13 Reasons Why season 2 review: Assured when dealing with sexual assault, mental health; falters on gun violence
We're going to be talking about how 13 Reasons Why's season 2 has tackled sexual assault, consent, mental health, grief counselling, gun violence, for quite some time to come.
When 13 Reasons Why released in March of 2017, it became an instant and worldwide phenomenon.
Based on the YA novel of the same name by Jay Asher (who has recently been in the news for less-than-positive reasons), 13 Reasons Why told the story of a high school student — Hannah Baker — and the events that led to her suicide. Hannah narrates these events (13, as the title states), recorded over seven audio cassettes; we hear her story when the tapes reach her classmate, colleague and sometime date Clay Jensen. As he plays the cassettes, different classmates are implicated and a picture emerges of cruelties — big and small — that made Hannah believe ending her life was the only option available to her.
13 Reasons Why's first season was a curious thing. Viewers related to it regardless of their level of familiarity with the American high school ecosystem. Of course, this was a world we'd seen explored in countless Western pop culture offerings, and what 13 Reasons Why depicted wasn't groundbreaking. (The mockumentary American Vandal did that a whole lot better, and in a far more clever manner.) The device — of having a dead character play narrator — wasn't new. At least some of Hannah's 'reasons' seemed superficial, force-fitted to meet the '13' requirement. And the drama could be somewhat soap opera at times.
But it was gripping. Like Clay hooked on to Hannah's tapes, viewers were unable to let go. They wanted to know more, and more — a notable achievement on the part of the showrunners, considering the story's end was already known: Hannah would commit suicide.
Beyond its merits as a TV show, however, 13 Reasons Why had a weighty objective: to contribute to the conversation around sexual assault, mental health and suicide, as well as bullying in the real and online worlds.
The toxic atmosphere of Liberty High — the school Hannah, Clay and the others attend — promotes bullying. The 'jocks' reign supreme and get away with pretty much anything. The kids who cross them get harassed, physically and otherwise. Malicious innuendo spreads quickly via social media. The authority figures are either too obtuse/uncaring or too out-of-touch with the teenagers they're supposed to be guiding, to help. Parents are kept in the dark all too easily. In short, typical high school tropes.
Hannah herself suffers slut-shaming, and then sexual assault. Her rapist is Liberty High's 'star' jock, Bryce Walker; she's not his only victim. His attack pushes her over the edge and into committing suicide.
13 Reasons Why premiered at a time when the 'campus rape problem' had been widely discussed. It had been five years since Steubenville (where a 16-year-old girl was assaulted by multiple classmates when she passed out after drinking too much at a party, with photos and videos of the act widely circulated on their social media timelines). The verdict in the Brock Turner case was a year old. #MeToo was just a few months away, with the conversation around consent covering the spectrum from Harvey Weinstein's gross abuse of power to Aziz Ansari's 'date night gone wrong'.
Where 13 Reasons Why tackled the issue of sexual assault competently (just the simple contrast between Bryce's taking by force, and Clay's asking for consent with a quiet "Is this okay?" when being intimate with a girl, spoke volumes), many felt it faltered with its depiction of Hannah's suicide. The scene was unnerving — Hannah lying in her bathtub, wrists slashed, blood pooling around her body.
Suicide 'contagion' among American teenagers was already a point of concern. Experts felt that 13 Reasons Why could trigger similar behaviour among impressionable viewers; indeed, one study found that Google search queries for 'suicide' and related terms like 'how to commit suicide', 'suicide hotline' spiked significantly (the search volume rose by 1.5 million) in the months after the show premiered.
So in returning for its second season (and its immense popularity meant the show would return, controversies notwithstanding), 13 Reasons Why had tricky terrain to navigate:
1. It had to ensure that it continued to deal with sexual assault and bullying sensitively.
2. It had to send out a clear and unequivocal message about seeking the right help for mental health issues.
3. It had to emphasise choosing life over suicide.
4. It had to show the way forward — what parents and authority figures could do, as well as teens themselves.
There are signs aplenty that the show took these responsibilities to heart. At the start and end of each episode in season 2, there are relevant disclaimers and content warnings for disturbing sequences; cast members direct viewers to a crisis resources site if they need help. The site contains country-specific helpline numbers, discussion guides. Through the characters' arcs and the dialogue, the value of life, of finding ways to work through grief, are emphasised.
If season 1 was all about Hannah (and Clay), then season 2 is all about the people she left behind. If season 1 was solely from her point of view, then season 2 has multiple narrators — each with their own stories to tell.
We find out that Hannah may not have been the most reliable narrator; she left out some information, she didn't fill in all the gaps. If the tapes were how the story unfolded in season 1, then in season 2, it is through the court testimonies of various characters (since Hannah's mom Olivia Baker has brought a case against Liberty High for the school's part in her daughter's death). Tyler, Courtney, Jessica, Zach, Ryan, Tony, Mr and Mrs Baker, Kevin Porter, Bryce, his girlfriend Chloe, Justin and Clay himself take to the stand at various times to present what they know of the case. Some tell the truth, some tell parts of (or their versions of) the truth, and some flat out lie.
Away from the courtrooms, life goes on at Liberty High. Jessica and Alex each deal with returning to school after taking time off to recuperate from sexual assault and a suicide attempt, respectively. Clay is attempting to put his life back together, and has a new relationship (and its attendant troubles) with Skye. Zach is trying to dissociate himself from Bryce's influence. Tyler is dealing with continued bullying at school, made worse after his deposition in court in Hannah's favour. He makes friends with a group of punks and briefly, belongs. Kevin Porter is trying to be a better counsellor, trying to help the kids who need it. Justin is still missing. The jocks are still being the jocks.
But everyone who's up to testify in court is being threatened by an unknown person. And Clay has received a series of Polaroid photos that indicate Jessica and Hannah were not Bryce's only victims; the pictures also point to a mysterious space on the Liberty High campus known as 'The Clubhouse'.
While the focus on sexual assault and mental health continues in 13 Reasons Why, season 2 also introduces the issue of gun violence. The day of the season's premiere, 17-year-old Dimitrios Pagourtzis walked through his Santa Fe, Texas, high school, gunning down 10 fellow students. Just three months ago, in February, 17 people (14 of them students) were killed in the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting. During the series finale, the same thing very nearly takes place at Liberty High, where the students are gathered for a dance.
The finale and the episode leading up to it are particularly difficult to watch (both come with trigger warnings). In one of the defter scenes, where Jessica testifies against Bryce and explains how being raped by him stripped her of so many things she took for granted, she is 'replaced' at the stand by several other women from the show — all matter-of-factly narrating their own experiences with sexual assault/harassment. It's a powerful #MeToo movement, and has been rightly hailed as such by reviewers.
The other scene is gut-wrenching, and involves Tyler. Despite having witnessed Jessica and Hannah's assaults by Bryce in season 1, nothing prepares you for the stomach-churning attack on Tyler, who is beaten up by three jocks, has his head forced into a toilet, and is sodomised with the wooden end of a mop. There's been quite some discussion in the days since the episode aired over whether or not it was necessary to present the assault on Tyler in such visceral detail: is it merely for shock value or does it serve some larger purpose? Is it the equivalent of Hannah's suicide scene from season 1?
To answer that question, one only needs to look at news reports involving 'hazing' and 'broomsticks'. There is no presenting being anally raped with an object in a 'palatable' manner. And there's no pretending that such things do not happen, or that when they do, are anything other than absolutely brutal.
In Tyler's case, that assault serves as a trigger for an act he's probably been contemplating for a while — taking an arsenal of guns to school, and shooting down his tormentors. As he prepares to enter Liberty High with his weapons, Clay manages to talk him out of it and tragedy is averted at the very last moment. Again, there has been a sentiment that this ending is a cop-out; but in this current scenario, when the wounds of Parkland and Texas are too fresh, it is also the only ending the showrunners could have depicted without inviting a major backlash.
So why take the story in that direction at all? Because the issue had to be addressed, especially by a series that's influential and popular among the very specific demographic that suffers the most from gun violence in schools.
This is the reality of American high schools.
In sheer storytelling, 13 Reasons Why season 2 is not as tautly told a tale as season 1. Hannah's return as a ghost and Clay's arc seem indulgent. Hannah and later Skye nearly serve as the Manic Pixie Dream Girls to Clay — 'troubled' girls who help Clay to evolve while being written out of the story themselves; we say 'nearly' because there is enough attention paid to fleshing out Hannah and Skye's characters and stories, and Skye in particular has an empowering 'conclusion' to her story arc. She seeks help for her mental health issues, and finds what she needs to start a new and better life. She also shows up Clay's knight-in-shining-armour syndrome: he is a good guy, sure, but he also derives much of his worth from wanting to help other people, according to his fixed ideas of what help they need.
One of the great strengths of 13 Reasons Why has been its cast of diverse and interesting characters — and it builds on them in season 2. With Hannah's role as narrator reduced, their voices gain greater prominence — and many of them have important things to say. Whether it's Jessica and Alex, trying to work their way back to normalcy, or Justin, or Tyler, or Zach (one of the few genuinely good guys whose arc has been very satisfying to watch this season) or any of the supporting cast really — each of these characters' journeys is so engrossing. The showrunners also do a brilliant job of making you empathise with each one of these characters, even those who have done some very questionable things in the past. You're more willing to forgive the show's missteps because of what it does get right.
And there's so much to commend it for. We're going to be talking about how 13 Reasons Why's season 2 has tackled sexual assault, consent, mental health, grief counselling, gun violence, for quite some time to come. It may not have always achieved what it set out to, but there's no doubting the show's heart is in the right place. Our actions matter, but so do our intentions.
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