How 13 Reasons Why season 4 failed Zach Dempsey

The controversial show's final season didn't deal with Zach's self-destructive behaviour in a satisfying or responsible way, says Lauren Morris.

13 REASONS WHY (L TO R) TYLER BARNHARDT as CHARLIE SAINT and ROSS BUTLER as ZACH DEMPSEY in episode 410 of 13 REASONS WHY Cr. DAVID MOIR/NETFLIX © 2020

The much-anticipated final season of 13 Reasons Why premiered on Friday, bringing to a close the Liberty High gang’s high school experience and sending them off to college.

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Throughout the season, we saw the group resolve various issues that had plagued them across the show’s run – Clay sought support with his mental health, Alex dealt with the guilt of killing Bryce and Justin managed to kick his heroin addiction (before tragically passing away in the series finale).

But there was one character who didn’t get the same pay-off or catharsis: we never saw fan-favourite Zach Dempsey (Ross Butler) properly overcome his demons after spending the entirety of season four in a self-destructive downwards spiral, and after everything Zach went through, he deserved better from the 13 Reasons Why writers.

In the build-up to season four, showrunner Brian Yorkey teased fans by saying that Zach would be taken to a place he “had not expected” this series, as the character would develop in an “interesting” way. Despite these incredibly vague hints from the show’s boss, viewers were excited to see what would happen to Zach, especially as the events of season three would have left him with some trauma to unpack.

Not only did his best friend-turned-enemy Bryce Walker die, but he played a big hand in his death, having brutally beaten him up before Alex Standall pushed him into the river. On top of that big fat guilt, Zach was also dealing with his unrequited feelings for Bryce’s ex Chloe, the deaths of his former lover Hannah Baker, friend Monty de la Cruz and his father, as well as the fact that his future football career was in tatters after a fight with Bryce left him permanently injured.

13 REASONS WHY (L to R) ROSS BUTLER as ZACH DEMPSEY and MILES HEIZER as ALEX STANDALL in episode 408 of 13 REASONS WHY Cr. DAVID MOIR/NETFLIX © 2020

As season four unfolded, it looked as if Zach was paying a psychological price for his experiences from the seasons before. In episode one, he arrived drunk to Justin Foley’s ‘welcome home from rehab’ party, and from then on, Zach would stagger into every scene with a hip flask in hand, no matter what time it was. School? Drunk. Camping trip? Drunk. College tour? Drunk. The Find Your Drink part? Even more drunk.

While his constant intoxication was never properly confronted by any of his friends throughout season four, despite the fact that they spent the whole season reiterating how they always look out for each other, Zach’s new penchant for alcohol led him to bad decision-making. He let a drunk Clay drive them home from a party in his car, resulting in even more injuries for Zach, a wrecked car and legal bills after Clay flees from the scene, while in a later episode, he’s beaten to a pulp by Diego after falsely telling him that he was the one who killed Bryce.

Although Zach should be in an intensive care unit at this point after all the physical trauma he’s endured, he drunkenly smashes up the school during a school walk-out and in the penultimate episode, takes an escort to prom, with the pair spending most of the night taking cocaine in the school toilets.

13 Reasons Why - Zach (Ross Butler)
DAVID MOIR/NETFLIX

Zach’s drunken antics are used as light relief, sandwiched between Clay’s mental breakdowns and huge, dramatic events such as the traumatic school shooting drill or the Valentine’s Day prank. While Zach technically is given a happy ending, with the school offering him a coaching job before he eventually decides to pursue music at university, this resolution feels like an after-thought – as if the writers forgot about Zach’s story arc and needed to find a way to quickly wrap up that remaining loose end.

It is implied in the final episode that Zach no longer needs to turn to the bottle for emotional support, but this ending feels forced and inauthentic. We spent 10 episodes watching Clay’s journey through therapy with Dr. Ellman as he initially resisted the process before deciding to completely open up – why couldn’t the writers have given Zach a similarly gradual acceptance of the equally traumatic events that he  faced throughout high school?

The rest of the group, in particular his best friend Alex, could have staged an intervention for Zach in an earlier episode, or we could have seen a teacher reach out to him in the same way that Deputy Sheriff Ted did with Tony and boxing.

The final season of 13 Reasons Why could have developed Zach’s story in a more helpful and educational way, especially when dealing with topics such as alcoholism and trauma, but the show sadly failed him as a character.

If you have been affected by the issues raised in this article, contact Samaritans for free from any phone at any time of the day or night on 116 123

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13 Reasons Why seasons 1-4 are now available on Netflix – check out our lists of the best TV shows on Netflix and the best movies on Netflix, or see what else is on with our TV Guide