In its 13-episode third season, Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why has proved definitively that it has no reason left to exist.
That wasn’t always the case. The show’s first season was socially irresponsible in its depiction of suicide; experts at the time warned that it violated most of their guidelines for avoiding suicide contagion, and a recent study found a correlation between the show’s 2017 premiere and an increase in youth suicide rates. But if we put those extremely serious issues aside and look at it purely as entertainment, 13 Reasons Why season one was a solid TV show. It had critical acclaim back then for a reason.
Season one of 13 Reasons Why told the story of doomed Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford), a 16-year-old girl who has died by suicide, leaving behind a set of 13 cassette tapes for the 13 classmates she blamed for her death. While at times the show could feel self-congratulatory in its grimness, it was addictive and thriller-like in its pacing.
It was easy to care for Hannah, easy to get wrapped up in the casually brutal teenage games her classmates played with her, and easy to want to know what led to her death. And the end of the season, in which the last tape is finally played and Hannah’s rapist is arrested, is clearly the natural ending point for the series. That’s where the Jay Asher book the first season is based on ended as well. There is nowhere else to go from there.
Nevertheless, 13 Reasons Why did keep going. It dropped a cheap and tawdry second season in 2018 that focused on the trial of Hannah’s rapist, and seemed to double down on all of the issues for which the first season was criticized — it ends with a graphic rape scene and an attempted school shooting — all the while maintaining both on and offscreen that really, it was just laying out some hard truths and exploring the real issues that teenagers face in their everyday lives. It was starting a conversation. It was teaching.
Season three of 13 Reasons Why probably is less controversial than season one, in that it is probably not going to be linked to the deaths of any children. But it continues the approach that made season one so dangerous: This show insists on exploring very serious real-life problems in as much didactic detail as possible, but it does not show any evidence of having done the research to get the exploration right. It makes clumsy, lazy, unforced errors in exactly the moments that it’s striving for honesty, and if this time those errors might not lead to deaths, well, that’s a pretty low bar to aim for.
Additionally, season three of 13 Reasons Why is a bad season of television.
Season 3 is boring and also ridiculous
Season three of 13 Reasons Why is a murder mystery. Hannah’s rapist, the charming rich sociopath Bryce Walker (Justin Prentice), is dead. Bryce was a serial rapist who casually ruined lives, so most of the main cast had a reason to want him dead — including our hero, Clay (Dylan Minnette), who nursed a crush on Hannah back when she was alive. Now, Clay is a suspect for Bryce’s death, and to prove his own innocence, he has to find the real killer.
The whole thing is narrated by new student Ani (Grace Saif), who is inexplicably best friends with the whole cast now but was also close with Bryce, because her mom is his grandfather’s live-in nurse, so Ani and Bryce also lived together. “I see things,” she tells us portentously in voiceover, before proceeding to lead us through the whole season to find out who murdered Bryce.
Theoretically, you can see how this story would be interesting. Everyone in the main cast does have good reason to hate Bryce and want him to be dead. It’s a murder mystery where maybe you could root for the murderer, Murder on the Orient Express-style. That could be fun!
But god does this season drag. It’s just endless, endless gray-toned scenes of sad teenagers whispering exposition tensely at each other before curling up to weep over their heroin addiction/steroid problem/deported parents/lost college scholarship/insert-extremely-topical-teen-problem here. And those problems really are treated more or less interchangeably: as secrets each character hides until their showcase episode arrives, only to reveal the truth in a tear-streaked monologue that leaves Clay staring, mouth agape, at how little he understands the pain of his friends.
Ani, meanwhile, is less a character than she is an exposition machine. There is no real reason for her to care about Clay’s group of friends and no reason for them to care about her, let alone confide in her as much as they do. Her narration — ostensibly her statement to the police — is riddled with one-liners that are supposed to come off as wise epigrams but are really just obvious bullshit. Did you know that everyone has secrets? Because Ani will tell you. She’ll tell you real good.
13 Reasons Why season 3 is also thematically bankrupt
The thesis of season three is more or less as follows: The system is broken (sure). No adult can be trusted to protect children from the violence of other children (I mean … not exactly, but okay). But all children can be redeemed (okay, yeah, why not). Therefore, the only reasonable course of action is for children to take responsibility for each other and, when faced with violent sociopaths, personally take those sociopaths under their wing and offer them unlicensed therapy (what?!).
In order to illustrate that thesis, the season is built around the question of whether or not serial rapist Bryce Walker and attempted school shooter and voyeur Tyler Down (Devin Druid) can be redeemed via the power of friendship.
In flashbacks, Ani befriends Bryce, who last season was convicted of rape and sentenced to probation. Under her guidance, he attempts to become a better person. He starts therapy and tries to apologize to some of the people he has hurt.
Meanwhile, Clay and his friend group take responsibility for Tyler, who at the end of season two was raped by another boy at their school and responded by showing up to the school dance with a bag full of guns. Clay and his friends get rid of Tyler’s guns and cover for him with the cops. They create a schedule so that they can plan to always have someone with Tyler, to protect him from school bullies and from his own self-hatred.
The big thematic question of the season is: Have these strategies worked? Are Bryce and Tyler redeemed? Can people who have done terrible things ever do better?
That question is interesting and complex. It’s true that our legal system is bad at dealing with rapists, especially privileged white rapists like Bryce, and many of them end up seeing minimal jail time if any. It’s also true that our prison system is not good at turning serial rapists into people who do not rape, or turning gunmen into people who do not shoot up schools. If we’re interested in changing that, it is theoretically important to think about alternative ways of dealing with people who have done or almost done terrible things.
And I should note that 13 Reasons Why goes out of its way to make clear that Bryce is not owed forgiveness or anything else from his victims, and that when he feels bad about being isolated in his new school because of his reputation as a rapist, that’s not their responsibility.
However, this season privileges Bryce’s point of view in a way that it does not privilege that of his victims. We’re told that Bryce raped “seven or eight” girls besides Hannah, but we only know one of them: Jessica, the only girl besides Ani who is left in 13 Reasons Why’s main cast. Her recovery and journey to take control over her own body after Bryce’s attack gets one episode of exploration.
The only female sexual assault victim besides Jessica who gets multiple lines of dialogue is Casey, a character who is reduced to a walking symbol for the idea that perhaps #MeToo has gone too far when she mounts a #MeToo Bryce’s funeral over Jessica’s objections. Casey is the one who shouts that the world should care more about the pain of the victims than the perpetrators, but her speech is framed as shrill and aggressive. We don’t know what happened to her, and we aren’t really asked to care — just to judge her for doing activism in the wrong way.
Bryce’s pain, meanwhile, is the season’s primary focus. Every episode contains flashbacks to a lonely and isolated Bryce, and every episode shows us Bryce working to be a better person. There’s even a baffling moment in which Ani, who is theoretically close friends with Jessica, decides to sleep with her friend’s rapist, which is supposed to demonstrate to the audience that she sees something inside of him that is worth saving.
Here is the problem with that balance: Our justice system is already set up to privilege Bryce’s point of view. That’s why many people like Bryce don’t get sent to jail, so that their bright futures aren’t destroyed by all the serial rape. Did 13 Reasons Why really need to spend so much time focusing on Bryce’s pain? Did it really need to demonize his victims whenever they asked that the world consider their pain too?
Those choices only make it all the more glaring how many of the female characters in the show’s original cast have been sidelined or written out altogether: Hannah appears only in a flashback to her rape, and other characters like Courtney are there only for the briefest of cameos. For such a dude-heavy show to spend so much of its time thinking about sexual assault without also writing in a few more fleshed-out female characters, leaving the whole storyline to rest on Jessica and her single showcase episode, is a mystifying choice.
Tyler’s storyline is another instance of this show trying to tell some bleak truths about the world while failing to do its research, because the research would tell it that kids like Tyler do not actually exist. We are supposed to gather that Tyler tried to shoot up the school not because he’s a sadist, but because he’s a bullied kid who was raped and pushed to his limit and wanted to hurt the world that hurt him — our idea of the school shooter, popularized in the wake of Columbine, is of an outcast. But statistically, that profile is often a myth. The Columbine shooters had an active circle of friends.
In real life, there is no sure way to profile a school shooter. They’re often depressed, but that’s just about the only characteristic many share. Some school shooters are loners who feel persecuted or bullied, but many are kids who were already violent — they’re not bullied kids who were hurt until they snapped, they’re bullies who hurt other kids and then keep escalating their violence until they reach for a gun.
That’s why the show’s choice to repeatedly laud as “heroic” Clay’s season 2 decision to step in front of Tyler’s gun and appeal to the power of friendship isn’t just foolish. It’s irresponsible. That’s not the way to stop school shooters, because school shooters are mostly not kids like Tyler.
It’s okay for TV shows to not reflect real life in completely accurate ways, because TV shows are fiction and they are written to entertain. But 13 Reasons Why has consistently positioned itself as a didactic show that exists to start a conversation about the real issues that real kids are facing. If it’s going to do that well, it has a responsibility to portray those issues honestly, not by falling back on lazy and inaccurate myths.
There are moments where 13 Reasons Why’s approach works! They are … brief.
What is possibly most frustrating about this season is that there are moments — very brief moments — where 13 Reasons Why’s whole ethos of portraying real issues kids face with radical honesty really does pay off.
One episode shows Bryce’s ex-girlfriend getting an abortion, and it goes through every maddening step of the process: the way she gets sucked into a crisis pregnancy center when she’s looking for a program to help her pay for the procedure; her encounter with protesters outside the clinic when she finally makes it there; the mandatory waiting period that forces her to return to the clinic two days later; the sound the machine makes when she’s finally hooked up to it. Those are all details that don’t get shown on TV very often, and they’re worth laying out in methodical, un-sensationalized detail.
And Jessica’s showcase episode focuses on her struggle to reclaim ownership of her body after Bryce raped her, leading her to buy a vibrator and learn how to masturbate. That sequence doesn’t have the loopy charm of a similar scene in Netflix’s Sex Education, but it’s a sweet moment that centers on girls’ sexuality in a way that’s still rare on TV and worth exploring.
When I watched those episodes, I thought that maybe 13 Reasons Why was finally learning. Maybe it had found its lane! Maybe it had figured out that there were certain subjects its “radical honesty” schtick worked for, and certain subjects it didn’t, and it could just stick to the former and finally become an entertaining TV show that is also socially relevant.
But I was living in a fantasy, which I realized as soon as Jessica’s episode veered off toward her reunion with her ex-boyfriend Justin, who in season one gave Bryce permission to rape Jessica while she was unconscious. 13 Reasons Why chooses to frame this reunion as part of Jessica reclaiming her body and owning her sexuality, on the grounds that Jessica is not sexually attracted to her current boyfriend and is attracted to Justin, and anyway now Justin feels really bad about the whole thing.
That is a truly baffling storytelling choice in a world in which more than two boys exist (surely Jessica could find one to whom she is attracted, who also did not serve her to a rapist on a platter? As a poet once said, dick ain’t scarce). It’s also emblematic of the way 13 Reasons Why tells a story, which is always, always, to pick the most frustrating approach.
Every time this show almost does something good it just veers off for the lazy sophomoric treatise instead. It’s exhausting and it’s unpleasant and it’s often dangerous, and at this point, there is no reason why it should still be around. The story is exhausting because it is exhausted, because there is nowhere left for the plot to go but in convoluted circles, swallowing its own tail. 13 Reasons Why has no reason why left.
Nevertheless, it will be returning for a fourth and final season next year.