The cliffhanger end to season two of 13 Reasons Why was, as has become a pattern with this show, startling and triggering, and ignited a debate over whether it was irresponsible.
The high school drama series, based on Jay Asher’s book and executive produced by Selena Gomez, first drew ire in season one for showing in extended, graphic, and realistic detail the suicide of protagonist Hannah (Katherine Langford). The disturbing climax to the season-long mystery was criticized by mental health professionals and suicide prevention groups as dangerous. Only last month, more than two years after the scene was first made available, did Netflix remove it from the episode, which is still available for streaming on its service.
Season two dealt with the fallout of Hannah’s suicide—who is to blame?—itself a controversial question that soon became overshadowed by a second violent plot twist. Tyler (Devin Druid), a lonely and bullied character who had been seeking revenge on his tormentors, was brutally sexually assaulted by football players in the school bathroom.
The gruesome sequence, like the suicide scene from the year prior, was unflinching in its realism, once again fueling arguments over whether the show should be praised for an uncompromising approach to tackling serious subjects not often discussed, or cited for exploitative content that could trigger abuse survivors for the sole purpose of shock value.
And, again, that question was complicated when Tyler’s narrative took him to the season’s cliffhanger: A planned school shooting that was thwarted by series lead Clay (Dylan Minnette) in the finale’s final moments.
Season two of 13 Reasons Why launched on Netflix the same day that a school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas, left 10 dead. No one involved in the series could have predicted that. But given the mass shooting epidemic in the country, they could have suspected that the image of a boy dressed in all black outfitted with an artillery of guns walking up to a school could be traumatic.
Of course, this is a series that aggressively sets out to confront and dissect dark, troubling issues facing teenagers today, and the threat of a school shooting is certainly at the forefront among those.
13 Reasons Why didn’t actually depict a school shooting, while dozens of other TV series have. But there is something to that word—“epidemic”—and there is plenty of literature out there arguing that widespread media coverage and, in these cases, fictional depictions of mass shootings contribute to the contagion. (There is a similar argument for why the season one suicide scene was so dangerous.)
Instead, the series laid the groundwork for a story arc exploring the mindset of a potential school shooter, echoing its problematic questioning of Hannah’s suicide: Who’s to blame for Tyler deciding he would massacre his classmates?
That’s a volatile question to ask if it’s not going to be answered sensitively and responsibly. Now that season three of the series has launched on Netflix, we know how 13 Reasons Why tackles that question. And the answer is not well. Not well at all.
(Warning: Light spoilers follow.)
We’ve watched just the first handful of new episodes since the season launched Friday; Netflix very pointedly did not make screeners of the new season available to critics.
As in the seasons before it, Tyler’s motivations and the fallout of a school shooting threat are just two items in the kitchen sink of serious subjects the show superficially deals with: bullying, abortion, PTSD, sexuality, and suicide and self-harm.
That there would be something meaningful to come out of the storyline turns out to be a lofty expectation. In the end, it appears that Tyler’s school shooting plan is merely the catalyst for the season’s big soap opera twist. How it delves into what would turn someone into a school shooter is almost offensively misguided.
13 Reasons Why season three, centered around a mystery that was already spoiled in trailers—who killed Bryce Walker?—seems to want to reset itself as a sort of Big Little Lies mystery series. “These kids were connected by their secrets—connected, and forever changed,” goes one line of dialogue which, if “kids” were swapped for “rich Monterey ladies,” could apply to either show.
But when a series purports to be starting impactful conversations about suicide, sexual assault, and, now, school shootings, it doesn’t get that privilege. It doesn’t get to reinvent itself as a teen soap opera, especially when threads of those issues are left dangling, begging to be tied up responsibly.
The season kicks off eight months after Clay stopped Tyler from shooting up the school dance, and jumps back and forth through time to depict what happened in the moments, days, and weeks after. It also sets up that mystery: After a brawl at a football game, Bryce (Justin Prentice) disappears and is later found dead.
We learn that Tyler successfully evaded the cops who were heading to the school after the reports of a shooter present, driven away by Tony (Christian Navarro) and leaving Clay with his guns. Clay takes Tyler’s rifle and drives away in his car, meeting Tony and Tyler in an abandoned warehouse where Tyler is being talked down and convinced to disarm himself.
They eventually take him home, where Tyler’s mother is worried sick, as parents all received a text that the dance had been evacuated over reports of a potential shooter. She has no idea that her son was the culprit. When Tyler goes back to his room, we see that he had left his mom a farewell note. He had assumed that once he left to murder his classmates, he would not be coming back.
Clay and Tony convince their friends to help them monitor Tyler. They have no idea about his sexual assault, or why he was disturbed enough to want to stage a massacre at their school. But they know that they are all connected by various secrets, and have a stake in making sure Tyler doesn’t get caught—even if that means he doesn’t get the help that he needs.
Only one student, Zach (Ross Butler), brings up the most salient point: By protecting Tyler, are we not are giving him the chance to do this again? And next time, Clay may not be there to stop him.
The fallout from the school dance drama is not the season’s chief narrative concern. Any time your mind begins racing about how this storyline will be handled, it pivots to the Bryce Walker mystery—though early episodes hint that these things are connected.
But it’s still unclear what, exactly, the show is trying to do here.
Season two depicted the relentless bullying of Tyler, culminating in that horrifying sexual assault in the bathroom. After that incident, he loads a bag of guns and makes his deadly plan. By the time the finale rolls around, are we supposed to insinuate that this decision is somehow justified by what happened to him? Or, at the very least, rationalized? Are we supposed to empathize with the school shooter?
Does the fact that we spend more time with him in season three, and that everyone around him seems to have moved on from the fact that he had planned to shoot up their school, mean that the show is trying to humanize him? Or redeem him? Or show that, since he didn’t go through with it ultimately, it could be anyone who is capable of doing such a thing? And that all a school shooter needs is friends to talk him down? Or...what?
(Episode four, in which the characters all suddenly remember that Tyler is, as one characters says, "creepy," and capable of being a killer, is a particularly obtuse and reductive ploy for an hour of dramatic tension.)
This is not a review of the entire season, which has several other problems and attributes to discuss. But it is a deep dive into these first few episodes and this one specific plot point, because that immediate exploration matters.
When you have a president saying mental health is the problem, not guns, a storyline like this matters. Executing a storyline like this effectively matters. On 13 Reasons Why, yet again, it seems to exist as a sensationalized plot device, masked by a discourse about tackling serious issues that, with this show, still seems to amount to all talk and no value.