Spoilers below for the final season of 13 Reasons Why.
13 Reasons Why has always been obsessed with traumatic events. In its first season, that fixation was, per the Jay Asher novel it adapted, mostly filtered through the lens of Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford), the Liberty High School student who took her own life and left behind a stack of cassette tapes that explained why she did it. The stories recorded on those tapes explored a host of serious issues, including rape and cyberbullying. But the graphic depiction of Hannah’s suicide was the traumatic event that generated the most criticism: Psychologists warned that it could inspire copycat attempts, and earlier this year, a study confirmed a spike in teen suicides in the month after the show premiered. (Netflix edited and replaced the scene in 2019.)
Despite its extremes and excessive melodrama, though, that first season was at least built with a sense of narrative purpose and a seemingly sincere interest in demonstrating the pressures Gen-Zers face in the modern era. In seasons two and three, without the template of Asher’s novel to follow, 13 Reasons Why was still governed by that seemingly sincere interest, but it was displayed in the most extreme, inelegant, nonsensical ways possible, becoming an increasingly ghastly show in the process. These kids faced violent and/or socially relevant crisis after violent and/or socially relevant crisis, including more grappling with suicide, multiple murders, additional bullying, depictions of gun violence, drug addiction, homelessness, homophobia, mental illness, abortion, aggressive immigration policies, gun violence, and at least two or three other hot-button topics that I am forgetting at the moment. After being criticized for a lack of restraint in season one, series creator Bryan Yorkey and his writers doubled down on their commitment to putting coming-of-age distress on full display.
That brings me to season four, the final season of 13 Reasons Why that debuted last weekend on Netflix and cemented, once and for all, that this series is a teen horror show. The season begins with scenes from a funeral, a morbid attempt to recreate the sense of mystery that fueled season one by inviting viewers to wonder: Who will die this season? And how they will die? Thanks to its focus on the coverup surrounding the murder of football player and rapist Bryce Walker (Justin Prentice) — a murder falsely pinned on another football player and sexual assaulter, Monty (Timothy Granaderos), who was conveniently killed in jail and can’t assert his innocence — the season is haunted by the ghosts of these two characters, who appear in visions conjured by more than one of their peers.
But the horror motif goes even further than that. Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette), the closest thing this series has to a protagonist, has an ongoing mental breakdown throughout the season, which not only causes him to see visions of Bryce and Monty, but also results in other unsettling moments, including his receipt of mysterious phone calls from someone who sounds like they are auditioning to be Ghostface in the next Scream reboot. There’s a long sequence in episode three that begins with Clay watching in terror as blood shoots from every shower head in the boys locker room and ends with Clay re-entering a Valentine’s Day dance with a knife in his hand and blood stains on his dress shirt. It’s all very Carrie.
Whole episodes are essentially imagined as mini-horror movies. The fourth, “Senior Camping Trip,” takes place largely at the Senior Share Campfire — 13 Reasons Why loves coming up with ridiculous events that force all the characters to share the same space — and announces itself blatantly as a riff on Friday the 13th. Then there’s episode six, “Thursday,” which unfolds in real time during a school lockdown caused by what could be an active shooter or what might just be a drill. If you thought the school-shooting elements in The OA left a bad taste, this episode will compel you to order an extra-large bottle of Listerine.
Imagine working on a series that was widely criticized after its first season for potentially encouraging teenage suffering, and then deciding to devote an episode to every harrowing moment during a possible school shooting. Kids have lived and will live with the prospect of being in this situation. It is a very scary and very real thing. As it’s presented here, the only purpose this storyline serves is to set up a revolt by the students, who are tired of all the extra security on campus and start a riot. But the road to that point is so gratuitous that whatever larger point is being served is overshadowed by the disturbing sight of kids hiding under desks, making final phone calls to their loved ones, and shaking in fear.
By the way, you did read that correctly: There is rioting against police in the final season of 13 Reasons Why. Obviously the writers could not have known what the country would be going through when this final season dropped. But considering how many muscles 13 Reasons Why strains in its reach for relevancy, it’s appropriate that it would throw police brutality onto the brushfire of social issues it tries to address.
Given everything I have just typed, you may think you’ve read about the worst things that happen in the final season 13 Reasons Why. This is where you would be very wrong. Because the absolute worst thing that happens in 13 Reasons Why is saved for the tenth and final episode, when we finally learn which character dies and why. (Major spoilers ahead.)
In the middle of a joyous senior prom for the class of 2019 at the end of episode nine, Justin (Brandon Flynn) — who grew up in an abusive family, overcame drug addiction, has just gotten into college, and reconciles with his old girlfriend, Jessica (Alisha Boe), at the prom — suddenly collapses. In the last episode, he is diagnosed with AIDS and dies.
At no point in the series, prior to the final episode, is the possibility of Justin having HIV or AIDS ever discussed. He was an IV drug user. When he lived on the streets, he also had sex with men for money. (Whoops, I forgot to mention prostitution as another hot-button issue.) This is how the show explains his diagnosis, which, okay, sure, I guess. But Justin never says he feels ill until the last couple of episodes.
The only hint is that lesions start to appear on his face about halfway through the season, but they only register as lesions after he’s diagnosed and near death. No one ever notices or mentions them. Justin is living with Clay and his parents, who are essentially Justin’s parents at this point. He goes to school everyday. No one ever says a thing about the growths on his face! I actually thought I was imagining them and that Flynn had some birthmarks I had never noticed before. Yes, in its final act, 13 Reasons Why convinced me that maybe I was hallucinating just like Clay Jensen.
I don’t have all day to list the many things that are wrong with this plot development, so I’ll just hit the highlights. The fact that Justin goes from diagnosis to death in a matter of days is utterly ridiculous. The show’s treatment of AIDS also is unbelievably insulting. It’s like the writers knew they wanted Justin to die and they picked a disease out of a cap. “We got [rummages through slips of paper shoved in pork pie hat] … AIDS! Hey, Justin used heroin and he had sex with men a few times, so that’ll track.”
In an interview with EW, Minnette said that he and Foley both pushed for Justin to die at the end of the series because they felt it would bring the show full circle. Justin is the focus of Hannah’s first tape in episode one, and also the first person Clay has a conversation with in the series, so it feels fitting for them to say good-bye to each other. But I still don’t understand why Justin needed to die under such abrupt circumstances, other than to serve the contrivance introduced at the beginning of the season that someone has to die. It speaks to a central problem this series was never able to overcome: Everything that happens is dictated by preconceived plot points, as opposed to what teens might actually do or what might realistically happen in a high school.
Maybe Yorkey & Co. felt that losing Justin to circumstances out of his control would — just as Hannah’s suicide was apparently intended to do — emphasize how precious life is. Clay touches on that idea in his commencement speech. Yes, Clay Jensen was elected student speaker at graduation despite having vandalized the school, pulled out a gun in school, sparked a student riot, and pulled out a gun again in the middle of a police station. Just go with it, I guess?
“Whatever happens, keep moving,” Clay tells his classmates. “Get through it. Choose to live.”
But after all the dark and awful things that we and these characters have had to endure over these ten episodes — including a 98-minute (!!) finale — that sounds like a platitude. Again, the team behind 13 Reasons Why had no way of knowing that audiences would be watching this season in the middle of a pandemic. But that only makes the sadistic nature of the material that much more glaring.
Some fans started watching this show when they were freshmen in high school and are now graduating seniors. They didn’t get a real prom this year. The one they got from 13 Reasons Why ends with someone almost dropping dead. The class of 2020 didn’t get in-person graduations. The one they get to experience vicariously through the Liberty High Class of 2019 can’t just be a nice commencement. It has to unfold in the wake of a funeral service.
Despite all its disclaimers and end-of-episode offers for “help finding crisis resources,” what 13 Reasons Why does most consistently, until the very end, is traumatize and re-traumatize its audience with teen torture porn. Its fans, especially the ones who were working their way through high school as they watched, deserved so much better.