13 Reasons Why has been no stranger to controversy since season 1 originally aired. From public outcry regarding its graphic depiction of rape and suicide, to mental health experts warnings that Hannah’s tapes gave teens false expectations of what happens after a suicide, there were a number of valid concerns presented.
At the time, I saw why there was such controversy. I even agreed with a lot of the suggestions, and am glad they took out the bathroom scene from season 1. But I was also conflicted, because I saw the other side: which was the lack of media surrounding suicide.
If we don’t portray people in media who are suicidal – and I mean really suicidal, and have been for a long time – kids who are feeling that way will feel like they are beyond repair. Because they don’t even know there are other people out there who feel that way, or that they can get better. Or even worse, they seek out people to relate to online, or in their lives – where the information they’re receiving is not regulated at all. At least on a show, there is not only some standard of what is shown, but it’s out there in the public, so that a conversation can be started. What the show gets wrong, other media can correct.
I understand the criticism that Hannah does not get better – however, I do believe the show does a good job of convincing the viewer that Hannah did not have to die. If one thing had happened differently, she might not have. Her suicide was not presented as inevitable, and Hannah was not presented as beyond repair. Unfortunately, she did not receive the care she needed – a fate that too often befalls people in real life. We need those stories as much as the recovery ones, so that we can be affected – and, as the show’s main character says in the season one finale, “do better.”
The show does depict recovery as well, with season 2 featuring prominent recovery stories for Alex, Skye, and even Tyler (disregarding the last episode). Even though Hannah didn’t receive help, others did – showing teens today that it is possible to get better.
The show was not perfect by any means. The triggering issue is extremely valid, and the show did go too far in some aspects. However, I do not feel the show’s subject matter alone was too triggering to be important. Teen dramas have long used suicide for shock factor – off the top of my head, I can remember at least one suicide attempt in every single teen drama I’ve seen (to name a few, Gossip Girl, One Tree Hill, 90210, Pretty Little Liars, Teen Wolf, The OC, and the Vampire Diaries). Oftentimes, the attempts were the result of something supernatural, a last-ditch escape effort of a villain, or dismissed as a one-time situation that’s never mentioned again. Rarely do shows present depression and suicide with the gravitas it requires – at the very least, 13 Reasons Why presented suicide seriously and earnestly. It was an extended storyline that had the potential to make people feel heard.
Which is what makes it especially disappointing that the show’s gone where it has.
Season two was certainly more teen drama esque than the first. It was more unrealistic. Hannah’s continued involvement felt like a gimmick, especially as Clay’s mental health was really not addressed. It also continued to reinforce the idea that people somehow “live on” after their suicides. But I still felt the show did more good than harm – we saw continued efforts of the characters to heal following Hannah’s death/her confessions in season 1, and we continued to see how hard suicide/depression is on everyone without feeling like the show was blaming Hannah, or Alex, or Skye.
Things started to go downhill in the finale.
In a way, the show turned itself into a sort of evil twin of Glee – trying to tackle far too much without the capabilities to handle it all. But at least Glee was always earnest. 13 Reasons Why turned itself into the exact shows it had seemed like such a departure from, by featuring a character who seemed to be a great example of recovery getting brutally bullied and sexually assaulted, then attempting a school shooting at a dance, only for our main character to jump in front of the gun and play hero when he’s half the problem. Again.
It was a bad move. It upset a lot of people. But I still had some hope for season 3. They were moving on from Hannah – there would be other storylines. Maybe they would try to handle this storyline with Tyler with some sort of care that they had shown Hannah’s.
I was vastly disappointed when I saw the first episode.
Tyler is in serious need of extensive professional help. By having our cast babysit him and “protect him” by hiding the truth, the show presents the idea that something this large can be handled by mere teenagers. Sure, he later goes to counseling and takes up boxing – but that is simply not enough in the real world. Tyler deserved immediate, around the clock, professional care. I understand why many of the characters didn’t want him to get in trouble – but they were not protecting him or anybody else with what they did, and it was a dangerous idea to show viewers.
I’ve previously thought the character of Bryce was a good case study, and even though I was upset Jessica and Hannah did not get the justice they deserved from the courts system in season 2, I felt like the show was accurately depicting what often happens with young, white, athletic rapists like Bryce Walker. This kind of story is important to tell because it enrages people to see Bryce not get what he deserve – which can lead them to actually look into this problem in real life and make a change in our country.
Killing him off was fun for the viewers, as horrible as that sounds, but it was not the justice Jessica and Hannah deserved. Showing him as sympathetic most of the season, after facing essentially no consequences for his actions, was not what Jessica and Hannah or any other rape survivors deserved.
It all feels very gimmick-y, almost click-bait-y, or sensationalized. It no longer feels authentic or earnest, or like it’s trying to start a genuine conversation. It’s taken the trust of people who thought they were having their stories represented and then broken that trust seasons in by presenting their trauma for the sake of drama/suspense/tension. It’s not the only show to do so, but it’s the only one I can think of that does this after seeming to promise viewers they would not in the first two seasons. It almost feels like a betrayal.
Beyond that, the beginning of the season just isn’t good.
It’s hard to introduce any character into a tight-knit group of characters that’s never had any addition before, especially as not only a main character but the narrator. It doesn’t help that Ani doesn’t seem to fit in the story. She’s brash, calling things as they are – on a show where all of the teens are keeping huge secrets (which the series derives its tension from), this doesn’t introduce a foil so much as feel like they’re crossing over two completely different shows.
The structure is also off. It’s very unclear when they’re showing a flashback vs. the present. Season 2 left off on a huge cliffhanger, and they then start season 3 with a time jump. They keep flashing back to directly after season 2, but it’s often unclear how much time has passed. Also, they keep referring to something that happened the weekend before, so they also flash back to that, meaning there are basically 3 storylines going on at once. It’s too much, and it’s honestly just confusing without really piquing your interest much. I get that the whole “who can you trust” plotline worked well in season 1, but here they don’t even give you one character to stand behind who’s trying to figure it out.
Clay has turned into all the worst parts of his character. He doesn’t have the same drive for justice that made you root for him – and he’s not the only one. The characters mostly just seem to not know what’s going on. It just doesn’t work anymore – it’s not saying enough or doing enough good to make all of the bad worth it anymore. And in an ever-improving tv landscape with teen dramas that are deliciously fun, like Riverdale, or gut-wrenchingly authentic, like Euphoria, no one really has the patience for that anymore.
Serena van der Wooden 13 Reasons Why is officially irrelevant.