Late in the second season of 13 Reasons Why, Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette) has an altercation with his school principal, Mr. Bolan (Steven Weber). Bolan has imposed a new rule at Liberty High that anyone talking about the suicide of Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) will be suspended. “Suicide contagion is a real thing, and we’ve got to take measures to protect you kids,” he says. Clay argues that Hannah’s death has started a conversation that the students desperately need to have, and that silence doesn’t protect them. “The most dangerous thing would be to believe Hannah’s suicide is more than a tragic death,” Bolan counters. “She’s not a hero. She does not have lessons to teach us.”
The exchange feels like a mea culpa on behalf of the writers and producers of 13 Reasons Why, albeit a loaded one. The first season of the series landed on Netflix with little fanfare just over a year ago and quickly became a phenomenon among teens, garnering the word-of-mouth acclaim and viral social-media popularity that the streaming service prizes over ratings. Then came the backlash. Mental-health experts and suicide-prevention campaigners charged that the show glamorized Hannah’s suicide, presenting it as a revenge fantasy. They criticized 13 Reasons Why for portraying her death in graphic, gory detail, counter to media guidelines for tackling the subject of suicide. The show also faced accusations that it inspired copycat deaths, and in July, a study published by JAMA Internal Medicine found that the series’s release corresponded with a rise in online search inquiries related to suicidal thoughts and methods.
Judging by the second season, which is released in its entirety on Friday, 13 Reasons Why has taken the criticism seriously, even if it still maintains that the show has started an important dialogue about mental health among teens. The back and forth between Clay and Mr. Bolan is just one instance of the series trying to redefine how the first season was interpreted. If Hannah was lionized in Season 1, both via her own narration and the way she was adored by her grieving friend Clay, Season 2 wants to complicate the narrative.
In part, this is a practical decision. 13 Reasons Why—which was developed by the playwright Brian Yorkey and includes the director Tom McCarthy and the performer Selena Gomez as producers—found a compelling star in Langford, an Australian actress who brought sensitivity and magnetic screen presence to Hannah in Season 1. Clearly the show didn’t want to let her go. And Hannah’s death isn’t the obvious obstacle it might seem, given that the first episode began a few weeks after her suicide and proceeded to work backwards in flashbacks. In keeping with the book it was based on by Jay Asher, 13 Reasons Why structured itself around 13 tapes Hannah recorded before her death, assigning each one to a reason—a person—who was partly responsible for her decision to end her life.
It was a dark and surprisingly toxic premise for a show targeting young adults. And it was meted out via cutesy analog technology and an awkwardly positioned romance between Hannah and Clay that had to be compelling enough to hook viewers but not so idyllic that it contradicted her tragic narrative. But the structure of the show worked; it spent each episode with a different character from Hannah’s tapes, and used Clay as the audience surrogate who was experiencing the tapes one by one. Season 2 tries to mimic the setup by organizing itself around a trial in which Hannah’s parents are suing Liberty High School, charging that it enabled the culture of bullying and abuse that led to Hannah’s death. Each episode deals with a different character’s testimony, re-creating events from points of view that often contradict Hannah’s.
Is it an easy way for 13 Reasons Why to rebut criticism that her suicide was presented as heroic? Absolutely. Is it convincing? Not at all. In some ways, Season 2 feels like fan fiction, imposing an entirely different storyline retroactively on characters whose arcs were persuasively defined the first time. It’s also trying to tackle the revelation that the privileged athlete Bryce Walker (Justin Prentice) was a serial sexual predator, as a variety of different characters attempt to get justice for Hannah. For the most part, Season 2 is thoughtful in the way it handles its characters’ lingering trauma (with one exception so shocking and so violent that it’s hard to comprehend who okayed it). The language it uses about sexual assault, and the nuanced ways in which it illustrates how money and power can insulate abusers, can be surprising. “Hannah’s gone, and she was sweet, and sensitive, and white,” Jessica (Alisha Boe) says in one scene, regarding her reluctance to speak up about her own assault. “Look at what they’re doing to her.”
Season 2 also sags less than the first season did, incorporating suspenseful subplots and side stories into the main arc of the trial. It still tends to feel like a fantasia of teenage life where 17-year-olds drive 1968 Mustangs, date adults, drink Scotch out of crystal glasses, and practice their street art in abandoned lofts, blissfully free of parental intrusion (they’re also all adorned with tapestries of tattoos). Grounding the absurdity is Minnette’s Clay, such a sweet and soulful kid that he sometimes feels like an empathetic alien or a particularly youthful-looking grandpa amid all the other teenagers at Liberty.
Season 2 is a worthy attempt at a do-over, if a flawed one. That’s until the final episode, when a plotline that’s been building over the past 12 episodes turns into a charged confrontation that undermines everything 13 Reasons Why has spent its second season doing. When a show demonstrates that it can listen, can absorb criticism, and can try earnestly to be responsible in the way it communicates serious issues to teenagers, is it better or worse when it throws everything out the window for the sake of a suspenseful cliffhanger? It’s a shame, and it implies Season 3 will have more criticism to plan its inevitable atonement around.
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