Thinking it would be different this time was my first mistake. Sitting through nearly 13 hours of a television show that has consistently disappointed me was the second.
I decided to give 13 Reasons Why another shot after two divisive seasons—a debut replete with gratuitous gore surrounding beautiful dead girl Hannah Baker, who dies by suicide after leaving a personalized cassette for 13 people including her friends and her rapist, and a second season that flattens sexual assault into exploitative, short-sighted sound bytes. The third, Netflix promised, would be different—they even removed the graphic suicide scene from the first season so new viewers wouldn’t be subjected to it, signaling a shift was afoot. They promised Hannah Baker wouldn’t make an appearance in the new season (she does, in a flashback of her rape) nor would suicide (the specter of which defines the show.)
However, I chose to watch the third season off of the strength of its trailer. In the two-minute and twenty-one second clip, the central drama appeared to be the suspicious murder of Bryce Walker, moving the show away from its shameless posturing into crime-drama, Riverdale-mystery territory. Walker is a serial rapist, so most, if not all, of the central characters on the show had motive. Intriguing enough, right?
Light spoilers ahead, proceed with caution.
The third season introduces a new character—seemingly detached narrator Ani Achola, an English teen who moves to California from the U.K. after her mom gets a job as an in-house aide caring for Bryce Walker’s dying grandfather. Achola joins the show’s central friend group, though their immediate loyalty to her is never really explained—the viewer is supposed to accept that these kids who’ve been through so much trauma would welcome a newcomer not only into their circle, but also let her in on the tapes, the sexual assault trial from Season 2 (she sleeps with Walker regardless), and Tyler Down’s foiled school shooting attempt. It’s the latter topic that dictates much of the first half of the new season: after destroying Tyler’s guns, the group takes him to school without any counseling, where he is forced to confront his rapist everyday, just like the girls were forced to confront Walker in Season 2. Tyler is shown healing in that environment without any therapy or treatment which, once again, the viewer is expected to believe. Somehow, that is only one of the show’s major failings.
Here’s another: Chloe Rice, Bryce’s ex-girlfriend and the person responsible for his freedom by lying under oath in the previous season, decides to get an abortion in Season 3. She’s intercepted by both a fake resource center and a fake clinic escort who shoves a bloodied, model fetus into her hands. Her storyline is unnecessary to the progress of the murder mystery, and makes abortions appear harrowing, dramatic, and ultimately as traumatizing as the other events that dictate 13 Reasons Why’s plot. I found myself googling executive producer Selena Gomez’s beliefs on the matter because it felt like an anti-choice agenda shoehorned in. (She’s pro-choice, for what it’s worth.) I assume this was a very poorly thought out plan to show the steps that impede a woman from getting an abortion, even in a seemingly progressive state like California, but even then it’s almost impressive that this bypassed so many producers. Clearly, controversy is the aim, not education.
Like every season prior to this one, Chloe’s abortion, Tyler’s return to school, and every other event that occurs within the episodes are ham-fisted dramatizations of the worst of life’s experiences, filled to the brim with empty calories, targeting teens without any substance or nuance. 13 Reasons Why is simply a series of horrific images and conversations that don’t extend much beyond “this is hard.” At one point, I started to make a list of the egregious errors or inaccuracies—that justice for sexual assault only occurred for the male victim; that Bryce tells his friend suffering from heroin addiction that he “could die” if the product he was using included “fentanyl,” as if it were a game of Russian Roulette and not the overwhelming reality, or that fentanyl is the only way he could die from drug use; or that Jessica Davis, a sexual assault survivor, tells her entire school, “I will demand that their victims no longer stay silent because their silences destroys us all,” as if it is any one person—outside of the survivor themselves—can or should decide when someone comes forward with their story of abuse.
The team behind 13 Reason Why may have (mostly) left Hannah Baker in the past, but what they offered in her wake is similarly disconcerting. If this is meant to be entertaining and instructive, something is getting lost in translation. Beginning and ending each episode with a warning about the sensitive topics discussed on the program and a link to a site that provides access to various crisis networks is not the same thing as handling sensitive topics with, well, sensitivity. It is the bare minimum. The young people who watch this show deserve better.