In a very grim coincidence, the final season of 13 Reasons Why included an incredibly topical scene the writers couldn't have known would be so timely when they came up with it. Or, considering the frequency of police brutality in the United States, maybe they could have. Either way, it's impossible to deny the 13 Reasons Why protest over the police in the show's final season hit a particularly resonant chord.
Spoiler alert and content warning: This post includes spoilers for 13 Reasons Why Season 4, and it also discusses a scene of police violence that may be triggering for some. Netflix released Season 4 of 13 Reasons Why on June 5, about a week and a half after the death of George Floyd sparked nationwide protests against police brutality on Black people. Protests were still happening when the final season premiered, and while the show as a whole has been centered around trauma from the very start, one scene in this new season is particularly jarring.
Throughout the final season, the students at Liberty High faced increasing pressure as their school administration implemented severe security measures, including installing metal detectors at the entrances, setting up surveillance cameras in virtually every crevice of the school, and hiring armed school resource officers (SROs) who stopped and frisked students in the hallways. In Episode 6, a recklessly irresponsible active shooter drill — during which sounds of gunshots led students to believe there really was a shooter at the school — traumatized the student body and pushed tensions over the edge. (This episode was prefaced with a warning that stated what was to come would feature school violence.)
What didn't get a similar warning, but should have, came only two episodes later. In Episode 8, one of the school's SROs specifically targeted a student of color and used excessive force against him, and it's eerily reminiscent of the systemic racism and brutality in the justice system that has also inspired the protests currently going on all over the U.S.
When Justin and Diego began fighting in the hallway, the SRO broke up the conflict by telling Justin, who is white, to go back to class. He then roughly shoved Diego against the lockers, calling him "another f*cking Mexican kid starting a fight." ("I'm Dominican," Diego responded in fear.) Justin tried to get the officer to leave Diego alone, but the officer pulled out his gun on both the kids, and then roughly handcuffed Diego.
Soon, the whole student body was looking on as Diego was taken away by the officer, and when Principal Bolan told everyone to go back to class, Clay and Jessica pushed back. Instead of obeying, they led their classmates in a school-wide walkout, and the students began peacefully protesting outside, with chants calling for Liberty High to get rid of its SROs.
In another parallel of the real world's current events, the peaceful protest became violent when the cops got involved. As the officers advanced on the protesting students with shields and billy clubs, the students stood their ground and fought back by throwing books (ironically, something they were taught by the school to do during active shooter drills).
The prolonged conflict may have been hard to watch for anyone sensitive to police brutality, especially because there were minors involved. There are heart-wrenchingly raw moments, such as when a cop punched Jessica, who is biracial, in the stomach after she spat on his face shield. Yes, the scene is a heavily sanitized version of the protests happening in real life — there are no signs of cops spraying tear gas on protesters or shooting them with rubber bullets in the fictional protest — but the depiction is still chilling.
Though the 13 Reasons Why writers did not know the clear parallel this scene would have in the real world on its premiere date, the episode would have been timely no matter when it aired. Police brutality is so prevalent in American history that it is — sadly, maddeningly — always topical. The issue has received more public attention in recent years, thanks to flashpoint moments like the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri. The harsh truth is, 13 Reasons Why didn't just happen to release an episode about police conflict at a coincidental moment; the scene would have always been timely and will continue to be timely until real change is enacted.
If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911.
Here are some additional mental health resources for members of the Black community:
The Safe Place app: A mental health app geared toward the Black community, including a feature on how to cope after police brutality
Ethel’s Club: A healing space providing resources to people of color
Therapy for Black Girls: Free group therapy sessions for Black women provided by the skincare brand Topicals