13 Reasons Why concluded with one final tragedy — here’s why opting to kill off Justin Foley was the show’s biggest mistake. So, how did Justin Foley die? Based on Jay Asher’s 2007 novel of the same name, 13 Reasons Why debuted on Netflix in 2017. Played by Brandon Flynn, the character of Foley was an integral part of 13 Reasons Why from the very first episode. Not only was he the first to be mentioned on Hannah’s infamous tapes, but he was named and shamed twice as contributing to her suicide. The first came when he shared a lewd photo of her, erroneously exacerbating a less-than-friendly rumor. The second time was infinitely more serious — when he initially stood by as Bryce Walker (Justin Prentice) raped Jessica Davis (Alisha Boe). Justin served as a somewhat antagonizing force in 13 Reasons Why season 1, often bullying and otherwise trying to intimidate Clay Jensen (Dylan Minette).
By the end of the first season, however, the weight of his choices and actions proved too much for Justin Foley. As well as revealing to Jessica the truth of what happened to her, Justin also turned on Bryce. Furthermore, Justin spent subsequent seasons actively trying to atone for his mistakes. He never again failed to fight for and protect Jessica, even risking his life during what seemed like an active school shooter situation to make sure she was safe. Equally, he testified on behalf of Bryce’s victims in a subsequent court case in season 2. He protected Alex Standall (Miles Heizer) in 13 Reasons Why season 3 and looked out for Tyler Down (Devin Druid) in general. And he became both Clay’s staunchest ally and adopted brother. In short, Foley had 13 Reasons Why‘s most (and arguably only) successful redemption arc. Unfortunately, the character’s efforts were all for naught by the series finale. Foley died from various illnesses caused by his past drug use and sex work. Here’s why the death of Justin was a mistake for 13 Reasons Why.
Justin’s Death Was A Backwards Step For Depicting HIV/AIDS
Following his collapse in the penultimate episode of 13 Reasons Why season 4, it was revealed that the answer to “how did Justin Foley die?” is that he had contracted HIV in the past. By the time of the series finale, it had already transitioned into the later stages of AIDS. His weakened immune system had also led to a case of pneumonia and fungal meningitis. With everything deemed too far along to be successfully treated, Justin’s 13 Reasons Why death and say goodbye before he eventually succumbed. However, even ignoring the fact that the openly gay Flynn was the one tasked with depicting a fatal case of the disease, the decision has been widely criticized on a technical level. Even organizations like the U.K’s National AIDS Trust have been vocally disappointed by the storytelling decision.
It’s easy to understand why. HIV takes roughly 8-10 years to evolve into AIDS. The needle use and sex work that was said to be the cause of Justin’s infection, however, only occurred a couple of years prior. The unusually rapid progression of Justin’s illness, therefore, was but one demonstration of the show’s lack of research into the subject. Given that the show has often defended itself as shining a light on tough subjects, such as Hannah Baker’s 13 reasons for suicide, it really wasn’t a good look. While the illness was once deemed an epidemic, leading to widespread fatalities, things have changed dramatically in the proceeding decades. It no longer has to be a death sentence, with many survivors able to live long and full lives even after diagnosis.
13 Reasons Why tried to convey this fact, with Clay stating that “it would have been so easy to save him“. It very much served as a case of telling rather than showing, though. Instead, the show opted to explain away the lack of diagnosis as being a result of Justin’s shame-based refusal to be tested. That in itself proved a problematic choice — especially since 13 Reasons Why skews towards a younger audience. Though the show has mostly trafficked in a fear-based approach to imparting its messages and societal wisdom, it was an especially wrong move in this case. One that will could provoke a spike in the stigma surrounding the illness and substantially set discourse back a few decades. As it stands, it marked the latest in a long line of missed opportunities to educate on a specific condition and its subsequent recovery process.
Justin’s Death Missed the Opportunity for Positive Parallels with Season 1
13 Reasons Why season 4 also sought to bring several stories full circle — with frequent parallels to season 1. The death of Justin Foley marked the biggest of them. After all, 13 Reasons Why began in the wake of a devastating tragedy. It will now go down in history as having also ended similarly. Equally, the first episode was centered on Justin, with his being the first name on Hannah’s tapes. As such, making him the principal focus of the series finale makes a certain logical and thematic sense. However, his death marked just as much a missed opportunity on a storytelling level. 13 Reasons Why has trafficked in much trauma and tragedy to the extent that it’s often been criticized for glamorizing and even fetishizing it. That was especially true in terms of season 1, with the show widely linked to a spike in real-life suicides. It’s also part of the reason that the scene in which Hannah takes her own life was eventually removed.
That backlash has extended to other aspects of the show over the course of the subsequent seasons. Despite that, the writers continually fell into the same trap and seemed blind to the fact that their intended message could be achieved in other ways. Justin Foley’s 13 Reasons Why character death could have served as both a prime example of that and a source of much-needed catharsis when bringing the story to a well-rounded close. Where 13 Reasons Why season 1 featured Hannah unable to overcome her demons, 13 Reasons Why season 4 could have ended with Justin succeeding in overcoming or learning to live with those plaguing him, both medical and otherwise.
Justin’s Death Defied 13 Reasons Why’s Own Message About Redemption
In the series finale, 13 Reasons Why talked a good game about the value and beauty of life. That was especially true in Clay’s speech at the group’s graduation ceremony. Unfortunately, it served as little more than lip service and further proof of the show’s whole tell-rather-than-show mentality. Like Hannah herself, the writers had become immersed in the pain and darkness of the stories they were telling, so much so that they were rarely able to find any joy and light until it was too late.
Yes, 13 Reasons Why‘s tragedies are an inevitable part of life. Yes, there are things that go criminally unaddressed and warrant having a spotlight shone on them. Yes, conversations regarding certain issues need to be provoked. However, there is also hope and recovery — two things that the show repeatedly glossed over in favor of a shock-and-awe approach to emotional resonance. After being introduced as a causer of pain, ending with Justin as a symbol of that hope and recovery could have brought 13 Reasons Why full circle in a much richer, more rewarding fashion.
Another one of 13 Reasons Why‘s questionable decisions came in season 3 when the show bizarrely tried to humanize Bryce Walker. It also continued that trend with Montgomery de la Cruz (Timothy Granaderos), trying to posthumously add more sympathetic shades to the character. The move wasn’t entirely successful since the turn felt too sharp from their previously unrepentant ways. However, the logic was that even seemingly the most heinous person could redeem themselves. Furthermore, the show repeatedly stated that Alex murdering Bryce and Monty being killed in jail robbed them of that potential. Unfortunately, the writers ultimately did the same thing by killing off Justin Foley.
What Justin Foley Actor Brandon Flynn Has Said About Justin’s Death
While many were rightly upset at how Justin Foley’s storyline came to an abrupt end in a rather controversial way, some cast and crew of 13 Reasons Why thought the season 4 ending rang true to the show and that it was just fine for the character. Even Justin actor Brandon Flynn has expressed that he’s happy with his character’s death on 13 Reasons Why, and that poor reactions are just due to people grieving the loss of the character. In an interview with EW, Brandon Flynn said of Justin’s death “I applaud the writers in the way they handled the storyline because I think even seeing some of the responses being outrage, it’s the actual process of grief.”
While Flynn thinks that the right choice was made in killing off the main character, the result of the 13 Reasons Why season 4 finale was polarizing in the same way that Game of Thrones‘ ending was (though, not nearly as many people were watching it). The actor then went on to explain that he believes people are reacting negatively because they are genuinely mourning the death of a 13 Reasons Why character: “I’ve had circumstances in my life where I’ve lost someone, and it’s inspired anger at first. I think once we move past that first stage of anger in grief, we get to the understanding of life and it sometimes not being fair.”
Life isn’t fair, indeed. However, that didn’t need to be the resounding message that 13 Reasons Why went out on. The show could’ve ended in redemption, with Justin going on to live a full life. Rather, show creators decided to give him a painful and borderline offensive ending. Star Dylan Minette (who plays Clay Jensen on 13 Reasons Why) also expressed that he was happy with Justin’s death on the show in another interview (via EW). Minette reportedly said: “I remember all season Brandon and I were specifically hoping that it would be Justin, and we were pushing for it, and we would plead to Brian making the case of why we feel like it should be him, because he and I both felt that it would have the biggest emotional impact on the series given Justin’s entire arc.”
Justin Foley had the show’s most successful redemption arc. In fact, he arguably had the best character arc overall. Despite childhood abuse, a drug-addicted and negligent mother, abusively toxic friendships, homelessness, and his own drug addiction issues, Justin turned his life around. He fought to be a better person. And by the time 13 Reasons Why season 4 rolled around, Justin had finally found a loving family and was actually embracing the future, including a successful application to college. Justin was on the verge of seeing his redemptive tale truly flourish. Unfortunately, the writers instead had him suffer more grief, relapse into his addictions, and ultimately die. By continuing their trend of what could only be described as emotional torture porn, the show, too, curtailed Justin’s true potential as a character. As such, 13 Reasons Why killing off Justin ultimately robbed viewers of what could’ve ended up going down in history as one of television’s most actively inspiring characters rather than just another tragic cautionary tale.
Justin Foley’s Death Is One Of Many Problems With 13 Reasons Why
Justin Foley’s death wasn’t the only controversy with 13 Reasons Why — the show has faced plenty of backlash over its 4 seasons. Many scenes in the first season alone were highly triggering for audiences, and showing Hannah Baker’s brutal death felt all but gratuitous. Parental groups thought that by showing Hannah’s suicide, it would prompt other teenagers facing mental health struggles to follow suit. Despite showrunner Brian Yorkey dismissing these remarks, saying that the show will bring about conversations between teens and adults, Netflix decided to pull the controversial Hannah Baker death scene two years after it aired.
The rape of Hannah, Jessica, and Chloe at Bryce Walker’s hands was also a controversial moment for 13 Reasons Why. The depiction of sexual violence in a teen show was a particularly brutal inclusion, but showrunners defended this choice as well, saying sexual violence was an important topic that isn’t discussed enough. The problem wasn’t that consent should be a conversation, rather, that 13 Reasons Why focused on Bryce more than the fallout from his heinous actions. The over-exertion of drug culture and bullying/jock culture was also criticized. While these things do happen in high school, 13 Reasons Why inflated the issues to ridiculous proportions. One of the victims of this bullying is Tyler Down, who is sodomized with a broom handle and horrifically beaten. While there was a warning prior to this episode, it certainly wasn’t enough to prepare audiences.
Tyler’s attempted school shooting was also poorly handled, as there was little to no insight into his psychological state. What resulted was Clay talking the 13 Reasons Why Tyler character out of it, and removing him from the scene. In addition, Bryce’s conviction of rape only earned him 3 months probation, despite one of his victims committing suicide and the other receiving tremendous backlash. The inclusion of Ani’s character as a 13 Reasons Why actor was also the wrong call by showrunners. Having Ani counsel Jessica about rape and recovery, all while courting her rapist, understandably came off as altogether wrong. Killing off Manny’s character in 13 Reasons Why season 3 also upset many audience members.