The second season of 13 Reasons Why begins with the suggestion that, perhaps, you shouldn’t watch it.
In a video disclaimer that precedes the first episode, several of the show’s stars appear out of character to explain that, just like season one, the series will deal with potentially disturbing subject matter, including sexual assault, substance abuse, and teen suicide.
“If you are struggling with these issues yourself, this series may not be right for you,” says actress Alisha Boe, who plays Jessica, a cheerleader who, in the first season, was raped by the most popular guy in school. “Or you may want to watch it with a trusted adult.”
This is honest guidance that, coupled with the crisis-resource-driven website 13reasonswhy.info, which is mentioned at the end of each episode, represents Netflix’s attempt to frame the series in a more responsible manner. But here’s some even more honest guidance: Even if you or someone you care about is not currently struggling with those aforementioned issues, the second season of this series still may not be right for you. While it contains some touching moments as well as tender performances from its ensemble cast, the second season of 13 Reasons Why is, above all else, a string of 13 episodes struggling to justify their existence.
The first season, adapted by Brian Yorkey from the YA novel by Jay Asher, more or less followed the basic structure of the book: After Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) commits suicide, she leaves behind a series of cassette tapes that explain, via a focus on numerous peers who affected her life, the 13 reasons why she decided to slit her wrists and end it all. Through flashbacks and present-day attempts by her close friend Clay (Dylan Minnette), her parents (Kate Walsh and Brian d’Arcy James), and others to get to the bottom of what happened to Hannah, season one provided a window into the teen psyche and, by the end, a measure of closure. In other words, the first season didn’t exactly beg for a second.
But after 13 Reasons Why became one of Netflix’s buzziest shows last year, in part because its unflinching look at suicide kick-started a conversation among teens, educators, and parents, a second season was announced. I was skeptical at first that it was necessary. After watching the entire thing, that skepticism seems justified.
Without the cassette tapes to provide a narrative spine, Yorkey and his fellow writers rely on the ongoing trial that springs from a civil suit filed by Hannah’s parents against Liberty High School to provide one. As the Bakers and their attorney, played with a dignified lawyerly air by My So-Called Life alum Wilson Cruz, attempt to make the case that the school system didn’t do enough to help Hannah, many of her friends and peers take the stand and rehash for a jury the same conflicts that were discussed in-depth on all those cassettes. But in many of these testimonials, we get entirely new pieces of information about Hannah’s personal life. In theory, this furthers the underlying conceit of season one: that there are always multiple sides to every story.
The problem is that some of these new sides — including the revelation of a romantic relationship between Hannah and a fellow student that was never even hinted at in season one — fly in the face of the way the characters related to each other in the first season. It’s one thing to offer new perspectives on a complicated narrative. It’s a whole other thing to add layers that drain the emotional logic out of what we saw before.
In keeping with the analog theme, the other central story line involves a stash of Polaroid photographs that could implicate the show’s primary villain, jock/serial rapist Bryce Walker (Justin Prentice), as well as Liberty High’s culture of denial and self-preservation. In addition to the trial and the business related to the instant photos, the show continues to follow the individual struggles of numerous characters, including Clay, who is dating his longtime friend Skye (Sosie Bacon) but still pining for Hannah; Jessica, who is trying to find a new normal while dealing with the after-effects of being raped; Alex (Miles Heizer), still recovering emotionally and physically from his own suicide attempt; Tyler (Devin Druid), a loner who finds a new compatriot who shares his mistrust of authority; Justin (Brandon Flynn), Jessica’s ex and a former love interest of Hannah’s who’s homeless and mired in heroin addiction; and Olivia Baker (Walsh), who continues to mourn the loss of her daughter while focusing her energy on the lawsuit and the hope that some amount of justice may be served.
This is only a partial list of what’s going on in 13 Reasons Why Part Two, which tells you how relentlessly heavy this season is, and that it’s biting off more narrative than viewers can comfortably swallow. There are too many episodes, and every one is 15 minutes longer than it needs to be. At times, I was wading through this show rather than watching it. (When I got to the finale and saw that it was 70 minutes long, I let out an internal scream.)
To its credit, 13 Reasons Why takes the concerns of young adults seriously. But it also heightens and exaggerates them for dramatic effect, which can make all those mined-from-the-real-world worries seem like the stuff of soap operas. Take the fact that Langford’s Hannah is still a regular character, appearing both in flashbacks, which is fine, and as a ghost who is constantly haunting Clay. Which is … weird? This is hardly the first time that a departed character has remained a visible TV entity — it’s happened on The Leftovers, Six Feet Under, and plenty of other dramas. But the presence of Hannah here feels more like a convenient way to keep Langford, the most recognizable face of 13 Reasons Why, in the show. Her presence signifies Clay’s inability to move on, but it’s handled in such a hokey way that it just doesn’t work. “Are you corporeal?” Clay asks the first time Ghost Hannah appears before him. “That seems like a science-fiction question,” she says. “Can I touch you?” he asks. “That seems like a loaded question,” she responds. Like most teenagers, this whole dynamic is way too self-conscious.
Even when the dialogue is a little awkward, though, the actors continually elevate the material. Minnette and Langford still have nice chemistry together, even if Hannah is technically a mere specter to Clay. Heizer, Boe, and Druid, in particular, evoke their characters’ vulnerabilities without ever chewing scenery. Derek Luke, who plays school counselor Luke Porter like he’s perpetually sleep-walking, finally gets a chance to prove he can actually emote in episode nine. In every episode, Prentice is — and this really is a compliment — a spectacular asshole. He’s not just the bad dude in every ’80s movie, he’s James Spader in Pretty in Pink and every member of the Cobra Kai dojo rolled into one privileged, popped-collar, sexual assaulter. It is impossible to like him, and that’s as it should be. And then there’s Kate Walsh, who is the heartbreaking standout of the season, not just because she’s in a lot of scenes that bring her to tears, but because of the moments when it’s obvious that Olivia Baker is actively holding herself together so she won’t publicly break.
13 Reasons Why generated a lot of controversy in its first season, particularly from those who worried that it would lead to Hannah Baker copycats. That criticism is addressed directly in episode nine, when Principal Bolan (Steven Weber) gets into an argument with Clay about Hannah’s tapes, noting that they could cause “suicide contagion.” The show seems to side with Clay in this back-and-forth, who suggests that people like Bolan don’t really listen to kids and that there’s more good than harm that can come from talking about things like suicide. That is clearly the show’s point of view as well, and in general I don’t disagree with it. I’m just not sure 13 Reasons Why is executed with enough nuance and depth to generate the kinds of substantive conversation that a show like, say, season two of American Crime did.
At a certain point while watching this second season, I grew concerned that 13 Reasons Why would ultimately go to a very dark and dicey place. In the season finale, that’s exactly what it does. Those final moments will certainly get people talking about and criticizing the series again. They also will have some wondering whether there may be a season three.
The ending is open-ended enough to suggest that may be the case, which makes me hope that the team behind it takes the advice that Olivia Baker ultimately offers to the young men and women who knew her late daughter: that it’s really time to move on.