Creator: Brian Yorkey
Starring: Dylan Minnette, Alisha Boe, Brandon Flynn, Miles Heizer, Christian Navarro, Ross Butler, Devin Druid, Justin Prentice, Amy Hargreaves, Timothy Granaderos, Grace Saif, Mark Pellegrino, Tyler Barnhardt, Deaken Bluman, Jan Luis Castellanos, Gary Sinise, Steven Weber, Inde Navarrette, Josh Hamilton, Reed Diamond
Original Airdate: 2020
★★½ (out of ★★★★)
**The Following Review Contains Major Spoilers For The Fourth Season of '13 Reasons Why' **
"Super dark and meandering." That's one character's description of a college application essay in the final episode of Netflix's 13 Reasons Why, but they may as well be referring to this entire fourth season, or more specifically, the series finale itself, which clocks in at a punishable, self-indulgent one hour and thirty eight minutes. Note that this comment is being made to a ghost, as the show ventures down a supernatural path it's rarely traveled before, and never to this extent. After last season's whodunnit murder, creator Brian Yorkey takes many detours for these last 10 episodes, moving the show further away from the captivating drama it started as, bombarding us and its characters with nearly every social issue under the sun.
Since the controversial suicide of Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) in the show's first season garnered the series justifiable acclaim and attention, it's tried to piggy-back off that success by stretching out what was initially intended as a single season adaptation of Jay Asher's YA novel. And since then, it hasn't been the same, spinning its story in a number of different directions, focusing on the Liberty High students as they confront heavy issues like addiction, rape, murder, school shootings, alcoholism and depression. The results have been mixed, in many ways serving as a case study as to why the most successful showrunners usually have a set end date as to when and how a series will generally end, and work backwards from there. But the Netflix perk of considerably more creative freedom can just as easily cause a show to run amok, overindulging without the presence of dissenting voices to pull back on the reins.
There are creative bright spots, but it's likely the only thing anyone will be talking about afterwards is what happens in episodes 6 and 8, the latter of which finding the series cursed with almost improbable timing given recent issues in the world. Much like the suicide debate (which saw Netflix fold and remove the potentially triggering scene due to public outcry), many will be claiming the show's stepped in it yet again, as a major plot touching upon civil unrest and protesting represents the first time this series can claim to be ahead of the curve, of sorts. Accidentally. While everyone's mileage on how effectively it's tackled will vary, it's still a pretty unnerving coincidence that further muddies the waters of an already polarizing season. And yet, viewers have seemed more genuinely shaken and offended by the death of a major character that could have ranked among the season's better handled traumas, if not for the other nonsense detracting from it.
After collaborating to frame now deceased rapist Monty (Timothy Granaderos) for Bryce's (Justin Prentice) murder at the hands of Alex (Miles Heizer), the gang is ripping apart at the seams, terrified their dangerous secret will be exposed by former Hillcrest student, Winston (Deaken Bluman), transferring to Liberty with potentially damning evidence that would posthumously clear Monty of the crime. Wracked with guilt over the cover-up, Clay is hallucinating, prone to violent fits of rage and suffering from severe anxiety attacks and depression that land him in the office of concerned family therapist Dr. Robert Ellman (Gary Sinise). Girlfriend Ani (Grace Saif) doesn't know how to help him, hiding the news she's moving to Oakland. Tony (Christian Navarro) has thrown himself into boxing as an escape, looking to numb the pain of his family's deportation, as he and Clay worry about the already fragile Tyler's (Devin Druid) state-of-mind after noticing his inexplicable disappearances.
In what could almost be considered a direct response last season's heavily criticized focus on newly arrived Liberty student and semi-unreliable narrator Ani, she's pushed aside only for the spotlight to return to the embattled Clay as he deals with a myriad of psychological issues stemming from not only his role in framing Monty, but four hellish years of this high school. Proving to be as equally unreliable a narrator as Ani or Hannah, his frequent panic attacks and occasional blackouts are putting everyone on edge, alarming both his concerned parents (Amy Hargreaves and and Josh Hamilton), and most especially, adopted brother Justin, who's going to meetings and desperately trying to stay clean.
The central mystery is a strange one in that so much of the season is built upon the admittedly flawed premise that rapists Bryce and Monty are victims as much as anyone else, somehow deserving of not only being forgiven post-death, but "understood." As if their heinous actions had no direct correlation to their murders, and everyone even tangentially involved with this cover-up should prepare to be haunted for the rest of their lives. And unfortunately, the series intends that to be taken literally, as the two appear so frequently to various characters as ghosts, hallucinations and in dream sequences, they may as well get top billing on the call sheet. Of course, this isn't the first time the show's done this, with the late Hannah's spirit appearing to Clay in the second season, but that was at least understandable given their relationship.
The fourth episode, "Senior Camping Trip," during which Clay's anxiety kicks into overdrive as everyone turns on each other attempting to uncover the culprit behind an incriminating e-mail, represents the season's lowest point, playing like a cross between I Know What You Did Last Summer, Friday the 13th and the worst aspects of CW's Riverdale. It's also where the writers lean too heavily on the supernatural, or more specifically, the increasingly frequent Bryce and Monty appearances.
Few recent teen dramas have attempted to go to the uncomfortable, controversial places this has, but perhaps because of that attention the writers or Netflix seem to have gotten cold feet in recent seasons, more closely resembling a traditional teen soap in narrative execution. While that episode is emblematic of this, flashes of greatness still shine through, most notably in the performances and their handling of specific story arcs like Tyler's turnaround from the brink of emotional self-destruction.
Much like the show's first handling of this, it's a tension-filled hour, undercut again by the presence of resident apparitions Bryce and Monty. But the entire purpose of the episode is to drive home Clay's increasing paranoia and split from reality, which is rapidly growing to Tyler Durden-like proportions. In what was probably a well-intended, if over-the-top, attempt to bring attention to his serious psychological issues, the show swerves itself by making him right about pretty much everything.
In uncovering a massive conspiracy involving the school's faculty and parents to "keep students safe" that's too convoluted to even explain, Clay continues unraveling as battle lines are drawn between Principal Bolin's vision for law and order and the students' basic freedoms. This leads to the most uncomfortably timely episode of the series ("Acceptance/Rejection"), as Liberty essentially becomes a police state, giving way to rioting, protesting and violence. The overarching blackmail storyline involving Bryce's murder is now almost fully in the rearview mirror, with the writers basically washing their hands of it as they head down the final stretch. Even diabolically obsessed antagonist Winston seems to lose all interest.
Fans won't like any of this, arguing that Justin Foley's death comes at the show's eleventh hour for shock value and could have just as easily been presented as a story about living with, and even triumphing over, seemingly insurmountable obstacles. And while that could have be done, it may not have landed with the same effect, or given the talented Brandon Flynn such an emotional showcase. And at least the show tried not to fall into the series finale trap of sending every character off skipping into the sunset. Claiming a decision is wrong because fans are sad that their favorite died usually only proves that the writers did their jobs. The best recent example is the brilliant, unfairly Veronica Mars finale, which took a big gamble in doing what was creatively right for the show, knowing the inevitable backlash ahead. But this season is such a mess that it'll be a lot harder extending a similar courtesy. And it's especially difficult when they spend over an hour and a half apologizing for it.
Even as the series finale ("Graduation") keeps with the show's tendency to honestly confront tragedy head-on, I still wish they didn't take so long to do it, coddling its audience and letting them know that everything will be okay. Plus, it's just too much to have a death, funeral, and graduation all in the span of a single episode that also follows a prom and unsuccessfully manages to shoehorn Hannah Baker back into the proceedings. The finale isn't a complete failure by any means, featuring a great Gary Sinise performance and speech as Dr. Ellman that helps provide sufficient closure to Clay's story. But that, and seeing Hannah, however briefly and pointlessly, only serves to remind us how strong this series used to be.