I shared some scattered thoughts on the second season of 13 Reasons Why yesterday, but I didn’t really dig into the way it ended, and that’s in part because I don’t really know how to feel about it. The final sequence sees a kid named Tyler approach his high school carrying an arsenal with the intent of shooting it up. As he’s approaching the school, Clay Jensen — who is the worst — manages to talk Tyler out of going through with it, which is an absurd cop-out but also better than the alternative: Watching Tyler shoot down a bunch of his classmates. “We’re much more interested in understanding that character’s journey than we are in seeing it end in the worst way possible,” showrunner Brian Yorkey said of the ending.
The issue that has divided viewers, however, is whether Tyler’s journey was worthy of exploration, and that’s where it gets uncomfortable. Tyler is a teenager who clearly has some emotional and mental problems — he spent much of the first season essentially stalking Hannah, the woman who killed herself who is at the center of the series. From the outset of season one, we could also see exactly where Tyler’s storyline was going, when he takes a pistol and starts shooting up cans on a neighbor’s property.
So we have a disturbed, isolated kid, and the series wants to show us what transforms a mentally imbalanced guy into a mass shooter. He gets picked on a lot, so much so that his parents contemplate removing him from the school. However, Tyler ultimately makes friends with another outcast named Cyrus, and the two begin a campaign of revenge against the bullying school jocks, mostly through an escalating series of vandalism incidents (at one point, they burn “RAPIST” into the baseball field).
Things go downhill fast, however, when Tyler goes on a date with Cyrus’ sister and prematurely ejaculates in a movie theater while kissing her. That gets around the school, and Tyler is further humiliated and bullied. Tyler’s response is to escalate the antics against his bullies even further, but by this point, his one friend — Cyrus — realizes that it’s gone too far. Cyrus tells an adult — as he should — and the school and Tyler’s parents agree to put him in a program.
The program is a success, and Tyler returns to school confident that he can cope. However, he suffers a couple of setbacks when Cyrus decides that he’d still rather not be friends with Tyler, and Tyler also discovers that Cyrus’ sister is dating someone else.
Things go off the rails, however, when one of the school bullies beats the shit out of Tyler in the bathroom, dunks his head in a toilet, and sexually assaults him with a broomstick. That’s when Tyler decides he’s had enough, and he returns to the school dance that night with a semi-automatic weapon and a couple of pistols with designs on shooting up his school before Clay Jensen talks him out of it.
It’s worth noting that the second season of 13 Reasons Why debuted on Friday, the same day of another school shooting in Texas, and that there are some similarities between the character of Tyler and the shooter in Texas.
So, herein lies the divide with viewers. On one side are those who feel that 13 Reasons Why endeavored to paint a realistic portrait of what might provoke a kid to shoot up his school — including a culture of bullying that is often cited in tragedies likes these. On the other side are people who are suggesting that 13 Reasons Why is, in a way, victim blaming by holding bullies (and the innocent bystanders) responsible for contributing to a potential mass shooter.
Then there are those, also, who are complaining that the scene depicting Tyler being raped with a broom handle was too graphic, and others who are complaining that 13 Reasons Why refuses to take a stand on gun control issues by never showing how Tyler came into possession of his arsenal.
I feel conflicted about the whole thing. It reminded me a little of Can We Talk About Kevin, which sought more to humanize the mother of a psychopath instead of the psychopath himself. I am a person who believes first and foremost that easy access to weapons is the leading contributor to mass shootings, but it’s worth noting that the same culture of bullying that led Hannah to commit suicide in season one led Tyler to want to shoot up his school in season 2. It’s two different and drastic responses to the same problem.
There’s also an obvious problem when schools and parents look the other way when bullies — well-off, mostly white athletes — sexually assault and repeatedly beat up kids who are not in a position to fight back. Obviously, committing suicide or killing your classmates is not the answer, but 13 Reasons Why endeavors to show why they made the choices they did, because it would have been futile to report the bullies, as the series repeatedly reinforces.
What Tyler intended to do was heinous and inexcusable and egregiously disproportionate. But what is the proportionate response to being sodomized on top of years of bullying? Not a mass shooting, obviously, but that’s how a mentally imbalanced teenager might channel his anger.
Look: I can’t tell you how many times I got beat up in high school. I got kicked in the face with a fucking boot; thrown in trash cans; toss into the mud; punched in the face in front of the class (while the teacher was out) and I once had two guys wishbone me into a field-goal post (fuck, that sucked). I never reported the incidents, because I knew what would happen: They’d get three days off of school and come back and beat the shit out of me again. My only recourse was to say to myself, “One day I will have a nice job and a nice family, and they will be miserable living in a shithole” (and for the most part, that’s the way it has worked out). But most kids don’t think long-term, and if you combine that with easy access to guns, it’s a goddamn recipe for disaster.
So, what do you do? Well, you take away the fucking guns, first of all. You ban assault weapons. At the very least, that minimizes tragedies like these. But something has to be done about bullying, too. However, that’s a goddamn nightmare in and of itself, and as someone who spent years being bullied, I don’t have the first goddamn clue as to how to deal with that. Adults will say they can protect you; but they can’t. You can’t be protected from people who don’t give a shit about consequences, or — in the case of someone like Bryce in 13 Reasons — will never face any real consequences anyway. So, I don’t know. Your guess is as good as mine.