Why '13 Reasons Why' Pivots to Tell a Complicated Whodunit for Season 3

Justin Prentice, who plays serial rapist Bryce Walker, speaks to The Hollywood Reporter about being at the center of a murder mystery on Netflix's breakout YA drama.
Netflix
The funeral of Bryce Walker (played by Justin Prentice) in '13 Reasons Why'

13 Reasons Why revealed the central conceit of season three ahead of the return of the Netflix young adult breakout hit: The villain of the series is dead.

The promotion and marketing surrounding the new season of Brian Yorkey's high school drama from Paramount Television includes trailers and an elaborate interactive experience that asks viewers to focus on one question: Who killed Bryce Walker? Revealing that seemingly major spoiler ahead of the season's release (which drops on Friday) effectively shifts 13 Reasons Why into new storytelling territory and also allows for Justin Prentice, the actor who plays Bryce, to speak out about what to expect from the 13 episodes that make up season three.

"We had sort of told the whole story with Hannah Baker [played by Katherine Langford]. The source material had been run through and this is a new, fresh twist to the show," Prentice tells The Hollywood Reporter. "Season three definitely has a different vibe and feel from the first two seasons, but still has a lot of the same rewarding elements. The season still talks about a lot of cultural touchstone points and does a lot of spotlighting on issues in society. We still have all those elements in there, just in a new package."

The death of Bryce certainly comes as a surprise after the events of season two, which released in May of last year. The first season was adapted from Jay Asher's best-selling novel of the same name and, in a series of 13 cassette tapes that were recorded by Hannah before she committed suicide, it was revealed that Bryce was the high school student who raped Hannah. Bryce also sexually assaulted fellow student, and a friend of Hannah's, Jessica Davis (Alisha Boe).

Hannah's suicide served as the central story of the first season and the graphic depiction of her death, which has since been edited out by Netflix, was met with controversy and has sparked ongoing dialogue about teen suicide and depression. The second season stretched the series well beyond Asher's book and though Langford returned for flashback scenes with Hannah, the season centered around a trail when Hannah's parents sued Liberty High for the school's role in their daughter's suicide. Even though Jessica came forward to accuse Bryce of rape, the privileged teen only received three months probation — despite his leading role in the serial sexual assault that was additionally uncovered among the Liberty High athletic department.

"No one felt that this issue had been resolved," says Prentice of Bryce's light punishment at the end of season two — one that is reflective of how rape and sexual assault cases are handled in the American criminal justice system. "Bryce got a little slap on the wrist, so our characters at Liberty would very much like to right the wrong themselves."

Indeed, nearly every character has at least one motive. The season introduces a new student named Ani (Grace Saif), which only adds to the long suspect list, and the trailer puts a target on the back of protagonist Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette), who has long blamed Bryce for Hannah's death. The second season also ended with a thwarted school shooting, and the third opens eight months later and will see the characters continuing to cover up for Tyler (Devin Druid), who was driven to attack the students after a brutal sexual assault.

Though Bryce's death is revealed relatively early in the season, 13 Reasons Why utilizes flashbacks to explore the complicated past of the character as the story continues. "It’s an interesting journey," says Prentice of what viewers will learn. "I don’t know that death necessarily is a just punishment. I think that’s up to the viewers."

The shift into the whodunit mystery will also propel the series forward. Netflix handed out an early renewal for the fourth and final season earlier this month and Yorkey and his team of writers are already at work on wrapping up the series. The final season, which does not yet have a return date or episode count, will pick up shortly after the events of season three and is set to feature the core cast's graduation from high school. The series was originally developed as a one-off limited series before it was renewed for a surprise second season and the new death mystery plot is sure to provide ramifications to explore in the show's final run.

"Along the way, we get to see a little bit of a different side of Bryce," adds Prentice of the new season. "That doesn't change anything he’s done in the past. He has still done atrocious things. But we get to see different colors of Bryce where maybe by the end of the season people aren’t as happy about the death as they are at the start of the season."

Season three of 13 Reasons Why releases Friday on Netflix. Head here for a refresher before the 13 episodes drop.