The third season of Netflix's young adult drama "13 Reasons Why" isn't as controversial as the show's first two seasons. But the series suffers from a new problem, tied to a character introduced in the season's first episode.
The first season of "13 Reasons Why" received widespread criticism for its graphic depictions of suicide and sexual assault. The season was narrated by Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford), who died by suicide in the Season 1 finale after being relentlessly bullied – and in some cases, assaulted – by her classmates. As in the book that inspired the series, Hannah left behind tapes detailing the many ways she felt she had been wronged or failed by people who should have helped her.
The implication that Hannah's suicide could be tied to a specific, or even several, incidents was troubling to suicide prevention experts, who decried the series for failing to discuss mental illness (a factor in the majority of suicides) and for depicting Hannah's death in brutal detail. The show took some steps to correct its discussion of suicide ahead of Season 2, including adding warnings and resources for vulnerable viewers, but still faced criticism for allowing Hannah to continue narrating her story despite her death.
Hannah is no longer the narrator or even the focus of the third season, which premiered Friday – just over a month after Netflix announced it had removed the scene depicting the character's suicide. The new narrator is Ani (Grace Saif), who starts at Liberty High when her mother becomes a home health-care nurse for the grandfather of former Liberty student, Bryce Walker.
Ani, who is British and of Kenyan descent, is very different from Bryce, a rich, white, arrogant jock who raped Hannah and her friend Jessica Davis (Alisha Boe) in the show's first season. But Ani and Bryce form a bond that unfolds in flashbacks throughout the season, which finds Jessica determined to upend the culture that enabled her brutal rape – and Bryce's measly punishment of three months' probation.
Ani places herself at the center of long-simmering tensions at Liberty, which is reeling from a violent confrontation at the school's homecoming game. After the football game, Bryce is found murdered, and basically everyone – from Jessica to Hannah's mother, Olivia – is a suspect. Ani, who came to know Bryce in a completely different environment, investigates his death alongside Liberty's resident meddler, Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette), whom Hannah entrusted with her tapes in Season 1.
It's tough to reconcile the show's choice to introduce Ani as its narrator – a decision rendered all the more dubious when Ani confronts complete strangers about their personal (often traumatic) experiences. (In one early episode, Ani asks Bryce's ex-girlfriend, upon meeting her for the first time, if Bryce knew that she had been pregnant with his baby.) Viewers reacted to Ani's near-omniscient role with memes and references to the classic "she doesn't even go here" line from "Mean Girls." And some fans of the show said outright that they found the character very annoying.
The more unsettling implication of Ani's sudden appearance is that a black character has been brought in to fix everyone's mess. She offers to give Clay, a budding romantic interest, a false alibi when he becomes the prime suspect in Bryce's murder. She counsels Jessica (the only other prominent black student) on healing from her rape. She also frequently defends Bryce, noting in the first episode that she knows "the Bryce that no one else knows." (It's later revealed that the two had consensual sex.)
Ani is also effectively forced to defend the show's most questionable plot turns. One particularly troubling arc finds Clay leading an effort to keep a round-the-clock watch on Tyler, a troubled Liberty High student who planned to shoot up the school's spring fling before Clay and his oddly self-sufficient high school peer, Tony (Christian Navarro), intervened.
Intermittent flashes to a police interview convey an even more important role for Ani. She reveals everything she knows about Bryce's murder and the events that led up to it, while letting viewers know that she has a vested interest in protecting certain people. Ani is ultimately the one who leads police to narrow in on a suspect, but it may not be the person who actually killed Bryce.
That's a lot to saddle a new character with – and the optics are particularly troubling considering the show's controversial history.