The Bryce Walker rehabilitation tour continues apace. There’s a little more reason behind it this time — casting Bryce in a sympathetic light is meant to make it more understandable as to how it’s taken so long for Justin to turn against him. “The Box of Polaroids” opens with a flashback of the two of them as children; when Justin is bullied for being poor, only Bryce comes to his defense, even splitting his sandwich with him during lunch. If this episode is any indication (as it turns out, Justin doesn’t know how to tie a tie, and says that Bryce had always done it for him), their friendship lasted pretty much right up until the events of the series began.
Needless to say, things have changed pretty drastically since then. Justin manages to talk Clay down from shooting himself or shooting Bryce, and gets the both of them out of there. Though they’re tailed on the way back to Clay’s house, Justin manages to shake them. As he tells Bryce, who warns him not to talk, he doesn’t have anything to lose. Unlike the rest of the students caught up in the trial, he’s basically untouchable. But more impressively, he seems to have a clear head about him.
Justin’s is perhaps the only testimony that doesn’t completely backfire on him. He explains that he hadn’t wanted to tell Bryce about his relationship with Hannah given Bryce’s behavior around girls, bragging about the girls he’d slept with and slut-shaming them, but told him anyway because he’d been afraid of losing Bryce’s friendship. He cites the same reason as why he hadn’t done anything about Jess’s rape, though he casts a slightly larger net, saying that he’d known his entire life would change.
It’s Bryce who’s really feeling the pressure of that fear, now. He leeches some validation from Chloe, asking her if she thinks he’s a good person (she says yes), and trying to rally the jocks around him. It’s a move that only half works — someone is still terrorizing Clay and the rest of the gang, though some of the other jocks, such as Scott, have finally decided to follow in Zach’s footsteps and break ranks. (Even the coach is starting to seem fed up with Bryce’s behavior, albeit only now that he’s been called out.)
It’s that former point upon which this episode stumbles. Alex is sent on a wild goose chase to find the person leaving all the threatening messages around, and the jock that he settles on — the hyperaggressive Montgomery — turns out not to be the culprit despite even leading them all to a second location. Why are we bothering, you may ask? Well, it’s to make the gang seem less dickish when they finally go to Jess and tell her she has to testify.
The scene in which they convince her is played as a heart-warming moment, which, while I get the impulse (she’s being strong to help a friend while her friends support her in turn), feels a little misguided as far as a way of letting Jess deal with her trauma. It shouldn’t be subsumed into someone else’s story. And yet, here we are. It could be argued that that’s not what’s happening, since she’s testifying to the police and not as a part of the Baker trial, but this entire show is built around the Baker trial. The end result of Jess (and Justin) talking to the police is a way of snagging some victory out of the mouth of miscarriage of justice after the trial ends. When the school district is found free of guilt, Bryce’s arrest is the consolation prize.
Yes, Bryce is arrested for felony sexual assault. (I am bumping up my episode rating a full star for that.) It’s a relief to see him in police custody, if only temporarily. There’s an episode left in the season, after all, and I’m not certain that Bryce is going to stay in jail. Plus, there’s a catch: Justin is arrested with him as accessory. Though it comes as a shock to everyone else, Justin is calm; after discussing it with Clay’s mom, he’d known the risk attached to his testifying, and had been willing to take it for the sake of bringing Bryce down (and, one assumes, for the sake of atonement).
It’s neat enough as a narrative conclusion, but something still feels wrong. That’s partially to do with the lead-up to Jess’s testimony and with what’s going on with Tyler Down. The principal has referred him to a behavioral guidance program given the vandalism, though the administration doesn’t seem otherwise concerned. (As he’s leaving, having been terminated following his job review, Porter singles him out as a student in need of attention, but the principal is hardly paying attention.)
The dynamic is an uncomfortable mirroring of all of the testimonies we’ve heard about parents, students, and teachers ignoring Hannah, and I’m not certain what to make of it, especially as Tyler gets more and more aggressive, even telling Cyrus that they can really make the school bullies pay, and that he has more guns. I think I see where this is going, and I don’t like it.
• Clay finally manages to achieve a little bit of closure, as he seems at peace when he tells Ghost Hannah that he can’t forgive her. It’s a welcome bit of calm, considering how badly he’s been wilding out lately.
• As with all Netflix series, this season could probably have benefited from being a little shorter. Every time I see a character like Courtney or Ryan pop up, it strikes me as a miracle that I remember them at all — as well as slightly sad that their scenes in their own episodes now feel so inconsequential in comparison to what the main characters were up to.
• The speech that Olivia gives on the courthouse steps after the verdict is passed touches on just how many women deal with sexual assault and sexual abuse, which feels weirdly like a wake-up call to the broader issues that this show is attempting to address. It’s easy to get lost in the details and get series tunnel vision — given how dramatic the ups and downs are on this show, it can sometimes start to divorce itself from any sense of reality.