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There is no betrayal like a powerful piece of art that ultimately curdles from its own hubris.
When it debuted in 2017, Netflix’s addictive teen drama 13 Reasons Why was an open-hearted, and controversial, exploration of bullying, rape culture and the tragedy of suicide, showing how the death of an ordinary girl could rip open the secrets of an innocuous small town. Like Peyton Place and Twin Peaks before it, 13 Reasons Why reveled in the seediness of suburbia — who (or what social structures) led to Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) ending her own life? Told via flashbacks based on a series of accusatory cassette tapes Hannah left behind, the original season seemed to both embrace and sidestep the contrived conventions of its genre, with hokey dialogue and outlandish plots that actually felt like the hormonally dumb things real teenagers would say or do.
Based on a 2007 YA novel by Jay Asher, 13 Reasons Why was likely intended as a one-off, but its popularity led to three additional and regrettable chapters, which slowly evolved from disappointing (season two) to laughable (season three) to miserable (season four) as it seemingly tried to compete with CW’s pulpy Riverdale. And, in turn, the series shapeshifted from a teen drama to a courtroom saga to a noirish murder mystery to, finally, a psychological thriller in its final season.
Season four is the sloggiest of them all, begging the audience to love and sympathize with a nightmare clique of high school students, who are, yes, traumatized by all the kitchen-sink realism creator Brian Yorkey has thrown at them, but are also arrogant and self-righteous coldblooded killers.
Sure, I definitely want to spend 10 more episodes with a group of “friends” who care more about loyalty than actually liking each other. Especially when they cry about getting “justice for all the hurt kids” (paraphrasing) after straight-up slaying their bully in season three and never getting caught. Indeed, 13 Reasons Why has always had impeccable timing when it came to its irresponsible depictions of violence, but it truly outdoes itself this season with a group of fed-up middle-class suburban kids who literally got away with murder leading an anti-police riot and blowing up an authority figure’s car.
Even worse, the very same entitled/enraged white boy who threw the Molotov cocktail eventually storms into a police station screeching that he has a gun, then a few minutes later ends up crying in the arms of a de-escalating police officer without getting tackled or shot. And just when you think the show couldn’t get stupider … it does. Oh, it truly does.
Season three desperately tried to recapture the nonlinear whodunit structure of its original outing, pairing explosive antihero Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette) and new girl femme fatale Ani Achola (Grace Saif) as amateur gumshoes trying to solve the disappearance and subsequent murder of affluent athlete Bryce Walker (Justin Prentice). (Bryce had raped Hannah before her death and been merely slapped on the wrist after his season two trial conviction.)
In the third season finale, it’s revealed that disaffected football player Zach Dempsey (Ross Butler) had severely beaten Bryce as revenge for several misdeeds — and then minutes later, self-loathing Alex Standall (Miles Heizer) pushed an injured Bryce off the dock in a fit of rage while another one of Bryce’s sexual assault victims, Jessica Davis (Alisha Boe), looked on. Somehow Ani and the rest of the gang are able to convince local police that another jock bully, Monty de la Cruz (Timothy Granaderos), committed the crime, and a deus ex machina jail cell killing permanently silences Monty from proving his innocence. God, this show is exhausting.
Season four is thus a prolonged haunting, as ghosts from the past dog each of the guilt-ridden teens and viewers are, in turn, subjected to a bunch of teens banshee-screaming at each other about some grievance or another. Clay finally succumbs to 13 Reasons Why‘s fetishization of mental health struggles, and we watch him battle panic attacks, paranoia, disassociation, hallucinations and fugue states that are all played as demonic, psychological horror.
In fact, the season’s most interesting episode takes place during a camping field trip while each of the characters gets lost in the woods/their own psyches. (Gary Sinise, better than all of this, plays Clay’s new therapist, channeling Judd Hirsch in Ordinary People.) Toward episode five I began to pity Minnette, whose throat must have been wrecked after filming so many scenes of shrieking and crying.
Several other students begin to suspect Clay and his friends were involved in Bryce and Monty’s deaths, including Monty’s closet hookup, Winston (Deaken Bluman), who transfers to Liberty High from his prep school to get some answers; Monty’s previously unknown little sister, Estela (Inde Navarrette), who joins Jessica’s social justice group; and Jessica’s new jock friend-with-benefits, Diego (Jan Luis Castellanos), who idolized his teammate Monty.
While the walls begin to close in on the Scoobies, the show also explores activism, oppression, childhood sexual trauma, active shooter drills, sexual fluidity, substance abuse relapse and terminal illness, but the season still ends up less than the sum of its parts. Don’t worry, though, they all still get into college, dance at prom and give hollow speeches at graduation!
In conclusion, I leave you with my 13 (petty) Reasons Why this series ended up a grandiloquent mess.
1) The writers’ delusion that Clay Jensen is inherently good, despite his flaws. Nope, he’s just a vulnerable narcissist who believes his romanticism somehow absolves him of his controlling and megalomaniacal behavior.
2) Its obsession with writhing teen orgasms. Seriously, all the fakey-fake sex begins to feel creepy (especially because an entire plotline revolves around a 17-year-old’s girl’s semen-stained underwear).
3) The interminable episodes. This show has no business being a full hour long. And it certainly has no business leaving us with an hour-and-36-minute (!) series finale.
4) Every time Alex takes a deep-dive into his self-hatred. “Well, you’re the one girl in this country that would choose a skinny, sad kid,” he whines at one point to a love interest. You know what doesn’t endear you to other people? That.
5) Introducing, exploiting and then immediately disappearing any marginalized “weirdo” characters — Clay’s self-harming goth ex-girlfriend Skye (Sosie Bacon), Liberty High’s anarchic punk Cyrus (Bryce Cass) and nonbinary sexual assault activist Casey (Bex Taylor-Klaus) all stuck around for about one season each and then vanished. (It’s also really fun when a show that claims to empathetically confront sexual assault also codes feminists as “militant.”)
6) All the philosophizing teens condensing their thoughts into trite, cynical bromides about love and happiness. “There is no future,” crows Clay Jensen, baby nihilist.
7) Jessica Davis’ unrelenting justice activism … while she remains an unrepentant murderer.
8) Having no clue how to actually examine racism, all the while frequently alluding to it through subtext.
9) The thesis of the show resting in the false narrative that high school has devolved, is terrible “these days” and isn’t like it used to be. As if every generation doesn’t think it’s facing armageddon. (See: Rebel Without a Cause, Blackboard Jungle.)
10) Every. Single. R.E.M. musical cue. Hi, it’s 2020.
11) Trying to get away with a Mexican drug cartel storyline in season three.
12) At least one of the actors in the main cast turning 30 this year (Ross Butler).
13) Lacking the stylization, aesthetic or camp needed to get away with any of this.
Cast: Dylan Minnette, Alisha Boe, Brandon Flynn, Christian Navarro, Miles Heizer, Ross Butler, Devin Druid, Grace Saif, Deaken Bluman, Tyler Barnhardt, Justin Prentice, Timothy Granaderos, Gary Sinise
Created by: Brian Yorkey
Premiered: Friday, June 5 (Netflix)