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Justin Prentice was just as surprised as viewers when he received the script for the third season finale of 13 Reasons Why and read who murdered Bryce Walker.
“I didn’t find out until we got the last script,” he tells The Hollywood Reporter. Though he did have some ideas about the reveal, the combination of killers — as is par for the course with 13 Reasons Why — gave the new season a complicated ending. “Everyone did a wonderful job of not ruining it for me, so shout out to all of our cast and crew!”
The answer to the whodunit murder mystery that reset the Netflix YA drama in its third year was actually a three-parter. The final episode of Brian Yorkey’s high school series from Paramount Television revealed that Bryce’s friend, football star Zach Dempsey (Ross Butler), beat the convicted rapist, leaving him immobilized and stranded on a boating dock. When Alex Standall (Miles Heizer) showed up to the dock with Jessica Davis (Alisha Boe) after Bryce asked Jess (whom Bryce previously sexually assaulted) to meet him there, Alex ended up throwing an irrational Bryce into the water — and both he and Jess watched Bryce drown.
After a season spent exploring Bryce’s dysfunctional upbringing and attempts to better himself after the events of seasons one and two — where he was revealed to be a serial rapist, among other offenses — Prentice says he isn’t sure whether or not death is a just punishment and poses that question to the 13 Reasons Why audience to debate. “It’s easier to label these people as monsters, put it in a package. It’s easier to digest if we can label it,” he says of the topic of sexual assault. “But the murky, gray area is that a lot of these people are capable of human emotions.” (The third season opens with a cast PSA, and each episode prompts viewers to visit the show’s resource website.)
In the end, Bryce does confess to raping 10 women, including season one protagonist Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford), Jess and his ex-girlfriend Chloe Rice (Anne Winters), who had an abortion after finding out she was carrying Bryce’s child earlier in the season. When Alex and Jess confess to the Liberty High group how Bryce died, the core cast of high schoolers led by Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette) and newcomer Ani (Grace Saif) scheme and craft a web of lies in order to convince the police that Montgomery de la Cruz (Timothy Granaderos) killed Bryce. Though the kids get away with it, the end of season three leaves several dangling plots poised to unravel when the show returns for a fourth and final season. Mainly, the case of the late Monty’s alibi: Though Monty was arrested for sexually assaulting Tyler Down (Devin Druid) and was murdered while in jail, the closeted gay teen was with a male student at the nearby Hillcrest school the night that Bryce died. The season also ends with a fisherman uncovering the weapons that Clay and Tony Padilla (Christian Navarro) got rid of when they thwarted Tyler’s attempted school shooting at the end of season two.
Below, in a chat with THR, Prentice opens up about playing Bryce Walker for three years and how he approached what could be seen as a controversial arc in season three, as well as what he knows about a role in season four. When talking about putting the divisive response to previous seasons behind, he says of the issues around sex and sexual assault that are tackled in 13 Reasons Why: “[In] educating kids on what sex is, on what safe sex is, on what consent looks like, we get to see in the show the human side and I think it’s scary to see the human side on an issue like this. But it’s also reassuring in the sense that it shows there is a light at the end of the tunnel if we can talk about these things in the right way.”
What was the conversation like when Brian Yorkey told you about Bryce’s arc for season three?
I had an idea that I would be dying. (Laughs.) We had some chemistry read sides for the new character in the show [Ani, played by Grace Saif]. In one of the scenes, there was something alluding to something happening to one of the characters. It was vague, but that alone set a red flag in my mind. Then 15 minutes after I got the sides, Yorkey called me to say, “Hey, do you want to have lunch this week?” And I thought, “Oh, I’m dead! I’m pretty sure I’m dead!” We met up for lunch and he immediately said, “So, have a seat. You’re dead.” I told him I figured as much. He walked me through Bryce’s character arc for the season and I was behind it. I was on board. I think we cover some good ground this season.
During that meeting, what questions did you have? Were you able to give any input?
I did a little bit. Yorkey is always great about listening, but he’s also a genius so most of the time he has it down pat and not much input is needed. I had questions like, “How does it happen? Who does it?” And then I realized while I was asking those questions that I actually didn’t want to know the answers. And I don’t know that Yorkey at that time knew the answers himself. I told him to walk me through Bryce’s arc but the specifics, I didn’t really want to know. I told the rest of the cast that also when we started filming, that I didn’t want to know any of the particulars on Bryce’s death. I didn’t want to be in a scene and have that in the back of my mind and influence my delivery. So, I told them all to pretend I’m in the dark and not to ruin anything for me.
Brian Yorkey had previously said that Bryce’s light punishment in season two was meant to be a reflection of how rape and sexual assault cases are handled in our criminal justice system. What conversations did you have with Yorkey about righting that wrong — and having the characters take justice into their own hands — in season three?
No one felt that this issue had been resolved. Bryce got a little slap on the wrist, so our characters at Liberty would very much like to right the wrong themselves. I think it’s an interesting journey. I don’t know that death necessarily is a just punishment. I think that’s up to the viewers. Along the way, we get to see a little bit of a different side of Bryce. 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.
The whodunit mystery around his death is the central hook and gives the series a chance to hit the reset button in a way, after some of the controversy of seasons one and two. What did the writers want to accomplish with this shift?
We had sort of told the whole story with Hannah Baker [played by Katherine Langford]. The source material had been run through and this was a new, fresh twist to the show. 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.
When it came to exploring Bryce’s past to learn more about him and how he became the person that he did, the takeaway is that it’s complicated. What were your concerns with humanizing him too much or not enough?
It’s always a balancing act. The important thing to remember with Bryce for me — and something I’ve always kept in the back of my head — is that while he’s capable of doing monstrous acts, he is still human somewhere down in there. And this is the season that we really get to explore that more. But it was always a juggling act of how much humanity he shows and when he shows that humanity. With certain people, he tends to show it more than with others. There can be certain characters that trigger him and he relapses back to old Bryce. He still has those monstrous tendencies within him, but he is trying to make amends in his own way. He’s done some horrible, atrocious things and he has permanently damaged people mentally, but I think that’s what makes it so fascinating to watch. It hits close to home and that’s part of the issue with a lot of these sexual assaults and rapes that we see. A lot of it is date rape, and so a lot of the time, these are human beings who are committing these acts and I think that’s probably hard to admit. It’s easier to label these people as monsters, put it in a package. It’s easier to digest if we can label it. But the murky, gray area is that a lot of these people are capable of human emotions. It comes down to an educational thing. Just educating kids on what sex is, on what safe sex is, on what consent looks like. We get to see in the show the human side and I think it’s scary to see the human side on an issue like this, but it’s also reassuring in the sense that it shows there is a light at the end of the tunnel if we can talk about these things in the right way.
What did you spend the most time on getting right with Bryce’s journey?
In general, it was his interactions with different characters and his backstory with different characters. Seeing the human side of Bryce is a new side of Bryce that we haven’t seen as much of before. He opens up that humanity in different ways with different characters, so one of the big things was remembering the path, or making up the path, with certain characters to see how that influences his interactions.
Where do you come down on what Bryce deserves and did that change throughout the season?
You know, I certainly felt more empathetic, not for necessarily Bryce, but for who Bryce could have been had his path been different. We saw Bryce in season two as a little boy looking out for Justin; he was a human once upon a time. And I think seeing moments of Bryce’s humanity come through, it’s sort of sad in that you see the human that he could have been but can’t necessarily be because of the things that he’s done, a lot of that being his home life, his interactions with his parents. I felt more empathy towards the person that he could have been as more scripts came out and as more of the unraveling of his past is shown. It’s hard. He has done some horrible things, so it’s hard to say that you forgive him. I don’t know that that’s entirely possible.
In the end, Bryce makes his apology tape to Jess and confesses that he also raped Hannah, Chloe and seven others; some were girlfriends. He cried when finally listening to Hannah’s tape (from season one). He said he wanted to protect people who were victimized by people like him, which he did when he threatened Monty for sexually assaulting Tyler. How did you play Bryce in the end: Did he believe he could change?
I think so. I wanted to show a little more of the humanity in Bryce. At least a little glimmer of hope that he could have changed, had he been given the chance. That doesn’t change the past, but it certainly could change his future. And I do believe that he certainly was trying, and I believe a lot of that was onset by the fact that he lost everyone and everything. There’s a little piece of it where his motivation is thinking, “I just want my life back,” but I also think there’s a glimmer of, “I genuinely realize now what I’ve done and want to start making amends.”
During the homecoming game the night that he died, he reverted to the old Bryce. On the dock, he threatened to kill Zach and he screamed at Alex and Jess that nobody thinks he can change. What was it like to film that final Bryce scene and what is your takeaway in his ending moments?
He felt helpless in the end. He did a lot of this to himself, of course, so I don’t necessarily feel bad. But I feel like he was up against a wall and felt that no matter what he did he wouldn’t be able to set things right. Those scenes were intense. As an actor, they were just a blast to film, but it was very intense to film the whole fight scene with Zach and then Jess and Alex coming up on the dock. We had to do it in a bunch of ways because we had to match the shots and make sure everything from a technical camera aspect lined up for the fall into the water, because we had to shoot that at a different location and on water stages. There were a lot of technical aspects that we had to nail down to get right. But [Miles and Alisha] are both so fantastic, as is everyone we work with. When you get into that energy, it’s easy to stay there. It’s sort of a safe bubble so you can go to these intense places and live there until we’re done shooting.
Did Bryce deserve to die — where do you come down on his fate?
I think it should be ambiguous. Viewers should walk away with different thoughts and that will be exciting to see; the dialogue that sparks from it because everyone is going to have their own opinion. Death is always a harsh punishment, especially when we got to see a glimmer of Bryce starting to change. But then one could argue that he has caused irreparable damage to so many people. We’ll leave that up to the viewers to walk away with what they walk away with.
When you got the final script and saw it was the triple-whammy of Zach, Jess and Alex in terms of the whodunit, how did you react?
When the penultimate episode ends with Zach confessing that he did it, I thought that it didn’t add up: “There’s something else going on here.” I always thought Jess might have been attached somehow, and I thought it was Alex. So I had part of the puzzle, but not all of it! It all made sense and came together in the end. I think they did a fantastic job with it and I would hope that viewers are excited in the way it ends in that it’s a nice payoff.
In the end, they all cover up for each other and get away with it. But knowing there’s another season, it could all unravel. What can you say about if Bryce will be involved in season four?
I don’t know in what capacity I’ll be in season four or if I will be in it. I hope so. I’d love to keep working with these wonderful people. All of the other seasons we’ve had flashbacks, so there could be the possibility. It would be an honor to come back. It would be great to do one more. But I guess we’ll have to see!
After playing this dark character for three years, are you looking forward to releasing him and leaving him behind?
I feel like we have put a nice bow on Bryce. Artistically as an actor, we played with the villain-esque side of him early on in the first couple of seasons and in season three we get to dive deeper and make him more human. I feel like we’ve kind of hit and explored all the different facets of Bryce. Moving on with my career, I feel like we put it all out there and we didn’t leave anything behind, which is comforting.
There is a vigilante message of people taking justice into their own hands. How do you anticipate the response will be to season three?
It’s important to keep in mind that this is a show and the events are dramatized. One of our main goals is to get people talking about these issues. But just because the characters act one particular way does not mean that’s the right way to go about it. But what raises a lot of these questions and creates a lot of the chaos within our show is these flawed high school characters. The characters that have been created are very much themselves flawed. All of them have their good side and bad side, which is what makes it so fascinating and interesting. That shouldn’t be a case study for what to do in these situations.
The third season of 13 Reasons Why is streaming on Netflix.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
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