For each of the past two years, I have reviewed the new season of the controversial Netflix drama 13 Reasons Why. Now that the series debuted its fourth and final season on Friday, it seems like I should complete the circle. Given the quality of what they produced this year, I retroactively regret having tried to make the case against critical consensus that the prior seasons had something worthy to say, even if they didn’t always seem to be thematically appropriate successors to the complex and uncomfortably bleak first season. I don’t think I have ever seen a show switch genres and go so wildly off the rails by betraying its own purpose as it did in this final season. I would even argue that this garbage fire of a final batch of episodes only reinforced the original critics’ view that 13 Reasons Why was never anything more than exploitation masquerading as seriousness.
It didn’t have to be that way, though. It was easy enough to fix.
Obviously, spoilers follow. But let’s get real: Most of my readers won’t watch the show or read this review, so it doesn’t matter too much.
The first season of 13 Reasons Why dramatized the book of the same name by Jay Asher, recounting the events that led a high school girl to commit suicide. The second and third seasons attempted to tell new stories by reframing the show. Originally conceived as a story about girls and their experiences with trauma, sexism, and bullying, the series instead became a story about boys and their halting, failing efforts to live up to or overcome toxic ideals of masculinity. I admit it is strange that a story about a girl’s experience ended up focusing almost entirely on gay male couples and one pair of straight boys who were platonically in love with each other, too. After the original conceit was resolved, the series settled on a new center, the growing bond of brotherhood between two of the boys, Clay and Justin, who eventually became legal brothers and supported one another while struggling with emotional fragility. For all the extreme situations and exploitative wallowing in trauma, I thought that this was a worthy theme and generally handled in an interesting way. It’s not really how TV shows men.
So, naturally, the fourth season decided to become a bizarre anthology of movie pastiches, starting with Scream and the horror genre and concluding with what I’m pretty sure is a very close riff on the climax of Love Story. Words fail me in explaining how deeply this change from dark melodrama to batshit supernatural horror crossed with misery porn betrays the core idea of the series and anything worthy in it. You can just tell that the writers knew they had no need to keep going and no one left to please, so they just went balls-to-the-wall wild and stupid.
That said, it isn’t all bad, just mostly. Honestly, I would have been down for turning the show into Scream. The characters are actually pretty good in a horror movie. Too bad they couldn’t sustain it.
Our story, or what passes for it, revolves around Clay trying to discovery who is trying to expose his friends and him for having framed dead rapist Monty for the murder of the other dead rapist Bryce at the end of season three. A vandal stuck the school, spray-painting “Monty was framed” onto the main office doors. Clay starts receiving disturbing phone calls from Monty’s cellphone, which eventually escalate into a riff on the Scream movies. During a class trip to Birnam Wood, Clay’s friends are trapped in the Cabin in the Woods (or the one from Evil Dead if you prefer) and are terrorized by a supernatural force and/or psycho killer while Clay is kidnapped and held in a cave, all but screaming “Out, damned spot.” Many characters see ghosts, some of which erupt into disturbing visions. Paranoia reigns. On the other hand, the sweet romance between Alex and Charlie manages to be both wholesome and progressive and cuts against the misery. I’d have rather watched that show.
Clay becomes increasingly unhinged, breaking from reality. He loses time. He sees visions of blood and the dead and violence. The principal hires security to stage a surprise active shooter drill with a real shooter (!) to test how the kids will react to being shot at (!!). Clay grabs an officer’s gun after the drill and threatens to shoot. He ends up in the psych ward, where he escapes (!!!) and proceeds to return to school soon after (!!!!) where he leads a riot that defeats a phalanx of armed cops and burns out the principal’s car (!!!!!) and gets himself elected graduation speaker (!!!!!!). His TV-friendly mental illness comes and goes with startling convenience. Oh, and all of the parents are in a conspiracy to monitor and control their kids like in the movie Disturbing Behavior. I give credit to Dylan Minnette for playing Clay’s many unmotivated lurches in character completely straight and almost making them convincing, but I laughed more than I was moved.
If that weren’t enough, in the last 90 minutes of the show, Justin develops AIDS and dies. He apparently caught HIV while working as a same-sex prostitute between seasons 1 and 2, and despite only about 18-20 months having passed, he not only relapsed to heroin two or three times but also progressed from HIV to AIDS, caught pneumonia, and developed a terminal brain infection. Honestly, reader, I laughed when the doctor gave the diagnosis. Brandon Flynn sold the hell out of Justin’s death scene, especially when Justin tries so hard to maintain his masculine self-image while begging Clay, his purest and deepest love, to hold his hand while he dies. But the utter absurdity of the development was matched only by the outright emotional manipulation at the end of the series, when Clay finds an essay Justin wrote (on paper, no less!) calling Clay his positive influence and his brother. It’s emotional, and moving, mostly because Flynn is an extraordinarily emotive actor and Minnette has grown into to expressiveness, but it’s completely unearned from the proceeding nine episodes of bonkers genre-hopping nonsense.
In the end, Clay rides off out of town to a future where he and his friends have survived. The show claims, explicitly, that its true theme was love, but really it was trauma—how the effort to live up to the false image of what society expects us to be destroys us from the inside out. This final batch of episodes undercut that and, especially by killing Justin, taught the wrong lesson, showing that no matter what you do or how hard you try, you are still going to be destroyed by the society around you. As the old joke about life goes, nobody makes it out alive.
I hated it. I’ve been writing a novel during the weeks of lockdown and quarantine, so storytelling, story structure, and plotting have been on my mind a lot lately. I hated how they wrote this season. I rarely hate things so much that I actually take the time to think about how to do it better, but this one offended me as a storyteller and a writer, not just as a TV viewer. It was sloppy. It was absurd. It was disconnected not just from reality but from the established reality of the show. It made me mad for having bothered to take this show seriously in past years, which I guess is an improvement over so many shows that leave me feeling nothing at all. Really, who’s going to bother trying to imagine a better October Faction?
All the same, after thinking about it, I started to wonder if the writers originally had another idea in mind, since so many of the details don’t add up. That’s also when I realized that I could fix this without really changing anything we see on screen. It’s pretty simple, mostly elegant, and I almost think it was probably something close to what the first draft of the season must have been. Also, fixing someone else’s problematic writing was a welcome distraction from the pile of bad news I have had to deal with this week, which I’m not ready to handle yet.
To follow along, we need to stipulate three things: (a) The season is narrated by Clay, who is by his own admission an unreliable narrator with severe mental illness. (b) Many of the events we see are so unrealistic compared to what came before or openly contradict what we have seen before that they cannot possibly be real. (c) Clay is established as a huge fan of horror, sci-fi, and other genre staples and lived most of his pre-show years immersed in movies and comic books.
Therefore, the conclusion must be that what we are seeing on screen is Clay’s delusion after suffering a severe break from reality. This is no great stretch since within the narrative itself, Clay is diagnosed as having dissociative identity disorder, can’t remember his own actions, and is seen hallucinating both people and locations while breaking from reality.
So what is really going on? Using only what we see on screen, a better narrative could be assembled along these lines with minimal additional content:
At the end of season 3, Justin is going to go off to rehab. When we pick up season 4, he is in a suspiciously short rehab and about to come home. Clay says he doesn’t want to go to the facility to see him but will see him when he gets home. The Justin who returns home isn’t real. He’s imaginary while the real one is still in rehab. This explains why the season 4 Justin is trapped in a loop repeating the same storyline from season 3 nearly beat for beat. He is Clay’s distorted memory of Justin. It also explains why he doesn’t catch on that Clay is sneaking out at all hours to commit vandalism and terrorize his friends. The real Justin is so attuned to Clay that he wakes up when Clay has a bad dream.
As previously established in seasons 2 and 3, he and Justin are one another’s rock, and as also established, Clay’s previously seen hallucinations and delusions subside when the two are together. With Justin gone, the stress and pain are finally too much. Clay has suffered a psychotic break and is losing the distinction between delusion and reality. He’s imagining himself in the plots of different movies and using them to punish himself. Hence the reason the ominous Scream-style phone calls involve self-torture, eventually climaxing in a slasher-style scene where he thinks he will be killed. The incident in Birnam Wood isn’t just an Evil Dead or mad-slasher riff. It’s a reference to Macbeth. Birnam Wood is a false forest that closes in on Macbeth. Clay, though, is more Lady Macbeth, feeling guilty to the point of wanting to end it all. The red spot on Justin’s neck isn’t just foreshadowing AIDS. It’s the “damned spot,” foreshadowing what must be excised. The camping trip never happened—who would take kids camping in January for a senior class trip, even in California?
We also notice that time is slipping. Clay complains about losing time, but the narrative is also losing time. It skips through from December to June, but nonsensically. Holidays come and go but conversations and plots pick up as though the intervening weeks, referenced only obliquely, never happened. For some reason, the football team is practicing in spring, even though the players should be playing spring sports and, being seniors, will never play high school football again. In midwinter, the trees have summer foliage. In spring, they sport autumn leaves. This is all delusion, taking placing over a few days in early December.
When Clay imagines himself and his friends in Elephant, he is reliving his fear about what he prevented last season, but we already saw that he had tested positive for drugs—drugs nonsensically slipped into a cookie by a football player who is also a huge stoner, even though a major plot point the previous season revolved around regular drug testing of athletes. Other moments from the past resurface. Two attempted rapes of unconscious girls occur, with characters who don’t know what they are doing or why. The first season revolved around the twin rapes of Hannah and Jessica. Clay crashes a car and nearly kills Zach, similar to the traumatic death of Clay’s first best friend, Jeff, in season one. In Clay’s delusions, past and present are mixing and remixing, often nonsensically, as Clay is working through his many traumas.
Clay has been mentally ill his whole life. We know that from past seasons, but Clay keeps a lot of it hidden. When he has someone to watch out for him and care about him, it’s not so bad. Jeff did that for him first. Then he started hallucinating once Jeff died. After he saved Justin, he got better. But with Justin relapsing again, Clay is certain Justin will abandon him once things get hard, as happened before. Clay has never told anyone how deeply mentally ill he is, not even his therapist, and he’s terrified that everyone will abandon him if they knew. Justin stopped Clay from killing himself the first time his delusions sent him down that path, but with no one there to catch him this time, he uses Justin’s secret stash of drugs, which in the fantasy world we see Justin using and which we know from past seasons are always hidden somewhere in the house, to try to kill himself by overdosing. His mind reframes this as a heroic, gun-brandishing stand against everyone who wronged him, but it’s just him, alone in a room, shooting up (see, it’s a symbolic pun!), to die like Justin lived.
He ends up in the hospital, completely broken, probably in and out of consciousness, occasionally in a coma. He fantasizes about escaping. He fantasizes that his friends will all be happy once he pushes them away, finishes the job of destroying himself, and ends everything. When they visit him, he incorporates their stories into his fantasy, explaining their lurches in character development. He pushes off reality by imagining that it is Justin’s mother who overdosed rather than him. He imagines that Justin would not want him to know while he was recovering from mental illness so he would not worry and can focus on himself, because in reality Clay doesn’t want Justin to know about his suicide attempt while Justin is trying to get clean for the same reason. Similarly, he symbolizes his own fear of Justin finding out he is very mentally ill by imagining that Justin feared Clay discovering he was briefly a sex worker and therefore kept it a secret from him, even though this is something that Clay undoubtedly actually knew since Justin talked about his sexual assault in front of the whole school in season 3. But those moments of reality flit in and out of his consciousness all too briefly. Mostly he projects his own fears about never recovering onto the imagined Justin, making sense of his hospitalization by projecting it onto someone else.
By systematically destroying every part of his false life, he can finally be free. Hence, in his fantasy, he trashes his college chances, trashes the school, pushes away his girlfriend, courts disaster at every turn, etc. Finally, he imagines Justin suddenly and irrevocably dead, both because he fears Justin will leave forever and because he has to kill the only thing left he really loves, his brother, to finally punish himself enough. His therapist, Gary Sinese—who is just his subconscious mind—makes the point clear enough when he tells Clay that, like Justin, part of him doesn’t feel he deserves to have anyone love him. And so Clay gets rid of them all.
Sure, that’s sad, but then it gets better. After the “escape,” Clay’s parents arrive and Clay asks if Justin is home, saying “I’ll be all right” if he’s home. It’s weird and out of place in the narrative as presented but makes good sense in this revised version because at the end of Clay’s delusional fantasy, after the impossible graduation where he somehow narrates the entire season as a graduation speech despite being a gun-toting rioter and escaped mental patient, he sees the “ghost” of Justin, who tells him that they are brothers and that he is loved. Justin, now out of rehab and clean, has come to see Clay, who finally realizes that there is someone who will always love him even after seeing him at his worst, stark raving mad, broken, and sad. It doesn’t matter. They are still brothers.
Clay breaks down in tears over this and asks how he can do it alone. In the show, he means live the rest of his life, but here we’ll say it refers to coming out of his coma, overcoming his delusions, and returning to a harsh, not always comforting reality. Justin tells him that he can do it, that he will survive, and coming back to everyone is something he has to do for himself.
So, when we see Clay drive off out of town at the end, we are seeing him driving back toward consciousness and reality. When he awakes, Justin will be there, and they will be able to help each other heal—broken, fragile, uncertain, but finally completely honest with one another and therefore stronger together. It is Christmas again. The spring semester is yet to be written.
My revision closes the four-season story by inverting the structure of the first season, pulling away from the original season’s embrace of death, and ending on a hopeful, but not unalloyed, moment of grace. It closes the loop in a thematically appropriate way. It’s more than the writers of the actual show pushed out, and you can see that it requires very few changes—just a few quick cut-ins to reality which the viewer would at first mistake for flashbacks, in the opposite manner of the first season’s deceptive flashbacks, and then a minute at the end—to turn a steaming pile of garbage into something elegant and almost cathartic.
The thing is that the actual season of the show is so badly done that once you begin to suspect that Clay is an unreliable narrator, suddenly you can’t unsee the alternative version I outlined above.
I suspect from the remnants left in the final product that the season started out something close to what I outlined before it got bastardized into nonsense. The alternative is to imagine that no one was actually paying attention to what they were doing or were utterly incompetent, and that would be infuriating since the people who work on Netflix shows get paid a lot more money than I will ever make and I would be very angry to find out that they are paid just to hurl spaghetti at a wall. On the other hand, October Faction was a real thing that also existed. Maybe Netflix has more money than talent.
So, you’re welcome 13 Reasons Why. I fixed you. That’s more than you did for most of your characters, or yourself.
6/10/2020 01:37:54 pm
This show comes across as a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
6/10/2020 02:38:34 pm
You're being too hard on yourself, calling your own comment "a show."
6/11/2020 12:00:04 pm
Reminds me of the two-episode finale of The Prisoner, where #6 discovers he is #1.
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I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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