Before I begin, why did I watch all four seasons of 13 Reasons Why? I didn’t exactly enjoy it. There are certain shows and movies I watch for the purpose of “cultural research.” That is, what TV shows and movies are the people of my culture (and possibly congregation) watching? Furthermore, how could the show’s/movie’s viewpoints affect the faith of my people? 13 Reasons Why is one of those shows.
The show started off addressing real problems inherent in our society in a dramatic way: the rise of suicide, sexual abuse, and mass shootings among today’s youth. Aside from the liberal dogma, how the producers addressed these problems were decent. Not great, not good, but decent.
Come season 4, however, the whole show became a cesspool of liberal indoctrination and immorality (more than it was in season 1), which is what this article will be addressing. I could spend a large majority discussing the LGBT sins the show endorses, but I’m not going to do that since those are obvious. Instead, I’m going to talk about two specific things: how the show blatantly endorses murder and the real saviour every character needs.
All that being said, there are spoilers in this article, so keep reading at your own discretion.
Murder is Always Wrong
The start of season 3 began with news that one of the characters in the show, Bryce Walker, was murdered. Bryce is one of the students at Liberty High School, the fictional high school in Crestmont, California. Throughout the first two seasons the viewer discovers Bryce is guilty of raping multiple girls at their school. Most of season 2 tells the narrative of Bryce’s trial as he is dealing with these allegations and, unfortunately, the jury finds him not guilty. While he certainly deserves to be found guilty, the writers wrote this ending to fit more with the reality that many men are, sickeningly, found not guilty by the justice system despite their obvious guilt. The show attributes this to “the Patriarchy,” but it’s due more to the justice system’s overall corruption than it does to some imaginary patriarchal cabal.
Hence season 3’s telling the story of who murdered Bryce. Long story short, the season reveals that one of the show’s beloved main characters, Alex Standall, is responsible for murdering Bryce. Now, it’s easy to say Bryce deserved to die because he was a rapist, but two things: (1) murder is always wrong, and (2) Bryce was repenting.
While season 3 tells the story of Bryce’s murder, it also unveils his progressive repentance. It is certainly not Christian repentance (confessing your sins unto God and trusting in Christ’s mercy to forgive), but he was certainly showing the fruits of repentance (cf. Luke 3:7-14). Bryce was seeing a counselor for his atrocious actions and he confessed his sins in a tape (matching Hannah Baker’s confession of her suicide), acknowledging that what he did was wrong and he’s trying to be better. While the show does not say or show Bryce repenting before God, he could have. But as this is a fictional show that displays only what they want you to see, we’ll assume he didn’t.
Regardless, Bryce was doing much of what John the Baptiser calls “bearing fruits in keeping with repentance.” The sinner (a) confesses with godly sorrow that he or she is sorry for their sins against God and/or neighbour, (b) trusts in Christ’s mercy to forgive their sins by grace alone through faith alone, and (c) genuinely desires to change their former behaviour and/or thinking through the ability of the Holy Spirit (i.e. sanctification). Bryce meets that third criterion, absent the Holy Spirit, with the first criterion being his confession to the people he hurt and raped, while the second is missing (he didn’t expect or ask them to show him mercy by forgiving him).
Maybe Bryce did deserve to die. I can’t say that. In truth, we all deserve to die because “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23a). Everybody sins; therefore, we all deserve to die. Sin brought death into the world. Furthermore, none of us can really say who deserves to die. To do so would be playing God.
“But the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23b). Nobody truly deserves forgiveness, yet God desires to forgive anyway. “For You, O Lord, are good and forgiving, abounding in steadfast love to all who call upon You” (Psalm 86:5).
As someone who is going to be pastor, one thing Bryce certainly needed was the Gospel. The Law had already worked in his heart. Somehow, he came to realise that what he did was wrong, and he was trying to change through counseling and confessing his sins to the people he hurt. That, at least, is commendable.
Did I despise Bryce for hurting so many women? Absolutely. Rape is atrocious and inexcusable. But God forgives every sin—yes, every sin, even rape. Even murder. If you don’t believe God can forgive even those sins, you and I believe in a different God.
Yet as season 3 unfolded, I found myself desperately wanting to bring the Gospel to Bryce. He must absolutely face justice for what he did, but as a person who was seeking forgiveness and to change, he needed to hear the Gospel.
The basic tenet of C.F.W. Walther’s Law and Gospel is knowing when to distinguish between Law and Gospel as you apply the Word of God to a person’s life. In essence: The Law needs to be preached when a person is living in sin. It is to say, “What you did is wrong and sinful. Recognise this and repent.” Conversely, the Gospel needs to be preached when the person knows that what they did is wrong and is in need of the comforting words of Christ and His mercy. It is to say, “Christ has heard your cries for mercy. He therefore forgives you all your sins.”
Bryce absolutely needed to hear the Law that what he did was wrong and despicable. Somehow, he did. At the point in season 3, however, he desperately needed the Gospel. Unfortunately, he never got it. Unfortunately, he was murdered. And despite every inkling to believe the contrary, murder is always wrong. Even if that someone is a rapist. Especially when that person is repenting with the acknowledgement that they know what they did was wrong.
The Fifth Commandment says it clearly, “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13). Some translations might say, “Do not kill,” at which point opponents say “do not kill” is too ambiguous and can apply to anything, such as war and the death penalty. The thing is, in Hebrew, it is not ambiguous at all.
The word used for “murder” in the text is רצח (ratsaq), which is translated either as “murder” or “slay.” This word is used in Scripture when describing killing as premeditation, vengeance, and assassination. There’s an entirely different word for “kill” in its ambiguous sense, which is קטל (qatal). This word is far more general and is often used to describe the slaughtering of an animal for the purpose of religious sacrifice.
The commandment, then, is quite clear. You shall not unjustly take the life of another human being. That goes for government and individuals. As Romans 13:1-7 delineates, God sets government for the just taking of lives for just war and against evildoers, but individuals are prohibited from taking that into their own hands.
Luther explains the 5th Commandment well in the Small Catechism, “We should fear and love God so that we do not hurt or harm our neighbour in his body, but help and support him in every physical need.” Whether or not you believe Bryce deserved to die, Alex violated this commandment. It doesn’t matter if he’s a Christian or not; this is a law written on all human hearts (cf. Romans 2:15). Even Alex comes to regret what he did in season 4. But he doesn’t do anything about it. If he truly regretted his actions, he would turn himself in, but apparently he’s not sorry enough to seek the justice he so desperately wants.
And that finally brings me to my main point about how the producers of 13 Reasons Why justify murder: Murder is not okay, unless that person is a rapist and you can help your friends get away with it. 13 Reasons Why stopped being about 13 reasons why Hannah Baker tragically took her own life and became about reasons why you should always help your friends, even if that means helping them get away with murder. That might be an oversimplification, but I do not believe murder is justifiable no matter the reason and no matter who the victim is.
The Real Saviour They Need
In season 4, one of the prominent main characters, Clay Jensen, is on a massive downward spiral in his sanity as he deals with anxiety and the guilt of covering up a murder by framing one of their other extremely unlikable classmates thanks to his convenient death so he can’t defend himself. (This person, Monty, raped one of the male friends in the group with a mop handle… Yeah…) Fortunately, Clay begins talking to a therapist about his problems (except for covering up murder) played by Gary Sinise (Lieutenant Dan from Forrest Gump!).
The therapist does a decent job, I think, of helping Clay with his constant self-destruction, but one thing he fails to address is Clay’s obvious saviour complex. Ever since his failure to save Hannah from killing herself, Clay has felt this incessant duty to save everybody. This saviour complex only feeds his anxiety. I don’t think any of his friends expect him to save them and neither does he need to save them. Clay, you are not their saviour. Jesus is.
Clay deals with the difficulty that he can’t save his friends. He thinks this is due to some flaw he can somehow fix, but the reality is that he can’t be their saviour. Nobody can. Only Jesus can. Humans are insufficient to save other humans. This is why God became a human being in Jesus in order to save humans!
This brings me to a minor point: Clay and his friends’ idolatry of friendship. The First Commandment says, “You shall have no other gods before Me” (Exodus 20:3), which Luther explains, “We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.” Who do Clay and his friends fear, love, and trust above all things? Each other.
Don’t hear me wrong. I’m not saying it’s wrong to trust your friends. You absolutely can and you should. In fact, trust is foundational for every friendship—indeed, every relationship. But friendship becomes an idol when it becomes the ultimate thing in your life when that thing should be God. Anything that replaces God and becomes that ultimate thing is an idol. For some, it’s money. For Clay and his friends, it’s friendship—it’s each other.
This idol has led them to violate other commandments, such as murder and covering up that murder. Not to mention the 8th Commandment, “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbour.” In fact, as I’m going down the list, they literally violate every commandment. But who of us haven’t? (Well, aside from literally murdering someone.)
There’s also a major plot hole that bugged me a lot. Throughout season 4, there are some mysteries with certain events (e.g. who spray painted “Monty was framed” in the school and who’s been breaking the school’s security cameras?), and Clay has has some major lapses in memory. I predicted that he had some variation of dissociation or at the very least multiple personality disorder (aka dissociative identity disorder).
As it turns out, I was right about the dissociation. His therapist explained this to him when it became very clear, with video evidence, that he was, in fact, having immense moments of dissociation. Then all the missing memories started coming back to Clay… and that’s it.
Next, you would expect there would be some official diagnosis and a serious treatment plan for Clay, but instead, Clay miraculously gets better (sort of). His anxiety somewhat gets better and he stops having dissociative moments, as if his cognisance of his possible disorder somehow cured him from having these dissociations.
I may not be a professional psychologist and I may have barely been a former psychology major before switching to Christian thought, but I’m pretty sure that’s not how mental illness works. You don’t suddenly get better after finding out what the problem is. This would be the equivalent of me being cured from depression after being diagnosed with depression. As one who suffers with depression, I know that’s not how mental illness works. Once you know what the problem is, your doctor formulates a treatment plan and, in cases of mental illness, will probably schedule you to see a psychiatrist to talk about the possibilities of medication as a part of treatment. But there’s none of that. Suddenly, he’s just better as if a Freudian catharsis was enough for massive improvement.
Okay, I’ve spouted enough literary frustration. The reason Clay fails so miserably at saving his friends is because he is not their saviour. There is already a saviour, and His name is Jesus. “But they’re not Christians. How is Jesus their saviour?” Throw away your Calvinistic limited atonement garbage and know that Jesus is not only the Saviour of His people, but also the entire world. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him” (John 3:16-17). That is the objective justification—the unlimited atonement—of Jesus’ death.
Then by faith His death becomes subjective justification. “Whoever believes in Him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God” (John 3:18). Jesus died for the whole world. Whoever in this world believes in this Jesus is saved, but whoever does not believe remains condemned.
You don’t make Jesus your Saviour. Jesus is your Saviour. You either believe this, or you don’t.
Jesus is their Saviour. Not Clay Jensen. They are in need of Jesus, not Clay. They can certainly trust in each other, but they and we must trust in Jesus even more. They idolise their friendship so much that they cover up and justify the murder of a boy who, by all rights, did something terrible, but who also was repenting for his sins.
I’m not surprised at all with the show’s worldly, pagan views on sexuality and morality. We can’t expect non-Christian shows to portray Christian beliefs and morality. But it’s still worth discussing because Christians watch this show and others like it. All of us are influenced by the pop culture we consume, whether we realise it or not. It even affects our faith. That’s why the problems in shows like this are worth writing about. This is why, as my blog’s motto says, I dare to write boldly—writing boldly for Christ and the truths of His holy Word that counter the doctrines of this world.