Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette) sums the 13 Reasons Why series finale up best when he says, "After all that, after everything, this is how it ends." Only viewers probably were probably giving it this inflection: "After all that? This is how it ends?" In the season 4 finale, Justin Foley dies. The character (played by (Brandon Flynn) saw his death teased all season, with the first episode flashing forward six months to a student's funeral. But when the show finally catches up to that point, it leaves a lot to be desired.
Justin dies after contracting HIV which develops into AIDS. The doctors think the combination of his syringe use as a drug addict and his sex work when he was homeless upped his risk factor for the disease. By the time the doctors catch it, Justin's symptoms are advanced. They progress quickly, attacking his brain and organs, until he needs a ventilator to breathe and eventually passes away.
It's a devastating moment for the characters and longtime fans of the show, and it's made worse by what happens next. At Justin's funeral, the pastor tries to turn Justin's life and death into a learning lesson for the rest of his friends. "Remember his death with sorrow and determination that spur us to action," she says. Zach Dempsey (Ross Butler) gives a similar eulogy saying, "The pain that we are feeling today is to remind us every day to do better, to be better."
But Justin's death shouldn't have just been a plot device to encourage the rest of the characters to live life to the fullest. HIV/AIDS is a real issue in many parts of the world, including right here in America, and it's a sensitive topic for many who have lost loved ones to the illness. It shouldn't just be used in last-minute plot twist to make a group of teens feel like at least their lives are still worth living.
The message of "do better, be better" is also hollow because Justin's death is the fifth that these students have experienced since sophomore year. After every funeral, the kids promise to live life better. Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) was supposed to show them that all the way back in season 1. Jeff Atkins (Brandon Larracuente), Bryce Walker (Justin Prentice), and Monty De La Cruz (Timothy Granaderos) also should have shown the students how to not take life for granted. What's to say that they'll really change now just because Justin became the high school's fifth casualty?
So not only does Justin's tragic death become a plot device, but it's not even a very good one. And then the show also erodes his season 4 character development to boot. In a therapy session after Justin dies, Clay gets angry about Justin keeping his illness a secret until it was too late to save him. Dr. Ellman (Gary Sinise) theorizes that a small part of Justin still felt like he wasn't truly deserving of love, so he couldn't let himself be cared for.
First of all, Dr. Ellman doesn't know Justin, so that is quite a leap. And second of all, Justin was making so much progress in season 4 towards loving himself and letting others in. Not to say he didn't have his moments of weakness when Clay lashed out at him or Jessica Davis (Alisha Boe) started dating someone else, or when he turned back to drinking at a party, but for the most part he was doing better. He went to rehab and was putting in the work at meetings. He was prioritising his sobriety. He was excited to go to college. He told Jessica that he wasn't sure what came next for him in life but he was focused on "trying not to die" and staying out of jail.
When Jessica complained that he had too upbeat an attitude about some of the problems the friend group was facing, she told him she didn't recognize this version of him. "It's me," Justin says. "It's me trying, trying to get better." Is the ultimate message of 13 Reasons Why that too bad, it was too late for Justin? Better luck to all the kids who will hopefully take a message from his death?
Ultimately, it seems that the show had Justin die so that Clay could get better. When his therapist says that Justin may have just felt he didn't deserve love or care, Clay says that doesn't make sense. But Dr. Ellman points out that Clay also keeps secrets from the people he loves. Clay also won't let himself be cared for. Now, with Justin gone, it seems as if Clay is supposed to learn to not be him and go on to have a better life. And that's all well and great for Clay, but it shouldn't have come at the expense of Justin's character development. Especially not via an illness of which the world deserves to see responsible representation on screen.
This may actually be "how it ends" as Clay said, but it's not how it should have ended.