With very little promotion in comparison to earlier seasons, the fourth and final installment of 13 Reasons Why, which debuted on June 5, brought the problematic show to a close with an equally contentious ending.
Since its release in 2017, the show has faced criticism for its approach to hot-button issues including depression, suicide, sexuality and rape. Based on the 2007 YA novel of the same name, the first series focuses on Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) a former student at Liberty High School who committed suicide as a result of her mistreatment by other students — as she explains on cassette tapes she recorded prior to her death. Despite its fanaticism, the first season was somewhat redeemable in its apparent interest in demonstrating the pressures teenagers face in today’s society. However, without the template of James Asher’s novel to follow, each subsequent season was unrecognizable from that which came before it — jumping from teen-drama to courtroom saga, to murder mystery, to finally, psychological thriller.
Season 3 focused on the murder of rapist Bryce Walker (Justin Prentice) — which is falsely pinned on Monty (Timothy Granaderos), who was conveniently killed in prison and cannot protest his innocence. Season 4 explores the slow unravelling of this plot. The season begins with scenes from a funeral, a morbid attempt to recreate the sense of mystery in season one, like a backwards “Whodunnit?”
Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette), experiences an ongoing mental breakdown throughout season 4, envisioning and interacting with the ghosts of Bryce and Monty. In the third episode, Clay is lead on a ghost chase in search of Monty’s phone (a joke played on him by the football team turned detectives?) where he stumbles into the boy’s locker room, sprayed in what appears to be blood, as he hallucinates blood pouring from the showerheads, drenching him – it screams Carrie (1976).
The writers couldn’t have known what the world would be enduring when the final season debuted, but considering its continual attraction to controversial subjects, it’s not surprising they stumbled upon police brutality and riots. In episode six, we bear witness to what we believe is a school shooting. Having received criticism and backlash after every season for potentially encouraging teenage suffering, they then devote an entire episode to every harrowing moment during a school shooting. And it’s truly mind-boggling that its only purpose is to motivate the students to riot against the extra security on campus.
Despite all of this, little did we know that the worst was yet to come. Throughout the season we are unaware of who lies in that coffin, until it is finally revealed that it is Justin Foley (Brandon Flynn), who tragically dies within a few days of an AIDS diagnosis. A recovering heroin addict, who was once abandoned by his own parents and left homeless, finally finds a supportive family and believes in the prospect of his future only for this to be snatched away from him. The show has always been obsessed with hot topics and socially relevant crises – but its depiction of AIDS is both insulting and dangerous. A doctor explains his quick demise away with his past of needle usage and sex work, claiming he was never tested despite his stint in rehab. This could’ve been the perfect opportunity to show that HIV/AIDS is no longer a death sentence, but instead sets the discourse back by years.
Justin’s death speaks to a recurring problem in 13 Reasons Why; everything that happens is a result of a previous action, not considering what teenagers would actually do or what might realistically happen in a high school. In Clay’s graduation speech, he touches upon the preciousness of life. He says, “Whatever happens, keep moving. Choose to live.” But after all we and these characters have had to endure over these ten episodes, that cliché doesn’t cut it. Since the very first episode, the end credits offer the viewer “help to find crisis resources,” yet what 13 Reasons Why does most consistently, is repeatedly traumatize its audience with teen torture porn.
13 Reasons Why is available to stream on Netflix.
By Carly Pearce