13 Reasons Why Tries to Teach a Lesson in Empathy, but the Message Falls Short
13 Reasons Why has always been surrounded by its fair share of controversy, and sometimes for very good reason. What is most frustrating, though, is that the show has some very important things to say that get lost under a quagmire of perplexing creative decisions. Nowhere is this more apparent than season three, which raises perhaps its most complex and difficult question to date: Can we have empathy for perpetrators of violence?
Our first instinct, of course, is no. We've seen two seasons of Bryce Walker being an absolute monster. We hate him. He's ruined more lives than it is possible to count, and we've seen beloved characters crumble due to his predatory actions. When the trailer for the latest season came out and showed that Bryce had been murdered, fans rejoiced. Finally, the monster has had his comeuppance. But then along comes season three, and it dares to show Bryce as a human being.
Thus far, Bryce's privilege has seen him get away with his crimes scot-free. But as the season begins, we see him being shunned and beaten by his new classmates. "Great," we think. "Finally, his peers are showing him consequences." We see his mother warning Ani to stay away from him. "Great," we say. "Finally his family is seeing him for who he really is." Granted, he should be in prison, but at least he is starting to suffer a little for what he has done. Then in a brave and interesting writing choice, the show allows Bryce to start to realize the magnitude of what he did.
It starts with small moments; he grabs Jessica's arm and recoils when he sees the effect his unthinking show of physical strength has upon her. Ani jokingly calls him evil and he flinches. We get snatches of his inner battle: "I'm going to be a rapist for the rest of my life," he realizes at one point. Then later, "I'm trying to prove I'm worth something in this world." The turmoil builds to him sobbing uncontrollably in his mother's arms, a startling sight from someone who seemed untouchable. All this culminates in the finale with him speaking from beyond the grave via a tape, much in the way that Hannah did, saying he's sorry and is trying to change.
The important thing, however, is that the show keeps bringing us back to the trauma that Bryce created. For no one can forgive him but his victims, and why would they want to? He made a choice, and they have to live with the consequences of that choice for the rest of their lives. That doesn't stop him trying to ask them for forgiveness. He tries multiple times to talk to Jessica and we see her absolute rage at him daring to ask something of her. He tries to contact Hannah's mother, and she refuses to contemplate the idea of seeing him again. It is not his right to ask for forgiveness, and the show allows us to wrestle with that. He is not in prison, he cannot be forgiven, so what do we want from him? Bryce, at least, has no idea.
The show also allows us an insight into Bryce's upbringing. His grandfather is a bully. His father is too, and doesn't want to have anything to do with him, and his mother believes he is carrying on the toxic tradition set by the men of the family. In one enlightening moment, he reads a letter to his mother, stating how he thinks she feels towards him. His childhood was lonely and isolated and he was always getting into trouble, and he thinks his mother hates him for it. In that scene, he is not a predator but a lost little boy. None of this, of course, is an excuse. Nothing could ever excuse what he did. But by giving us an insight into Bryce's vulnerabilities, the show gives a potentially 2D villain a 3D makeover, and we suddenly don't quite know what to do with it.
Bryce isn't the only one to get this treatment. Monty, who attacked Tyler at the end of last season in one of the show's most controversial scenes, is shown to have a father who beats and despises him. We learn of his self-hatred and misplaced shame as he grapples with his sexuality. We are shown his father spitting on his face, more appalled that his son is gay than by the fact that he is a rapist. We never once are made to forget or forgive his terrible crime; we are constantly reminded of Tyler's difficult road to recovery, and yet we are allowed to see Monty as a complex human being. And that is a bold statement for the show to make.
The important people in this story are Hannah, Jessica, Tyler, and all those who faced abuse. By shining a light on those stories we don't want to hear, the show allows us to have deep and difficult conversations we may not have had otherwise. It raises more questions than it does answers, and in drama, that can be an incredibly powerful thing.
It is in dealing with these shades of gray that the series triumphs. How frustrating, therefore, that the show plunders them away by investing in extremely odd choices right at the end of the season. The murder mystery aspect is completely garbled, and everything comes together in the end in a very Agatha Christie's Poirot sort of a way. It turns out Alex pushed a badly beaten Bryce over a bridge, which is perfectly fine and not at all something that should have consequences. And luckily, Monty died off-screen in prison, so we can just blame it all on him. Hooray. One plot point nicely tied up in a bow and no one need worry any more about it. Perhaps season four will tell us more about what happened to Monty, but even that would not do much to solve the problems of this season. It spent the whole time telling us that monsters are human, and then swiftly said it's OK, we can just push them off a bridge and forget all about it. The show got so close to saying something important and then squandered it all in the last moment. If only 13 Reasons Why had the courage in its convictions to see it all through to the end.