At the end of season two of 13 Reasons Why, Bryce Walker was acquitted of rape and cleared of charges in Hannah Baker’s suicide. He then transferred to an elite private school, Hillcrest; while his peers at Liberty were left to try to pick up the pieces and resume their lives. After a melee at the Homecoming game between Liberty and Hillcrest, Bryce Walker disappears, and later turns up dead. The 13 episodes of season three of 13 Reasons revolve around solving the mystery of his disappearance and death, as the kids of Liberty, led by Clay and mysterious new transfer student Ani, try to figure out who killed him and why. Although Clay Jensen assumed his friends had no further contact with Bryce after the trial, he learns that they all continued to communicate with Bryce, and the nature of their contact gives each of them a motive for murder.
If there’s an overarching theme to season three of 13 Reasons, it is the question of redemption. Is redemption even possible or are we forever defined by our past sins? How do you go about redeeming the past, or at the very least, trying to right past wrongs? This season might also be Netflix’s attempt to redeem this series and their own reputation in light of concerns raised around the first two seasons of 13 Reasons.
The first season of 13 Reasons Why centered around the rape and suicide of Hannah Baker, but the tragic take-away of that season for too many viewers was that suicide is not only logical, it is inevitable under the crushing weight of victimization.
The second season centered around efforts by Hannah’s parents to hold the school responsible for failing to protect their daughter; but the subtext of the season was don’t even bother taking your problems to adults. They won’t do anything, and if they do, things will just turn out worse for you in the end.
Season three was partially about Bryce’s attempts to redeem himself – nearly every student who felt victimized by Bryce ends up turning to him for help. Initially, it is unclear whether Bryce was truly trying to make things right, or if he was just using the favors for leverage, power and manipulation; but he eventually turns a corner where he realizes the depth of his own brokenness and genuinely seeks to become a better person by working to correct past mistakes, but nobody beyond Ani and his mother believes he is capable of changing.
This season was also about Tyler’s path to redemption. Tyler was sodomized with a broken broom handle in the boy’s bathroom at the end of season two by Montgomery de la Cruz and a couple of other jocks. Broken and hurting from the violent assault, Tyler showed up at the school dance in the season finale with an arsenal of weapons, prepared to make everyone there pay for what had happened to him. Clay intervened, and with Tony’s help, removed Tyler from the dance and disposed of the weapons before the police arrived so that Tyler was never charged, and the thwarted shooting was determined to be a false alarm. After the dance, Clay and his friends made arrangements to take turns escorting Tyler to and from school, and from class to class, but because none of them knew the truth about what triggered the attempted shooting, none of them truly trusted Tyler, and they all believed he was still capable of murder and might snap any time.
After Bryce’s body surfaces, Tyler discloses that he held on to one gun after the dance, but now he no longer needed it. Could it be because he had already used it to kill Bryce, and now that the deed was done, he needed help ditching the evidence? Tyler tells Clay that the planned school shooting was always a suicide mission, and that he held on to the last gun so he could kill himself. The night Bryce’s body was found, he went to the pier to kill himself, but before he could jump, he saw Bryce’s body floating in the water.
“I knew things were never going to get better, and no one was going to come to my rescue. No one really believed that I could change… I thought I’d never be able to get away from who I was, who I’d been. From what hurt. So I climbed the bridge, and I looked down, and I saw this like flash of purple, like a jacket, and somehow I just knew. So I went down below the bridge, and I saw it. Him. Bryce. Dead. Cold. Like, gray, like, not a person, and I thought, that’s it. He doesn’t get to be anyone anymore. It’s over for him. And I knew right then that I didn’t want to be dead. I want to live and keep getting better and be stronger, and that’s why I want to give the gun away. Because I didn’t need it anymore.”
Tyler finds his redemption in the end.
But throughout the season, it seems that it’s not just Bryce and Tyler that are seeking redemption. It appears Netflix is also trying to redeem their brand and this franchise.
After a National Institutes of Health study linked 13 Reasons to a 30% spike in youth suicides, Netflix finally succumbed to pressure to remove the scene depicting Hannah’s suicide in season one; the inclusion of which they had staunchly defended for two years. This season, the series is heavily labeled with content warnings, trigger warnings, links to tools and resources, and a new public service announcement from the cast at the very beginning; even Tyler’s speech about the permanence and finality of suicide feels like an effort to walk-back anything that might be perceived as promoting suicide in its past seasons; but all of these efforts feel like too little, too late.
There is still plenty about this series that is problematic from a parents’ point of view. Despite being rated TV-MA, the series is clearly teen-targeted, as is made clear by the urging in the PSA to “talk to a trusted adult.” Episodes contain frequent profanity (primarily “f—k” and “s—t”), fairly graphic depictions of both heterosexual and homosexual sex (though less explicit than on HBO’s Euphora or Netflix’s Sex Education). There are also several scenes of violence — primarily fist fights, and an abortion story line. But it’s the subtext that runs throughout the series that should be of greatest concern.
In season three, as in seasons past, the adults are present, but only as accessories. These kids are dealing with heavy problems: Jessica and Tyler as rape survivors; Justin with a relapse of drug addiction; Alex with feelings of physical inadequacy turning to steroids; but instead of taking their problems to the authorities, school counselors, or their parents, they try to deal with everything themselves, which often leads to lies and deception as they keep one another’s secrets. But although the ostensible message is “lean on your friends, they’re the only ones who have your back,” the real takeaway is “even your friends can’t be trusted, so you’re in this alone.” Even the episode titles support this takeway: “If you’re breathing, you’re a liar,” “The good person is indistinguishable from the bad,” “Nobody’s clean,” “In high school, even on a good day, it’s hard to tell who’s on your side.”
Season three ends on a more hopeful note than previous seasons, and it does seem as though the creative team behind 13 Reasons is either trying to do damage control, or at the very least dial-back some of the darker messages and imagery that plagued previous seasons. But is this a series teens should watch? No.
If Netflix, or the creators of 13 Reasons want to start a conversation, then start a conversation, but don’t just use the “difficult topics” for entertainment and then walk away. Turn it into a documentary, or turn it into a production where counseling can take place.