Today I am going to break format, as I did a year ago, to discuss the new season of the Netflix drama 13 Reasons Why. Regular readers will recall that my first real job after college was reviewing the teen soap The O.C. for a now-defunct online publication (for which show producers gave me a backhanded compliment in its fourth season), and I have retained an affection for the genre that has long outlasted my own young adult years. I hadn’t intended to talk about 13 Reasons Why again, having said all I thought I needed to say last year, but the current season has left me somewhat dumbfounded, almost to the point of regretting that I had defended the controversial show in its unnecessary but intermittently compelling second season. Its third season undoes almost everything that second did right while doubling down on all that it did wrong in ways that made me uncomfortable, both as a viewer and for the actors who had to tell this deeply wrongheaded story.
If you have not read my discussion of the second season, I would recommend doing so before continuing on. As always, be aware that this review will include a discussion of the plot of the third season, so please wait to read my analysis until you have watched the show, if you choose to do so. It is not a review, however, and I will be speaking more about the emotional weight given to various plot threads rather than an objective analysis of their structure and function. In other words, what I describe as central and important may not be what the writers intended when they structured their story. Also, for a completely different perspective that agrees with me on about three-quarters of my points yet seemed to have watched a completely different show, see What Culture’s review of this season, evidence that reactions are subjective.
Last year, I discussed the efforts that the show made to extend Jay Asher’s 2007 novel beyond the limitations of the source material and to justify continuing a story that was originally framed around the subjective experiences of a teenage girl who committed suicide and the boy, Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette) who loved her. The second season framed its story around a legal proceeding and a culture of sexual assault, led by serial rapist Bryce Walker (Justin Prentice), who suffered no consequences due to a failure of the legal system. However, as I discussed last year, that structural and formal plot was only a scaffolding upon which hung the season’s real story, the redemption of Justin Foley, played by Brandon Flynn. In the first season, the character was written as a villain, but Flynn was a better actor than the material and had made him sympathetic and even loveable despite the mechanics of the plot. In the second season, the writers recognized this, sometime more than they knew, and Justin’s redemptive arc back from traumatized abuse victim overtook the formal structure of the plot and ended with him becoming a self-sacrificing hero and being welcomed into Clay’s family as his brother.
In the third season, the writers doubled down on two themes from the second that were at odds with the original source material (unread by me) and the first season. For a story that originated in a tale of girls’ trauma and the challenges of growing up female in a sexist society, it is confounding that the second and third seasons have been about boys’ stories and the secret pain of teen males. The writers also drew the wrong lessons from the success of Justin’s redemptive arc in the second season, to the point that this year almost every character professes his or her love for him and the final shot of the season literally places him at center, displacing the protagonist. The writers seemingly thought they could pull off the same trick not once but twice and almost three times in the current season. The secondary repetition works the best of the three. The wannabe school shooter from the end of the second season was redeemed, though somewhat unbelievably, by refocusing his story on his rape at the hands of Monty, a violent thug who sodomized him with a mop handle. It’s handled about as well as the impossible task of remaking an outrageous plotline into something tragic and redemptive might be, though I don’t buy that Clay and his friends would make him their rebuilding project or devote their lives to helping him. The halfhearted attempt to humanize Monty by turning him into a self-loathing gay teen facing an abusive father and struggling to connect to his first male lover just doesn’t work and perpetuates unpleasant stereotypes in ways that the ending to his story only exacerbate.
The major story of redemption is deeply unpleasant. The show reimagines the serial rapist Bryce Walker as a secular saint, righting wrongs, improving himself, and saving lives. It doesn’t work, both because Justin Prentice is not as nuanced an actor as Brandon Flynn and because the character of Bryce was more villainous, less three-dimensional, and had no tragic backstory to explain his actions or to motivate his transformation. Affluenza is not a tragedy. Rewriting a serial rapist and abuser as a tragic romantic hero is a misbegotten venture, made worse by the aesthetic choices that the producers have retained from earlier seasons. In the first season, flashbacks appeared in saturated hues to imply that the past was a happier time than the present, after the suicide. The producers retained the color scheme long past when it made sense, giving to Bryce a halcyon glow of endless summer, while everyone else mopes in desaturated colors. Unintentionally, the aesthetics turn the villain into an avenging angel.
The characters recognize that this is ridiculous, and at several points one or another calls out the salvation narrative, only for the mechanics of the plot to shoot them down. Bryce himself says as much, though the show paints this as self-actualization. Even the story’s climax feints toward this while simultaneously undercutting it, never quite settling on a point of view and thinking that indecision to be moral complexity. It’s a case where the structure of the series tries to push the characters against what even the writers recognize would be their natural reactions. It made me uncomfortable to watch the show try to redeem its villain for unforgiveable sins, as though it were necessary to justify the murder mystery plot which saw the characters try to determine who killed Bryce after a melee at homecoming.
The writers must have been pleased with themselves when they had Clay and Justin bond and become brothers because they made that emotional high point from the second season into a thudding theme of the new season. Throughout the thirteen episodes, male characters call each other “brother,” and by fits and starts the show almost tries to make a comparison between different types of brotherhood—the brotherhood of sports, the flawed brotherhood of shared villainy, the brotherhood of shared secrets—and compares them negatively to the purer brotherhood of Justin and Clay, which is the show’s most developed relationship but also one that slides into codependency. At several points, characters remark that the two boys would do anything for one another and would defend each other to the death, and we see both engage in morally suspect actions to stand up for the other. In a rare instance where the show’s viewpoint is clear, the viewer is meant to see this as noble and virtuous, Damon and Pythias by way of Abercrombie & Fitch. And yet one of them is a heroin addict and ex-con and the other is an accused murder who hallucinates dead people when he is stressed. This is the show’s healthy relationship, between the show’s two male leads.
I won’t pretend that this relationship doesn’t resonate somewhat with me. I understand where it comes from because my own experiences as a teenager were, if not nearly as extreme, at least similar. When I was young, I was an outsider and not particularly well liked, and I befriended a football player who improved my social standing considerably. If we were not exactly brothers, when we went to college together we spent enough time with one another that for a while we might as well have been. And I would be lying if I said that I never used my position and influence as the morally upright golden boy to keep his extralegal activities quiet, or that he never insulated me from the everyday cruelties of teenagers. I’d also be lying if I said my friends—well, his friends, mostly football players—back then weren’t basically thugs and criminals of various stripes but also paradoxically warmer and friendlier than the so-called good kids. I understand why the show presents Justin and Clay as fulcrum around which the rest of the story spins.
It's also the only part of the show that still works from an emotional and dramatic point of view. Minette and Flynn play off each other well, and they bring a sweetness and vulnerability to their characters that is enhanced by the producers making their scenes the only ones that really have the room for character development—even if by “development” it means layering on unnecessary new layers of trauma and abuse. The remaining characters have been flattened out and reduced to a single character trait, a foreseeable consequence of the show’s flawed choice to forgo the previous seasons’ structure, which saw each episode focus on a single character, and instead frame the entire season around the narration of new girl Ani (Grace Saif), the Kenyan-British daughter of Bryce’s grandfather’s nurse. By confining the narrative to her perspective, it prevents the audience from seeing the stories through the recurring characters’ eyes, making them more puppets than people. Compounding the error is the failure to give Ani a real personality beyond the Magical Negro trope, leading both Bryce and Clay to salvation. Despite taking up more screen time than almost any other character, she serves almost literally no other purpose in the narrative until the end, when even then anyone else could have been substituted in with the same result. Too much of the season is devoted to puzzle-box plot mechanics, and far too little to people. And the puzzle wasn’t particularly worth solving.
In the show’s first two seasons, critics attacked if for dealing frankly with social issues in a way that seemed more realistic than the stylized soap operas of other teen-oriented TV. That attempt at a somewhat gritty realism is gone, and at this point the show is a Gothic mess scarcely more grounded than Riverdale. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it is a strange evolution for a show that might have done better to go smaller rather than larger and to cut back on the frankly absurd levels of trauma it heaps upon its characters. When you find yourself noting things like, Oh, he got abused by his father, too, and characters trade war stories about their suicidal depression, you know something has broken.
Yet here it’s worth taking a step back to say that what is broken isn’t necessarily just the mechanics of the plot and the sadism of the writers. 13 Reasons Why, like Riverdale, is a show in and of its time. When I think back to the shows aimed at teenagers and young adults of my era, they were shows about good kids who succeeded in a world that was dangerous but understandable, corrupt but controllable. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the archetypical example, but similar architecture animated melodramas like Dawson’s Creek and Young Americans and The O.C. and their ilk. Even teen slasher movies of the era like Scream were heavily rule-based. The rules might be unfair, but if you mastered them you could win. Recent shows reflect a world that has come unmoored from the old certainty that American life was, at some basic level, fair. Riverdale displays this in a Gothic world of infinite corruption, where even the “good” kids are born to fail and look forward to lives of stagnation and futility. As 13 Reasons Why moved beyond its 2007 source material, it has grown into the most extreme version of this disenchantment, positing a world where everyone hides unspeakable trauma born of the utter failure of the social and political and legal systems, of families, of schools, of social and civic life as we had known it in the halcyon days of the twentieth century. The best we can hope for, as Justin says in stating explicitly the show’s thesis in its final minutes, “is to get out alive.” That’s why the writers of the show place so much emphasis on brotherhood and the tentative, grasping efforts by broken people to find connections in a broken world.
That, ultimately, is the one thing that 13 Reasons Why gets right, and the one thing that keeps an otherwise unwatchable mess interesting.
I'm an author and editor who has published on a range of topics, including archaeology, science, and horror fiction. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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