This review contains spoilers.
You have to feel sorry for those associated with the making of 13 Reasons Why. Despite good intentions, it has come under fire for each of its three seasons. It has been accused of romanticising suicide, of depicting shocking events including rape and sexual assault in too much of a graphic way. It also has been blamed for children’s reaction to the show, despite the fact it is clearly not aimed at kids and that their parents should be to blame for not keeping an eye on what their pre-teens are watching.
The knives were out for the third season before it was released. Critics have asked why there needs to be a third season – a question I find rather odd when the same question isn’t asked of other TV shows. Does their need to be any TV series? And now that we have the third season, the critics have declared it depressing and monotonous – presumably because there is little within the new series that can be viewed as shocking or graphic. What’s more, some critics were arguing this in reviews published less than twelve hours after the series dropped – and we have been told that reviewers didn’t get copies in advance. And if that doesn’t tell you that reviews were written before the writers had seen the series, nothing will!
It certainly seems true to say that the third season is the least impressive so far. Dealing with the murder of serial rapist Bryce Walker, it seems overlong, baggy, and contrived. Much of this is to do with the introduction of a new character, Ani, who dominates the series. When she’s not on screen, she is narrating the action. But Ani is just a plot device. She is there so that we get to see what happened in Bryce’s house. She is, basically, our eyes and ears. But the plot device is clunky and jarring, as is the awful decision of using three different timeframes – Ani talking to the police, the post-murder scenes, and the pre-murder scenes. Again, it’s jarring, not helped by the fact that the makers decided to indicate time frames by going to black and white or by changing aspect ratios. Viewers are clever enough to work it out for themselves – they don’t need on-screen indicators in this way.
There has also been criticism (and in some cases, shock) amongst viewers on social media that a different side of Bryce Walker is shown in this series. But I would suggest this was a brave move on the part of the writers. Bryce was the only one-dimensional character in the first two series. Everyone else in the main cast were much more developed, whereas Bryce was just the bad guy. But people in real life are not good or bad guys. Everyone does good and bad things, some of us more good than bad, and vice versa. But those criticising the move to humanise Bryce are suggesting that people can’t change, and that redemption is never possible, and that some people have no redeeming features whatsoever. Bryce, in the end, doesn’t get redeemed. He tries, but finds it difficult to escape his old ways, and in the end that brings about his murder. Interestingly, I got similar comments from people when I wrote Breaking Down, a sequel to Breaking Point, my novel about homophobic bullying. In the sequel, the bully of the first book tries to make good, but it didn’t sit well with all readers. Likewise, in the first book, I had one of the victims doing bad things, and that was seen as problematic too. “But he’s the good guy,” I was told. Now, whether I or 13 Reasons Why managed to deal with this supposed redemption is up for debate, but it’s not as if Bryce suddenly becomes a good guy or stops doing bad things – as some commentators would have us believe. He’s still an arsehole, and now a self-pitying one.
But, for all it’s awkwardness and ridiculous length, 13 Reasons Why still remains the only programme willing to delve into serious, difficult teenage issues in this way. In reviews of previous seasons, I have highlighted how other TV shows aimed at the same age group give easy answers or gloss over difficult issues as soon as they have brought them up. In 13 Reasons Why these things are ugly, and messy, and life-changing.
There are some truly remarkable and important moments in this third season. Has there ever been a more honest portrayal of the aftermath of male on male sexual assault than in 13 Reasons Why? The moment in episode eight where Tyler finally tells someone face to face about what happened to him months earlier is devastating, brilliantly written, and stunningly acted.
The end of season two found Bryce basically getting away with rape thanks to the court system. I though this was a mistake. It would have been unrealistic to show him getting the punishment he deserves, but in this instance I thought it would pass on the right message to viewers, giving them the courage to report crimes against them. In this series, though, the show makes up for this thanks to the moving sequence in episode ten in which Jessica talks to the school about her experience and members of the school audience stand up and admit they were “survivors” too.
There will be a fourth and final season of the show next year – a rather odd choice given that the final episode of this season seems to wrap up the story rather efficiently. One has to wonder if the show could have gone a different route, perhaps the way of Skins, where a new series brings a new cast of characters and fresh storylines. Quite what the fourth season will bring is unknown at this stage.
13 Reasons Why is not perfect. It tries hard, and it makes some horrible decisions from time to time, but it is remarkably important. Teenage life is horrible – perhaps it always has been – and, if critics and adult reviewers are criticising the show, perhaps it is because it bares some ugly truths that we, as adults, don’t want to face. Bullying, rape, gun violence, sexual assault, drug addiction, violence, mental health issues – they are, unfortunately, part of teenager’s lives. We get them to put on their school uniform, send them off to school in the morning, and assume the school is looking after them for the six or seven hours before they come home. We, as adults, hate to be reminded that sometimes our trust in the school is a mistake. Schools can be ugly places. 13 Reasons Why throws that unsettling fact right in front of us, and it seems that too many (re)viewers would rather complain that the images are too graphic or shocking than accept that there is a problem out there, and that the depictions in the series are far closer to the truth than anyone wants to admit – and so we blame the show rather than the real life it is depicting.