Warning: The most major spoilers ahead for 13 Reasons Why season 4 finale, “Graduation.”
“That’s a big part of the fourth season: watching these kids find necessary solutions to become adults,” 13 Reasons Why star Brandon Flynn told Refinery29 on a February afternoon while seated on a comfy West Hollywood hotel couch. Flynn’s co-stars Alisha Boe and Ross Butler were to his right as he pondered the end of their series.
In the moment, it was impossible to know how bittersweet Flynn’s words were — his game-changing Netflix show’s final season wouldn’t debut for another four months on Friday, June 5. But, by now, if you’ve seen 13 Reasons Why’s series finale, “Graduation,” you know Flynn’s character, tragic jock Justin Foley, never makes it to the episode’s titular momentous occasion — or adulthood. Instead, he dies of medical complications caused by AIDS after senior prom. Justin’s shockingly abrupt death colors every second that follows throughout graduation.
With a new terrible event happening so late in the 13 Reasons Why game, it’s difficult not to wonder if the series will have just one more season to check in with the Liberty High crew — even after all the pomp and circumstance around season 4 as “the final season.” However, when you chat with the series’ cast, it becomes obvious they’ve truly said goodbye to 13 Reasons Why — and they have some stunningly optimistic parting words for a series this dark.
“What we’ve prided ourselves on is taking an extreme situation and showing viewers how to cope with it,” Butler, who plays Zach Dempsey, said, admitting “99.99%” of 13’s audience will never experience the litany of terrors that besieged Liberty High’s class of 2019. Still, there’s a method to the series’ unmitigated mayhem. “When teens actually have a traumatic experience happen, they can go about it knowing that it’s happened to someone else, even if it’s on their screen,” Butler explained.
13 Reasons Why season 4 doesn’t have as many traumatizing experiences as prior seasons of the series — which once graphically depicted a teen girl’s death by suicide in full before editing the scene — but it does introduce viewers to many upsetting new possibilities. Boe’s Jessica Davis is haunted by the ghost of her rapist Bryce Walker (Justin Prentice), an entire episode is dedicated to a frighteningly realistic active shooter drill, and a season-long study of Clay Jensen’s (Dylan Minnette) worsening mental health anchors 13’s swansong. Even Butler’s formerly affable Zach finds himself in a spiral of alcohol abuse and depression.
Despite the darkness each major character faces, “Graduation” marks a hopeful beginning for all of them — save for Flynn’s late Justin. Still, Flynn sees optimism in the story. “There’s like this deeply psychological thing we experience when we watch TV in general. Especially with shows where we go, ‘I fucking need to tune in because I connect with this person,’” Flynn began. “So you’re really watching someone who you either want to emulate or you don’t want to emulate … There’s something positive about myself that I’m like, ‘I really hope people paint this fantasy for all the characters that they can thrive in the world. And therefore mirror with themselves — see themselves thriving within the world.’”
“If these kids can survive through this, I can too,” Butler added, agreeing with his co-star’s thoughts.
For her part, Boe brought “Graduation” down to its most essential parts: The feeling of closing one chapter to begin a brand new one, particularly for the high schoolers who grew up with 13 Reasons Why. “There are some people who’ve been watching this show since their first year of high school. They’re now watching the last season as they’re graduating, ” Boe pointed out back in February, then unaware of the unexpectedly disappointing future awaiting the class of 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic. “Obviously they can’t relate to us trying to still cover up a murder, but they can relate to the feeling of having to say goodbye to your friends.”
That’s why, no matter what kind of obstacles viewers are facing, Flynn has one simple farewell message: “There’s hope. There’s a lot of fucking hope. Life can be big. It’s, in fact, high school is probably the smallest part of life. You’ve got years and years ahead.”