13 Reasons Why: Analyzing the Show’s Relationship with Death

We look at a show obsessed with death, and how it chose to end its story in 13 Reasons Why season 4.

13 Reasons Why Death
Photo: Netflix

The following contains spoilers for every season of 13 Reasons Why.

13 Reasons Why reached its conclusion last weekend, capping off its four death-filled seasons with yet another loss for the characters. Much like the original concept for the show, this particular storyline has caused a lot of controversy amongst fans and left many with a bad taste in their mouths. But what has the show been trying to say with its various character deaths? Hanna’s passing was explored in vivid detail across the first two seasons of the show, but intentions have been less clear since.

We’ve looked at each of the key character losses (or near-losses) to assess what, if anything, 13 Reasons Why wanted to say about suicide, murder and the teenage experience in modern times.

Jeff

Hanna’s death may have been the catalyst for all of the events that followed, but Jeff’s death – revealed in the middle of the first season to have been the result of Sheri and Hanna’s careless drive home from Jessica’s party – was a key part of her and Clay’s story. Mostly, however, Jeff’s tragedy is simply furniture in Hanna’s first season story arc.

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In a lot of ways, Jeff’s story of being labelled a drunk driver when his accident was someone else’s fault is a preview of what the series would do with Monty but, in this case, it’s a lot more clear cut. Jeff is presented as someone pure and undeserving of his fate – a bright spot in one of the most toxic school hallways in existence – and the guilt of being partially responsible for his death was one of the things that drove Hanna over the edge.

In the end, Sheri’s confession was an example of someone taking responsibility and facing the consequences head on – something that would become a lot rarer as the show progressed.

Hanna

The girl who kicked off the show, recording detailed accounts of those people and acts that had – from her perspective – caused her to end her own life. Hanna’s death is the primary reason for the show to exist, and one of the only to be taken directly from the show’s source material. Like the book, Hanna’s tapes are a way for her to immortalize the story she was unable to tell while she was alive, as well as bringing those that hurt her to some kind of justice.

This, among other things such as the choice to show suicide in such graphic detail, was controversial among viewers and inspired a lot of discussions back when the series premiered in 2017. It plays into the fallacy that suicide doesn’t have to be the end as long as you can punish those that have wronged you, but at the end of the day Hanna couldn’t will herself alive again, and it was her friends and family that were left to deal with the fallout.

But season one nevertheless ended on a hopeful note, with Clay not only collecting a confession from Bryce but also concluding that those who are still living can make things better through solid action. This is what led him directly to pulling more isolated characters like Skye and Tony closer to himself. If the show had ended there, it would have been a great story.

Alex & Skye

If we’re talking about Hanna’s suicide, then we should also talk about the attempted and accidental incidents of Alex and Skye. As a reminder, the first season of 13 Reasons Why ended with Alex’s attempted suicide using his father’s gun. He survives and the second run of episodes is about him recovering from a TBI. In the same season, Skye’s cutting becomes so extreme that she is taken to hospital and subsequently committed. Her story is one that ends with an exit from the show, while Alex is helped by his friends to get better.

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Both, we can assume, are happy by the time the show ends, but it’s strange that we are only privy to one outcome. The most generous interpretation is that the show was trying to illustrate that there’s not a ‘one size fits all’ road to recovery, and we can’t ignore that the years following Alex’s attempt included a literal murder.

But Skye was used in the first season as a kind of ‘what if’ analogue for Hanna, with Clay reaching out to her as soon as he realized that he could have saved Hanna had he done the same. If 13 Reasons Why had stopped at one season, that would have been the point of her character. We can’t bring back those we’ve lost, but we can do better with those who remain. For Skye, in the end, professional help was her best option. 

Bryce & Monty

It’s not just the heroes who die in 13 Reasons Why – the bad guys get their fair share. Bryce’s death was the central mystery of season three and was juxtaposed with his attempt to become a better person despite his abhorrent issues with sex and consent. In the end, his death is supposed to free our remaining characters from the pain he directly caused, but it instead replaces it with guilt and shame, especially for Jessica and Alex.

It was always harder to figure out who Monty was because he is seen throughout most of the series through the eyes of other characters, but it’s possible that he was intended as a cautionary tale similar to Bryce, just for the specific character arc of Alex. Both characters are queer and unsure of themselves, but Alex is given the chance to explore his sexuality and come to a healthy conclusion.

It’s telling that both date the same man on the way to their endpoints but, while Alex is rewarded with his relationship with Charlie, Monty is punished with a horrible off-screen death and being posthumously framed for murder. 

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What’s the difference? Well, it’s another example of 13 Reasons Why’s peculiar relationship with redemption. The show spent a good part of its third season trying to rehabilitate Bryce who, up until that point, had been the clearest villain the show had. It did the same with Monty in the fourth and final season, with Winston attempting to redeem his lover via proxy. 

The show is built on the idea of unreliable narrators and fluid truths, and the cases of Monty especially taps into this. If Hanna’s overriding memory of Zach is that he betrayed her trust, does it matter if they’d had a secret summer romance? And even if Winston saw another, more authentic side to Monty, could it ever cancel out what he did to Tyler? Most would say no, and maybe that was something the show wanted its audience to consider.

Justin

As painful as it is to watch, it makes a kind of poetic sense for the writers to kill off Justin in the final season. As Hanna makes clear in her first tape – all of this starts with Justin – so why shouldn’t it end the same way? Where the series decided to end the stories of other first season villains like Bryce and Monty without finishing their journeys to becoming better people, that arc was allowed to complete in Justin’s case.

His is a story of true recovery; of someone who started off making the lives of those around him as miserable as his but who, throughout the series, transcended his circumstances to become a better man. And his loss will propel characters like Jessica and Clay to do the same. It’s as classic a death in a coming of age drama as the loss of a mentor – one of someone who doesn’t deserve it, but who may not have survived in a cruel adult world.

All of the deaths in 13 Reasons Whyare examples of young lives cut short, but in very different circumstances. They’re also explorations of posthumous redemption arcs, coming full circle with Justin – someone who was able to rebuild before his death instead of afterwards.

If Hanna’s story was one of reckoning, and Bryce and Monty’s of absolution for their victims, then those of characters like Alex and Justin are ones of recovery. And that’s how the show ultimately ends, with the remaining characters looking to the future, to the possibilities, while mourning lost youth and those who didn’t make it.