It is impossible to casually discuss “13 Reasons Why” without generating controversy. What began as a relatively accurate television adaptation of Jay Asher’s young adult novel has mutated into a larger conversation surrounding the portrayal of serious issues on television.
With three seasons of harsh criticism and backlash under its belt, “13 Reasons Why” has finally put an end to its long-winded and emotionally exhausting narrative with its fourth and final season. With no clear direction, the show sloppily molds an entire season around controversial issues with the assumption that its audience members will keep watching because … they’ve made it this far, right?
The first season of “13 Reasons Why” was structured around Asher’s stand-alone novel — a high school teen commits suicide, leaving behind 13 tapes explaining the 13 reasons why she went through with the act. Though extremely controversial in its depiction of teenage depression and suicide, the show’s first season excelled in establishing dynamic characters and a clear purpose.
Season four of “13 Reasons Why” picks up months after the successful coverup of a classmate’s death. With the case closed, Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette) and the rest of the ensemble involved in the murder must repress their underlying guilt while simultaneously attempting to enjoy their senior year of high school.
On top of this, the first few episodes of the season outline that, yet again, another student at Liberty High School has passed away. This major plot point is put on the back burner as the season’s narrative instead unfolds around Clay’s paranoia and hallucinations of the dead — specifically the deaths he helped cover up. Clay’s struggle with anxiety and attempt to seek help feels long overdue considering the show’s notoriety for being insensitive toward mental illness. For once, it seems that the show finally emphasizes the importance of therapy.
Minnette gives a surprisingly fantastic performance, admittedly one of the only highlights of the entire season. Yet, the show’s reliance on bringing back dead characters gets old very quickly, losing its shock value and making viewers question how this season of “13 Reasons Why” can be both the shortest and the most boring.
As the episodes progress, Clay’s mental health issues shift from aiding the growth of his character to coinciding with a goofy crime mystery reminiscent of “Riverdale,” complete with spooky phone calls and mysteriously shattered surveillance cameras. This narrative makes little to no sense and confuses the entire tone of the season. This is most clearly exemplified in the fourth episode, full of supernatural themes and horror tropes that are random and out of place, never playing into the season’s larger narrative.
Unfortunately, season four of “13 Reasons Why” chaotically manages to formulate its final season around these unorganized and unnecessary plot points that only exist for shock value. This season, the controversy lies in the portrayal of incredibly serious societal issues: school shootings, police brutality, HIV and much, much more. Each topic feels rushed into a brief span of time, never fully developing into much of a conversation and very rarely fitting into the plot’s natural direction.
On top of this, every character in the series feels empty and stagnant despite their deep-rooted trauma and previously dynamic roles within the show. With season four’s emphasis on the inner psyche of its most tame character, the rest of the ensemble is unable to grow and never fully complete its character arcs.
The key example of this is Alex, the boy who attempted suicide and killed his best friend’s abuser. The show ignores Alex’s trauma from killing a man and instead pretends his character’s biggest internal struggle is understanding his sexuality, reducing him to a soapy teen rom-com character whose main source of stress stems from prom season.
“13 Reasons Why” ultimately suffers from stretching a narrative that should’ve ended after one season. Bay Area audiences may recognize beautiful shots of Oakland and an iconic UC Berkeley frat house embedded within season four of “13 Reasons Why,” but not even this familiar scenery can save this season from feeling pointless and unnecessary.