[Warning: The following article has deep spoilers for 13 Reasons Why Season 3. Read at your own risk!]
If you were to start listing adjectives to describe 13 Reasons Why, "controversial" would be very near the top. From the very start, the Netflix drama has never avoided talking about tough subjects, including bullying, substance abuse, physical abuse, sexual assault, and suicide. Season 3, which premiered on Aug. 23, is no different in terms of inciting uncomfortable and difficult conversations.
The third outing centered on the murder of Bryce Walker (Justin Prentice), examining all of the people who had motives to want the serial rapist dead. The surprising aspect of the season was the lengths the show went to in order to show Bryce's humanity and his attempts to be a better person before he was killed by his former classmates. Can a serial rapist or abuser ever find redemption, or at the very least change those destructive behaviors?
Prentice, for one, is hesitant to use the word redemption in regards to Bryce's journey in the new episodes.
"There's no redeeming what Bryce has done. He has done atrocious things. I think he's certainly trying to make amends in his own ways for the actions that he's done," the actor told TV Guide. "I think it's an interesting arc for him, in that we get to see him struggle with empathy, what it means to actually take other people's feelings into account. He's always just sort of been the alpha, jock who can do whatever he wants without consequences. This is the first time he's really had to go, 'Oh, I've done some irreparable damage to people.' He sort of struggles with how to go about doing that. He's learning to be emotional for the first time. It by no means rights the wrongs that he has done, but in his own way he is trying."
It's a bold territory to enter into in the #MeToo era as the culture is still struggling to create a safe process for these predators to be identified and brought to justice. As those introductory conversations are still being had, it might hard for some viewers, especially sexual assault victims, to stomach seeing Bryce attempt any kind of emotional recovery — especially when his victims are still healing from his attacks on the series as well.
That doesn't mean the question of redemption or recovery should be avoided, especially as society grapples with how to treat sexual abusers who have been convicted of their crimes. Is it possible for them to learn from their transgressions, as heinous as they are? That's a minefield for 13 Reasons Why to enter into, and will be a large source of contention surrounding the most recent season.
"It's going to be controversial. Our show has never shied away from the real and the visceral. It's very human. You don't have people who are monsters and only do bad. There's good and bad for everybody. It's all a spectrum. It's very real to portray Bryce in this grey area," Prentice continued. "I think that it's important for people to see that every character, especially in this season, has secrets. Every character has a good side. Every character has a dark side."
Season 3 is careful that even when showing Bryce in a more sensitive or empathetic light to never portray him as an angel or to let him off the hook for the terrible things he did in previous seasons. His path to emotional enlightenment is also not a clear, straight one. "It's not necessarily a linear path upwards. He had relapses along the way. He's still Bryce. He's been an asshole most of his life. He definitely has many moments where he defaults back to his old self," Prentice said.
There's no sympathy for Bryce when he finally listens to Hannah's (Katherine Langford) tapes about what he did to her. When, later in the season, Bryce admits to every rape he's committed, he only names the three victims the audience already knows. He says that he will leave the over a half dozen other victims to come forward with their stories, but encourages anyone they tell to believe them. Yes, the same man became sexually aroused in Season 2 when describing his assault of Hannah in the hot tub is a "Believe Women" ambassador by the end of Season 3. Yes, you should have conflicting feelings about that because in the next breath he admits that he never felt remorse or had a conscience while violating those women. Can you fix that in a person?
While 13 Reasons Why is making a statement to say that someone like Bryce can at least try to make amends, it doesn't do the same for Montgomery de la Cruz (Timothy Granaderos). Monty arose as an equally despicable villain in Season 2 when he sodomized Tyler (Devin Druid) with a broomstick in the Liberty High boys bathroom. The new episodes don't explore Monty's regret over those actions — because he had yet to reach a stage of self-awareness to have regret — but it does provide an explanation for his abhorrently aggressive behavior. Season 3 reveals that not only is Monty a product of an abusive home environment, run by his alcoholic father, but he's also dealing with repressed homosexual urges.
Granaderos also isn't a fan of the word "redemption" when it comes to Monty and his backstory in the season.
"You have to be careful because I don't think you can be redeemed for doing an act such as what he does in Season 2," Granaderos said. "It's more of an explanation and an insight into why [Monty] acts the way he does and why he's so aggressive all the time. He's a product of his environment."
The audience never got to see if Monty could head down the same path as Bryce, to reconnect with healthy human emotions, because he, too, is murdered at the end of the season. (Monty is arrested for assaulting Tyler and subsequently killed in jail, allegedly because Monty's fellow inmates discovered he's gay.) His death is never actually seen on screen, so the motive for why he's killed is left for viewer interpretation. What's worse, Clay (Dylan Minnette) and his friends, pin Bryce's murder on Monty, as he was already dead, rather than taking responsibility for their role in his death. Not only does Monty die before ever truly realizing the pain caused by his actions and repenting for that, but his legacy is a false narrative that he murdered his best friend.
"In Season 3 you see that [Monty] has denied himself these temptations that he might have had in the past. You meet this new character, Winston, who opens him up to a new idea," Granaderos explained. "I think, with a little time and a little more nurturing, more care, I think Monty could have come a long way with himself. It's sad and tragic that it ended the way that it ended though."
It is sad and tragic, and one of the most frustrating things about the latest chapter of 13 Reasons Why. The show should be commended for starting a difficult and complicated conversation. The idea of redemption or recovery — at least in terms of Bryce — is handled with nuance and realistic contradictions that should prompt important discussions about the latter steps in dealing with perpetrators of these repugnant crimes. However, in killing both of these complicated and problematic characters, 13 Reasons Why has excused itself from even suggesting potential answers for the difficult questions the season prompts. It bailed on having to do the difficult work of walking the path it set out with this season and the story as a whole.
It is unreasonable to expect 13 Reasons Why to provide a universally accepted solution to the quandaries that Season 3 explores, but the series did manage to throw a conversational grenade into the zeitgeist and then back away before it explodes. Do we live in a world where someone as entitled — and admittedly broken — as Bryce Walker could learn to become a functioning member of society and not a danger to those around him? Was Monty less deserving of that emotional awakening because of his repressed sexual orientation? That's the implication of this season, whether it was intended or not. Neither Bryce nor Monty were let off the hook for their respective crimes, the show let itself off by taking them out of the continuing narrative.
While Bryce's story seems wrapped up in this season, there is room in the upcoming fourth and final season for 13 Reasons Why to address the lingering questions and implications of framing of Monty. The finale concluded with Winston, Monty's hook-up partner, admitting that he knows Monty couldn't have killed Bryce because they were together when Bryce was murdered. That's a hanging thread that should come back to haunt the group in the next season and force them to address whether framing Monty was acceptable, even if he irreparably traumatized Tyler. The thought and care put into addressing those lingering concerns and questions will be the distinction between 13 Reasons Why being remembered as brave or reckless. Here's to hoping the show gives itself a better legacy than either Monty or Bryce Walker.
13 Reasons Why is now streaming on Netflix.