Netflix’s Sex Education captivated me from the first episode I saw nearly four years ago. It was fun, heartwarming, and frank about all things sex and relationships. And unlike other TV shows, its supporting characters — especially the Black characters, like Eric (Ncuti Gatwa), Vivienne (Chinenye Ezeudu), Jackson (Kedar Williams-Stirling), and Cal (Dua Saleh) — were fully fleshed-out and engaging. But, like all classic teen rom-coms and coming-of-age stories, there was a central love interest between the main characters: Maeve (Emma Mackey) and Otis (Asa Butterfield).
Maeve and Otis coming together is the impetus for the series, with her approaching him to start a sex therapy clinic as a mutually beneficial situation (he gets to help people with his knowledge; she gets cash to help basically raise herself). But that shared passion led to shared romantic feelings, with the writers keeping us in a will-they-won’t-they limbo until the end of season 3, when Maeve finally admits her feelings for Otis and they kiss at last. When Maeve got into a U.S. writing program at the end of season 3, the pair — after finally kissing — agreed to try long distance.
[Ed. note: The rest of this piece contains spoilers for the end of season 4 of Sex Education (which is the end of the show).]
But in season 4, Maeve and Otis’ long-distance connection is clearly disintegrating. Then, when she comes back for the death of her mother, they’re still not in sync (and understandably so; grief isn’t really the best atmosphere to build up a romantic connection in). After Maeve realizes that she actually loves it in America, they mutually decide to break up for good. It is, quite simply, bullshit.
Let’s be clear: There are some incredibly valid arguments for why Maeve and Otis shouldn’t end up together. Several characters, like Otis’ best friend, Eric, and his former love interest Ruby (Mimi Keene) told Otis that he tended to neglect everyone else whenever Maeve was around, quite dickishly dropping all his commitments to be at her beck and call. And Maeve took too long to let Otis in emotionally or even confess her feelings for him, always keeping him at a distance, even while also neglecting her other relationships for him. Truth be told, the pairing was already a bit stale, as the conflict-to-cuteness ratio was wildly skewed. Although parentless, low-income Maeve moving away from her only support systems — her many friends in Moordale — doesn’t make logical sense to me, Otis moving to be with her doesn’t either, and neither is mature enough for a long-distance relationship. In therapy-speak, this relationship was making them regress, not progress.
All that is why, if I knew Maeve and Otis in real life, I would think their breakup was necessary. But Maeve and Otis aren’t real life. They’re TV characters in a fun show where everyone dresses and behaves like it’s the 1990s and performs fellatio on bananas. True, it’s a show whose magic has always been its depiction of what healthy relationships do and don’t look like, how to leave an unhealthy dynamic and how to build one, how to figure out who you are and how to let other people see the real you. But still, with entertainment, we don’t want to just focus on what’s practical or healthy, but what’s romantic and mushy.
For me, that’s what Sex Education took from viewers with its “reasonable” ending. We spent years following this couple, waiting with bated breath for them to get together, only to get the TV equivalent of a slammed-door, no-contact, blocked-on-social-media breakup. While they ended on a loving note, Maeve and Otis absolutely ended, without even the possibility of seeing each other or talking to each other being explored. That leaves viewers with a lot of fanfiction fodder, but not much emotional satisfaction.
Personally, when it makes sense for the characters to break up but we want to retain that sense of hope, I love an open-ended breakup. Adapted from Sally Rooney’s stylish novel of the same name, Hulu’s Normal People is my romantic heartbreak ideal. They break up when Connell (Paul Mescal) gets into grad school in New York (what is it with these British and Irish characters wanting to come to America to study literature? It is not that great here!) while Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) feels settled in her life in Dublin. They part tearfully, but there’s this possibility hanging in the air of reconnecting. You know, partially because of the love that’s been established between the two, this is most likely a pause rather than an ending. So in my mind, Marianne and Connell are now married and expecting their first child.
My disappointment in the finale is less about wanting Maeve and Otis together specifically than it is about longing for a classic OTP (“one true pairing”), a fairy-tale ending. You want your years of rooting for a couple to come to an emotional climax; you want to feel happy and satisfied and content. And yes, I fully acknowledge that perhaps this is due to the cultural messages I’ve received that say an ended relationship is a failed relationship. I know that’s a toxic idea we have to combat, and yet I demand romance from TV and movies. I will learn to be healthy in therapy.
But this is a show that we’ve followed since 2019, before we even knew what COVID was. It’s disappointing when you follow a TV romance for so long, only to have it end with a whimper. You just can’t help but feel like, Is that it? I get that breakups and decentering romance feel like the smarter choice, the more evolved choice, the more 2023 choice. But I think as viewers, we’ll never evolve past the need for happily-ever-afters, or more accurately, for hope. Maeve and Otis’ breakup felt like a lecture from an admittedly capable therapist, not an emotionally lasting scene. And I get that the show is about therapy, but can it meet us in the middle?
Sex Education didn’t do what Normal People did and leave a hopeful door open. It ended the relationship on a definitive note before the finale, which made me sort of depressed and not excited to finish a show I love. You want to feel anchored to something with a series finale, waiting on a conflict or dilemma to resolve itself. But there wasn’t any remaining tension for that last episode. Although Cal, Vivienne, Aimee, and Eric got fantastic send-offs, they were also somewhat predictable, like a comforting mug of tea before bed rather than a champagne toast.
We know Cal is going to find the money for their top surgery. We know Vivienne is going to stand up to her emotionally abusive ex-boyfriend. We know Aimee is going to feel liberated from her trauma and smooch her new love interest, Isaac. And we know Eric is going to resolve his existential crisis (although I must admit the “I want to be a pastor” revelation did take me by surprise). But we also — and this is crucial — know that Otis and Maeve are so over. And then, if that final disappointment wasn’t enough, they have Maeve send Otis a letter that basically says “Love you forever, but we are never talking again, much less getting back together. Thanks, bye!” It all made for a finale that was cute, but not particularly engaging.
I won’t say that there aren’t any shows delivering on classic romance and letting their OTPs ride off into the sunset, but it does feel like it’s perhaps an overcorrection for all those years Hollywood just let toxic couples end up together with no real healing or growth. It reminds me of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, a show that had us rooting for its very flawed, traumatized main character, Rebecca (Rachel Bloom), to find a healthy relationship, only for it to end with her… working on herself. Which is great! But not romantic. Or Dawson and Joey from Dawson’s Creek? (Clearly I haven’t gotten over this unspeakable TV crime.) Sometimes the problem is one of presentation, like 2019’s Someone Great, which was billed as a rom-com but was basically just a depressing eulogy to a 10-year relationship, and I still cannot for the life of me think of anything I gained from watching it. And I also won’t say that there aren’t definitive endings that are glorious (Fleabag’s “It’ll pass” has me in the fetal position every time). But for the most part, if I want to watch a healthy breakup, I’ll tune into a drama or get that storyline from a side character.
But the unspoken contract of romance stories is that there’s an OTP and they end up together. Admittedly, it might be my more toxic side showing, or perhaps it’s my age — I was raised on the rom-coms of the ’90s and 2000s, where everyone moved fast and ended up together in the end. I love Sex Education because it’s different from those shows and movies. Sex Education is so different because it inspires us to think about growth and mental health. And secretly, even though I’m annoyed, I like that, in general, it’s not afraid to depict the necessity of letting go. I just wish, when it came to the main romantic plot, it also gave us a few more happy endings.