13 Reasons ... Why?
by Lou Hare, Guilty Pleasures Host
This article contains spoilers for “13 Reasons Why” seasons 1 and 2.
If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255). You can also reach out to the Crisis Text Line, a free, 24/7 confidential text messaging service that provides support to people in crisis when they text 741741.
On Aug. 23, Netflix released the third season of its controversial hit 13 Reasons Why. The week before saw the release of a full-length trailer teasing the new season. As is typical of the series, the trailer was brooding, well-shot and infused with a mystery that once again altered the lives of the students of Liberty High School. Yet for all of the questions the trailer asked, the one I’m struggling with the most is why the show is back at all.
Granted, on the surface the answer to that question is pretty obvious. When it debuted in March 2017, 13 Reasons Why became an instant hit. Based off Jay Asher’s best-selling book of the same name, the story centers on Hannah Baker, a high school student who commits suicide, but not before recording 13 cassette tapes documenting to those closest to her why she ultimately takes her life. As each reason is revealed, the show addresses topics that are all too prevalent amongst today’s youth: bullying, drugs, gaslighting, sexual assault and, of course, teen suicide. While other shows have dealt with such issues, 13 Reasons Why’s presentation was as polished as it was unflinching. As the parent of a future teenager, watching the show was a harrowing experience. I can only imagine what it would be like for those who have experiences similar to those depicted in those 13 episodes. And yet for a show with such a grim subject matter, it was also one of the most easily bingeable shows on TV. The show’s narrative structure offered an unraveling mystery to accompany its socially conscious mission statement. Think an odd cocktail of True Detective, Orange is the New Black and Pretty Little Liars. It also boasts a cast of insanely talented young actors giving powerful performances. The result was a show that drew the attention of teens and adults alike, though not all the attention was positivepositive.
Liberty High: The school where it happens
13 Reasons Why’s inaugural season ends by delivering on its tragic premise. The final scenes graphically depict Hannah Baker’s suicide (How it happens is easily searchable and will not be included in this article for reasons that will hopefully become obvious.) As audiences binged Hannah’s fate, educators, suicide prevention experts and parent groups reacted swiftly to what was seen by many as a glorification of suicide. Not only that, but fears were immediately stoked that such a depiction would lead to a rise in teen suicide. Netflix and show creator Brian Yorkey countered that the show’s aim was to destigmatize the many taboo topics addressed in the show and provide the opportunity for an open dialogue on topics that are all too often swept under the rug. Yet for all their steadfast defense of the show, concessions were made. Episodes that contained especially graphic subject matter were given warning labels, and the show’s final episode began with a message from the show’s leads. These efforts - while on the surface sincere – only came after the series had already debuted and, as such, served as a tacit admission that the show was striking a nerve more raw than anticipated.
13 Reasons creator Brian Yorkey
In the wake of the show’s runaway success, Netflix quickly greenlit a second season. Controversies notwithstanding, this is where the show began to struggle creatively. Having completed the story of the book, the show ventured out into a wholly original storyline, but with no source material as a roadmap, 13 Reasons Why’s identity crisis immediately began to show. The framework of the new batch of episodes was a trial in which Hannah’s parents sued Liberty High for negligence in the wake of her death. The trial provided the opportunity for the show to rehash the plot points of season one, albeit from the perspectives of the living. While on the surface, this idea might challenge the viewer’s preconceived notions of the characters and their roles in Hannah’s death, it also robs Hannah of her agency, as if to say she was wrong for perceiving events the way she did.
The truly gross part about this is, when paired with the outside controversies surrounding the show, one interpretation of this choice is Netflix and Yorkey wanting to “blame” Hannah for her decision (as much of the season involves some variation of “Hannah isn’t who you thought she was”). A more charitable interpretation is that by de-romanticizing Hannah, the audience would be less likely to romanticize her death, but this once again feels like the show trying to rewrite its own history. Oh, and Hannah’s a ghost who talks to Clay, the show’s lead character.
As if the narrative shift wasn’t jarring enough, Yorkey feels obligated to keep the show topical while also doubling down on season one’s graphic tendencies. This is most evident in the season finale, in which a student is sexually assaulted with a broom stick (this is, by the way the fourth sexual assault shown in a series that is about high school teens), then is poised to commit a mass shooting at Liberty High. He is talked out of it at the last minute by Clay, with the fallout left as a cliffhanger for season 3.
Whereas in season 1, the variety of issues addressed felt more organically tied to the central conflict of the show, in season 2, they feel tacked on by a show that insists it’s as “important” as ever. By shoehorning in topics ripped from today’s headlines as the source for its melodrama, season 2 came off as Law & Order: SVU Jr., only far more exploitive. And if the sodomizing of a teenager wasn’t enough to shock the audience, we are then treated to a tease of a mass murder, only to get a last-second reversal and a “tune in next time…” that undercuts the very serious situation narrowly avoided in a group of severely traumatized scenes. It’s one thing to sympathize for a character; it’s another to wish you could jump through the screen a la Last Action Hero and pull them out of this never-ending hellscape. Season 2 was roundly (and justly) considered a failure critically, but it remained a trending topic and enough of a hit for Netflix to order a third season.
As the show prepares for its third season, Netflix and Yorkey still find themselves defending the show against mounting criticism. A study released in May indicated that suicides amongst teens saw an uncharacteristic rise in April 2017, the month after 13 Reasons Why debuted. While the authors of the study warned against explicitly blaming the show for this spike, others saw it as an example of suicide contagion – a term describing how a high-profile suicide leads others who are already struggling with suicidal thoughts to act on them. (While this is more associated with real-life suicides who get high media coverage, the coverage of 13 Reasons Why arguably caused a media discussion akin to that.) In other words, being exposed to suicide is especially dangerous to those who are most vulnerable to death by suicide.
To be clear, no one – especially this author – is accusing Netflix or anyone associated with 13 Reasons Why of intentionally contributing to a spike in teen suicides. Yet the mere association suggested by the study is enough to cause concern. As before, Netflix and Yorkey vehemently pushed back on this notion, citing studies that show the series has led to an increase in awareness of symptoms of suicidal tendencies and a reduction of bullying amongst viewers. They also push back on the study itself, citing that the spike occurred amongst males, not females, as the study initially hypothesized. Whatever caused the spike, Yorkey is certain of one thing: It’s not his show.
And yet, as the show prepares to launch its third season, it has also altered a pivotal moment of season 1: Hannah’s suicide. The scene depicting Hannah’s death has been permanently deleted from the show. Such a move seems to indicate: (1) Netflix is keenly aware of the fact people are about to rewatch the season in anticipation of the third season and (2) There is enough consensus amongst experts and the public that the scene is unnecessary and potentially harmful.
Bryce Walker, a sweetheart of a guy
As for the current iteration of the series, season 3 will center on the murder of Bryce Walker, the student who raped Hannah and countless others. As season 2 drew to a close, Bryce faced trial for the rape of another student (Hannah’s friend Jessica), only to receive a light sentence of probation. At the time, it was reminiscent of real-life rapist Brock Turner, who received similarly easy treatment - yet another of Yorkey’s attempts to put real-life issues in the show. Taking place 8 months later, someone has chosen street justice to make Bryce pay for his many crimes – but, who?
On the surface, this direction for the new season makes some sort of sense. In a show that’s grown increasingly toxic, the character of Bryce is a perfect avatar for the show itself. In season 1, he is shown as an embodiment of toxic masculinity and white privilege – a necessary entity to perpetrate the many horrific acts the show wishes to bring to light. But he’s also a fully-realized character who, by the end of season 2, is a downright caricature so cartoonish he undercuts the very serious crimes for which he is responsible. (This is not a critique of Justin Prentice, a very talented actor tasked with portraying one of TV’s truly worst characters.) The decision to kill him off serves both the show’s narrative and the meta-narrative simultaneously. The more unseemly elements that bogged down season 2 may just get put behind us, allowing season 3 to be the captivating mystery we got in season 1.
But therein lies 13 Reasons Why’s fundamental problem – a show that started with a very realistic portrayal of teen depression and suicide is now just “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” with prettier people. Of all the issues facing teens these days, I’m almost positive “murder mystery” is not one of them. And if the narrative thread that we follow isn’t one that causes the discussions that were at the heart of the show’s inaugural mission, what’s the point? (Money. It’s money.) On the other hand, the show certainly can’t completely abandon the sensitive topics brought up in previous seasons, as the show will still feature major characters who have all lived through and been impacted by the events of the series thus far. And every time the show mismanages its portrayals of the issues and their victims, they serve to do more harm than good. If Netflix insists on carrying on with its increasingly problematic series, perhaps the best-case scenario is for the show to descend so far into melodrama as to no longer be taken seriously.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe season 3 will be a return to form and have the striking balance that its initial season had. Perhaps the mystery is a misdirect, and the show will delve into topics in a more thoughtful, respectful way moving forward. And perhaps this will all perfectly set the stage for its fourth and final season, which Netflix has already announced. But given the numerous opportunities the show has squandered and all the ways its creator has defended the show only to concede after the fact, this feels like wishful thinking. Whatever the case, don’t ask me to recap any of it for you, as I won’t be watching. I have my reasons.
Lou Hare is an adjunct professor at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa. Lou is the host of Guilty Pleasures on the Front Row Network and a regular on many other FRN shows. His greatest joy in life is making his friends watch terrible movies and talk about them..... and being a GIF.