it’s the final piece he needs.

Meanwhile, Maeve is learning a very different, but even more affecting lesson. She planned to register at Cavendish today, but she can’t get Wallace out of her head. There’s still some instinct that tells her she needs to be a writer, Mr. Molloy be damned. But because of her low self-esteem, she takes his words as gospel.

It’s Jean who shifts her way of thinking. When Maeve arrives for dinner, interrupting a blowout fight between Jean and Joanna, Jean manages to cut through her icy exterior by bringing up her own complicated relationship with her mom. Over the course of their conversation — during which Maeve starts crying, partly because of a cut finger but mostly something deeper — Jean comes to understand what Maeve needs. She never had a parent consistently around to tell her to pick herself back up and believe in herself. It’s a simple thing, but you completely understand why Jean saying those words would affect Maeve so much. Sometimes any adult can become a surrogate if you’re a young woman who needs a few kind words from a mom.

The show doesn’t make this comparison directly, but Adam has gone through a twist on the same experience: He had a dad around his whole life, but Michael never gave him that valuable affirmation. This season has done an amazing job showing Michael’s incremental growth without forgetting about the years of coldness he inflicted on his son, and we see the final test in this episode. After Adam is responsible for a minor fuck-up at the farm, he assumes his time there is over. Michael trained him to think of every mistake or failure as cataclysmic, and he still hears his stern voice rattling around in his brain even though their relationship has improved drastically. Discovering that Michael and Maureen are sleeping together again only exacerbates the issue: Now it feels like his dad’s growth had more to do with winning Maureen back than actually caring about his son.

Practically everyone on the show is wrestling with these scars from childhood. Maeve’s pep talk from Jean is enough to convince her to return to the U.S., which she breaks to Otis near the end of the episode. She’s open to doing long-distance again, but Otis is mature enough now to know that it wouldn’t work long-term; she needs to flourish without the need to constantly reassure him that he isn’t holding her back. It’s better to end things now while they’re still secure in their love for each other.

It’s a very emotional scene, but it’s also an optimistic one, in a way. Otis knows the relationship is over after tonight, but he also knows that he loves this girl, and she loves him back. That unlocks an inner peace that finally allows them to have sex. The next morning, Maeve visits the caravan park to scatter Erin’s ashes and give Aimee and Isaac her blessing to date. It really feels like the end of a journey for her, even if she appears in the finale. The girl standing on that hill who can say, “Bye, Mum,” and smile is the same girl we’ve known for four seasons, but she’s grown in so many ways.

Going into the finale, the biggest open questions are Cal and Viv, each of whose current character arcs are still very much unfinished. Both are in bad places, with Cal’s dysphoria at an all-time high just as they realize going private for top surgery is outside their family’s means. And Viv is beginning to realize that her relationship with Beau may be abusive — emotionally, based on his obsessive texting and intense jealousy, but also potentially physically, based on the terrifying moment when he roughly grabs her wrist. Being at a school like Cavendish can feel like an oasis for those who view it as the safe haven they never had. But even the most progressive institutions aren’t free of violence. “Safe haven” is a relative term.

All the Good Things and the Bad Things That May Be

• Jean uses the word “deleted” when she means that O was canceled.

• There is a very unexpected Mean Girls reference when another disabled student points out that their problems stem from barriers in society, not from their own disabilities. “I don’t think he goes here” has to be a reference to “She doesn’t even go here!” and his “I’m just very passionate” sounds just like “I just have a lot of feelings.”

• Jackson can’t find a record of his sperm donor, and he seems to find a love letter to his mom from a mysterious Jerome. Was he the product of a prior relationship his parents never discussed?

• Sean moved out of Dodgy Mo’s to get clean, so that’s reassuring.

• We learn in this episode that Joanna was abused by their mom’s boyfriend as a pre-teen, which comes up when Jean offers to give Jo the loan she needs in exchange for signing a silly sister contract. Jean’s hypocrisy comes up again during that fight: She demands Jo go to therapy but won’t accept that she needs to talk about her issues, too.

• Aimee shows Isaac her self-portraits, all of which feature the jeans she was wearing when she was assaulted on the bus. She explains that sometimes it feels like she’s always wearing those jeans, no matter what she does.

• “I’m gonna close my eyes. I don’t think I can watch you go.”

Sex Education Recap: Collective Action