‘13 Reasons Why’ Redeems a Rapist. But Seriously... Why?
The new season of the controversial drama not only asks “who killed Bryce Walker,” the show’s rapist, but “what if he was a good guy after all?” Huh?!
Your rapist isn’t a bad guy. Not like you thought. Not at heart. In fact, he probably had a promising, well-meaning future ahead of him.
It is truly hard to tell, but that seems to be the moral takeaway of the third season of Netflix’s controversial teen drama 13 Reasons Why, which launched last Friday on the crest of two seasons of backlash against the show’s graphic, some say dangerous and irresponsible content.
At least that’s all that appears possible to distill from this misguided, narratively preposterous, and arguably offensive season. (How this, of all series, didn’t see itself falling so inexcusably into the “Bury Your Gays” trope with its final episode twist is beyond me.)
The new season is maddeningly structured to jump back and forth through time between the aftermath of one character’s thwarted attempt at a school mass shooting—which, as we’ve written about, is dealt with in shockingly cavalier fashion—events taking place months later on the night of a school homecoming game that ends in a brawl and a murder, and then, the setting of the season’s central question: Who killed Bryce Walker?
(Warning: Spoilers ahead.)
Bryce Walker, played by Justin Prentice, had been the show’s villain, and, as far as teen drama series go, a pretty evil one at that. He was a jock, bully, and a womanizer. We learn in season one that he raped the series’ protagonist, Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford), as well as her friend Jessica Davis (Alisha Boe), while Hannah was hiding in the closet, witnessing the whole thing.
That’s all... pretty vile! We learn more over the course of the rest of the series (thus far—the fourth and final season will air next year). Bryce also raped his then-girlfriend, Chloe Rice (Anne Winters), who became pregnant and decided to have an abortion, as well as, as he says, “seven or eight other girls.” He enlisted his football-team friends to recruit girls to assault, help him cover up the operation and evidence, and not only excuse, but encourage the behavior.
Hannah died by suicide in the aftermath of her rape. Jessica sees her entire life consumed by the encounter, including eventually becoming an accomplice to murder.
But when Bryce is put on trial for sexual assault, he is only sentenced to three months’ probation. That’s a powerful statement for a series to make, spotlighting the despicable reality of rape and sexual assault cases: Survivors are put through excruciating trauma when they come forward, and the accused, especially young white men of privilege, rarely face true legal or criminal repercussions.
Then why, in season three, does the show basically undo that whole message? “Bryce Walker, not that bad of a guy!” is, episode after episode, posited as the true shocking revelation. The case is made as convincingly as it could be, I guess. Why the show is bothering to make it at all...well, that, after my 13-hour binge, still remains entirely unclear.
We start the season remembering that Bryce is monstrous, to the extent that Netflix even spoiled his death in marketing materials asking the question, “Who killed Bryce Walker?” The conceit is that it’s so difficult to figure out who killed Bryce—13 hour-long episodes of hard—because literally everyone we’ve ever met in the series would plausibly want him dead.
But as the show’s rat’s nest of secrets slowly get exposed (honestly, they’re better left in the corner of the sewer), we learn, episode after episode, of all the ways in which Bryce was starting to become a good guy.
You see him be kind, caring, and selfless. It took some hard knocks to get him there—in delicious irony, he’s bullied by the boys at his new school for being a rapist—but you buy it. You see it in the way he interacts with his mother, played by Brenda Strong in the season’s best, most layered performance, and, in a sea of pointless provocation, the one seemingly valuable contribution to the season’s controversial conversation.
He begins, in secret, extending an olive branch to people he’d wronged and helping them combat their own various demons, be it Alex (Miles Heizer) or Tyler (Devin Druid). There’s a tender and sweet (and entirely infuriating and problematic) sexual and romantic relationship with the season’s narrator, Ani (Grace Saif). We watch him listen to Hannah’s tapes from season one and finally realize the gravity of what he did. Even Hannah’s mother tells Mrs. Walker that Bryce “was trying to be good.”
It’s all nice, if you can get over your exasperation that it’s happening and appreciate it for what it is: It, at the very least, makes the base-level statement that nobody deserves to die. Like... great. Duh. Sure. But beyond that, what is this show trying to say with this?
The idea that nobody is all good and nobody is all bad is maybe the one thematic throughline you can point to for all three seasons of this show.
We learn through Hannah’s tapes that she was able to see the good you wouldn’t expect in people, but also see how she suffered when people she expected to be good hurt her. (It bears repeating every time this show is written about that the idea of blame, or that anyone caused Hannah’s suicide, is not a healthy nor recommended viewpoint.)
Season two drew into question Hannah’s own character, even in death. That was provocative, in the unsettling way that, in her case, “there’s nuance and shades to everyone” could be so easily bastardized as “well, she was no angel” when talking about a rape victim. Reconsidering Bryce’s true character in his own death this season, perhaps, is an inverse of that.
The last we hear from Bryce is a tape he himself made owning up to everything he had done, expressing his genuine regret, and promising to be a better person. There’s an interesting kernel there, as we watch the classmates who had all just conspired to cover up the true identity of his murderer seem genuinely touched. How would they interact with a “better” Bryce?
But we could never find that out because Bryce was killed off as a gross narrative tool to give the season its mystery structure. There’s this humanization, this exoneration, but no payoff for it. In other words, at least in the context of a television drama series, it was not earned.
So, what happens if a rapist turned a new leaf and tried to grow as a person, but he’s dead when you learn this anyway so it doesn’t matter? Try to extrapolate what lesson we should learn from that, because I’m at a loss.
Unearned redemption, or maybe it’s unearned justification, is a motif of the season. First there’s Tyler, the teenager who nearly massacred his classmates at the end of season two. This season, he’s a tragic hero. Classmates he was once at odds with band together to help him heal. He grapples with his own sexual assault in a healthy way (not staging a school shooting). When the deputy sheriff finds out about what he planned, he moves past it because Tyler is healing.
Then there’s Monty (Timothy Granaderos), who is the one who had assaulted Tyler. We discover that he is possibly gay but closeted, and clearly tormented by that. As with Tyler, who was driven to possible violence because of what happened to him, it’s meant to explain why Monty does the things he does.
Like Tyler and Bryce, we’re meant to feel bad for him—at least that’s my impression from watching the show. But as with Bryce, he is killed off before that can be explored in any meaningful way. (Tyler at least gets to survive the season, so we can chart his journey more deeply.)
Monty, villainous as he may have been, is another egregious example of the “Bury Your Gays” trope, in which TV shows treat their LGBT and closeted characters as expendable, often killing them off breezily for narratively manipulative reasons. In this case, Monty is killed while in jail for Tyler’s assault, thus making his case a shade of the “Out of the Closet, Into the Fire” variation of the trope.
The entire season leads to Ani figuring out a way to make Monty the scapegoat for Bryce’s death, even though we learn that he didn’t do it.
He had an alibi. He was finally exploring his sexuality at the time of the murder. But what the hell are we supposed to make of that? Sad for the budding homosexual who was just killed and wrongly accused, at that? Be happy for the other characters for getting off? Indifferent because he assaulted Tyler anyway? It’s all just... baffling.
And that murder itself. It turns out it is Alex who accidentally threw Bryce into the river while Jessica watched, the two of them discovering Bryce after he was attacked by Zach (Ross Butler).
Alex’s impulsive decision to throw Bryce into the river to drown and Zach’s decision to assault him are both rooted in Bryce saying grotesque, vicious, maniacally evil things to the two of them. And this is after we finally learn what happened at the homecoming game, which included Bryce berating and cruelly antagonizing everyone. (“She didn’t fuck you because you’re a pussy-ass bitch” is one sentence.)
So Bryce spent the last hours of his life being this poison-tongued bully, after 13 episodes spent trying to convince that he was redeemed. So... which is it? And now that he’s dead, how are we supposed to feel? If his true nature is bad, what the hell was the point of all that time spent showing him trying to grow? And if we’re meant to think he had changed, why make those his last moments? The inconsistency is truly maddening.
And don’t get me started on this idea of “Who killed Bryce?” in the first place.
What are we supposed to do with that question? Are we supposed to be rooting for one person or another to have killed him? Is there a truly satisfying answer to that question? Or are we supposed to, like all the kids, be at peace with the fact that Monty gets saddled with the blame because, hey, he’s dead anyway. Which... seriously!?
I’m not sure what complex moral issues the season thought it was exploring when it comes to good vs. bad, abusers, survivors, and the connection between rape culture and jock culture. But in the end the series becomes, basically, How to (Barely) Get Away With Murder, especially when we see in the final moments that more evidence is going to surface that will ensure that these kids are not going to get off that easily.
(If an actual animated villain from an old episode of Scooby-Doo ran on screen next season cursing these “meddling kids” I would genuinely not blink an eye.)
Forget 13 reasons why. When it comes to this season, I’d be happy with just one.