Squawk Box: Sex Education Season 4/Jack Ryan Season 4

I know there's this trend in Hollywood of bringing things back or announcing reboots or revivals, but occasionally, I think it would be great for people to remember that it's all right for things to just end, you know. And Sex Education is one of those shows. The final season was just about everything you could possibly ask for in a final season and where everyone ends up is so unbelievably satisfying.

Season Four opens with Otis (Asa Butterfield) and Maeve (Emma Mackey) trying to make a long distance relationship work. She is still in America, studying at a creative writing program. Otis is still... awkward and when she sends him a nude photo on his first day at a new college, Cavendish-- which ticks all the boxes for being friendly, inclusive, environmentally aware and, of course, progressive, the usual shenanigans ensue. Eric (Ncuti Gatwa) finds community with the most popular students known as 'The Coven.' Isaac (George Robinson) enrolls at Cavendish with an eye towards going to University and hits it off with Aimee (Aimee Lou Wood). Otis wants to jump start his therapist thing again, but finds out that the school already has a therapist in the form of 'O' (Thaddea Graham) and a rivalry develops between the two. Cal (Dua Saleh) is taking testosterone and struggling with an increased sex drive. Adam (Connor Swindells) didn't go to college, but his dad Michael (Alistair Petrie) is teaching their-- the former is apprenticing on a farm and the latter is still trying to figure his life out. Eric's Mom (Doreene Blackstock) wants him to be baptised and Jean (Gillian Anderson) is struggling with being a newly single mom and starting a weekly radio show.

That opening episode more or less lays the groundwork for the rest of the season. 

I don't know how to feel about Cavendish College and how it's portrayed. It seems almost like it's trying too hard in the early episodes, but as you get deeper into the season, you find out that there are fault lines and hierarchies and little hypocrisies in it's uber-progressive sheen. It would be interesting to see how British viewers reacted to it's portrayal as a posed to American ones, but from an American point of view, Cavendish pushes the boundaries of reality so far that it seems to be either a small, elite liberal arts college in a state like Vermont or just a straight parody.

The depth of the portrayal is made clear by the final episode: Isaac, who is wheelchair bound has been wrestling with a broken elevator which makes it next to impossible for him to move around and get to his classes on time and when he has enough and pulls the fire alarm to illustrate his frustrations, everyone rushes to evacuate, only to realize that Isaac can't and Aisha (Alexandra James), their hearing impaired classmate also expresses frustration that they left her behind. Both students point out that lip service about representation and inclusion isn't enough, there has to be actual action behind it. 

The students then take action (a sit down strike) for meaningful change (a repaired elevator). Maybe I'm reading too much into this, I don't know- but if it was meant to be a critique of the often too performative nature of progressive politics and activism today amongst young people, it was a quietly powerful one. Results matter.

The other storyline that really resonated with me was Eric's. Eric and Otis take some time apart during this season. Eric connects with 'The Coven' and finds a community that understand him a bit more than Otis does. It's not that they stop being friends, per say- it's more like they both realize that they don't seem to have very much in common any more and Eric values being with people that can understand some of his struggles in a way that Otis just can't. By the end of the season, the two come back together (because they are besties at the end of the day and best friends always find a way to work through these things) but community is at the heart of Eric's storyline and he's being tugged in two different directions throughout the season. He doesn't fit comfortable in with his church and his family (specifically, Mom) wants him to be baptized and that leads to the most unexpected plot line of the season: both Eric and Abbi (Anthony Lexa) confiding in each other that they are Christians and exploring the difficulties of trying to reconcile faith, dogma and who they are as a person.

It would have been so easy for this show to treat that storyline as a punchline, but they don't. It's heartfelt, meaningful and ultimately pays off when the students rally to track down a distressed Cal at the end of the season and it's beautifully well done-- with Eric rejecting a chance to be baptised into a church that won't accept him for who he is, but seeing that his Pastor and Church Family are willing to learn and deciding that he wants to be a Pastor was not what I had on my bingo card for this character, but I couldn't imagine anything else for him either.

Endings are impossible to get right sometimes, but Sex Education manages it. You want to root for happy endings for everyone, but life doesn't work like that and perhaps left unsaid is that happiness can look like a lot of things, so Isaac and Aimee end up together, but Maeve goes back to America and she and Otis don't. It's bittersweet, in it's way, but it's so right for these characters and one hell of a way to take a final bow for this show. My Grade: **** out of ****

I grew up on Tom Clancy novels which probably tells you a lot about my childhood and going into this show I was skeptical but the previous four seasons have proven me wrong time and time again. For an author that was very much the product of the late Cold War, his material seems more suited for period pieces and retro-nostalgia than it does slick new Amazon-produced spy thrillers, but I remain really impressed with how well this show adapted both the characters and the material for the present day audience. It works really, really well and the casting choices are excellent enough to elevate it still further.

As season four opens, new CIA Director Elizabeth Wright (Betty Gabriel) and acting Deputy Director Jack Ryan report to the president that the Nigerian President has been assassinated, but unfortunately, given the actions of Elizabeth's predecessor, Director Miller (John Schwab), there's no way to be certain that the CIA was not involved in the assassination. In Mexico, the Marquez Cartel has eliminated it's last direct competitor and now has a monopoly over US drug trafficking. Domingo Chavez (Michael Pena), Marquez's cousin is informed by a Federale that the authorities are preparing to raid the cartel's lab- a raid which occurrs just in time for Chao Fah (Louis Ozawa Changchien), a representative of an Asian triad based out of Myanmar to arrive and potentially enter into a partnership with them. Jack finds nine mysterious operations being funded and can't figure out what they are, so he and Wright decide to stop funding them (seems reasonable, to me) but Chavez isn't happy and demands that funding be restored.

This sends Ryan further down the rabbit hole to see just what operations the CIA was funding and eventually, to untangle the whole mess he resigns and goes back on mission with Mike November (Michael Kelly) and Chavez to get to the bottom of it, while Greer (Wendell Pierce) gets bumped up to Deputy Director. 

It turns out that at the heart of this season is a very Clancy-like concept of 'convergence' where drug cartels and Triads essentially merge with terrorist organizations. Cartels with their ability to move product across borders become vehicles for (in this case) mysterious devices that I don't think ever get fully explained, but are generally assumed to be capital B Bad (like dity bombs, chemical agents, etc.). They race against time to find the triggers and then stop them getting across the southern US border in a tense and brutal confrontation. The season ends with Jack officially out of the CIA and back in a relationship with Dr. Cathy Mueller and after a Senate hearing confrontation that bears a passing resemblance to the end of Clear and Present Danger (the movie, not the book), he heads off to have lunch with Cathy, but not before the door is left open a crack for Jack to run for office, presumably setitng up whatever twist on A Hunt For Red October, Debt of Honor and Executive Orders Amazon might want to take a crack at down the road.

Clancy being what Clancy is, you can't expect a totally faithful adaptation given the time period he wrote in versus the time period we're in now. There's shades of his novels throughout all four seasons, however-- you saw a touch of The Sum of All Fears last season, this season has shades of Clear and Present Danger (especially with the introduction of Chavez and the drug cartel aspect of it all) but they update the context so beautifully-- so they don't force anything in South America (Colombia was in the news for stuff and I'm not talking about Encanto when Clancy was writing) and switched it over to Myanmar/Mexico, where you see drug trafficking being more of an issue today. 

Leaving aside the brilliant job they've done updating and adapting the source material to the present day the show also deserves a ton of credit for preserving something that's essential to Clancy's writing- a core concept/scenario he always explores. Whether it's "what we do if a Russian sub tried to defect" or, "What if someone detonated a lo-yield nuke at the Super Bowl?" there's always a thesis statement behind all of his writing somewhere and what flows from that is usually extremely intelligent and always well-written. (In the case of the final season it's the idea of  'convergence'.) 

Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck and for that one movie I haven't seen, Chris Pine have all played the role of Jack Ryan. I think John Krasinski might be my favorite to do it so far. Just fits the 'Boy Scout' aspects of the character as written in the books like a glove. Wendell Pierce is perfect as James Greer-- a worthy successor to the man, the myth, the legend himself, James Earl Jones that portrayed him in the movies. Michael Pena works excellently as Domingo Chavez and I've been working under the assumption that elements of John Clark are to be found in the character of Mike November (Michael Kelly) another excellent choice for the character. A brilliant show from top to bottom, brilliantly updated for the present day, James Bond could learn a thing or two from Jack Ryan because I enjoyed every season of this. My Grade: **** out of ****


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