Book readers were in for a surprise when they came to the end of Netflix's 13 Reasons Why adaptation.
While Jay Asher's 2007 novel ends with Clay (Dylan Minnette) quietly passing on the tapes to the next person on Hannah's (Katherine Langford) list and reaching out to his depressed classmate Skye (Sosie Bacon), Netflix opted for a much more dramatic conclusion.
[Spoilers for 13 Reasons Why's first season beyond this point!]
As Clay and the audience learn on Hannah's 12th tape, she was sexually assaulted by Bryce (Justin Prentice) on what she calls "the worst day of my life." After that, Hannah decides to set the record straight about her life and begins recording her tapes. Hannah does give life one last try after recording Tape 12, which detailed her assault, when she approaches her guidance counselor Mr. Porter (Derek Luke) about her rape, depression and suicidal thoughts. However, when Mr. Porter fails to promise Hannah that Bryce will go to jail and instead tells her to simply "move on" from the assault, a hopeless Hannah proceeds to kill herself that afternoon.
But while the book leaves the fallout from the assault at that, the show takes this storyline and turns it into the driving narrative of the show's final episodes. After Clay learns that Bryce raped both Hannah and Jessica (Alisha Boe), he becomes consumed with a need to make Bryce pay and develops a plan: Rather than pass the tapes on to Bryce, who is next on the list, Clay secretly records Bryce confessing raping Hannah and adds it as the 14th tape in Hannah's collection before giving the tapes to Mr. Porter.
In the counselor's office, Clay badgers Mr. Porter about how he mishandled the situation when Hannah came to him after the assault and insists that it's now up to Mr. Porter to decide what to do with the tapes, which contain more than enough evidence for an arrest warrant for Bryce. They all failed Hannah, Clay pleads, but this is a way to help make things right.
Up until that moment, 13 Reasons Why does an excellent job of exploring the nuanced and often contradictory reasons that resulted in Hannah's death. And while getting justice for Hannah is obviously part of what drives Clay's obsession with taking down Bryce, the show never fully explores how hollow this notion is. When it comes to an issue as complicated as suicide, there is no easy solution; there is no justice. Bryce raping Hannah helped push her over the edge, but it isn't why she was depressed or suicidal to begin with. And so, while getting Bryce to face his crimes may help prevent future assaults from occurring, the singular focus on this form of "justice" overshadows and simplifies the various reasons and incidents that prompted Hannah to take her own life.
To make things worse, Bryce's one known living victim, Jessica, whose voice on this matter should be the most important of all, is barely heard on the subject. Still reeling from the revelation that she was raped, Jessica tells Clay she isn't yet ready to let anyone, including her father and the police, know about the assault. And while she tells Clay not to destroy the tapes and does eventually open up to her father, she never tells Clay to go on this crusade.
So rather than end the series by focusing on Hannah's or Jessica's wants and needs, this plan becomes a way for Clay to feel like he's accomplishing something profound in Hannah's honor, that he's found a way to make things better for people in her situation — when really, what he's doing is making himself feel better. Not all rape victims are suicidal, and not all suicide victims were raped. Presenting the idea that Bryce taking responsibility for being a rapist is a potential way to get closure or justice for the tragedy of Hannah's death is a false equivalence that runs counterintuitive to the series' whole message: that the reasons someone commits suicide are complicated, varied, and often hard to understand from an outside perspective.
The season's penultimate episode even pokes holes in this notion, when Tyler (Devin Druid) tells the other people on the tapes that they could use Bryce as a scapegoat since none of their terrible misdeeds can compare to sexual assault. Alex (Miles Heizer) and Ryan (Tommy Dorfman) quickly tear this theory to shreds, calling it out as a cowardly way to hide from their own responsibilities and saying that Bryce isn't the only person who needs to be held accountable. Yet almost immediately after that conversation, the series launches into Clay's plan, which isn't so different from Tyler's and yet is framed as heroic.
The show leaves it open-ended as to whether Mr. Porter does take the tapes to the police, but it's clear that the writers definitely wanted to leave viewers with a small sense of hope. Mr. Porter, seemingly ready to take responsibility for his own failures with Hannah, will likely bring the tapes to the authorities. Hannah's parents, having received the tapes from Tony (Christian Navarro), will finally get answers about why their daughter ended her own life. And Clay, Skye, Tony and Brad (Henry Zaga) literally drive off into the horizon together, unburdened by the weight of Hannah's secrets.
But while the idea of Bryce having to face what he did to Hannah and Jessica in court is a comforting thought, it also felt like a contrived attempt to give the season a clear and certain conclusion that veers precariously towards the realms of a happy ending (well, as happy as an ending can be in a story about teenage suicide).
Fortunately, the writers were savvy enough to complicate this ending by including the understated reveal that Alex is now in critical condition after attempting suicide. While Clay's decision to reach out to Skye in the finale is influenced by him recognizing the signs of depression and wanting to help her avoid a fate similar to Hannah's, the Alex reveal is a reminder that it's not always that simple, that even knowing the signs — ones that were blatantly clear in Alex, upon reflection — you still can never truly know what is going on in someone else's mind. By showing small signs of Alex's own downward spiral while viewers (and Clay) were distracted by untangling Hannah's, 13 Reasons Why subtly emphasized how easy it is to miss what's going on right in front of you.
This same theme is accented by Tyler, who, it's hinted, may be planning a school shooting. After stashing a secret arsenal of guns in his room, Tyler is shown looking through photos of all the people who have wronged him, including Justin (Brandon Flynn), Marcus (Steven Silver), Courtney (Michele Selene Ang), Alex and Clay. Upon remembering a moment when Alex had stood up for him, Tyler removes Alex's photo from the lineup, possibly implying that he believes Alex doesn't deserve to be on what may be his hit list. Or maybe Tyler has simply heard the news about Alex's own attempted suicide and figures he had been punished enough for the role he played.
Either way, the conclusions of both Tyler and Alex's storylines work in tandem to support the same point. Despite Hannah's intentions, the people involved with the tapes became so caught up with their own concerns that they failed to learn not to make the same mistakes again. Even Clay, the show's good guy hero who clearly thinks he's learned when he reaches out to Skye, was the one who sent a nude photo of Tyler around the entire school, proving that his evolved state of mind remained selective in its altruism.
Of course, what this also does is set up 13 Reasons Why for a potential second season. While Asher's novel was very much a self-contained story, with many expecting the series to be the same, the first season's conclusion leaves the door wide open for more episodes. (There's also the fact that Netflix refers to these 13 episodes as "Season 1," thus implicitly implying the possibility of more seasons to follow.) If 13 Reasons Why does get picked up for a Season 2, Bryce facing sexual assault charges, Alex's attempted suicide and Tyler's potential school shooting would provide ample material that would allow the series to continue exploring the aftermath of Hannah's death, while also touching upon depression, suicide, bullying and sexual assault from whole new perspectives.
And so while 13 Reasons Why doesn't exactly demonstrate perfect grace or artistry in transforming the conclusion of Hannah's self-told story into a hook for a brand new one, it does remind viewers what this show is all about: that sometimes the littlest action can have the biggest consequences, for better or for worse. And when it comes to issues like suicide and sexual assault, there are no shortcuts to closure.
13 Reasons Why is available on Netflix.