It’s been a year since the first season of teen suicide drama 13 Reasons Why debuted on Netflix. Based on Jay Asher’s novel, 13 Reasons Why never shied away from portraying the difficult themes of bullying, sexual assault and suicide and was unsurprisingly met with huge controversy upon its release. But despite a what-can-be-called a conclusive ending to the first season, a sequel has been ordered by the streaming giant.
The first season of 13 Reasons Why tells the harrowing tale of Hannah Baker’s suicide through a series of tapes she left for her classmates explaining 13 reasons why she killed herself. Set five or six months after the first, the second season deals with the aftermath of these tapes as they are distributed in the community. Also as Hannah’s mother, Olivia Baker (Kate Walsh, in a heartbreaking performance), takes the high school’s administration to court alleging how their carelessness ultimately led to her daughter’s suicide, everyone Hannah implicated before she died is called to the stand. The students’ testimony, kind of, provides this season the narrative structure.
While the structure works in parts, the process makes the viewers retread the path to Hannah’s suicide yet again. And after Hannah’s 13 hours of tape in the previous season, the season’s efforts to make the audience believe that everything was going on simultaneously is frivolous in the least. For example, there is an abrupt introduction of a romantic relationship between Zach and Hannah, which was never even hinted at in the first season. To top it off, Hannah’s ghost has begun appearing to Clay and while that seems entirely out of place in a gritty series like this, it also seems to be a very cheap stunt at giving Katherine Langford more screen presence in this season.
13 Reasons Why had received a lot of backlash for its controversial portrayal of topics like teen suicide and sexual assault. While the second season swears to be more aware of its sensitive material this time, complete with disclaimers by the cast before and after each episode, the second season feels no less exploitative. It is not one for the weak-hearted, so to speak. And in an attempt to be more conscious of its content, the second season meanders its plot glaringly. The obvious change can be seen in the school counsellor Kevin Porter’s character but while that is reasonably build into the narrative, the kind of support Clay’s parents show is not something that has been seen before. Jessica, despite a gripping performance by Alisha Boe, tests our patience a number of times with her denial to go to court against Bryce Walker.
That being said, 13 Reasons Why can also be great at times. It takes teenage issues like bullying, sexual assault, stalking and others way more seriously than other shows do. When it comes to gender dynamics, 13 Reasons Why is especially conscious. It talks about varying degrees of assault and how the world is different for people not just based on their gender, but also on their class and their presence in the social hierarchy of the school. Most of the characters have been well-sketched and given ample thought. Be it Courtney being gay, Alex losing his erections or Tyler’s premature ejaculations, conversations are brought in a very matter of fact way.
The story of grief underlying all the episodes is also strikingly visible. Hannah is all but a memory now, poignantly portrayed in a scene where her ghost’s mouth opens but her words are stuck like a cassette tape. Life goes on but the show communicates how Hannah’s suicide has left everyone she knew damaged in some sense. Another scene that stands out is the church sequence where Clay finally learns how to let go of this very memory. The words “I love you and I let you go” provide a very profound ending to her story.
Just like the last season’s finale, 13 Reasons Why Season 2 never shies away from graphically depicting scenes that could leave a lasting impact on its viewers. 13 Reasons Why Season 2 makes sure to dive deep into the problems of young adults and present a complete (if not entirely true) picture of the high school psyche. But even though the show’s commitment to showing pain is admirable, the violence with which it ends its second season doesn’t seem any more than just a set up for the next.