[Warning: The following contains spoilers for the third season of 13 Reasons Why. Read at your own risk!]
I've binge watched every season of 13 Reasons Why. I watched the first season as a fan, fascinated by how visceral Hannah Baker's (Katherine Langford) story was. I watched the second as a fan and as part of my job, cramming in episodes quickly in order to try and form a cohesive thought after the jaw-dropping Season 2 ending. I also binged Season 3 in order to talk to the series' stars about the most controversial aspect of the season, but I decided to take some time before writing a review for this set of episodes.
I've had over a week now to think about where 13 Reasons Why started and where it has ended up. To be honest, my feelings are still pretty mixed. My editor asked for the Cliff's Notes version of my thoughts and I likened my relationship to this show to my feelings about Taylor Swift: There are some amazing hits here, but if you start thinking about it too much, it gets problematic real fast. What's most frustrating about this show is that it so obviously has the potential to be great, but it frequently squanders it for the sake of a cliffhanger or plot twist, or worse, the inability to go the distance with the bold choices it's made.
Season 3's boldest choice was to humanize Bryce Walker (Justin Prentice), and to a lesser extent, Montgomery de la Cruz (Timothy Granaderos). Bryce's story is built on flashbacks of his final months as he finally began to reconcile with the damage his string of rapes had done to the people around him. Monty's backstory was peppered in, revealing that his aggressive behavior stemmed from surviving an abusive, alcoholic father at home and his own repressed homosexuality. 13 Reasons Why began an important conversation it was in no way prepared to finish with both of these characters, because both Bryce and Monty are dead by the end of the season. That leaves the possibility of either of them finding redemption after their horrific acts in the first two seasons completely mute. It was a brave conversation to start, but it means nothing when the conversation is cut short for the sake of plot points. The way in which both Bryce and Monty are killed and the lack of justice for either of the murders was a messy conclusion to a frustrating season.
The attempt to humanize Bryce and Monty wasn't the only issue in Season 3, it was also how the show attempted to do it. The new season brought in a new character, Ani (Grace Seif), to be the unreliable narrator of Bryce Walker's death. Ani was not a hit for fans on Twitter, and her presence objectively made the beginning of the season more confusing than it needed to be as Ani's voiceover didn't match the actions she was taking on screen. It's hard to like someone you're being shown you can't trust, and it's hard to immerse yourself into a story that's being told by someone you don't like. However, an outsider was the only way to show Bryce through a sympathetic lens because everyone else on the show was too close to the horrific actions he took in the first two seasons to give him the space to reconnect with his human emotions. Was the audience supposed to forget about the scene in Season 2 when Bryce got an erection just talking about Hannah's rape just because Ani didn't know about it?
Ani's problem wasn't just that she was willfully oblivious to Bryce's dark nature, but her newness to the situation made her being the framer of the Season 3 story as frustrating as waiting for Clay (Dylan Minnette) to finish Hannah's tapes in Season 1. There were too many questions being asked that could be easily answered if the series just got to the point. Let's not talk about who didn't kill Bryce when it's obvious Ani already knows who did it. Surprisingly, nothing to do with Bryce or Ani was the most frustrating thing about Season 3.
That honor belongs to the same person who won it in Season 2. Tyler (Devin Druid) ended last season by showing up to Spring Fling with a duffle bag full of semi-automatic weapons and was prepared to shoot everyone at Liberty High he felt had hurt him. While the sophomore season painstakingly took viewers through the journey of how Tyler could get to that point, it left everyone hanging when Clay talked Tyler out of shooting anyone and got him a getaway car instead of turning him into the authorities. Season 3 picks up moments after that decision, with Clay driving away from the school with Tyler's rifle in his car and Tony (Christian Navarro) tasked with taking the traumatized teen back home. Officially accessories to this almost-crime, Clay and Tony decide to not tell the authorities or any adults about Tyler, the condition in which they found him, and what he was about to do. Instead, the grand plan is for the remaining inner circle to spend the better part of a year babysitting Tyler in shifts to make sure he doesn't spiral again.
It's only been a year since Season 2, so we still live in a world where American teens are more likely to be killed by gunfire than active duty members of the military. While 13 Reasons Why is still just a television show, it has posited itself as a voice for young people and taken pride in depicting the struggles of today's teenagers with authenticity. Yes, it is important for Clay and his friends to be more empathetic to Tyler and kids like Tyler to help prevent them from reaching a violent tipping point. Once a person has reached that point though, as Tyler did at the end of Season 2, it is insanely reckless for a show with 13 Reasons Why's popularity index to say that a group of 17-year old kids are capable of helping someone who had been through Tyler's intense trauma by hanging out with him at the movies. The show does make a point of having Tyler see the guidance counselor once a week, but obviously he's not completely transparent with her about how close he came to shooting up his classmates. He doesn't open up about the sexual assault that catalyzed him to do so until the end of Season 3, roughly eight months after it happened.
There are PSAs bookending every episode of 13 Reasons Why, encouraging the audience watching the potentially triggering content to speak with trusted adults about how they are feeling when they watch these episodes. However, within those episodes the kids are actually terrible about going to adults until it's almost too late. The babysitting miraculously worked for Tyler within the context of the season, but that is a dangerous proposition to be making in today's gun-happy climate. The Season 3 cliffhanger was a fishing boat finding Tyler's discarded guns at the bottom of the river, so fans will have to wait and see how all of that plays out in the show's upcoming fourth and final season.
For all of the frustrating aspects of 13 Reasons Why, there are redeeming ones as well. Season 3 includes the return of Kate Walsh as Olivia Baker, Hannah's now-divorced mom. Her single episode features a conversation between her and Nora Walker (Brenda Strong) about how finding someone to blame for your child's death will never fill the void of their absence, and it should be mandatory viewing for every human. It is a testament to the writing of the show and proof of how powerful 13 Reasons Why can be when it is firing on all cylinders. The same can be said for Navarro's performance in Season 3 when he finds out that his family has been deported without warning. The tragedy is that storyline is only tangentially related to Bryce's murder and therefore feels so far removed from the central story of the show. Navarro's gripping portrayal makes Tony's struggle feel worthy of its own spin-off.
Once again, the show's strongest statement came from Jessica (Alisha Boe). While some may find Jessica's decision to get back with Justin (Brandon Flynn), the boy who allowed Bryce to rape her, cringe worthy, 13 Reasons Why made the valid point that Jessica was the only one who could make the decision about who she wanted to be with. Season 2 focused on Jessica accepting the fact that she was raped and attempting to find a way to live a functional life as she processed the trauma of her assault. Season 3 followed her as she progressed from victim to survivor and learned to use her voice to help amplify others' rather than screaming into the abyss. She reclaimed her body as her own and then went on to help other people find their voice. It was a moving moment to see her lead an assembly at Liberty High that allowed sexual assault survivors to speak their truth, and the show deserves kudos for using its platform to also shine a light on men who have experienced sexual assault as well. It is, again, a remarkable example of the beautiful work this show is capable of doing.
By the very nature of the topics that 13 Reasons Why covers, it will never be able to please every audience member. But it has made its mark on the pop culture zeitgeist, and established that it is able to start powerful conversations. Three seasons in, though, it is time this show took more responsibility for the direction of those conversations. You can't venture into these dark waters if you're not willing to see what's on the ocean floor. There's one final season left and it should tie up the loose ends of the group framing Monty for Bryce's murder and getting Tyler off the hook at Spring Fling. Just as the kids at the center of this show need to be held accountable for their actions, 13 Reasons Why needs to be held accountable for the messages it's sending. It's not good enough to have a few hits, the whole package has to make sense, otherwise, why are we here and why are we watching?
TV Guide Rating: 3/5
13 Reasons Why Season 3 is now streaming on Netflix.