On “Sex Education,” Ncuti Gatwa’s Eric always shines, even in a disappointing final season

“Sex Education” is one of the few really charming and consistently watchable Netflix originals but in its final season, it falters and reminds us that no television show is immaculate. Fortunately for the show, one character will always keep the audience hooked. We all know who it is; we have never watched “Sex Education” for Otis (Asa Butterfield), sorry. Our fan-favorite will forever be Eric (Ncuti Gatwa). Gatwa’s boundless charisma and beaming smile sink you into this psychedelic foray into teenage horniness like quicksand. The actor’s charm knows no bounds as he played a version of Ken in this year’s summer blockbuster “Barbie” and preps for the release of his historic leap into playing the first Black and gay Doctor in the longstanding British hit “Doctor Who.”

While Eric may be the shining light that saves this season’s muddled and disjointed final leg, I still need to voice my qualms with the direction this season went in. My biggest gripe is that the show cut most of the cast to make room for new characters at the college our favorite characters alongside Otis and Eric have started at this year. This should be a way to give its series regulars like Maeve (Emma Mackey), Viv (Chinenye Ezeudu), Jackson (Kedar Williams-Stirling) and Aimee (Aimee Lou Wood) more space to breathe and connect with each other but it doesn’t. Even though all our Mooredale favorites aren’t best friends, it would have been great to really see them all come together in solidarity. The show is at its strongest when all its characters come together in surprising moments. Remember the second season episode where all the Mooredale girls rallied together to ride the bus with Aimee after she was sexually assaulted on the bus?

One major positive in the new characters is that they have amplified a sense of a queer community of color for the isolated Eric who only has mostly straight, cisgender white friends. This opening into Eric’s identity also further explores his internal conflict with his faith as a Christian and someone who is gay. It makes for a fascinating insight into a constant battle that he has with dimming himself to be accepted by his religious African community juxtaposed to the comfort he has found in his queerness. 

Most importantly though Otis is still insufferable. As the protagonist after four seasons, Otis and his everyday struggles should feel important but I find myself continuously wondering why every other character that revolves around him is actually far more interesting and thought-provoking than him.

But to make up for Otis’ annoying storylines, his best friend, Eric alleviates the banality of the boring protagonist. This year at Cavendish College, Eric blossoms into the queer icon he always was meant to be because of a strong sense of community that he finds at a more accepting, progressive college with queer friends and students. In the earlier seasons of the show, Eric struggled at a regressive Mooderale. Eric existed as the comedic foil to Otis’ chronic main character syndrome. Their friendship continued to be one of the stronger focal points of the show as they helped the students of Mooredale with episodic sexual issues. But Eric sometimes fell into the Black Gay Best Friend trope. The few storylines he had were focused on his sexuality and how he was bullied by his future boyfriend, Adam (Connor Swindells) who was a closeted bisexual homophobe (yikes, I know).

Last season, Adam and Eric realized they were not a match when Eric traveled to Lagos, Nigeria in a series stand-out episode, examining the nuances of the Black queer experience in Africa. In Nigeria, Eric, who is out and proud, is told to tone down his queerness and gender expression because of the country’s laws that criminalize being gay. Eric does what he’s told but he meets a gay Nigerian photographer at a family member’s wedding and he takes him to an underground LGBTQ+ party. This is the first time in the series that Eric looks at home — simply at peace. He is seen and he revels in it. 

We get more of this Eric in the final season. He has always been louder and larger than life in personality and fashion but finding a community of like-minded young, queer people who also see Eric for the gem he is only amplifies everything that’s already there inside and outside of him. It’s not just Otis who gets to experience the wonder that is Eric. Not only does this season allow Eric to be the person he’s always dreamed of but it further pushes his connection with his faith. Eric hears from many characters this season that his queerness doesn’t have to be isolated from his Nigerian-Ghanian community — they can happily co-exist and he will be accepted not in spite of his queerness but because of it.

As the show concludes its successful run even though it had a lackluster final season, it can always be proud of the positive image it created in an eternally iridescent character like Eric. Most of it has to do with Gatwa’s commitment to shaping Eric into someone who each one of us can laugh and cry with.

All four seasons of “Sex Education” are now streaming on Netflix.

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