Let's Talk About the Mysterious Death in '13 Reasons Why' Season 4

This article contains major spoilers for the ending of 13 Reasons Why season four.

Truly, who’d want to be a Liberty High School student? Things started out on a dark note for the teenagers back in season 1, with the suicide of Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) and the accusatory tapes she left behind for all the classmates who had wronged her, and have pretty much only gotten worse from there. In between occasional moments of light relief, these teenagers have endured–off the top of my head–multiple sexual assaults, an attempted school shooting, family deportations by ICE, drug and steroid addiction, suicide attempts, devastating injuries, violent beatings and at least two homicides.

It’s… a lot. And the opening moments of season 4 make it clear that there’s no light at the end of the tunnel, since it seems very much like another student is dead. “It comes down to one question,” Clay (Dylan Minnette) says in an ominous voiceover over a black screen. “Will you survive high school? Will I survive? Because I know too many people who didn’t.” From there, we cut to a funeral, where a pastor is solemnly discussing Liberty High’s checkered past. “We have said too many goodbyes, grieved too long,” she says, in what may be the understatement of the century. “The loss of another classmate, senior year, is more than children should be asked to bear.”

Yikes. After this scene, we’re whisked back six months into the past, and the season then unfolds under the looming shadow of this imminent, mysterious death. Naturally, we don’t find out the truth about what’s happening until the finale. So if you’ve finished your binge-watch and are having some Feelings about the way things ended for one particular Liberty student, let’s get into it.

Although the season began with Justin fresh out of rehab and seemingly on an upswing, it soon became clear he was still struggling. He seems to be using drugs again, appears increasingly sickly and disheveled, and by episode nine he’s in bed with what he claims is the flu. But Justin rallies enough to show up to prom, and dance a very romantic slow number with Jess while telling her “I love you more than life.” Jess, wise as she is, notices this red flag and quickly responds: “Don’t love anything more than life.” And moments later, Justin collapses in the middle of the dance floor.

My first assumption was that this was an overdose, but it turns out to be something else. As Justin fights for his life in the ICU, a doctor informs the Jensens that he’s HIV-positive–likely as a result of his history of IV drug use and sex work, she says–and because he was never diagnosed or treated, he’s developed AIDS. He now has severe pneumonia and meningitis, and his symptoms are so advanced there’s not much the doctors can do, besides make him comfortable. Before long, Justin’s on a ventilator, and his loved ones are being told to say their goodbyes.

There’s no way the 13 Reasons Why writers could have predicted just how specifically upsetting this finale would be, premiering as it is in the middle of a pandemic. But even under normal circumstances, the final scenes between Justin and Jess, and Justin and Clay, would be wrenching. Justin telling Jess that he ruined her life, and Jess telling him that he taught her what love is, almost ruined me, and by the time Justin and Clay were holding hands I was fully done. Goodbye, cruel world.

Finally, the inevitable happens and Justin flatlines. Cut back to the funeral we saw in episode one, which is now confirmed to be Justin’s. And just in case we weren’t already heartbroken enough, one of the finale’s big moments of closure involves Clay’s therapist suggesting that maybe Justin allowed himself to get so sick because “deep down, he didn’t think he was worth saving, or worth loving.” You are not helping, Clay’s therapist!

I’m gonna be honest, guys, I have no idea how to feel. On the one hand, this whole storyline was beautifully played by everyone involved, and there were some extremely touching moments of bonding and healing between our other faves in the second half of the episode (Clay and Tony’s friendship is the only thing I’ve consistently loved throughout this entire rollercoaster of a show). And Clay’s graduation speech about the things that make life worth living is legitimately moving, not least because season one was criticized by some for glamorizing suicide.

On the other hand, could these kids not catch even a single solitary break? Did the show really need to end on such a devastating loss? For Justin of all people–after the terrible upbringing he came from and all the hurdles he overcame–to die like this feels like an unnecessarily bleak and brutal ending even by the standards of this show.

So… how are we doing, 13RW fam?

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