You don’t need another list of “The 13 worst things about 13 Reasons Why” but I’m going to give it to you because I hate you.
Sometimes I wonder if the decline in quality from 13 Reasons Why that started in the second season and only became more painful throughout the third and fourth/final was punishment. Much like Hannah Baker’s borderline sociopathic farewell tapes felt designed to entrench her former classmates in grief and guilt and mental anguish for the ways in which they mistreated, underappreciated just plain didn’t notice her, 13 Reasons Why’s second through fourth seasons feel like a march of humiliation at the end of which one is starved, parched, weak and ultimately forced to admit that the first season, while problematic, wasn’t that bad.
Despite the first season’s controversies, 13 Reasons Why ended its run with a confirmed 75% of its run being hot dogshit. Problematic hot dogshit, even. Series producer Brian Yorkey threw a reactive tantrum stretched over the course of three arduous years. Much like some interpreted Hannah’s tapes as a melodramatic declaration of “they’ll be sorry now,” Yorkey certainly made us regret all the bad things we said about Season 1. Bravo.
But Season 4 wasn’t just offensively bad, it was also dull as dirt — too dull to warrant a bad list of the 13 worst things about it. Too dull to even be stretched out over 13 episodes. So here it is: a towering monument to the entire series, summed up in 13 or so of its worst sins. Is it cliché? Yes. Do you need it? No. But do I hate myself and you? Yes.
Trigger Warning: Like the show, I figure it wouldn’t hurt this article to lay out the things that this article will mention, and in some cases discuss explicitly: sexual assault (numerous occasions, because it’s 13 Reasons Why, of course), childhood sexual assault, gun violence, pregnancy/abortion, suicide and mental illness. It also mentions Bryce Walker more than I care for.
Chloe’s abortion was handled surprisingly delicately — it’s not a pleasant experience, but Chloe also has no regrets and has a better life as a result. It’s not gory or gratuitous. What isn’t great is that Chloe is basically only included in Season 3 to show her abortion, and ceases to be a character after, making it feel exploitative.
Having Jess be on board with the school police state is out-of-character and sells her out. It doesn’t add to the drama of the situation, especially with how easily she’s forgiven for it.
The school shooting drill is one of the most excruciating things to watch and could easily be a top-13 (top-five?) horrible thing about the show. The only reason I’ve included it as an honourable mention is that it’s one of the few horrible things that the show does a decent job of demonstrating, in-text, is completely morally bankrupt. The characters are clearly traumatized from it, so it’s one of the only examples of the show at least demonstrating just how wrong something is.
Ani wasn’t problematic, she just kind of sucks. Her name might as well be Amarowat Anicia “Ani” Dementia D’Arkness Raven Achola. While it’s great that they introduced another woman of colour into the cast, this was after progressively cutting more and more women — Skye, Courtney, Sheri, Nina (three of them women of colour). You’d think they could have just kept one or two of those characters around so that Jess could have a confidante (Nina) and we could have a resident bad girl who may or may not be into Clay (Sheri). And instead of trying to rehabilitate her in Season 4, they all-but wrote her out, and she only appeared in six of 10 episodes.
Now, for the ones that were bad enough to make the list:
13. Outdated, beyond offensive portrayals of feminist activists.
13 Reasons Why started out with very obvious feminist messages, but it essentially undid that in the third season. After her assault, Jessica forms an activist group to take down rape culture on campus. But the group becomes a walking embodiment of the asinine question, “Has the #MeToo movement gone too far?” The leader of the pack, Casey, is styled and portrayed as a feminist straight out of a 2004 Family Guy episode. They’re self-righteous and “man-hating” the point of alienating survivor Tyler, which just doesn’t track with most modern young feminists. And they’re portrayed as wrong for protesting Bryce’s funeral, when they seem to be the only ones who remember all season that Bryce was a monstrous rapist.
12. Had a supporting character’s family deported by ICE.
Part of the goal of Season 3 is to give every character a possible motivator for killing Bryce Walker. Wouldn’t it have been better to just have Bryce wreck Tony’s car? Instead, Bryce’s evil father gets Tony’s parents deported. Like the other Season 3 plotlines, t’s only given one episode of focus, so it feels cheaply inserted, part of the show’s tendency to mistake trauma for character development. Having your only Latinx character lose his family to an ICE raid feels exploitative and cruel — character trauma for the sake of adding more “ripped from the headlines” plotting into a show.
It also feels like the show is eager to shed the characters of their parents. It’s not unique to 13 Reasons Why — TV writers seem to feel limited when they’re writing teenagers who actually live like teenagers, and one of the easiest ways around that is to make them filthy rich or render them parentless. In fact, by the third season, only Clay, Bryce and Tyler seem to even have parents who show up more than once. It doesn’t help that Tony’s actor, Christian Navarro, is pushing 30. They surely could have found him ways to be more independent without being so sensationalist.
11. An unstable character who killed someone got off with no consequences.
Alex Standall is a murderer. He murdered a terrible person, but he was willing to let several of his good friends, including Zach and Clay, take the fall for his crime. The fourth season seems to set Alex up for some sort of confession/redemption arc. In the end, Alex confesses to Monty’s would-be lover, and is then absolved of all guilt without having facing any legal consequences. He gets all his friends back, is accepted into Berkley and gets a boyfriend out of it.
And it’s not just that Alex killed Bryce in Season 3, it’s that he turned into a completely unlikeable, erratic, violent and unstable character. He had so much in common with Bryce he even befriended him for a fashion (after Bryce raped two of his dearest friends). His rage is attributed to his TBI, but we get no indication that Alex is getting help for this. He’s simply brought back as a gentler, shyer version of himself. It’s as though the writers were hoping we’d forget just how low Alex sunk and chalked his killing of Bryce up to a “whoopsie” moment.
10. Worked overtime to rehabilitate the reputation of a serial rapist.
The only plot line in 13 Reasons Why Season 3 that seems to stretch beyond one episode — besides the irritating will they/won’t they with Clay and Ani — is how sad and lonely Bryce Walker is, because it’s hard to be a rich and powerful serial rapist. Every episode reveals another aspect of Bryce that “complicates” his legacy. He stood up for rape victim Tyler. He tried to help Justin get off heroin. He tried to make things right with Tony. He had a difficult childhood. The only thing is, Bryce is still a rapist. We saw him rape three girls on screen, and he later admits to raping as many as “seven or eight girls” in his life.
There are ways to show that heinous people who do heinous things have lives and relationships that extend beyond their crimes — that even evil has loved ones. But that’s such a delicate, complex process that should be left in hands more competent than the ones that made this show. Wiser writers and directors might have even found ways to point out that some of Bryce’s “good” deeds — like his attempts to wean Justin off of heroin and onto oxy — are still driven by a need to control. His apology tour indicates that his primary concern isn’t being a good person, but being seen as one. The potential is right there, but like other more complex issues, 13 Reasons Why simply throws it lazily onto the floor and lets the characters step around it, with the justification that, well, it’s there.
9. Decided a perfectly likeable character is just suddenly, temporarily a rapist.
Zach’s trauma — losing his father, losing his sort-of girlfriend to suicide, a fractured relationship with his mother, realizing half his friends are rapists and a career-ending injury — finally causes him to break. The character change that mostly comes across as cartoonish (he’s drunk or drinking in essentially every scene). It would have perhaps been less monotonous if the writers had chosen to start his redemption after the fourth episode when his irresponsibility almost killed Alex. But instead it gets worse and worse and cumulates in him taking a sex worker to prom (fine!) and doing coke with her (fine!) and then suddenly being walked in on standing over her with his pants undone. While she’s barely conscious. Zach has spent the last three years understanding that rape is a special kind of evil, and knowing that there’s no grey zone here. So why exactly has he become a person who thinks this is okay? This shift in mentality is never explained, and Zach seems to see the error of his ways almost immediately, but it’s so cheap and builds the case against the show for really not understanding rape.
8. Incited Baby’s First Riot!
This show certainly has a thing for timing. Just as it couldn’t have predicted that Season 2 would be released the day after a school shooting, it couldn’t have known that Season 4 would be released in the midst of global protests against white supremacy and police brutality. But alas, it did, and as global discourse emerged that tackled the issue in a mostly intelligent and meaningful way, 13 Reasons Why did not rise to the challenge. Like with other issues, the racist undertones that precede the riot are tossed in for the sake of saying they’re there, with no real discussion or analysis. The incident that sparks the riot in the first place is an officer who assaults Diego (who is Latinx) and ignores Justin for the exact same fight, and Jessica does bring up later that the students singled out by riot police (yes, riot police) were primarily students of colour.
But no one points out that the police state of the school itself is disproportionately affecting students of colour (like Tony) and no one dares mention that the two kids who have proven to be the most dangerous — Alex and Tyler — are white guys. With Jess, a passionate and intelligent woman of colour leading the riot, not once when she holds the megaphone does she mention that the school’s policies are discriminatory. Without that, the riot comes across like a group of 10-year-olds getting all jacked up on kids rights, rebelling against bedtimes and groundings.
7. Fixed a character’s severe mental issues with two weekly therapy sessions.
Throughout Season One and Two, Clay Jensen has been his own worst enemy. In fact, the only season in which Clay wasn’t completely insufferable was Season 3, when the world was actually out to get him and he was wrongly accused of murder. Otherwise, the source of most of Clay’s problems has always been Clay, whether that’s his self-righteousness, not listening to others, a sense of victimhood or his all-around tendencies toward martyrdom. But at least Clay has a legitimate excuse for it this season. Clay is literally his own worst enemy now, because Clay’s trauma has caused him to lapse into some sort of dissociative identity disorder. We find out toward the end of the season that all of the horrible stuff happening to Clay is literally the work of an alternate Clay.
It not only continues the grand tradition of all media of demonizing people with personality disorders (Clay’s alternate personality is an all-out violent psychopath who smirks as he terrorizes his friends) but also oversimplifies Clay’s recovery. Let it be known — Clay is in such a fragile state that he steals a cop’s gun, scares his friends with an axe, destroys security cameras, flips a car while driving drunk and then attempts to hold up a police precinct (with a fake gun). He’s never arrested, admitted to a psych ward (he is, temporarily, but sneaks out and faces no consequences), there’s no discussion of medication and he doesn’t even seem to take time off school. In fact, he becomes valedictorian (in his speech, says he has anxiety and depression, which… doesn’t really account for everything). I hesitate to continue my years-long campaign of “Clay is the worst” at this point because he does suffer from severe mental illness, but it’s still infuriating that he faces no consequences for the worst things he does and doesn’t even get the proper help for it, aside from doubling his weekly therapy sessions.
6. Said “Cops and authoritarians are really nice and good, actually!”
13 Reasons Why is filled with unlikeable characters, but most are at least occasionally redeemable with some sweetness, cleverness or chemistry with other characters. The same can’t be said for Sheriff Diaz, who is nothing but unpleasant, unrelenting and antagonistic for the two seasons he’s in. And hey, fitting. He’s a cop. But he gets one of the most unearned endings of the series — which says a lot, considering almost everyone gets a completely unearned ending. He embraces a sobbing Clay, who has just attempted to hold up the precinct, talks him down and lets him off without a charge. Clay even says that he realizes that all of the “checking in” (harassment) and all of the cagey antagonism is actually because he cares! Aww! How sweet! Like I stated under the problem with the riot, show writers had no idea it would be debuting this season in the midst of an uproar against white supremacy and police brutality. But the show has always claimed to have an ear to the ground regarding social issues; could it not see how tone-deaf it is to show lily-white Clay get away with things a Black or Brown kid would have been shot for, and to conclude the season with Sheriff Diaz hugging Clay’s violence away like he’s a toddler throwing a tantrum?
Alex’s dad, too, just cares. He cares enough to allow key lapses in the Bryce Walker case to protect his son’s innocence. Oh, and Diaz is totally cool with this in the end too.
The same is said for Principal Bolan (and his beard of sadness?) and the new character of Dean Foundry (genuine question: what’s the purpose of a high school “dean?” Is this an American thing?) who are behind the aforementioned police state and don’t even really apologize or take responsibility. Foundry is rehabilitated because he turns out to be gay and feels bad about Justin dying. You see, cops and authoritarians are people too! They have histories and pasts and beliefs that they used to hold before they became cops and authoritarians, so you should be okay with the things they do!
5. Got pretty much everything wrong about school shooters.
Tyler attempts — and fails — to shoot up the school in Season 2. This is… not good. I’m not saying you can’t portray a school shooting at all in media. No one came down on the book/movie We Need to Talk About Kevin, even if it came out in the height of school shooter fascination. Maybe that’s because Kevin wasn’t portrayed as a victim who was bullied into violence. He was born mean. Tyler — when he’s not stalking Hannah and circulating lesbian revenge porn — is portrayed as a sweet if not really weird dude. His parents try to get help for his worse tendencies, like a fixation on guns and violence, in a divergent program, but subsequent rejections by friends and a violent sexual assault (see below) push him to make a bad decision. And then, the following season, he’s rehabilitated through the power of friendship.
The messed up part is that Tyler is mostly portrayed as someone who is sensitive and sweet and deserves rehabilitation… if not for the whole mass murder thing. Most school shooters aren’t like Tyler. They aren’t bullied and victimized into becoming the aggressors themselves. Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris probably didn’t have the same sense of self-awareness, responsibility and empathy that Tyler did (they definitely didn’t, if you ask their friends and classmates). If you feel gross about empathizing with a school shooter, cut yourself some slack — Tyler is not an accurate depiction of one.
4. Got pretty much everything wrong about AIDS.
My god, poor Justin. Again, 13 Reasons Why doesn’t know how to develop their characters through any way other than trauma, and no character has gotten the bulk of that quite like Justin Foley. In four seasons, he goes from a cocky, book-dumb guy who enables a rape to a recovering addict, a hardworking student, a survivor of childhood and adult sexual abuse, someone who has experienced homelessness, an orphan and more. His backstory, tragic as it is, even helps explain why he allowed Bryce to rape his girlfriend — Justin can’t decipher protectors from predators, and has normalized abuse. But in the final season, after he finally gets clean, gets accepted into his dream school, becomes the only son that the sweet and patient Jensens actually deserve, he loses his birth mom, relapses, steals from the Jensens and then gets clean only to die of AIDS — having previously even been unaware that he was HIV+.
Many experts have already pointed out that the timeline for Justin developing HIV and then the virus progressing to AIDS is far too quick. Justin began engaging in IV drug use and sex work during junior year, maybe 18 months before his death. While the doctor hand-waves his not knowing that he was HIV+ and attributes it to shame around testing, it still doesn’t account for how quickly Justin dies. The only indication that Justin has AIDS before he mentions being sick is a small trio of legions on his hand and neck that surface about one episode before. Otherwise, Justin goes from being physically well enough to play football in the fall to dying in the spring. Many people with AIDS can live for years with treatment, but Justin lasts a month at best.
The show thinks it takes a high road with regards to Justin’s status, mentioning stigma and shame. But because Justin’s progression is so lightning-fast and the topic of AIDS comes out of nowhere — even within the context of this snooze of a season — it just feels like another case of 13 Reasons Why enacting trauma porn on its characters because it can. It’s unfair to real people living with HIV and AIDS.
3. Showed two graphic rapes, repeatedly, over the course of four episodes.
The problem isn’t that Hannah and Jessica are raped. But the detail in which Hannah and Jessica’s rapes are shown on screen — and in the case of Jessica’s, over and over for most of the first season’s tail end — is so unnecessary, so disturbing and so impossibly sad that it leaves audiences feeling helpless. Do I really need to hear Jessica drunkenly cry for help as she struggles to figure out what’s even going on while she’s being penetrated? Do I really need to watch the life — and the will — drain from Hannah’s eyes as she’s raped against the edge of a hot tub? And then do I need to see both again, and again, and again?
If we are going to insist on breaking our characters through rape or using rape as a backstory, that’s already one issue. Repeatedly showing the traumatizing images to get the point across is gratuitous. I assure you, Brian Yorkey, Hannah will be just as much affected whether or not I have to see her rape onscreen.
2. Showed a brutal gang rape of a boy on-screen, for the sole purpose of eliciting sympathy for the character.
Tyler is a boy, but his rape is a rape. However, the reason I consider his separate from Jessica’s and Hannah’s isn’t just because it’s so incredibly violent (his head is smashed into a sink and mirror prior to the rape itself). It’s because Brian Yorkey admitted to including the rape only for the sake of, in his words, aligning viewers’ sympathies with Tyler.
Yes, Tyler, the same character who 15 minutes later armed himself to the teeth with guns and drove to the school, intent on murdering his classmates. That guy.
Not only is it a huge problem that Brian Yorkey wants us to sympathize with a school shooter (who also occasionally circulates lesbian revenge porn), it’s a problem that he can find no way to do it other than a rape. Again, using rape as backstory is not creative, and it’s a piss-poor substitute for actual character development. One of the most heinous things that could befall a person shouldn’t be treated lightly. Throwing it in as a plot device is, indeed, treating it lightly.
1. Showed a suicide onscreen and spent two years defending it.
The original sin of 13 Reasons Why will always be its most pervasive one. Even after it was removed by censors — with Hannah’s lifeless body even essentially being erased from the heartbreaking scene in which her mother finds her — it still feels as though the show has never properly addressed its issues. Not only did it blatantly ignore suicidality experts before the airing of the gratuitous and horrifying scene, it spent the two years up until it erased the scene insisting that it was correct. 13 Reasons Why positioned itself as an expert in teenage mental health, but when actual experts in teenage mental health voiced legitimate concerns, it not only ignored them, but it also fought back. In the second season, several thinly veiled allegories emerged that indicated that the show thought critics were simply stifling them, and did not understand. It’s already tacky to “take a stand” against your critics in your script and storytelling; to do so when those critics are trained experts saying “this will kill people” is essentially unthinkable.