Congratulations, class of 2020. The teens of 13 Reasons Why have finally graduated, as Netflix released the fourth and final season on Friday.
It’s been a long journey since Season 1 and often a painful one, as 13 Reasons Why repeatedly insisted on unnecessary new characters, sloppy narrative technique, and confusing messages about violence, toxic masculinity, and so, so much more.
Who’s the new guy?
Season 4 frays from the start, because one of its two central questions, posed repeatedly by Winston (Deaken Bluman) throughout the season, has already been answered: “Who framed Monty?” The audience, and most of the characters, know it’s the same as the answer to last season’s “Who killed Bryce?”: Jessica (Alisha Boe) and Alex (Miles Heizer) were the ones who let Bryce (Justin Prentice) drown after Zach (Ross Butler) beat him to a pulp, not only for raping several women but also just for being an overall jerk.
The second question is whose funeral we see in the opening scenes, but it’s forgotten after several episodes to make room for countless scenes in which the main characters yell at each other to get a grip and keep the secrets and not get the lot of them arrested for Bryce and Monty’s (Timothy Granaderos) deaths.
Just as Season 3 spent too much time with Ani, whom we must now accept as part of this core friend group, Season 4 passes the torch of spying and ingratiating oneself to Winston. He at least has some incentive to do so, having been Monty’s alibi on the night he is believed to have killed Bryce and wanting answers — and even revenge.
But while it has precedent, the introduction of new characters has always been a weak point for 13 Reasons Why. Whether it’s Winston, Tony, Ani, Skye (Sosie Bacon), or Diego (Jan Luis Castellanos), it’s tough to meet a stranger and immediately integrate them into one’s inner circle. Maybe teenagers are better at this — but adults, and these characters who have weathered more than most adults, would struggle.
“I don’t see dead people”
13 Reasons Why has made no secret of its favorite storytelling techniques over the past few years. One that requires extra care on a show rooted in mental health issues is the resurrected dead character. Season 2 gave Clay (Dylan Minnette) the ghost of Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) so she could half-narrate, half-debrief him on answers he would never have gotten otherwise.
In Season 4, Clay keeps seeing Monty and occasionally Bryce. On the surface, this seems like a manifestation of guilt he feels about both their deaths. With his therapist, and in narration (a mix of actual conversations from therapy, inner monologue, and on one occasion a college admissions essay — consistency be damned) he cites anxiety. It’s a feeling that is certainly present every time the deceased appear to him, but it doesn’t account for corporeal hallucinations without further explanation.
It also doesn’t explain Jessica’s ongoing visions of Bryce, or the fact that no one seems to think about Hannah anymore — presumably because Langford was not available to appear in the season, but an occasional mention before the finale might have been nice.
Clay’s mental health deteriorates significantly this season, as it has since Season 1. He’s in regular therapy, but we witness break after break, including dissociative episodes that lead to vandalism, scaring his friends, and setting the principal’s car on fire.
If you’re going to talk, say something
13 Reasons Why loves to cause a stir, and indeed it has consistently done so. But there’s been one elephant in the room throughout its run, and another trying to push its way in.
Ever since the Season 1 finale, 13 Reason Why has skirted around the possibility of a school shooting plot line. It has come up every single season and proven wholly unnecessary each time. One can’t help wondering if the writers suggested the idea during Season 1 for Season 2, and then backed away due to the consistent stream of gun violence in U.S. schools throughout that time.
But in that case, why keep returning to it? Why all the dramatic closeups of Tyler and guns, emphasizing the relationship between the two? Why make us sit through an episode focused on the fear of an active shooter drill in school when it was always just a drill?
The reason why is, of course, to be provocative. Perhaps, upon seeing these characters tearfully calling their families when they think they are breathing their last, 13 Reasons Why hopes to engender empathy in those who would otherwise be more disposed to side with the guns than the lives they threaten. But any chance at that effect is squandered when the episode becomes about campus police and Clay’s rage at their presence.
13 Reasons Why does well with diversity when that means colorblind casting, but it has never done well in actually addressing race.
Which brings us to the other elephant: race.
Since Season 1, 13 Reasons Why has done an admirable job of casting diverse talent and integrating their backgrounds in ways that feel organic. It does well with diversity when that means colorblind casting. But it has not done well in ever actually addressing race.
When Bryce was found not guilty in Season 2, the show had an opportunity to highlight his white socioeconomic privilege in a case that should have been damning. It did not. By asserting his “good guy” status repeatedly, the show poised Clay to be a white savior — possessed of what I call the Jack Shephard hero complex, not least because Minnette played Jack Shephard’s son for a few months in 2010.
In episodes 7 and 8, tension between students and campus police hits a breaking point. Clay asserts his privilege, no doubt unaware, by shouting expletives at both teachers and cops in episode 7. He makes sense for a second there, when he says that the presence of armed officers to promote safety actually makes students feel unsafe, but then he grabs a pistol off the nearest officer and waves it around in the air as a threat while continuing to shout. He’s eventually subdued as they pin him to the floor.
This scene would have been horrifically tone deaf even before the country and world had erupted in protests over the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and far too many other black people at the hands of police. It could have been a commentary, but not once in the show’s run time before or after Clay’s outburst does anyone recognize that he would not have survived unscathed were it not for the protective sheen of his whiteness.
This ignorance continues into episode 8, when students decide to stand and fight armed officers by pelting them with school supplies and getting in fist fights, as if cops in riot gear only use violence as a last resort. On one hand, that type of socially charged and unprovoked violence seems right up 13 Reasons Why‘s alley. But as with gun control, the show takes a firm stance of depicting but never exploring the topic.
From Mr. Chips to Scarface
If nothing else, 13 Reasons Why was always about Clay Jensen’s journey. When we met him, he was Hannah’s light in darkness, the only good guy she could remember meeting, and someone she would have liked to get to know under different circumstances. By Season 4, he is unrecognizable. He didn’t transform overnight, but as in Season 3 he continues to assert his goodness, perhaps as a desperate attempt to convince himself.
The white male antihero’s TV heyday is behind us, but it worked best when the character arc had been thought out well in advance, as with Walter White on Breaking Bad. “Thought out well in advance” is not a phrase one can apply to 13 Reasons Why. In four seasons, Clay goes from The Only Good Guy to the guy who lit up a car during a fight with police.
It’s horrifying, as it is certainly intended to be, but remains unresolved. He seems to be better, at least, but again the show doesn’t offer any detail about the mental health episode he experienced, the dissociation, the ongoing hallucinations, or that white savior complex and shield of privilege.
So, where did they all end up? The funeral at the top of the season turns out to be Justin’s, after a late diagnosis reveals he is HIV positive and in the deadly final stages of AIDS. Bryce’s murder is closed for good, and attributed to Monty, but Winston gets to know the truth and make peace with Alex for what happened.
13 Reasons Why could have been a super fun show if it didn’t want to summit the top of Mount Topical.
The prom episode is shockingly enjoyable amid the general exhaustion I’ve come to associate with this show. To learn, in its final hours, that 13 Reasons Why could have been a super fun show if it didn’t want to summit the top of Mount Topical with its storytelling is perhaps the biggest slap in the face of all. I would watch a show about Liberty High School, maybe even its next generation, full of “Find Your Drink” parties and gorgeous school dances (an enviable venue!) and promposals with fairy lights.
Perhaps that is part of 13 Reasons Why’s unwitting legacy. This was always going to be a show about a young girl whose life could have been dances, parties, and friends, but who struggled mentally and emotionally after assault and abuse. Any of these characters would trade their storylines in for the Liberty on display in episode 9, but none of them can have it. The most exciting thing about this show ending is seeing what the cast go on to do as they, too, graduate this show and take their talents out into the wider world of Hollywood.
The gang prepares for college in various stages of relationships, friendships, and mourning. They decide to leave it all behind, starting with the basis of their unlikely alliance — the tapes. They bury them once and for all, literally and figuratively; when Clay sees Hannah across the gym one last time, they don’t meet or exchange words. It is impossible for me to watch anything about high school graduation without recalling the words from John Green’s Paper Towns: “It is so hard to leave, until you leave. And then it is the easiest goddamn thing in the world.”
13 Reasons Why was frustrating and difficult, but it’s over, and there will be no looking back.
You can now stream every season of 13 Reasons Why on Netflix.
If you want to talk to someone or are experiencing suicidal thoughts, text the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Here is a list of international resources.
If you have experienced sexual abuse, call the free, confidential National Sexual Assault hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673), or access the 24-7 help online by visiting online.rainn.org.