‘Things got more tense than they’ve ever been’: Sex Education creator Laurie Nunn on a dark final series

<span>Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

This month brings the release of the fourth and final season of Sex Education, Netflix’s uproarious, off-kilter and hugely popular teen sex comedy. For fans, it’ll mark the end of a five-year journey with a series that made a name for itself as one of the streaming service’s sweetest, boldest comedies, a show whose 80s and 90s teen film spirit belies its frank and forward-thinking approach to conversations about gender, sexuality and the rich inner lives of horny teens.

For the series creator, Laurie Nunn, it marks the end of a near-decade of her life in which she went from creditless TV writer to the architect behind a show Channel 4 rejected, only for it to become one of Netflix’s biggest comedy smashes. “A lot has happened in nine years – and I haven’t really worked on anything else,” she says. “I feel weirdly grief-stricken – but then I’m like: ‘They’re not real characters – that’s kind of embarrassing!’”

For the most part, Nunn feels “really proud of what the show has achieved and the conversations it started”. It was the first Netflix show to employ intimacy coordinators, an industry practice now commonplace. But its sprawling ensemble cast and rigorous production process could feel “quite stressful” at times. “I feel relieved not to be on that rollercoaster for a little bit, and just take a breath.”

Related: Modesty pouches and masturbation montages: the making of Sex Education

Which is not to say that Sex Education loses steam in series four. In its final outing the characters join a new sixth form college after the closure of their former school, Moordale. While the show has previously dealt with subjects such as abortion, discrimination and sexual assault, weightier than average for a teen drama, it’s darker than it’s ever been, siloing many of its core characters, such as Otis (Asa Butterfield), his mother, Jean (Gillian Anderson), his best friend, Eric (Ncuti Gatwa), and his love interest Maeve (Emma Mackey), in order to send them on their own journeys of strife and self-discovery. These four characters, who in previous seasons have been ripe fodder for acerbic back-and-forths and fuzzy heart-to-hearts, have relatively little interaction this season: Eric grapples with faith and finds a new set of queer friends; Maeve is at a new school in the US, under the tutelage of a has-been writer played by Dan Levy; Jean struggles to commit to a new job while battling postpartum depression; and Otis, as a result, feels unmoored from those closest to him.

With this series, says Nunn, she wanted to explore the idea of failure. “When you’re in your late teens, there can be this feeling that if you mess up, that’s it – that’s your final chance, and life is over. I felt that very strongly when I was at school,” she says. “I wanted to say that that is not the case, there are always second chances. Because I started from that place, those slightly darker themes started to come out.”

While the most popular characters are still central to Sex Education, they receive comparatively less screen time. Focus instead shifts to Cal (Dua Saleh), introduced in series three, as well as a host of new faces, including Abbi (Anthony Lexa), Roman (Felix Mufti) and Aisha (Alexandra James), a group of students whose self-consciously progressive vibe – they have a “no gossip” mandate that Eric is shocked by – ruffles feathers among the original set of characters.

Nunn says the decision to centre the show’s trans characters – Cal is non-binary, while Abbi is a trans woman and Roman a trans man – is a conscious one, sparked by the transphobic discourse in mainstream media that so often ignores the experiences of actual trans people. “In the conversations around trans politics, trans people are so often completely excluded from the conversation – so we really wanted to centre trans voices,” she says. “To me, it felt really important to include Cal’s storyline; [given] some of the things that are happening globally at the moment, in terms of the attack on trans people – I would like to think that our show is as inclusive as it can be, [so] it felt really important that we tell that story.”

Nunn “felt a huge responsibility” to ethically showcase the stories of her trans characters, to the point that she “lost a bit of sleep over it”. “I’m definitely not the right person to be a spokesperson for the issues we touch on, which is why I felt like it was so important that we centred those trans voices,” she says. “We had conversations [with the trans actors] like: ‘Well, what kind of story would you want to see?’ Because I think that’s just what’s so desperately missing from all the discourse, and all the toxic hysteria. It makes me very upset.”

It’s clear that Nunn sees a duty, in her role as someone with a large platform and a young, devoted audience, to share the kinds of things that are rarely seen on mainstream television. Case in point: this season finds Eric grappling with and reaffirming his own identity as a gay Christian – a storyline that stands in contrast to the myriad queer coming-of-age stories that see LGBTQIA+ identity and religion as diametrically opposed. “We just really wanted to honour people who are LGBTQ but also have faith – those people exist, and they shouldn’t be looked down on, they should be celebrated,” Nunn says. “It definitely brought up some very interesting conversations in the writers’ room – during conversations we had about the church, things got more tense than they’ve ever been in a Sex Ed writers’ room, which excited me in a way where I was like: ‘This is a bit of storytelling we don’t see that often and we should put in the show.’”

Some of the decisions made in Sex Education’s final outing – including fervently debated issues such as which love interest Otis will end up with – will undoubtedly irk some ardent fans, of which there are many. On TikTok, Reddit and Twitter, Sex Education stans pick apart plotlines and gripe over character arcs like they’re real people, not fictional creations. Nunn loves the passion of fans, but has learned to tune them out when she’s writing. “I’m no longer on social media – my baby already knows how to use the phone with his little thumbs, and it freaks me out. So that made me more conscious of how I’m using my phone,” she says. “I think if you start writing while thinking about how people are responding to the work, it can become very self-conscious. I’m hopeful that there’s a bittersweetness to [the ending], and that there’s everything people want in there, even though it might not be wrapped up completely perfectly.”

For the most part, Nunn has simple hopes for the legacy of her first series. “Things move so fast nowadays and there’s so much amazing TV out there. I’m always joking that my baby’s gonna get older and be like: ‘Oh no, Mum, you made that really problematic, really embarrassing sex show,’” she says. “But I really enjoyed writing these characters and I feel really connected to them. So if people remember them in a loving way, I’ll be happy.”

Sex Education season four starts on 21 September on Netflix.