If you are the parent of anyone over the age of 11 years-old, chances are you are well aware of the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why (stylized for television as TH1RTEEN R3ASONS WHY). This melodrama debuted in 2017, produced by former teen star Selena Gomez and based on the book by Jay Asher. The initial story dealt with the suicide of one of the main characters and the television series sparked a lot of conversation revolving around the way suicide was depicted. After the first season, the very heavy topic of teen suicide has been replaced by the very heavy topic of rape, becoming the focus for both second and third season. This article has significant spoiler details, so let this be your spoiler alert to not read further if you haven’t already watched the third season yet. If you have watched it, your comment is encouraged.
New Character Awkwardly Inserted
So, if you have stayed with this dramatic series to the third season, you most likely have grown a fondness, or at least familiarity, with the story’s main characters led by main character Clay Jensen, played by Dylan Minnette. Minnette returns for season 3, looking painfully concerned as usual and joined by other cast regulars including Christian Navarro as Tony Padilla, Alisha Boe as Jessica Davis, Brandon Flynn as Justin Foley, Miles Heizer as Alex Standall, Ross Butler as Zach Dempsey, Justin Prentice as Bryce Walker and Devin Druid as Tyler Down. Notably absent, or at least not as prominent as in past seasons are Michele Selene Ang as Courtney Crimsen, a prominent character in the first two seasons and Ajiona Alexus as Sheri Holland who was prominent in season two. Only Ang is seen briefly in a few scenes while we don’t see Alexus at all. But, a new character was introduced this third season, practically becoming the protagonist of the show, leaving many of us baffled and confused.
The new character, Ani, played by newcomer Grace Saif, doesn’t enter with any introduction. She opens as narrator and is prominently placed front and center, a new girl who has been in town for eight months. She is familiar with each character, speaks cryptically about the unraveling mystery and suspiciously references past happenings as if she was present when they took place. What is most unclear and never really becomes clear is how she is able to speak with familiarity regarding the town’s secrets regarding Bryce Wilson and his tendency to behave as a serial rapist. It is weird that she knows so much about his history because she never behaves as if it makes a difference when she interacts with him.
Ani is actively engaged in humanizing Bryce throughout the show. She questions the other characters about their suspicious ways and possible motives to want to see serial rapist and bullying Bryce Walker killed. She engages in sexual activity with said serial rapist and plays endless mind games with Clay Jensen who is as hopelessly smitten with her as he was with Hannah Baker. Ani is contradictory, confusingly involved in a mystery that has nothing to do with her and loyal to a group of people through the most contrived explanation possible.
Bryce Walker Didn’t Need an Advocate
Ani became the person to voice the conflated idea that there are two sides to every story. She was presented to show that, yes, Bryce Walker is a wealthy white male who believed he was entitled to do whatever he wanted to anyone he wanted, yet, somewhere, deep, deep, deep, down inside, he could be loving and respectful of the teen-aged daughter living in his house with the nurse paid to take care of his grandfather. She was intelligent in every way, we were told (in one scene, the teacher remarks she did not need the review for an upcoming test due to her progress in class), but, somehow, her intelligence was not matched with empathy or consideration for her so-called friends who she casually betrayed regularly with her trysts with Bryce even after knowing that he was responsible for raping her new so-called best friend, Jessica Davis.
Ani’s disruptive presence was amplified for me because she was a Black character. It was very disturbing for me to see these contradictions portrayed as a Black person when the other Black characters (other than bi-racial Alisha Doe) in the show had been written off or seen in very small doses (Derik Luke as counselor Kevin Porter made a brief appearance in a confusing capacity which was very odd given that he was fired in the previous season). It made me uncomfortable seeing a young Black girl engage in a sexual relationship with a character who is a rapist, rallying behind him and his questionable humanity, lying to her mother to spend time with him, lying to her friends to spend time with him, and behaving consistently untrustworthy, irrational and suspiciously. With the current culture of rape survivors speaking up and out, with films like the recent Surviving R. Kelly documentary breaking the silence on the exploitation and violence against young Black girls, and push-back against society’s tendency to over-sexualize Black women and romanticize historically predatory relationships (i.e. slavery tropes, Venus Hottentot, etc.), this casting choice seemed like a step backward. Honestly, however, I think the character, even if she was cast with a white actress, is a step backward in storytelling. Ani’s contrived presence is a distasteful example of how we don’t need apologists for rapists– whether through our fictional storytelling or in real life. If the series continues life with a fourth season, here’s hoping they do a better job with depicting challenging topics in a way that does not devolve into disappointing apologist tropes.