Spoiler alert: This post contains spoilers from Season 3 of 13 Reasons Why, including details about the finale.
Amid the various controversies Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why courted over its first two seasons — too-graphic depiction of suicide, too-graphic depiction of sexual assault, and so on — the teen drama always did fairly well by its queer characters. Sure, there was the drama of Courtney’s coming out, played for maximum tension in Season 1. And there was the relatively minimal role for Ryan, literary magazine editor at Liberty High.
But this is a show that routinely puts its characters through hell. The fact that the first two seasons boasted a pretty diverse lineup of gay characters — including Asian-American lesbian Courtney (Michele Selene Ang) and Latinx lead Tony (Christian Navarro) — as well as multiple out actors in main roles, was something worth celebrating. Brandon Flynn (who plays Justin), Tommy Dorfman (the aforementioned Ryan), and Wilson Cruz (attorney Dennis) all enjoyed lead or recurring roles in the first two seasons. And relative to the traumas the other characters dealt with, 13 Reasons Why’s queer contingent made it through pretty well (even if they were often relegated to the sidelines).
Unfortunately the same can’t be said for Season 3, which dropped on Netflix this past Friday. In addition to graduating two of those queer characters out — Ryan, who doesn’t appear at all, and Courtney, who guests in only one early-season episode — the show also introduces a problematic new gay character to the fold, one whose story leans into many of the most regressive gay tropes in television.
Monty De La Cruz, a recurring character from Season 2 played by Timothy Granderos, gets his backstory fleshed out as a member of the main ensemble this season. We knew from the second season that his dad was abusive, but that’s not the only reason why the Liberty High football player is such an asshole. (He was the guy who sexually assaulted classmate Tyler with a mop handle.) As we learn through a hookup with new guest character Winston (Deaken Bluman), Monty is gay, and struggles with intense internalized homophobia and self-loathing.
On its own, this wouldn’t be too much — it’s good background for Monty’s character, even if it is a bit broad. (13 Reasons Why is not the most subtle of shows.) The issue is what happens in the finale. All season long, we follow the murder investigation to discover who killed Monty’s friend — and Liberty High’s infamous rapist — Bryce Walker. A new character, Ani, takes us through her investigation, and reveals that Monty is the one who killed Bryce.
Except that wasn’t what happened at all. Monty was with Winston the night Bryce was killed. It’s all a cover-up designed by Ani and her friends to get the real murderer, their friend Alex, off the hook. They feel comfortable doing this because, after being arrested for assaulting Tyler, Monty has been killed in prison. But only after one final scene in which his father calls him a faggot and spits in his face.
Regarding the internalized homophobia and abusive father: No one will argue with you that these aren't very real issues. And 13 Reasons Why has always prided itself on tackling real issues, for better or worse. But they do feel regressive when you consider the more nuanced queer plot lines and characters of the past two seasons. Losing Ryan and Courtney for a Monty self-loathing arc feels like a bad trade. And his demise, followed by the other students’ pinning a murder on him in death, only makes things worse. It feeds into the hackneyed Bury Your Gays trope in the laziest way possible, and sends one of the only main gay characters out in brutal fashion.
So 13 Reasons Why feels like it’s not that good for the gays anymore, although there are obviously layers to that declaration. The show still does employ Flynn, an out gay actor, in a major series-leading role. (He is arguably the second protagonist now, next to Dylan Minnette’s Clay Jensen.) And Cruz returns for more episodes this season. Additionally, Christian Navarro’s Tony remains a focal point of the series, even though he’s the only gay character in the main ensemble left.
But the Monty stuff leaves a terrible taste. For the dead gay character to be the season villain — and for our heroes to wrongfully accuse him of a crime he didn’t commit — feels like a bridge too far. We don’t expect 13 Reasons Why to be perfect, but this season, its imperfections with regard to queer content feel too significant to overlook.
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Kevin O'Keeffe is a writer, host, and RuPaul's Drag Race herstorian living in Los Angeles. Follow his musings and rantings on Twitter @kevinpokeeffe.