tv review

13 Reasons Why I Couldn’t Stand 13 Reasons Why Season 3

Tony (Christian Navarro) and Ani (Grace Saif), who is somehow very good friends with Tony, in season three of 13 Reasons Why. Photo: David Moir/Netflix

Sometimes a TV show should not continue beyond its first season. For indisputable proof, look no further than 13 Reasons Why, a Netflix drama about teen suicide that was controversial but often compelling in its first season, and should have ended immediately after that season concluded.

Instead, the first season’s success led to a second and, as of last Friday, a third that devotes its 13 episodes to resolving a mystery only tangentially related to the show’s initial concern of why high school student Hannah Baker killed herself. The question that dominates season three is “Who is responsible for the death of Bryce Walker?” That’s right, Bryce Walker: the serial rapist who raped Hannah and never faced serious consequences for the crimes he committed. Bryce Walker: Perhaps the least liked character on 13 Reasons Why. A classic rich, white, male villain who, in the first two seasons, seemed to have been created based entirely on the following concept: “What if Steff from Pretty in Pink, except even more of a dick?”

In a lot of ways, season three of 13 Reasons Why is a redemption tour for Bryce, played by Justin Prentice, who we learn via flashbacks was, prior to his death, trying to learn from his bad behavior and become a better person, albeit with mixed results. The Bryce through line allows the 13 Reasons Why showrunner, Pulitzer Prize–winner Brian Yorkey, and his writers to double down on what has been a theme in 13 Reasons all along: the idea that everyone is fighting a hard battle that may not be apparent on the surface. In season three, those battles affect multiple characters and involve almost every social issue that currently may affect the youth (and non-youth) of America: bullying, sexual assault, suicide, abortion, steroid abuse, the opioid crisis, gun violence, marginalization based on sexual identity, and the crackdown on illegal immigration. Tossing all of these serious matters into the same slow-cooking, melodramatic stew degrades the importance of each one. It also often turns what is clearly aiming to be an unflinching portrait of contemporary teen life into an unintentional comedy.

To be more blunt: What I’m really saying is that the third season of 13 Reasons Why is a ridiculous, maddening, overlong example of Peak TV-era television that doesn’t know how to quit when it’s ahead. It irritated me to no end, and here are 13 reasons why.

Major 13 Reasons spoilers to follow.

1. Ani’s instant friendships with literally everyone

Ani (Grace Saif) is brand new to the show in season three, and has just moved to the U.S. from Great Britain. (Her mother is Kenyan.) She starts attending Liberty High School in the months leading up to Bryce’s death. Despite the short time she’s been there, she seems to instantly know every teenager within a 30-mile radius. She becomes very close with Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette), who, of course, develops a crush on her. (Classic Clay.) She develops a tight relationship with Bryce Walker. (Ani’s mother is the caretaker for Bryce’s ailing grandfather, which means Ani and her mom live with the Walkers, thereby enabling Ani to start having sex with Bryce. Obviously.) She has intimate conversations with Jessica Davis (Alisha Boe) about her sexuality that lead to a vibrator shopping spree. She seems to know Tony Padilla (Christian Navarro) very well, for reasons I cannot fully ascertain. Clearly she’s been added into the mix as a Hannah Baker surrogate: the narrator who knows everybody and is teed up to frame the show’s narrative. But her instant infiltration into everyone’s lives is just jarring and weird. So is her voiceover narration. Speaking of which …

2. Ani’s voiceover narration

I don’t blame Saif for the overbearing, relentlessly repetitive nature of the narration in season three. I do blame the writers, though, for leaning on the narration so hard and making it sound like Deep Thoughts by Jack Handey, except much less insightful and unintentionally funny. “Everything affects everything,” Ani tells us, portentously, in one episode. Wow. When you think about it, that really is true.

3. So much Ani lurking!

In addition to somehow knowing everyone instantly, Ani also is constantly eavesdropping or shoving her nose into people’s business for the purposes of gaining intel. (Why is she so curious? I watched all the episodes — I still can’t answer that question!) She’s even worse than Clay in this regard, and that is saying a LOT. Basically, Ani is like every character on Downton Abbey who ever lingered in a doorway to listen to a conversation, all rolled into one high-school student who thinks she’s Veronica Mars for some reason.

Seriously: At one point, during a scene that depicts an argument between Bryce and his parents, the camera suddenly pans across the room to show us this:

Photo: Netflix

Never forget: Ani is around every corner, listening to everything you’re saying and recording it like the human equivalent of Alexa. I stopped calling her Ani at a certain point and started referring to her as Lurkapalooza 2019.

4. The flashbacks

The third season includes flashbacks that run on two tracks. Some of the flashbacks unfold before the night of the homecoming game, when Bryce goes missing — it’s later determined that he was murdered — and some of them unfold in the wake of Bryce’s death. To distinguish between the two, the first set of flashbacks is depicted in saturated color and the ones post-Bryce-mortem are washed out. At least I think that’s right — while I initially thought I had this straight, I eventually started getting confused, in part because both timelines contain so many conversations between people raising allegations about other characters, then having additional conversations about who also knows what they know. After a while, it really does blend together into a never-ending stream of, “Do you think he did it?” and, “Do you think he could do it?” and, “I’m not sure that’s a good idea, Clay.”

5. The oversimplification of #MeToo

Jessica Davis is one of Bryce’s rape victims and publicly comes out as such in season two. In the third season, she goes a step further by running for student-government president on an anti-rape culture and anti-jock platform — she wins — and then forms a coalition of assault survivors intent on making their voices heard. That all could serve as a great foundation for exploring the aftereffects of assault and the challenges of getting a student population to engage with that issue. Too often, though, it results in scenes where students stand up in school meetings and shout “Fuck rapists!” and an overuse of the phrase “topple the patriarchy.” (Example: “Turns out this whole ‘toppling the patriarchy’ thing is really hard.”) The show’s good intentions, unfortunately, translate into dialogue that sounds like it was borrowed from the pages of Wokeness for Dummies. (Note: This is not an actual book … yet.)

6. The ridiculous number of “issues”

As noted earlier, this season of 13 Reasons Why goes to town on tackling hot-button topics. By taking on so much, the show does itself — and each of the issues it tries to address — a disservice. It also does a disservice to its actors, who are trying their damnedest to find authenticity in moments that often seem anything but authentic. Christian Navarro has some really heartfelt, emotional scenes as Tony adjusts to the news that ICE has taken his parents and siblings away. But since their unjust deportations don’t come up until episode six — because, like everyone, Tony has secrets — what should be a meaningful and relevant storyline just feels like the issue that finally knocks over the show’s game of Social Relevance Jenga.

7. All the emphasis on secrets

In conversations between characters and Ani’s aforementioned voiceover, the show mentions that everyone has secrets constantly. It happens so often that I’m pretty sure American television as a whole has now exceeded its quota on the use of the word “secret.” Like Popeye’s did with its chicken sandwich, TV has completely run out of that word. Maybe “secret” will be back in stock in time for the fall season, but don’t bet on it.

8. Clay generally being an asshat

Clay Jensen has always been nosy. He’s always been obsessive to an unhealthy degree. But he’s also always been a character who engenders some amount of empathy. In season three, it gets harder and harder to empathize with him because all he cares about is himself and getting the answers he needs about Bryce. When he finds out that Tony hasn’t told him about his family being taken by ICE, for example, Clay doesn’t initially ask Tony how he’s doing or how he can help. His immediate response is to be pissed that Tony didn’t tell him about what happened sooner. “We deserve an explanation,” he says, the “we” in that statement also including Ani, who, I can’t stress this enough, theoretically barely knows these people!

9. Mrs. Baker’s voicemail

When the police begin to place their focus on Clay as a person of interest in Bryce’s murder, a voicemail left for Clay by Hannah’s mom, Olivia Baker (Kate Walsh), becomes a potentially important piece of evidence. It turns out the voicemail, in which Olivia says she’d like to kill Bryce (And I … oop!), was recorded when she was drunk, distraught, and visiting Hannah’s grave. Which is … weird? I understand why Olivia would be upset and crying and drunk and inclined to reach out to someone. But why reach out to the boy who had an unrequited crush on your daughter? The show never acknowledges the strangeness of this, which makes it even more strange.

10. The fact that there are 13 episodes

In the first season, it made sense that there were 13 episodes, one for each of the tapes Hannah recorded. Even that season felt longer than it needed to be, but with Jay Asher’s eponymous novel still providing a jumping-off point for the season, structuring it that way made some sense. The subsequent seasons, which have no source material from which to work, have stuck with that model and wow, is there no reason for it at all in season three. Every moment just draaaaags. The whole time I wondered if I might have been less annoyed with some of the tics and flaws in this show if the storytelling was at least more concise.

11. Even the episode titles are freaking long

Okay, maybe this is petty, but even the titles of the episodes on this show — which are taken from the voiceover narration — are an affront to brevity. “In High School, Even on a Good Day, It’s Hard to Tell Who’s on Your Side”? What is that, the name of the next Fiona Apple album?

12. The confusing treatment of Bryce

As I said earlier, the season goes to great efforts to show other sides of Bryce, as well as the factors in his life that may have led to him becoming an abuser. I wasn’t sure there was enough nuance in that characterization, but nevertheless, it’s clear the writers are trying to demonstrate that even people who do awful things are more complicated and capable of change. So what does the series do in the final reveal of who killed Bryce? After Alex (Miles Heizer), against Jess’s wishes, tries to help an injured Bryce into his car — Bryce was severely beaten earlier by Zach (Ross Butler) — Bryce immediately goes off about he’s going to destroy Zach. Basically, he turns back into King of the Assholes, which undoes all the work the show has done up until that point to show us he’s become a better human. I don’t think this is supposed to prove that Bryce is irredeemable. I think this happens purely to justify Alex shoving Bryce into the water to his death and giving us another twist. Which, ugh.

13. And then there’s the whole Monty thing

Monty de la Cruz (Timothy Granaderos), the closeted football player who is publicly aggressive, rude, and homophobic to mask what’s really going on inside of him, becomes the Bryce of season three. He’s the most loathsome character, which is why it doesn’t feel like a bad thing when Alex’s father, Sheriff’s Deputy Bill Standall (Mark Pellegrino), who is fully aware of his son’s role in Bryce’s death, pins the murder on Monty. Why? Because Monty has, in an obscenely brief amount of time, been arrested for using a broomstick to rape Tyler, the student who teetered on the edge of becoming a school shooter in season two, then put in jail, where Monty is killed in his cell. Did the cops have the evidence they needed to charge Monty with either of these crimes? Was there a trial regarding his assault of Tyler? These are questions the show doesn’t bother to answer. After 13 episodes, including a 71-minute (!) season finale, somehow 13 Reasons Why manages to rush a key part of its story. Maybe this is something the show plans to address in season four. But I’m not sure I can take another 13 episodes to get to the bottom of it. And that’s no secret.

13 Reasons Why I Couldn’t Stand 13 Reasons Why Season 3