Note: This article contains discussion of potentially distressing themes, which include sexual assault, gun violence and suicide.
If the first season of 13 Reasons Why explored the bullying culture associated with enduring high school as an emotionally volatile teen, its successor not only continues to scrutinise this subject in greater depth, but it does so with a broad stroke of boldness and adds much needed complexity to the proceedings.
Picking up several months after Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) committed suicide and with the trial of her aggrieved parents versus Liberty High School having come to a standstill, things appear to be going well for our protagonist, Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette). Along with some help from Skye Miller (Sosie Bacon), a childhood sweetheart who he now is in a relationship with, he engages in carefree exploits like experimenting sexually and getting his first tattoo. After being accustomed to the principled if slightly monotonous Clay of the first season, these scenes reveal a refreshing side to his character; one in which counteracts the dark places he plummeted to in his pursuit of justice for Hannah and the tragic events that led her to her grave.
Lamentably however, this foray into pastures new does not last for long. Upon learning that not only has the trial been reinstated but that it is literally just around the corner, our protagonist is forced back into thick of things. In an equally depressing manner, life at Liberty High is becoming increasingly precarious for its students; they have been instructed not to talk about Hannah’s suicide or even broach the topic at the risk of disciplinary action. Moreover, what should be a safe space for growing adolescents is conversely also a place where a suspected rapist and his gaggle of devoted minions can go about tyrannizing their fellow students without facing any sort of consequence.
With this comes a burning sense of injustice as we realise how the parents who entrust the school with the care of their children are being let down in an absolutely monumental way. Sadly this is reflective of real life events, where hackneyed attitudes towards mental health issues or simply an ill-judged desire to shelter children from the outside world takes precedence over an approach which could actually prepare them for their futures.
The trial itself is enthralling to watch as we witness familiar faces from the first season taking to the stand and telling their stories of their interactions with Hannah. The fact that each episode is narrated by the character who is under scrutiny is a curious, if laboured attempt to emulate the narrative structure of the first season while providing a fresh perspective on Hannah’s story. Yet despite its heavy handed execution (sometimes it feels as though their individual voices are sacrificed for the sake of plot progression!), you cannot help but feel sympathy for the majority of them.
Jessica Davis (Alisha Boe) is a noteworthy standout – as a victim of rape and sexual assault, the way in which she attempts to move on with her life comes across as not only courageous but heartbreakingly sincere. It is clear that she not only feels somewhat responsible for Hannah’s death, but believes it to her moral duty to ensure that what happened to her does not happen to anyone else. From another perspective, the various testimonies provided by characters such as Courtney Crimsen (Michele Selene Ang) and Ryan Shaver (Tommy Dorfman) highlight just how emotionally turbulent life can be for teenagers at school.
Interestingly there seems to be an underlying pattern regarding how these characters act around their peers that is not just limited to their gender identity, ethnicity or sexuality, but on their status in the school social hierarchy. Furthermore, it is important to keep in mind how these characters are just teenagers, and so more often than not their communications with Hannah involved a simple misunderstanding or misjudged action/choice of words as opposed to an intent to cause actual harm.
Yet almost paradoxically, 13 Reasons Why can be criticised for failing to place Hannah’s character in a favourable light due to the accusatory nature of these scenes. This is a problem that is not helped by the sudden and inexplicable manifestation of her ghostly apparition to Clay – of whom only he can see and converse with. It risks coming across as a clunky piece of needless exposition and a forced attempt to keep the character at the heart of the story, even when her death massively influences the flow of events already.
However, this is salvaged somewhat as this peculiar relationship between a deceased girl and her former lover transcends into something far more profound and captivating as the season goes on. It’s almost as if by seeing Clay interact with Hannah and saying things that we wish he could have told her while she was alive is a form of catharsis in itself! One thought-provoking moment even depicts Hannah telling a frustrated and emotionally vulnerable Clay ‘you heard my story the way I wanted it to be told, but there’s always another side to every story’, which certainly is an ongoing theme throughout the season.
On another note, it would be imprudent to ignore the other plot strands that are just as central to the show’s message. In particular, characters such as Alex Standall (Miles Heizer) and Tyler Down (Devin Druid) are given their time in the spotlight – and with good reason. Having been revealed to have survived his suicide attempt via gunshot to the head, Alex is desperate to piece together the remnants of his former life. After convincing a hesitant Tyler to show him the images of his bloody injuries while he was in hospital, it is significant how the audience is only privy to his facial reactions as opposed to seeing the images themselves – images which would undoubtedly have been of a graphic nature!
This in turn begs the question as to why the show’s writers chose to shy away from depicting certain scenes of a lurid nature whilst being very candid regarding others. Yet, perhaps in light of the criticism that the first season of 13 Reasons Why faced for its supposed gratuitous depiction of violence, this is likely a well considered move and one that arguably pays off in the long run.
Furthermore, it is arguable that gunshot wounds are something audiences are exposed to within film and television on an almost routine basis, and so arguably we have become desensitized to scenes of that nature. For a sense of comparison, there is a scene of male-on-male sexual assault in the finale that is depicted in an extremely brutal and hard-hitting fashion. Since scenes of this nature are rarely depicted on screen (especially in such an unrelenting and upsetting way) this may explain the adverse reaction it has received. Executive producer Brian Yorkey even came out to defend the decision to air this particular segment, stating that it is in the spirit of the show to bring under-reported crimes out into the open.
Speaking of under-reported crimes, while it can be argued that Prentice’s Bryce is overwhelmingly responsible for Hannah’s decision to take her own life, the lines are blurred as how far each character and their words/actions otherwise contributed towards her untimely demise, and this makes for an intriguing format that sets this season of 13 Reasons Why apart from its predecessor.
Subsequently, if there’s one thing the second season excels in, it is its portrayal of subjectivity and how one character’s perspective of an experience, albeit be it a tragic one, is and never can be the complete and unbiased truth. In this way the show encourages us to be more aware of the way in which we converse with others and realise how even the minutest of actions or words can have a negative impact on emotionally vulnerable individuals.
This would seem to be the point of the show and what it has set out to achieve from the offset. Keeping this line of thinking in mind, while placing Hannah’s character on a pedestal and absolving her of all responsibility for her death would have made her a suitable martyr to champion the plight of those mentally afflicted with pain and suffering, perhaps life is simply more complicated than that. Perhaps life is not compromised of heroes and villains or oppressors and victims. Instead maybe this is a peculiar existence that is thrust upon each and every one of us and one that entails a myriad of complexities in regards to the way in which we approach the people and world around us.
It is for this reason that 13 Reasons Why is not really Hannah’s story anymore. Aside from the obvious fact of her being deceased, the ethos of this season of is that, at least in some form, Hannah’s story is in fact everybody’s story; the main difference being that while Hannah’s reached an untimely end, this fate does not need to befall anyone else – providing that lessons are learnt from the tragedy.
‘No matter how many reasons there are, there are always more reasons why not’
What is your opinion of 13 Reasons Why: Season 2? Did it deliver? Was it even necessary to make in the first place?
On another note, should the show be a vehicle of social engineering designed to inspire change in light of those who suffer with mental distress? Or should it be viewed primarily as a source of entertainment first and as a resource for raising awareness of mental health issues second? Let me know your thoughts in the comment section below.
13 Reasons Why: Season 2 is now available for viewing on Netflix
Emotional support helplines:
Samaritans :116 123
Rethink Mental Illness advice line 0300 5000 927 (Monday to Friday 09:30-16:00; local rate)
Sane Line:0845 767 8000
Mind also has a useful guide of support and services, which can be found by clicking the link right here