Megan McLachlan talks with Brenda Strong about Season 3 of Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why and what the show says about inherited family trauma.
As much as Season 3 of Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why is Bryce’s story, it’s also all about his mother Nora Walker’s family and the dysfunctional dealings that lead to tragedy.
Veteran TV actress Brenda Strong, who portrays Walker, adds a level of adult depth to a show that mostly revolves around the teenagers at Liberty High. She’s heartbreaking as she deals with a missing son, a cruel father, and questions that remain unanswered.
I had the chance to chat with Strong about the criticism that Season 3 has faced, the research she did about schools and tragedies, and her thoughts on the story’s narration (as a two-time Emmy voice-over nominee for Desperate Housewives).
Awards Daily: When we first see Nora Walker in Season 3 of 13 Reasons Why, she’s searching for her missing son, Bryce (Justin Prentice), a character who’s done some terrible things over the course of the series. What do you think about some of the criticism of Season 3, the idea that the character of Bryce receives undeserved redemption?
Brenda Strong: I honestly don’t think it was the goal of the writers to redeem Bryce. I don’t think that was ever the goal. I think the goal was to potentially expose the complexities of human nature, the fact that no one is only one thing and that there are a lot of factors that contribute to behavior whether it’s nature, whether it’s nurture, whether it’s a whole family history of trauma. I think it’s not as simplistic as saying that redemption was the goal. I don’t think that that is the case. And I think in Season 3, what you’ll find is not only do the people that we would project as bad behavers have moments of humanity but also people who we deem as good behavers have moments of duplicity and darkness. So I think more than anything, it’s to really open up the conversation about humanity, and how it’s not just black and white. It’s truly grey.
AD: Through flashbacks, Bryce seems to have a strained relationship with his mother. What do you think has caused that? He still clearly loves her, when he defends her against his grandfather.
BS: A history of neglect. I did a lot of research with family constellation therapy and Mark Wolynn who actually wrote a book called It Didn’t Start With You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How To End the Cycle. The Hellinger Institute has been exploring inherited family trauma for years and how there are certain patterns. For instance, when I found out that Nora had postpartum depression, that made so much sense, that the disconnect, the level of abandonment that a child would feel when it can’t look to its mother for a sense of connection, actually has a repercussive effect later on when that boy then starts to have relationships with young women. It’s almost textbook. And when you look at these kind of scenarios that are set up, you realize that in some respects, Bryce didn’t even have a choice. Because of the disconnection from his mother, there was going to be a violence toward women, or lack of authentic connection with women. You start to realize that this is just reality playing itself out. It’s not even theatricality. It’s how things work and then you have to work against the circumstances and hopefully you get to find the love there, because whenever you have any characters, you’re constantly looking for the love even if it’s a difficult situation.
AD: Yeah, I think that really comes through, too. Did you do any research on parents and schools coping with tragedies?
BS: Yes, I did. Season 2 started the research. I researched parents who had children who had committed crimes, whether it was murder or rape or other societal harm, and there’s so much grief associated with it and the impact on the parental unit is extreme strain whenever a child is dysfunctional in any capacity. it challenges the marital unit, it challenges a person’s sense of safety in the world. There’s that old saying, ‘You can only be as happy as your unhappiest child.’ So there’s a lot of grief. The reactions that I studied with parents were those of just feeling extreme exhaustion, almost like the weight of the world is too much to bear. I tried to incorporate as much as I could authentically into Nora’s response to this. Obviously, there’s the injustice that fueled her, but there’s also the exhaustion of all of the years of her own failings she’s having to reconcile with Bryce’s disappearance and the fact that she didn’t act soon enough. So there’s a lot of regret, a lot of grief, a lot of pain. There’s also weirdly a sense of liberation that I think she finally comes to, which is dealing with the truth and not trying to bury it. So it’s a very interesting journey that she goes through. I would even dare to say continues to go through, because I don’t think it ever ends.
AD: Nora tells Chloe (Anne Winters) about how Bryce’s grandfather was a bad man, Bryce’s father was a bad man, and now Bryce could be even worse than them both. Do you think Nora blames herself at all? Do you really think she thinks Bryce is bad?
BS: I think she’s seeing the family pattern and seeing that he’s set up to fall in step with his patriarchy, whether it’s his father or his grandfather. In a lot of ways, she’s protecting Chloe in that moment from an inevitable history that she sees as potentially repeating itself. I love the line when she says, ‘I’ve lost the capacity to lie,’ because really what she is speaking is truth and for the first time that truly sets her free. She is no longer stuck in the story of her history; she is willing to take a stand for how she wants to connect to the future. And that’s a powerful place. When a character has ‘no more fucks to give,’ that’s a dangerous character. And Nora in that moment becomes dangerous and also powerful because for the first time in her life she’s not placating or falling into ‘I have to behave in a certain way in order to keep the family history alive.’ She’s freed herself by asking for a divorce, by standing against a pattern that she sees as damaging. And actually it is Bryce that gives her the strength to leave the family dynamic and take a stand for having an ability to cause a different outcome for his future. I think she knows that if Chloe is pregnant, which she suspects, that she’s going to fall into the same pattern that she did, which is being stuck in this dysfunctional family, and she doesn’t want that for her or Bryce, because she knows he’s not ready.
AD: You seem to frequently be a part of projects with important narrators, as you narrated Desperate Housewives. On this season of 13 Reasons Why we’re introduced to Ani (Grace Saif), a new student, as a narrator. What do you think it is about a new narrator every season that helps support this story? What would this show look like without a narrator?
BS: I think narration is such an interesting device because it creates point of view, and in this particular season, the point of view is from someone who doesn’t know all of the story, who doesn’t know the history. So it creates a fresh point of view with which to see the characters without all of their history and their baggage. I think that really helped in the humanizing of the characters and seeing the people for who they are and how they behave in this current time, rather than from their actions in the past. I personally think narration is a really cool device because you get to give the audience a window into someone’s psychology that is deeper and actually creates a lot of compassion for the characters. I know for myself, for Desperate Housewives, when you would watch the series without the narration, it wasn’t nearly as emotional as it was with the narration, because you could really get inside the characters’ deepest longings and deepest failings, and also shape how the audience should be holding each of these characters. So I think it’s a really cool device when used properly, when it’s adding to a full and complete story.
AD: Nora’s father scolds her for the way she raises her son. “Boys need to blow off steam. Give them space.” What do you think this show says about young men growing up right now?
BS: I think we are in the dying gasps of the idea of how boys should be as a society. I think we’re seeing the dysfunction and lack of fulfilling role-playing. I know in my particular generation, men have become much more than their jobs. Men have become caregivers. A lot of men have decided they don’t want to be in the workplace and have become full-time caregivers to children, which in past generations would have been looked on as weak or not acceptable. I think ultimately what we’re trying to do is smash through stereotypes because women are capable of so much more than we’ve been afforded in our history and men are capable of so much more depth and complexity emotionally than they’ve been allowed to show in the past. This whole idea of ‘boys should’ and ‘girls should’ should be extricated from our conversation. The word ‘should’ should be struck, because the truth is we’re all much more complex than our gender. I think now with gender shifting in current generations, I think we’re seeing that we’re much more complex than our gender identity and I’m hoping that we can look back on these role-playing things as constrictive and not helpful to our own humanity.
All seasons of 13 Reasons Why are now streaming on Netflix.