Synopsis – Follows teenager Clay Jensen, in his quest to uncover the story behind his classmate and crush, Hannah, and her decision to end her life.
Episodes – S02E01 to S02E13
My Take – Last year, Netflix released a teen suicide drama called ‘13 Reasons Why‘, and exploded into a bona fide cultural phenomenon, all the while launching a thousand think pieces and becoming one of the streaming service’s most-binged shows. Based on Jay Asher‘s novel, with Selena Gomez as an executive producer, the season told the story of Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford), a beautiful high schooler who commits suicide and leaves behind a series of cassette tapes, which are addressed to family, friends, flings, and her rapist, detailing the reasons to end her life and their direct/indirect influence on her death, all while dealing with timely and difficult themes, terrible teen issues, ranging from bullying to sexual assault and, of course, suicide.
But along with the buzz came controversy—a lot of it. Mental health professionals took issue with how these grave problems were addressed on screen: Even as the show’s creators argued it was designed to create conversation and, thus, prevent suicide, some accused it of feeding suicidal tendencies—from Hannah’s accusatory tapes to the graphic depiction of the suicide itself. Some parents accused 13 Reasons of actually inspiring their own children to kill or attempt to kill themselves. Nevertheless, the success prompted Netflix to produce a second season, by delving into questions left behind in the first season and tries to weave an elaborate story behind the toxic culture in Liberty High School. In the process, it veers far away from the original story to give a wholesome picture of the events that led to Hannah’s suicide.
Creator Brian Yorkey has also tried to address some of those concerns, posting trigger warnings at the beginning of some episodes and offering a bevy of services, from discussion guides to crisis hotline numbers and addresses. In the sense, this season is as concerning as the first, if not more so, as this is a show built upon raw emotion, for better and for worse, which has made it so electric for viewers, despite its flaws. It’s a show about when the worst happens and how we try to cope with it, a trend that continues in Season 2, albeit in unexpected ways.
This season puts more focus about endemic problems with society and shines a light on the shit young people have to deal with on a daily basis. On that merit alone it should get another season and possibly 13 more. Taking place five months after the tragic death of Hannah Baker, we find ourselves back at Liberty High for season two, and it’s a relentlessly bleak place to be. With students still wracked with guilt and grief following the events of season one, the familiar faces drift about listlessly between classes and attending the ongoing trial that Olivia Baker (Kate Walsh), Hannah’s mother has filed against the school for not doing enough to save her daughter.
Every day, another student is dragged to the court’s witness stand, unveiling the raw, sometimes bitter truth of Hannah’s descent into despair and revealing uncomfortable truths about themselves in the process. Meanwhile, Hannah’s closest friend Clay (Dylan Minnette) is trying to move on. He’s got a new girlfriend in bubbly yet troubled Skye Miller (Sosie Bacon), and seems happy. But his reality begins to crumble once again when he finds evidence that Hannah was probably not the only raped by baseball caption and popular jock, Byrce Walker (Justin Prentice). To make matters worse, he’s targeted by a mysterious vigilante who threatens the witnesses to keep them quiet.
This season focuses less on Hannah and more on Clay and his classmates’ road to recovery: Tyler (Devin Druid) makes a new, rebellious friend, Zach (Ross Butler) still looking for a way to stand up to Bryce, Tony (Christian Navarro) tries his hardest to stay out of trouble in order to comply to his parole, Jessica (Alisha Boe) is still dealing with the memory of being raped by Bryce and is still confronting her feels on how to deal with it and move on with her normal live, while Alex (Miles Heizer) having survived his suicide attempt is still reeling with the aftermath. Each plot line is compelling and more complex than in last season. They each, and not Hannah, provide the narration for their episode. It’s more courtroom drama than high-school flick but makes for a welcome change after season one’s restrictive format. Each character’s account of their actions forced viewers to reappraise what they thought they knew about the events of season one. Along with Clay, sometimes we learned some uncomfortable truths.
Each episode begins with a lengthy disclaimer that features the main cast reciting a visual trigger warning of sorts, informing the potential audience of what’s to come, and even going as far to suggest that those who suffer from depression, suicidal idealization, or trauma related to acts of sexual violence consider not watch the program. Each episode ends with a message suggesting viewers visit 13reasonswhy.info, a site that offers a variety of crisis resources. All of this makes for a wonderful initiative—it’s crucial to have conversations around topics still largely viewed as taboo, and to give young people the resources and vocabulary to express and work through mental illness.
In addition to those moments, Season 2 attempts to tackle self-mutilation, the relationship between sex and grief, denial, addiction, guns, deception, infidelity, homelessness, consent, bullying, cat fishing, homophobia, and the legal system. Meanwhile, there are lengthy monologues in court about how reputation manifests differently for boys and girls in society, an important message that works far better when illustrated rather than lectured. However, the show remains remarkable mainly as the latest season takes a look at that bigger picture, literally. We are no longer led by Hannah’s narration, rather the narrative is shaped around the testimonies of the classmates and the previously unseen photographs that are being unearthed as legal proceedings unfold.
The pictures indicate that Hannah may not have been alone in her plight. While her absence from the series leaves a big void, but creator Brian Yorkey, who adapted the series, finds a clever way to keep us thinking about Hannah through Clay’s eyes. However, the void is too big to fill, even when you see bits and pieces of Hannah’s life coming together. But this isn’t the boldest choice of Season 2, instead, that would be the decision to not just reopen parts of Hannah’s story, for example, she herself was a bully in a previous school and she ended up doing things which one would come as a big shock.
By directly challenge her original version of events with new facts, including previously unknown relationships that change our understanding of the events of Season 1. At least one of these choices is the lynch pin for one of the season’s best episodes, focused on Zach, who had a more reliable take on events between them. Yes, the tapes that Hannah recorded for her fellow students in season one were difficult to hear, because while on the one hand the loss of a beautiful young woman was never far from our minds, neither was the thought that perhaps this is the most upsetting and unique form of torture ever displayed in a teen drama. But your heart still bled for the high-schoolers whose interactions with Hannah involved a misunderstanding or conflict that most of us will recognize from those tumultuous teenage years. While some of the characters deserved to be held to account for their unforgivable actions, others hurt Hannah accidentally in the course of navigating their own personal problems and did not deserve to be led on a guilt-fueled goose chase that would haunt them into their later years.
You only had to see the state of Clay, our ultimately well-meaning protagonist, to understand the effect of such blame. And that’s saying nothing of Alex, who is driven to the same tragic act in the wake of Hannah’s taped suicide note. The series also does a fine job in breaking down the overwhelming support that athletes get from the school authorities and how it leads to some of them turning into bullies, since there’s no one around to question their authority. But Jessica’s story has been the standout star of season two, and her depiction of Jessica’s road to recovery has been utterly believable. Here, the makes depict brilliantly how many sexual assault survivors there are (it even has its own #MeToo moment) while also showing how sexual predators like Bryce are able to get away with their crimes over, and over again.
In one of the highlight scenes of the finale, Jessica is finally testifying in court against her rapist Bryce, and recounts her experience in harrowing detail: “I will never forget the sheer terror of feeling your weight on top of me.” Abruptly, Jessica turns into Hannah, who committed suicide in the wake of her own assault by Bryce. Then it’s Nina (Samantha Logan), then Courtney (Michele Selene Ang), and Mack (Chelsea Alden), and Hannah’s mother Olivia, and Clay’s mother Lainie (Amy Hargreaves); almost the entire female cast of the show, all revealing their separate experiences of sexual assault. Significantly Lainie recalls a male colleague inviting her over to his hotel room to work and “answering the door in a bathrobe,” in an overt reference to Harvey Weinstein‘s alleged MO. Justin’s narrative too, so inextricably linked with Jessica’s, made for captivating and important viewing, especially when we remember back to how he was introduced in season one as just another attractive jock.
It makes the ending, with Jessica and Justin united in their trial case against Bryce, all the more important. Which brings us to Tyler, and the finale scene which has perpetuated the show’s reputation for deliberate provocation. A perennial outcast with a creepy history of photographing female students both with and without their consent, Tyler has spent most of this season fighting back against the jocks alongside fellow misfit Cyrus (Bryce Cass), culminating in a grand final gesture where they burn the word “RAPISTS” into the baseball field. After a stint at a behavioral diversion program, Tyler returned to school with a new sense of calm and purpose—until a gang of vengeful jocks, led by Monty (Timothy Granaderos) accosted him in the school bathroom and sexually assaulted him with a broken mop handle. The scene is extraordinarily graphic and difficult to watch, and has sparked a similar level of controversy as season 1’s excruciating suicide sequence. In the wake of this, Tyler is shattered enough to follow through on a threat that’s been looming ever since his stockpile of guns was introduced last season, and drives to the high school Spring Fling with a loaded rifle and several handguns.
This dance is specifically marked as happening on April 20, the same day as the Columbine massacre, and this is not the only deliberate parallel drawn to that event. Depicting a school shooting onscreen remains deeply taboo (though they arguably shouldn’t be, when they are a near-weekly occurrence in America) and having the threat loom over the season as 13 Reasons Why does seems designed to bait controversy. And yet the finale wraps up on a strange scene that could almost be called wholesome: Tyler does not go through with the shooting, or even get inside the building. Instead he’s intercepted by Clay, who persuades him not to go through with it. It’s a little corny and a little rushed, but it’s also an ending that chooses anticlimax over drama, and hope over despair. For all that season two gets right, there are as many things it gets wrong. For example, it’s far more violent than its predecessor and the show’s attitude to guns is troubling. Little is done to highlight the dangers of possessing a weapon and one scene feels similar to an advert for NRA membership.
However, the biggest problem that Season 2 doesn’t really confront is where exactly the show goes from here; how much more mileage there is in this car. Hannah’s death may be in the past now, and while there are a few key twists to the season that keep the action from being all about one girl’s suicide, the fact remains that it’s still the event that drives the series, to the degree where you wonder if we’re ever going to be able to move on. As you must have all figured out by now, this is not a show that specializes in nuance; there are a few key sequences that trip so badly into cliche that you almost expect a complete reversal on the tropes, because really, the writers really wouldn’t do that, right? The answer is yes, the writers would, to a degree that’s almost insulting. But again, this is not a show that deals in subtleties. After the release of Season 1 was criticized by many for its initial lack of engagement with the very real issues investigated; Season 2, meanwhile, ends every episode with a reminder and link to additional resources for those who might be in crisis.
There’s a new engagement with the need to tell this story responsibly, and the creators are to be admired for that. Once again, the young cast are impressive. Led by Dylan Minnette, the cast comprising of Christian Navarro, Brandon Flynn, Justin Prentice, Miles Heizer, Ross Butler and Devin Druid are in top form, but ultimately Alisha Boe walks away with best performance of the lot. Here, Boe‘s performance is heartbreaking and sincere, and inspires admiration, not just of her but of the character too. In supporting roles, Anne Winters, Ajiona Alexus, Tommy Dorfman, Bryce Cass, Sosie Bacon, Timothy Granaderos, Brian d’Arcy James, Steven Weber, Mark Pellegrino, Allison Miller, Samantha Logan and Steven Silver also shine. Kate Walsh does the, most heavy lifting as Hannah’s broken mother, while Derek Luke also manages to squeeze in a gut-wrenching turn as Hannah’s guilt-ridden guidance counselor. Despite a minute role this time around, Katherine Langford is excellent. On the whole, ‘13 Reasons Why‘ Season 2 continues the absolutely honest and hopeful story set in the earlier season, and despite its shortcomings makes up by being more smarter and considerate.
Creator – Brian Yorkey
Status – Season 2 (Completed)
Network – Netflix