Warning: "13 Reasons Why" season 3 spoilers ahead.
On the surface, the third season of Netflix’s controversial teen drama "13 Reasons Why" depicts a single mother who’s grieving the loss of her son — though, it’s hardly that simple.
Actress Brenda Strong brings to the screen a woman who’s built a stoic life — while surrounded by abusive male figures — that’s now crashing down around her. Strong’s Nora Walker learns at the start of the season that her son Bryce has been found dead at a local pier. But before antagonist Bryce (Justin Prentice) was a homicide victim, he was a bully, rapist and abuser.
Season 3 "allowed everyone to have a sense of regret, but also justification," Strong says, diving into the complexities of grieving a character responsible for universal pain felt around the fictional Liberty High. As a "serial sexual assaulter," Bryce’s actions had devastating impacts on his peers, including leading to Hannah Baker’s (Katherine Langford) suicide.
"No one deserves to die. He didn’t deserve to die, but everybody wanted him dead."
The 13-episode season, narrated by newcomer Ani (Grace Sai), slowly uncovers the details surrounding the night Bryce died.
The series, an adaptation of Jay Asher’s 2007 novel, has long been criticized by viewers, reviewers and mental health experts alike for a cavalier depiction of topics such as physical and sexual abuse, drug use, suicide and school shootings.
Following its 2017 release, Netflix released a report revealing 5,400 parents and teens surveyed by Northwestern University "were generally not opposed to the way the show dealt with these tough topics."
But in response to concern, viewers tuning into the series’ second season were met by cast recordings and on-screen text urging anyone who’s struggling to reach out to a crisis hotline. The streaming service recently removed a scene depicting Hannah’s death, following the release of various studies claiming a rise in teen suicides following the show’s release.
"We’ve heard from many young people that ’13 Reasons Why’ encouraged them to start conversations about difficult issues like depression and suicide and get help — often for the first time," Netflix said in a statement. "On the advice of medical experts [we’ve decided] to edit the scene in which Hannah takes her own life from season 1."
Strong, who’s been a part of the series’ cast since season 2, explains the producers have done extensive research through discussions with mental health professions and organizations to present such topics in "as responsible a way as possible."
"Life represents art and art represents life. I think if when they see something represented on-screen, whether it’s anxiety or depression or self-harm, they get a resource they didn’t know was available to them. They have the power to reach out, or at least speak about it," she says.
She continues: "The bottom line, from my professional point of view, is that when anything remains hidden, it’s more dangerous than when you have an opportunity to have a conversation about it."
Strong’s character helps bring to the series yet another complex point of view.
She says she spent time discussing and researching the difficulty of having, and losing, a child who’s mentally conflicted.
"There are parents all over the world who have children who were in jail, children who have done heinous things, and they have to reconcile their love for that child," she says. "It’s such a hard thing as a parent to do. Bryce is on the border of becoming an adult, and she has to reconcile her own guilt and question herself.
"Did [her not being around] become the catalyst that set him on a track of seeking out violence with women?"
Through a series of flashbacks, Strong’s character brings out a new side of Bryce. In brief moments, we see a quieter, saddened teen who’s looking to reconcile his actions. It allows the viewer to "rediscover who these people were. Not just as cold or evil, troubled people."
While some viewers on social media saw this as Netflix’s way to humanize a "monster," series creator Brian Yorkey says Bryce was never one to begin with.
"We don’t talk about sexual predators, people who have committed sexual assault, as monsters," he says in Netflix’s "Beyond the Reasons." "If they’re monsters, they’re bigger than we are. Empathy dissolves those barriers and we have to recognize monsters, for the most part, are not born, they’re made. And we keep making them."
In diving into Bryce’s home life, a series of painful moments involving his abusive father and grandfather offer viewers the chance to attempt to understand his psyche. They also show a deeper side of Nora’s grief.
"There are so many levels to grief, not just the death and the murder and the injustice in her eyes," she says. "She’s grieving so much of what she missed [not being there for Bryce] and missing out on the chance to change. As a woman, she’s on her own journey of trying to stake her value against her father and husband who were both overbearing. She’s trying to figure out: How can I step outside of these patriarchal paradigms."
The season ends without Nora knowing the truth about who killed her son. Strong says she’s "not able to reveal" whether or not her character will have a recurring role in season 4.
The actress has stepped into the director’s chair for the upcoming season, which is currently filming.
"It’s my second day, so ask me [how it’s going] at the end," she says with a laugh. "I just feel like this is one of the biggest compliments I could have ever received, to be given the opportunity to shape these stories and to lift them from the page to the screen."
ON TV: "13 Reasons Why" season 3 is currently streaming on Netflix.