**Warning: May contain spoilers — I apologize, but it is difficult to talk about this series without going into some detail**
Like last year, this season caught me completely off-guard when I saw it come up on Netflix. I knew that a new season was coming, but thought it was still a few weeks away. I really enjoyed the first two seasons of the show, and even ended up liking Season 3 (review here) more than I expected, but I couldn’t help shaking off the feeling that the last two seasons weren’t really necessary. Season 3 was controversial on its own for its attempts to humanize Bryce, and to a lesser extent Monty, and also for the introduction of a new narrator, Ani, whose role seemed to be to sweep in and fix everything. With this new season, I really had no idea what to expect going into it.
This season picks up with the aftermath of the cover-up surrounding Bryce’s death, with Monty framed for the crime shortly after his own death, with the hopes that pinning the case on a dead man will be the end of it. This season follows much of the main cast through the end of their senior year of high school, as they all struggle to cope with the many traumatic experiences they’ve faced. They attempt to go through many of the “normal” high school experiences, such as applying for and touring colleges, going to prom, and even graduation with everything hanging over their heads. It’s immediately apparent that none of the group are doing well, as expected given what they’ve been through. At the same time, Winston, a character who was just introduced in Season 3 and knows that Monty couldn’t have killed Bryce has made it his mission to find out what really happened, as has Officer Diaz, a policeman who harbours some suspicions about the way the investigation was handled.
A running theme throughout the season is the stress and anxiety surrounding the cover-up of Bryce’s murder. A huge chunk of the season, especially in the first half, focuses on the football team’s attempts to scare and intimidate Clay and his friends into revealing what really happened to Bryce and Monty. Suspecting that Clay specifically knows more than he is saying, the team especially targets him with pranks in an attempt to get him to reveal what he knows. Clay and Ani are also facing increasing pressure from their friends to take care of everything, and even though the group is all in it together, suspicions still run high. Any time someone begins to act strangely, it’s seen as a sign that they might crack and reveal the truth.
At the same time, this season also touches on a variety of bigger topics, including safety measures in schools, racial profiling by police, anxiety/PTSD, and even AIDS. Unfortunately, unlike previous seasons of the show, it seemed that this season bit off a lot more than it could chew by taking on so many topics, and although some were handled very well, others felt like they were thrown in just for the sake of addressing the topic, without nearly enough attention. To start with the good: I thought the commentary about safety in schools, especially in relation to lockdown procedures and school shootings, was well done. The episode focuses on Code Red at the high school, which the students are led to believe was a real active shooter. This follows several weeks of increasing security measures, including metal detectors and increased police presence on campus. This episode was definitely one of the standouts of the season, even leading up the dramatic final meltdown by Clay, ranting about how all of these measures are meant to make people feel safe but they are never really safe.
On the other hand, several other issues that could have been very interesting are not really given the attention they deserve. For instance, the AIDS storyline is shoehorned into the last episode or two, and although there were some small hints prior to that, it easily could have been incorporated a bit throughout the season, and probably would have been even more impactful than it already was if it didn’t feel so rushed. Similarly, this season touched quite a bit on racial profiling without fully delving into the issue. There were several occasions where a security officer in the school pulled Tony aside while leaving other students alone, and even more tellingly, when a fight ensues between Diego, a new character who is Dominican, and Justin, only Diego is targeted by the security officers while Justin is mostly ignored. Diego is shoved against the lockers and the officer ultimately pulls his gun on both boys, but only targets Diego for arrest, leading to a school-wide walkout that escalates into a riot against the police presence in the school. This issue is especially relevant given everything that is going on currently, and I was surprised that show that normally does not shy away from such difficult topics seemed to gloss over this one.
Instead of focusing on the race issue, the riot focuses on the students’ perception of the school becoming an “oppressive police state” due to increased security measures, as well as parents being offered apps to monitor their children. This is also a very valid and interesting topic, especially given Clay’s earlier panic about how all the safety measures do is make everyone live in fear without offering any real protection. However, like many of the other subplots in the season, this one happened very quickly, with minimal lead-up and even less follow-through. In fact, that was where the overall plot of this season fell short for me — there were a lot of potentially very interesting things happening, but none of them seemed to get the attention they deserved.
Characters & Casting
As usual, the strength of this show for me is the characters and the amazing casting choices. Each season, I comment that it’s easy to forget that these aren’t real teenagers, and the same was definitely true here. Even with all of the characters going through so much trauma and struggling with so much, they felt very realistic. I especially have to mention Miles Heizer, who played Alex Standall, because this was the first season where I really felt strongly connected to his character. Although he’s been a main character right from the start, and has played a key role in many of the events over the course of the show, this was the first season where I really felt like Alex became a fully fleshed out character. This season focused a lot on Alex’s struggle to figure out his sexuality, as well as dealing with the long-term effects of his traumatic brain injury from Season 1. I was glad to get a bit more of his character this time around, and it really gave this actor a chance to shine. I also really loved the increased role for Charlie, who, to be honest, I’d completely forgotten about. Charlie (played by Tyler Barnhardt) was only introduced in Season 3, where he wasn’t such a major player, but in this season he was just adorable.
This season also introduced several new characters, including Diego (played by Jan Luis Castellanos), a football player who is struggling with Monty’s death, and Estela (played by Inde Navarrette), Monty’s younger sister. I thought that Estela was such a missed opportunity throughout the season. When she was first introduced, I assumed there was going to be some kind of storyline about her relationship with her brother, and coming to terms with his actions. Instead, she seemed to mostly fade into the background, until a particularly poignant scene with Tyler during the lockdown drill. Unfortunately, I was left feeling that Estela didn’t really do much of anything, aside from occasionally reiterating that she is not there to defend her brother. Similarly, the show also very briefly introduced Valerie Diaz (played by Yadira Guevara-Prip), the daughter of the police officer who is trying to dig further into Bryce’s death, and ultimately does nothing with that character either. She is brought in just to have a one-time encounter with Clay at a party, which served very little purpose. Again, it seemed like a missed opportunity to have Clay getting closer to Valerie, while her father tries to unravel the case.
Luckily, the show does a bit more Diego, who at least took on a major role in the season. He actually kind of fulfilled the role that I expected for either Estela or Valerie, growing closer to Jessica while simultaneously trying to learn what really happened to Monty. Diego leads the charge of the football team’s attempts to go after Clay, and grows increasingly suspicious after Clay’s huge reaction to their pranks. Diego was a very interesting character, and although I couldn’t quite get invested in his relationship with Jessica, I thought he was a great addition to the cast. Similarly, I really liked Winston (Deaken Bluman), who transfers to the school with the specific intent of finding out what really happened to Bryce, having been with Monty the night of Bryce’s death so he knows that Monty could not have done it. I thought Winston was a great character, and I almost wish they hadn’t given both him and Diego such similar roles. Both characters had almost identical storylines — getting closer to the main cast in an attempt to find out what happened, and both making a similar choice about what to do with the information they discover. It makes sense in a way to show how people were closing in on the group from all sides, but also could be a bit repetitive.
Finally, I can’t really address the characters without at least mentioning both Clay (Dylan Minette) and Justin (Brandon Flynn). Both actors were absolutely brilliant in these roles, especially Dylan Minette’s portrayal of Clay’s rapidly deteriorating mental health. I found his spiral a lot more compelling than other characters’ (ie. Zach Dempsey’s drunken state throughout the majority of the season), and although I can’t say that the mental health aspect was handled particularly well, it was interesting to watch. Justin, on the other hand, has probably come the longest way of all the characters on the show. He was someone that I didn’t particularly care for in previous seasons, but I really enjoy the overall story arc that he had, even if his ending seemed a bit rushed. I was also intrigued to see how the show brought back both Bryce and Monty several times throughout the season to show how they and their actions are still haunting many of the people whose lives they affected. It didn’t quite have the same impact for me as “ghost” Hannah’s interactions with Clay in earlier seasons, but it was an interesting idea.
As usual, this is the hardest part of me to comment on, especially in terms of the music. I don’t necessarily pay a ton of attention to the background music, but I did have a stronger impression of some of the visuals this time around. This season was a bit of a strange one, since so much of what happened was in Clay’s head. There were many scenes where we first see it through Clay’s perspective, and only afterwards see what really happened. A clear example of this is when Clay follows a girl upstairs during the college tour, believing the guy she was with was planning to assault her, only to realize he’s actually alone in the room with her. Another one is the football team’s prank, where Clay is led to believe the body on the field is Monty’s. These kinds of scenes really helped get into Clay’s head, but also sometimes felt a bit jarring (although I suspect that was the intent). As with Season 3, I found there were fewer specific scenes that really stood out for me, aside from a couple of Clay’s breakdowns and one especially adorable montage of Charlie’s attempts to ask someone special to prom.
This was a very hard season to comment on overall. Last year, I’d commented that I felt a bit disconnected from Season 3 in general, and I think that was even more the case here. While I still enjoyed the show for the brilliant cast and interesting characters, I left the season feeling it was a bit directionless and tried to do too much too fast. I can understand why they wanted to add an other season to at least bring the main cast to graduation and finally let them get out of high school, but I couldn’t help feeling that the season didn’t really accomplish that much. I think for those who already enjoy the show and are invested in the characters, it is worthwhile just to see how their stories end, but the earliest seasons of the show were still by far the strongest.
Plot – 7/10
Characters/Casting – 9/10
Visuals/Music – 8/10
Overall – 8/10