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‘Sex Education’ Director Unpacks Final Moments of the “Perfect Show”

[This story includes major spoilers from the Sex Education series finale.]

Netflix said goodbye to Sex Education with the show’s fourth and final season, which dropped on the streamer Sept. 21. The show’s emotional ending wrapped up several storylines with a neat little bow, leaving fans of the hit series emotionally satisfied, despite bidding adieu to some of their favorite characters.

The final season saw Otis (Asa Butterfield), Eric (Ncuti Gatwa), Maeve (Emma Mackey), Aimee (Aimee Lou Wood), Isaac (George Robinson) and more of Moordale’s finest on new journeys at new schools in England and the United States. It welcomed multiple new faces to the world viewers had come to know, including Dan Levy and Hannah Gadsby, as well as newcomers Felix Mufti, Anthony Lexa and Alexandra James.

Sex Education season four also explored a new topic in its final run: The supernatural. Over the course of the season, Gatwa’s Eric continues to run into this person, played by Jodie Turner-Smith, who ends up being none other than God herself. She guides Eric into his decision to become a pastor and create a more accepting church.

Director Alyssa McClelland, who helmed the season’s last three episodes, says she still gets goosebumps when she thinks about the scenes between Gatwa and Turner-Smith.

“[Jodie and Ncuti] are both ethereal and grounded,” McClelland tells The Hollywood Reporter. “They have both got this phenomenal presence in the world. It’s not just onscreen. They’re quite electric together. They brought out something very powerful in each other, and it was a real honor to witness that.”

The scenes between Eric and God were some of McClelland’s favorite to direct, right up there with episode six, which centers on Maeve’s mom’s funeral after she died from a drug overdose. The episode brings together the original Moordale group, including fan-favorite teachers Ms. Sands (Rakhee Thakrar) and Mr. Hendricks (Jim Howick). “The theme of showing people that an ending is OK — whether it is the ending of a relationship or the ending of someone’s life, or the ending of a season — it’s showing that actually an ending in a lot of ways will lead to a new beginning,” she says.

In the conversation with THR below, McClelland also opens up about the important T4T (trans for trans) scene in the final episode, how she honed her love of the show into directing it, which spinoffs she’d want to see and more as the show says goodbye.

Ncuti Gatwa as Eric, Asa Butterfield as Otis in Sex Education

Ncuti Gatwa as Eric, Asa Butterfield as Otis in Sex Education. Samuel Taylor/Netflix

How did you go about directing the final three episodes of the series?

I didn’t know that they were going to be the final three when I started. So, for me, it was like any work I do as a director. You’re just immersing yourself in the world of these characters and the storylines. I first read episode six before I read any other episodes of the season, and I was just immediately like, “I have to do this.” I was a fan already of the show, and so it was a real honor to come in and think about how I bring myself to the work.

Obviously, it’s a very established show. There’s a visual language, the characters have their trajectories, and it’s about: How I can come in and nurture that and put my perspective on it. I was very excited. It was big. My three episodes were all like little feature films, I feel. Episode six was really special to me because it was quite standalone. All the old gang kind of came back in. I guess like any directing job, I just immerse myself in. I go underground. I don’t talk to people. I forget to sleep and do normal human things. I start to live, breathe Sex Education. It’s the only thing I would watch the whole time. White Lotus was coming out. All these great shows were coming out, and I was like, “It’ll have to be next year until I watch those. I am 100 percent Sex Education at the moment.”

What were the conversations like behind the scenes going into these three episodes you directed?

There were a lot of logistics like always. The funeral scene, there was quite a lot of logistics because it was a big set piece. It was a lot of actors’ availabilities, too, because everybody’s working on great big shows now. So, certain people were only available certain days, so it was about how I could cover it in a way when certain people couldn’t be there. There’s a lot of weather. I mean, shooting in Cardiff, [Wales], over winter is a definite challenge. We had frost. We had snow. We had sunshine. We had it all. Hopefully, nobody notices that. But there were days that we knew we had to get down to the chalet, and if it’s really icy, that’s not great.

There were a lot of conversations with the new characters. I worked very hard and made sure that I wouldn’t spend a lot of time with them before we got to my block. That was kind of how the T4T sex scene in episode eight came about. I was hanging out with them, and we were chatting and that scene wasn’t in the script at that point. I was chatting a lot with Ant and Felix, who play Abbi and Roman, and it was all about how we’ve never seen a really raw, intimate T4T sex scene onscreen before. I rang Laurie and was like, “I think that we should try to represent this. I think this is really important. And I think it’s a beautiful culmination to the storyline that Roman and Abbi have, which is they’ve been having intimacy issues. So, it’d be great to culminate in this moment where it’s together, and it’s working, and it’s beautiful.” And we really show it, just like Sex Ed has always done I think with all of those bold, provocative moments. It’s like, “Let’s create a discussion around it. Let’s be honest and authentic and real about this and show it in a really authentic, powerful way.”

Sex Education

Felix Mufti and Anthony Lexa as Roman and Abbi. Samuel Taylor/Netflix

That’s such a great scene. I’m glad you talked to Laurie about it.

She was immediately on board. She was like, “Oh my god, of course. Let’s do it now.” Then, it was just about working very closely with Ant and Felix, who are just so open anyway. It was more about the choreography and making sure: “This has to be bold. It has to be raw. It has to be intimate. We can’t be sort of shying away from it. I can’t be shooting it through a bunch of plants.” I wanted to really embrace it for the truth that it possessed.

You mentioned being a fan of the show. Is that what made you want to direct?

It was everything for me. The stories that I’m really drawn to blend between light and dark. I love comedy. That is my favorite of anything — favorite television show, favorite film is always comedy. But to have comedy that’s got heart and a real soul running through it is the stuff I’m really drawn to, and it’s a little bit dark. Sex Education has had all of that. It’s always been able to deal with really serious, big themes, big topics, but with such a light hand and with a very funny perspective. That, for me, is the stuff that is gold in life. The more light we can shine on these sort of heavier or more topical or provocative themes and stories and the more we can make people laugh as we’re doing it.. I always thought the cinematography was beautiful. The performances were astounding. It was just a perfect show. [Director] Ben Taylor worked so hard to set that up in the initial shows — the visual language that he concocted, the world of Moordale, the timelessness of it. We don’t really know what era it is. All these little qualities of the show I think are really special. It was a huge honor to be able to extend upon and dive into that.

Those three episodes had such a range of emotions. How did you balance that?

Every day was big. There was no like, “Oh, today we’re just gonna go and shoot a two-hander.” Every day had big scenes, but it was awesome. I think the cast are just so phenomenal, and I’ve worked very closely with them. There was a lot of conversations happening outside of set. It’s about trying to work with the actors and know what will help them thrive on set, and what can I do to facilitate that? Every time someone came on set, there was new energy, and it was about adapting to that. It’s always light, I think, as well, kind of like the show. It was a really light, fun set. So even when there were heavy scenes, and everybody was focused and really in that moment, afterwards, there’d be light and laughter and that joy at the end of it. I think it’s about setting a tone on set, and I’m really quite particular about the kind of tone — making sure the actors feel really nurtured so that they can do their best, and that I can help them do their best.

What was it like working with a cast and crew that’s been together for so many years?

They were so welcoming. It was like coming into this big, welcoming family. The cast were so beautiful and generous. The three directors of this season, we were all new and hadn’t done past seasons. They were wonderful. It was wonderful, too, to be able to tap into the crew. They have this hive mind that they’ve all developed after three seasons together. Both our grip and gaffer had done every season. So, it was amazing to go, “Hey, what did you use to achieve that thing in episode three, season three?” And they’d be able to go, “OK, we’ve got this, and we’ve got this.” That sort of wealth of knowledge was a really special thing to be able to tap into.

Eric’s moments with God, aka Jodie Turner-Smith, were so ethereal but also grounded. How did you go about directing those scenes?

I still get goosebumps when I talk about those scenes. I don’t know. They’re something quite electric. And I think those two words you’ve used to describe the scenes, I would directly use to describe Jodie and Ncuti. They are both ethereal and grounded. They have both got this phenomenal presence in the world. It’s not just onscreen. They’re quite electric together. They brought out something very powerful in each other, and it was a real honor to witness that. I think Ncuti, especially in his speech at the baptism, I was weeping behind the camera. He really goes there. He taps into something that’s very visceral and real, and it’s an honor to be able to watch that and capture that. But I think the whole show, in general, also does a bit of a dance between grounded and ethereal. The fact that God is there and is this mythical creature in Moordale, for me, that again, is the stuff I’m drawn to. It’s like, how do you anchor all of those pieces?

Ncuti Gatwa as Eric in Sex Education

Gatwa as Eric. Samuel Taylor/Netflix

In the episode of Maeve’s mom’s funeral, everything that could go wrong did.

That episode is one of my favorites because of exactly what you said. The funeral of a mother, and I think mothers are such a beautiful part, a beautiful theme of this season. The notion of Gillian and what she’s going through, how she sort of mothered her sister. There’s so many themes of what it is to be a mother and then obviously, Emma losing her mother and realizing she kind of has the mother herself. And she will continue to mother herself. It’s a very special episode. It’s like looking at a funeral and going, “If every possible thing could go wrong, let’s have that all happen in this little microcosm.” But actually, at the core of it, we still want to have a lot of emotion and a lot of heart, and having the community of Moordale come together, as they do when they’re finally singing together, was meant to be really emotional and potent. You’re sort of cry-laughing, is what I was hoping.

You mentioned that’s one of your favorite episodes. Was it your favorite episode to direct or watch?

That’s a hard one! I would probably say that episode six would be one of my favorite to direct and to watch. Maternal death is also something quite close to me. My episodes have a big theme of endings. And it’s quite obviously metaphoric now that it was the final season, which we didn’t know when we were shooting. But there was all these sort of throughlines of what an ending is. When I was younger, I wish someone had taught me a bit more about endings, because I do think that’s a really huge part of growing up and nobody really talks about it. It can be ending of a relationship or a death. I think what was really special about episode six was the fact that these were all really young characters, and it’s the first time they’ve ever dealt quite intensely with a very close death. And watching them walk through that is really special. But then also seeing them come together in the face of death, was really, really, really special.

It’s the theme of showing people that an ending is OK, and that actually an ending in a lot of ways will lead to a new beginning. It’s about sitting in the ending and feeling it, not running away from it. I remember being younger and thinking an ending was world-ending; any ending just felt a lot more intense. Then, as you get older, and you’ve had a few more endings in different forms, you get a bit more hardened to them.

Edward Bluemel as Sean, Emma Mackey as Maeve in Sex Education

Edward Bluemel as Sean and Emma Mackey as Maeve. Samuel Taylor/Netflix

In the penultimate episode, the Cavendish kids hold a protest, which I thought was a powerful episode to watch. What was it like leading that scene?

That was great. They were big days. George [Robinson, who plays Isaac] got a bit sick. And then, it was fine. Then, Aimee [Lou Wood, who plays Aimee,] got COVID. So, we had a few little moments in constructing that scene, but we all came back to it again because we knew we wanted it to be this really special, powerful moment. It was beautiful. I just think the performance in that moment by the characters, Isaac and Aisha, it’s really phenomenal. And it’s a real Cavendish moment, I suppose. Isn’t it? They’re all again coming together and showing sort of people power.

I feel like the final episode tied up everyone’s stories really nicely, which I always love when shows do. Do you know if this was the ending Laurie always had in mind for the series?

I think it must be, in hindsight. Because one of the reasons, I suppose, that she decided this was the final season was that all the characters did seem to have a really beautiful end moment. And I don’t know that that was intentional, but I think Laurie just felt in her bones as it sort of was unfolding before her. She was like, “Oh, wow, OK, this is actually the perfect place to leave it.” So, I think it was maybe a bit more organic. Laurie has lived and breathed these characters for so long, I don’t think she could ever have imagined ending it. They live within her, so I think it was probably better that she saw it unfold and then had to decide, “Actually, this is where it should be.”

Do you know if there were any conversations about Maeve and Otis staying together?

There was a lot of brainstorming and workshopping about: Where do they end up? But I think, ultimately, they’re so mature, those characters. Even though they don’t end up together, I feel like it is the perfect [ending]. There is so much joy in the choice they’ve made. It’s so mature, isn’t it? It’s kind of like, “Hey, I’m gonna let you fly,” and “Even though we love each other dearly, now’s not the right time to be together. But I want you to be all that you can be out in the world.” You never know. They’re very young. Who knows? There could be the reunion in 20 years’ time and, who knows what happens?

I’m usually a sucker for couples ending up together, but Otis and Maeve’s storyline made a lot of sense to me, as much as I loved them together.

They gave so much of themselves to each other. I think there was such a gift of learning that some people aren’t your forever people, but they are your here-and-now person. And they have made you grow, and they’ve made you evolve. But now maybe it’s time to go out on their own. I think that’s a really beautiful insight into relationships as well.

Are there any plans for any spinoffs maybe following Maeve or Otis?

That would be amazing. I haven’t heard anything. But you know, there’s a lot of rich ground for all of them. As I said: The 20-year reunion, who knows? That in itself could be an episode or something. Maybe a movie.

Who would you want to see a spinoff about?

Oh, gosh. I mean, all of them. I’m kind of obsessed about where all of them end up: Aimee, Adam, Eric, Otis. I want to know what they all end up doing. I don’t know if I could pick one. I’d sort of get too curious about all of them.

At the end of the day, what would you say this show was truly about?

It’s about being human. It’s about trying to embrace what it is to be a human — to be at high school, to be exploring yourself, finding yourself in that environment of a school, which is always a really strange little kind of microcosm of the world, isn’t it? You’re sort of having to find out who you are, which is why it’s very interesting that we go to a new school this year, because it’s like they’re all having to find out different elements of themselves within a new environment. So, I think it’s really about exploring self-identity and authenticity, and learning how to live one’s truth. I would say it’s about exploring that in the funniest and most authentic of ways.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

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