Netflix released the second season of "13 Reasons Why" on May 18 on its streaming platform, providing the world with 13 more episodes surrounding the events happening at Liberty High School.
I wanted to get this article out as soon as possible, trying to binge-watch the second season on its first weekend. But in reality, this show is not meant to be consumed in one sitting, due to its serious subject matter that tackles topics of suicide, mental illness, drug addiction, sexual assault and bullying.
If you’ve never watched the teen drama, I’ll quickly summarize its premise for the uninitiated. The show is based on a 2007 novel by Jay Asher of the same name. The first season debuted in 2017 and follows high school student Clay Jensen (portrayed by Dylan Minnette), who is still reeling after the suicide of close friend, Hannah Baker (portrayed by Katherine Langford). Well, Hannah left behind a box of cassette tapes that detail the 13 reasons why she ended her life and those tapes are passed around the people who are mentioned on the tapes. In the process, the show delves into how each of these characters, Hannah’s parents and the rest of the school are dealing with the fallout of Hannah’s suicide.
The first season was met with critical acclaim but was also the center of staunch controversy due to its graphic depictions of sexual assault and suicide. Many experts have come forward and said the show is dangerous for people to watch, especially those who may be struggling with mental illness or suicidal ideation. Many petitioned for the show to be canceled.
When I watched the first season, I found it to be a compelling show that addressed these difficult topics head-on in a way I had never seen before. It was emotional and informative, but also devastating and gruesome.
So how does "13 Reasons Why" approach the second season?
When I started writing this piece, I was sure of what I would say. But the more I process the season, the more I’m conflicted about the show. I want to believe the creators of this show have the best intentions, but the outcome is so far out there that it’s really troubling to me as a viewer.
Let’s just say they took all the progress they may have made and threw it in the trash for the sake of shock and awe, while also playing into really harmful stereotypes.
The first season made me feel like the show was tackling an important set of subjects, but this second season has me wishing sometimes that they never tried in the first place.
I’ve listed some thoughts on what the show got right and what the show got very wrong.
Disclaimer: The list below includes SPOILERS, as well as discussion on some mature subjects, including bullying, suicide and sexual assault as depicted in the show.
What "13 Reasons Why" Gets Right
Increasing conversations between parents and their children
One of the stronger points made in this season is that it’s OK to talk to your parents about your struggles and what’s going on at school. Numerous scenes play out like this between Clay, Alex, Jessica and other characters and their respective parents. This is an important concept for the show to portray since talking with your kids about what's going on at school, mental health and guns is an important part of parenting. It also implies that children should be more open with their parents about these topics.
Mr. Porter tries to right his wrongs and shows his remorse
Guidance counselor Kevin Porter (portrayed by Derek Luke) was the last person on Hannah’s tapes from season one and he has shown signs of grief and remorse for his purported role in her suicide. This season, Porter makes a concerted effort to talk to students around campus and try to be there for them. Porter’s most important scene comes when he takes the stand during the trial between Hannah’s parents and the school. Porter tearfully admits that he could have done more to help Hannah and this is the most devastating, emotional scene of the entire season. When Porter tells Olivia Baker on the stand that "I didn’t mean to let your daughter down," I was crying along with him. Porter pays the price for his testimony and is fired from the school in later episodes, but he showed viewers he had a heart after all.
Jessica Davis learns to not let her rape define her
Jessica Davis’ portrayal this season should receive praise since she goes from not being able to sleep in the room where her sexual assault occurred to being able to go forward and pursuing criminal charges against her attacker, Bryce Walker. The season also delves into the shame she feels following the rape and explores how it’s absolutely not her fault this egregious crime occurred, which many rape survivors endure. Davis also learns to take control of her body once again by the end of the season, as she makes love with Justin at the Spring Fling dance.
Silence as complicity and a Boys’ Club mentality
One of the major plot points this season centers around "The Clubhouse," a place where the baseball team takes girls to get drunk/high and engage in sexual acts – consensual and nonconsensual. The girls there are documented in a slew of Polaroid pictures, which sort of act as a trophy list for the team. Clay and other kids at the school try to expose this to the police, with baseball player Zach leaving clues for him to uncover the issue. The Clubhouse represents rape culture in this film and when the baseball coach starts hearing talk about it and rape allegations against players, he wants it swept under the rug. This is an all-too-real scenario seen in the real world and I appreciate the show tackling this and showing the toll it has.
A surprising, healthy romance between Hannah and another boy at school
Hannah Baker was a nice girl made out to be a promiscuous teen through gossip at school. But did you know she had a summer fling with sporty Zach Dempsey? We didn’t either. This revelation is unveiled during Zach’s testimony at the trial and we learned that the two teens, both virgins, started dating and hooking up over the course of a summer. It was sweet, loveable, and honestly perfect. But Zach wanted to keep it hush-hush by not letting his friends know, so they broke it off. It was nice to see Hannah at least have some temporary happiness in the context of this show. What Zach ultimately did wasn't right, but he was the nicest guy she dated.
What "13 Reasons Why" Gets Wrong
How to discuss mental health issues at school
So the first glaring issue I had with this season was that we learn early on the school enacts a policy that if you talk about suicide at school or about Hannah Baker’s death, you could face suspension. I’m sure this could potentially be something. Student Alex Standall survives a suicide attempt from the first season and is trying to piece his life back together, but there’s an air of shame placed at the school that you shouldn’t talk about these topics. This to me completely defeats the show’s purported mission to create a dialogue on mental health issues. During a sit-down interview with creators of the show, they do acknowledge that this is not how schools should treat this situation because while they are trying to prevent suicide contagion, they are taking the safety out of school being a place to confront these issues.
There’s no hope for victims of sexual assault
Hannah was raped, which in part led to her suicide. Jessica, a former friend of Hannah’s, was also raped by the vile student-athlete Bryce Walker in season one. Bryce is ultimately arrested on a felony rape charge near the end of the season after Jessica overcomes the shame she feels for the incident and goes to the police. But fast forward to the next episode and Bryce gets THREE MONTHS PROBATION. Not only that, Bryce gets to transfer to a more prestigious high school, where he can continue to play sports.
His current girlfriend, Chloe, who he also raped, stays with him despite his arrest, conviction and everything.
These scenarios may cause someone dealing with a similar situation to choose to not come forward when doing so could make all the difference. The show also insinuates that a woman staying with and tolerating sexual abuse or violence is considered normal and acceptable, when it is not.
I understand the show may be going for some realism or referencing real-life events, such as the Brock Turner trial, but I feel like this implies that you have nothing to gain from confronting your rapist.
After watching the creators speak on this and how they based it on real accounts where rich, white defendants get off easily for rape charges, the show does a good job in recognizing that this is a real-world issue that needs to be addressed.
"13 Reasons Why" also acknowledges that Jessica, who is a biracial woman, is not the "perfect victim" due to her race, something Jessica mentions with talks with her friends. I mean, Hannah, who is white, is destroyed during the trial, so Jessica imagines her race makes it even more difficult for her to come forward. This is definitely an issue we see in reality, so at least the show mentions this.
The school and bullying culture isn’t kept in check
Hannah Baker’s parents file a suit against Liberty High School. We learn during the trial the school has a zero-tolerance policy for bullying but based on how much bullying goes on at the school, it’s just not working. The school doesn’t implement any new policies to combat bullying and the turn of events that occur across this season show. I understand this is likely just a decision made by the show’s writers, but it could make viewers infer that schools just aren’t going to work on solving the bullying issue.
Clay Jensen’s declining mental health is never properly discussed or treated
The show’s protagonist, Clay, goes through a lot in this show. He's beaten up, chased down by cars, his girlfriend slits her wrists, he "sees" Hannah Baker everywhere he goes, he has full meltdowns. It’s also revealed back in season one that he has some sort of mental illness that requires medication that he refuses to take. The show has him talking out his problems with Hannah, who is dead. With the stigma against seeking treatment for mental health issues in the real world, it would have been beneficial to show Clay talking with grief counselors, a therapist or maybe going back on his medication. His mental illness is also not explicitly described. I’m not saying medication is the answer, but many find taking medication as a weakness and seeking treatment should never be looked at that way.
Hannah is still being romanticized as a hero with her ghost appearances
One of the ongoing criticisms of "13 Reasons Why" has been that it glorifies suicide. With Hannah Baker continuously showing up as a "ghost," it could be interpreted by some younger viewers that she gets to live on in the afterlife and watch over her friends and family. Now I know, this is essentially a plot device ("Six Feet Under" did the same thing with dead characters) used for Clay to work out his anger and grief, but it’s a tricky line to walk.
Hannah doesn’t get the justice she probably deserved
The trial in season two was a roller coaster as the defense attorney played an awful game of character assassination against Hannah. We learn Hannah bullied a girl at her last school, and that she was remorseful about it. Most of the testimonies regarding the case are used to make Hannah look like a much different person than we learned her to be in the first season. In the end, the school is found not responsible despite a culture of bullying and other factors. I as a viewer felt defeated, as well as many of the characters in the show. It felt wrong and pointless to sit through for 13 episodes.
Overblown plotlines to increase shock value or get a rise out of viewers
There were so many instances where it felt like the writers of this show added scenes that were simply made for shock and awe, but didn’t feel necessary or authentic. Clay taking a gun to Bryce Walker’s house with intent to shoot him, Justin’s struggle with heroin addiction, Monty harassing all of the people who were slated to testify at the trial, the entire final episode of the season (we’ll get to that). It was exhausting.
They bring awareness to male sexual assault victims … but perhaps in the wrong way
Photographer and bullying victim Tyler Down has a much greater role in season two. He begins to rebel a lot alongside fellow student Cyrus by vandalizing school property, blackmailing students and shooting guns out in the woods. Tyler eventually gets sent to a rehabilitation program to work out his issues and comes back to Liberty High School in the season finale. On his first day back, he’s trying to use what he’s learned from this program to be a better person and rise above the hate, bullying and more at school. But while he’s in a bathroom at school, Monty and other jocks assault him and brutally rape him. The scene is absolutely horrifying and difficult to watch.
The rape scenes in "13 Reasons Why" have been graphic since the start, with the intent of starting a dialogue on the topic. But I’m not really buying into it anymore. I think these graphic scenes could be triggers for sexual assault victims and I agree that these topics need to be discussed, but the show’s approach now comes off as tactless.
The scene offers us a chance to feel a moment of humanity for Tyler if you hadn’t already, but it also turns him into a villain in the show’s final 20 minutes.
The show perpetuates a cultural myth that bullying and mass shootings are related
Following Tyler Down’s sexual assault, the devastated teen goes home and collects some body armor, several pistols and an AR-15 rifle and heads toward the school, which is holding a Spring Fling dance. I think what happens to Tyler Down is abhorrent, but doesn’t warrant a mass shooting as he’s planning. The show’s storytelling decisions imply that bullying is the root cause of mass shootings. Research from specialists indicates this not to always be the case. For example, following the recent shooting in Parkland Florida, alleged shooter Nikolas Cruz was initially labeled a victim of bullying, but an op-ed by Parkland student, "I Tried to Befriend Nikolas Cruz. He Still Killed My Friends." says otherwise.
The same goes for Columbine shooters, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. Initial reports painted them as victims of bullying, but later developments showed they had a group of friends and their actions were more attributed to their personalities. For more on this topic, click here.
The show completely jumps the shark on how to react to an active shooter situation
One of the biggest head-scratching moments for me came in the season finale’s last 20 minutes when Tyler Down is approaching the high school with an arsenal of weapons to perform a mass shooting at the school’s dance.
The show’s protagonist, Clay Jensen, along with other students, learn of the impending shooter situation and some of the students say "Don’t call the police." Trust me, it gets worse.
Clay then goes outside and confronts Tyler as he’s toting an AR-15 and approaching the school. Saying this is the absolute wrong thing to do in this situation doesn’t seem to do it justice. I understand this is A TV show, but a 17-year-old boy is not a master negotiator who can talk down a shooter. But somehow they make it seem plausible. Plus, Tony drives up and they put Tyler in the car as Clay is left holding Tyler’s AR-15 as the police are en route to the school. Here’s an article on how to react in an active shooter situation.
I was really onboard with this show after the first season, but I’m not sure I am anymore.
If you or someone you know wants to speak with a mental health professional, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.