‘13 Reasons Why’: Season 2 of the Teen Suicide Drama Gets Off to a Rocky Start
Netflix’s popular and controversial series returns this week. The first half of Season Two has some growing pains, but no teen drama tackles such dark themes this well.
There’s a new subgenre of television these days. Call it the “Wait, How the Hell Are They Going to Make Another Season of That?” genre.
We’re not talking about Roseanne, Will & Grace, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and the spate of nostalgic revivals. We’re talking about series like The Handmaid’s Tale, Big Little Lies, and, starting Friday when Season Two premieres on Netflix, 13 Reasons Why. These are series based on books with finite endings that were renewed for future seasons once a convocation of miracles took place: They were considered to be both very good and very popular, in an age when the best most series can do is hope to be the former and hopelessly pray for the latter.
Scripted endings are no longer conclusions. They’re season finales.
We get it. There are more TV shows than there are days in the year (really). So when a show manages to actually win the horserace among hundreds striving to get noticed, you don’t celebrate by sending it off to pasture.
In other ways, though, studio execs are becoming storm chasers. After trapping lightning in a bottle once, they start running around in thunderstorms with overflowing recycling bins in their arms, trying to capture it again. Not impossible, but unlikely.
And so here we are with 13 Reasons Why season two, arriving a full year after its first run, which was adapted from Jay Asher’s best-selling novel and executive produced by Selena Gomez. It quickly became one of Netflix’s most popular original series, the first streaming series to engage a voracious teen audience and, during its reign in the zeitgeist, one of the most controversial. The entire season led up to the graphic and, some argued, dangerous depiction of its lead character’s suicide.
Season one was concerned with who to blame for Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) taking her own life, a question that in and of itself irked mental health professionals who cautioned against the instinct to assign culpability for a person’s suicide. Season two chronicles the fallout.
It’s five months later, and the lawsuit that Hannah’s parents (Briany D’Arcy James and Kate Walsh, the latter giving an award-worthy portrait of grief) have filed against her school for its role in her death is finally going to trial. One by one, the students we met last season are being called to testify, an already torturous experience complicated by the fact that someone is trying to bully them into keeping quiet about what they know about Hannah’s death.
Thematically, the show seems to have learned from the controversy surrounding the broad ways it handled big themes last season. The teens’ conversations as they face their nerves and their own demons before taking the stand are remarkably nuanced and enlightening.
It’s rare for a television series to confront teenage bullying, sexual assault, and the systemic misogyny that female students face, but even rarer for one to explore the real consequences of these things. Last season, it did so through Hannah’s struggle. Now it’s through the other students and their own reckonings with what happened and how they behaved.
The first season had egregious pacing problems—the amount of narrative bloat in the nearly hour-long episodes made a good case for there being only 6 or 7 Reasons Why—but it was those conversations and the close study of a teenage girl’s mental distress that made the show something remarkable. An issue that would be reduced to a Very Special Episode in even the most honest of teen dramas was granted 13 full hours of space and the sensitivity to be explored meaningfully.
But without Asher’s book as a guide, there’s a sprawling messiness that can make getting through season two’s episodes even more of a slog than before.
The severity of the stakes in season one were laid out in the first minutes. A girl has committed suicide, and the culture at the school she attended—patterns of behavior so many are unknowingly complicit in—played a part in her decision to do so.
She’s left behind 13 cassette tapes, in which she narrates the transgressions of those who knew her, each a piece to the most tragic puzzle, the details of which kept you invested through the season’s horrifying conclusion. Each “welcome to your tape” was, in a way, scandalizing. As we’ve gotten to know these characters, it was traumatizing to learn how they were party to a girl’s suffering.
Each episode of season two, at least the seven we screened for this review, is loosely structured around the student who is testifying in the trial that day, while the rest of the characters are in a constant state of panic and frustration. The panic is over whether the witness of the day will divulge the truth about what they did to contribute to Hannah’s death. The frustration is over the witnesses who seem to lie and mischaracterize Hannah in order to exonerate themselves.
Those court scenes are when the episodes are the most intriguing. It is excruciating to see the ways in which pictures, anecdotes, facts, and, more often, lies are used by lawyers to spin false truths, excuse heinous actions, and vilify a sweet young girl with normal whims and vices as an asking-for-it jezebel who cried depression and killed herself for attention. It’s gross, and yet pathetically believable. Given how the manipulation and distortion of information resonates in the real world today, these are fascinating, if uncomfortable scenes.
But while there was a clear engine driving the first season—13 reasons that built on each other and revealed shocking truths and secrets about the characters—there’s nothing to push the narrative gas pedal in this first half of season two. You’re spending hours and hours watching characters wait for something to happen, for something shocking to come out of the trial. You’re waiting, too.
The collateral damage of this framing is Hannah herself. The broad premise of the season and the trial is the pursuit of justice for Hannah, but in turning the attention to the students who are racked with guilt, paranoia, or denial over what happened, they collectively become the victims.
Hannah still appears in the season in flashbacks and as a ghost who alternately haunts and mentors Clay (Dylan Minnette) as he embarks on one of the season’s most resonant plots. Crude jock Bryce (Justin Prentice), who sexually assaulted both Hannah and her friend Jessica (Alisha Boe), has escaped punishment completely, and Clay wants to ensure that doesn’t happen.
The trauma Jessica suffers in the wake of her assault and the ways in which she tries to grapple with it and share parts of it publicly is easily the standout storyline of the first half of the season, and the one handled with the most care.
In fact, the strength of her storyline exposes how thinly this season spreads itself across far too many other subplots, tackling a kitchen sink of issues including: cutting, drug use, homelessness, slut-shaming, cyberbullying, school violence, survivor’s guilt, mental illness, economic privilege, the justice system, school system failure, sexuality, gender norms, corporate silencing, and even just teenage hormones.
Many characters start reframing their own agendas and issues with Hannah’s case, using “doing it for Hannah” as justification for their own means. That’s not a criticism of the season, but praise for it as a reminder of the reality of our own crass instincts. (An advocate played by Kelli O’Hara who arrives to help Walsh’s Mrs. Baker through the trial but who clearly has her own self-serving goals is the literal embodiment of that recurring theme.)
This is a show that mostly succeeds at blurring the lines between protagonists and villains, to the point that we’re even forced to sit through the character assassination of Hannah in court and question what we thought we knew about her. The students, the parents, and even the school administrators are portrayed as human byproducts of a system that dictates their behavior, often without them knowing.
It’s a show that captures the emotional truth of life as a modern teenager in high school. But tonally, it lives in a gray area between verisimilitude and cartoon. Soapier elements introduced in season two bring the show a lot closer to Riverdale than we were expecting, but it remains grounded because it constantly reminds us of the impetus for the show and the story’s existence: a girl has committed suicide.
We can’t really know the extent to which anyone at Netflix or on the creative team was prepared for how seriously people would take the show and its themes. (A tone-deaf, controversial tweet riffing on the “welcome to your tape” meme wasn’t the brightest moment in the show’s push.)
After debates ensued over the responsibility of depicting Hannah’s suicide so realistically, the new season opens with a PSA on the series’ themes and a trigger warning for those who might be struggling from certain issues. Each episode ends with a voiceover directing viewers to crisis resources.
We mentioned stakes earlier, and that voiceover is a reminder in each episode of the value of this show and the conversations it starts. It wasn’t until the latter episodes of the first season that the show’s power really presented itself, as various loose threads finally wove together. Season two is once again 13 episodes, of which we’ve only seen the first half. While not entirely convinced thus far of the wisdom in bringing the show back, we’re optimistic that a show with this much noble ambition can pull it together to prove itself again.
Stay tuned for more coverage after you—and we—have had time to binge the full season, which debuts Friday, May 18.