“It’s okay to not be okay” is perhaps the take-away message from series four of 13 Reasons Why. Spoilers ahead!
The final instalment in the show marked by its graphic portrayal of suicide, self-harm and sexual assault, the show has shown itself to mature alongside its cast of teen characters. The overwhelming focus of series four is the fragile mental health of its now final-year characters, and in portraying this the series provides a very gritty retelling of life at a suburban US high school.
While still set at Liberty High, and generally described as a “teen drama”, the show is unnervingly adult, showing the cast to have grown up before their time. Indeed, their innocence has been robbed of them from a very young age, when they lost a classmate to suicide at a shockingly young age. Despite Clay maintaining continuously throughout the new series that they are “just kids”, the harrowing plotlines show them to be anything but; before graduating high school the teenagers are faced with sexual assault, bullying, school shootings, deportation, alcohol and drug misuse, and homelessness. While this makes for incredibly uncomfortable viewing, hat we should be all the more concerned by is just how much many of the issues portrayed in the series reflect the problems faced by young people. This is why the show resonates so much with its young viewers – it doesn’t shy away from the true horrors lurking in high schools. The plot has developed considerably from the first series, with Hannah’s 13 tapes being larger neglected in later series, instead merely providing a back-drop to pen up honest discussion of the issues affecting today’s youth.
So if the plot has diverged away from Hannah then what does it focus on? Series four comes following Winston’s admission at the end of series three that he was with Monty on homecoming night, meaning that Bryce’s killer remains at large and Winston is left to prove Monty’s innocence and avenge his death. Part of his plan involves his coupling up with Alex in the hopes of discovering more about Bryce’s death, with leaves Alex exploring his sexuality throughout the new series, catalysed by his attempt to kiss Zach. Alex is very honest about his mental health struggles, which have been exacerbated by not only his failed suicide attempt in the first series but now also his guilt for Bryce’s death. In contrast, Zach instead uses alcohol and drugs to hide his misery, leading to his life rapidly spiralling out of control in this series. Part of this is because his knee injury has ruined his football career. But perhaps even more so is the knowledge that his violent outburst after homecoming contributed to Bryce’s death.
Tyler is slowly opening up, although his friends still struggle to trust him after Spring Fling, and Tony voices his suspicions during the school’s active shooter drill. This school shooting simulation is one of many supposed new safety measures introduced at Liberty high, however they leave Clay feeling anything but safe. Being scrutinised by his school isn’t the only thing bothering Clay: he’s taunted by the current football team and haunted by the ghosts of former players Bryce and Monty, whose visions follow him round and contribute to his fragile mental state. His many attempts to act the “hero” and carry the burden of his friends’ literally deadly secrets soon catch up with him, leading to the series being narrated by his visits to his psychologist, and the series concludes with him opening up about his struggles with depression and anxiety in his graduation speech.
Jessica speaks at the graduation ceremony too, fittingly ending her high school career with the line “fuck the patriarchy”. This is indicative of the conflicting nature of her role as student body present which follows her throughout the series, where she has to balance representing her peers with liaising with school management. Another conflict she faces is in her love life, where she seems unable to choose between Justin and newcomer Diego, who she is allegedly only dating so she can keep tabs on the football team, though by the end of the series she appears to be genuinely falling for him.
Series four began with his return from rehab and saw him face many highs and lows, from him being accepting to college to his mother’s fatal overdose and his difficulties staying clean.
Undoubtedly though, the character whose fate most shapes series four is Justin. Previous series chronicle his difficult upbringing with his drug addict mother and her string of violent and abusive boyfriends, one of which who molested Justin as a young child. After leaving his mother to live on the streets where he himself became an addict, Justin was adopted by the Jensens. Series four began with his return from rehab and saw him face many highs and lows, from him being accepting to college to his mother’s fatal overdose and his difficulties staying clean. One thing that viewers don’t expect, however, is the alarming discovery that he has late-stage AIDS when he abruptly collapses at prom. It seems his trouble past is finally catching up with him, as his diagnosis is likely caused by his drug use and sex work while homeless. Perhaps if Justin had felt more comfortable opening up about his experiences, then he could have been diagnosed with AIDS before the pneumonia and fungal meningitis became untreatable. Justin’s ill health is actually what it takes to finally see the diverse social groupings at Liberty High unites, with perhaps some of the series’ most emotional scenes being set in the hospital waiting room and in Justin’s ward.
While his death is alluded to in the opening scene of series four, with the funeral scenes foreshadowing the death of yet another Liberty High student, his killing off so late in the series seems somewhat unnecessary to me. As remarked in Clay’s graduation speech, their high school years have been marked by the deaths of their peers at way too young an age, but Justin’s in particular adds little to the plot, with his illness, death and funeral being reserved for the very final episode. Hannah Baker’s death dominates the plot of the first two series; Bryce’s shapes the events of series three and Monty’s of series four, yet there is no follow-up series to document the aftermath of Justin’s death. Much like the nature of the disease, Justin’s death seems senseless, and maybe that is what it is meant to show.
After Justin’s funeral, the series is conclusively brought to an end: the students graduate; the Walker case is closed; and Hannah’s tapes are symbolically buried
In a series dominated by sexual assault, bullying and suicide, it seems too optimistic to expect a happy ending, and yet that is what we are seemingly given. After Justin’s funeral, the series is conclusively brought to an end: the students graduate; the Walker case is closed; and Hannah’s tapes are symbolically buried, although evidently not quite with all the ghosts of the past as hallucinations of their deceased classmates continue to follow Clay and Jessica. Perhaps most noticeably, however, is that the events of series four are contained within 10 episodes rather than the show’s customary 13, which further signifies that this is the end.
The very final scene is ironically one that is reminiscent of many other coming-of-age films. Clay is shown to be driving off with Tony as he moves away to college – quite a change of role as throughout the series it has very much been Tony who has played the all-knowing guardian angel. He was somehow always on the scene and aware of what’s best until his own problems finally catch up with him in series four, leading to perhaps one of his biggest mistakes in the show; sharing the gun photos found in Tyler’s backpack. Optimistic viewers may hope for a follow-up series chronicling the characters’ lives at college, but to me this seems incredibly unlikely; the actors are now far from their teens, and the burying of the tapes signifies a final goodbye to Hannah Baker and the spirits that gave haunted them ever since.
While also having a similar gripping plot, Ani’s narration was the downfall of series three; it seemed way too late in the show’s overarching plotline to add a new protagonist
With the series’ releases being spaced one year apart, it’s hard to compare them, but I would argue that series four is the best. Its portrayal of sensitive topics is so unnervingly gritty and the plotline immediately had me hooked, with the clips of the funeral speech throughout leaving me desperate for answers. While also having a similar gripping plot, Ani’s narration was the downfall of series three; it seemed way too late in the show’s overarching plotline to add a new protagonist, and her omniscience and philosophising ultimately just grated on me. The narration structure of series four gave me similar qualms, with Clay’s sessions with the psychiatrist doing little other than providing occasional insights into his mental health, but I feel like these could have been better portrayed in a different away, especially as not all the show’s young viewers will have a therapist available for support like this.
Perhaps what makes series four stand out so much is the depth of the characters shown, with viewers really being able to see their vulnerabilities and insecurities. What makes the characters all the more realistic is that none of them are perfect, and none of them are hollow; as the tapes in series one show, each of them has their flaws, and this is what makes them all the more relatable. This characterisation comes to a head in series four; perhaps it is because I have in essence “known” most of them since 2017, and the writers have had four series to develop them in full, but I have really come to care for so many of them. I won’t be alone in saying that Justin’s death left me distraught, and that the events of the final series have been spiralling around my head ever since.
Rather, by breaking the mould of high school dramas, 13 Reasons Why has strayed from a rose-tinted view of teenage life, and instead leaves the message of “you are not alone”.
13 Reasons Why has been a weird one. Despite its controversy I couldn’t help becoming invested in both its plot and characters, though I feel guilty when admitting to this. The show is heavily criticised for its romanticisation of suicide and triggering portrayal of sexual assault. Perhaps in trying to represent so many societal issues, some of these portrayals have been rushed or left underdeveloped, but I don’t feel like the writers have tried to deliberately sensationalise these topics. Rather, by breaking the mould of high school dramas, 13 Reasons Why has strayed from a rose-tinted view of teenage life, and instead leaves the message of “you are not alone”. In dealing so crudely with so many serious issues, the show attempts to bring attention to them and normalise discussions of what are often taboo topics. Ultimately the impact of the show varies greatly depending on the age and personal circumstances of the viewer, but this is why trigger warnings and mental health support have been added. As someone with mental health problems, it reassured me to find similar-aged characters facing similar issues to me, despite them arising from very different contexts.
Perhaps the most important part of 13 Reasons Why is that it got people talking. Whether in criticism of the show’s portrayals of these topics or not, it got young people openly discussing self-harm, mental health and rape culture. It brought these issues to light and normalised conversation about them, and that will be the show’s legacy.
Last modified: 22nd June 2020