Warning: The following contains spoilers for both seasons of 13 Reasons Why. If you haven’t finished season two yet, you may want to bookmark this page and return once you have. Proceed with caution!
Season one of 13 Reasons Why was a difficult watch.
Going in to a show that’s set out to tell the story of a teenage girl’s decision to take her own life, that’s sort of a given. But Netflix’s adaptation of Jay Asher‘s 2007 novel was also rewarding in its own way. It was compelling, anchored by standout performances from Dylan Minnette, Kate Walsh, and breakout star Katherine Langford, especially. It was inventive with its narrative structure, framing each of its 13 episodes around one of Hannah’s tapes revealing her another one of her “reasons why.” And it told a complete story.
Sure, the end of season one left a few threads dangling when it came to the Liberty High School students we’d met throughout, but the story of Hannah Baker and what happened to her that led her to believe her only way out was suicide? That story was powerfully and effectively and thoroughly told to completion over the course of those 13 hours.
But then the show became one of the year’s biggest TV sensations, turning its young cast of newcomers into international stars and making a second seasons, however ill-advised, a foregone conclusion. Would the show find a way to keep Langford around despite the seeming impossibility? And would first time showrunner Brian Yorkey be able to pick up where Asher left off and advance the story in a way that feels both meaningful and necessary?
The answer to that first question was delivered when we learned season two would focus on the Bakers’ trial against Hannah’s high school, with testimony from fellow students illuminating sides to Hannah’s story we didn’t get when she was our narrator. But the second wouldn’t come until we subjected ourselves to a weekend-long marathon of all 13 season two episodes. And we can soundly say that, no, he did not.
With a list of grievances about this season of television so long that we’re not exactly sure to start, let’s take it back to the premiere and Yorkey’s decision to replace Langford’s powerful narration from season one, representing the diatribe she recorded on each of her 13 cassette tapes, with testimony from the trial.
Beginning with Devin Druid‘s Tyler, each episode is narrated by the student who happens to be testifying at that time and immediately, the flaws in this design are clear. Where Hannah’s narration made sense and allowed for her to say whatever she felt, given that she was creating the tapes we were listening to on her own, the flowery prose, full of ruminations on friendship and secrets and whatever the hell else, we hear each episode pushes the limits of what we’re willing to accept as believable. We’ve watched a lot of legal dramas in our day. This is not how people testify.
It all feels very much like Yorkey and his writers sat together and thought, “Well, we had narration in season one, so we need it in season two. But how?” And this is the best they could come up with, when they’d have been better off just ditching the device all together.
However, the bizarre choices don’t stop there. Aside from flashing back to moments in Hannah’s life we weren’t privy to in season one, courtesy of the testimony being delivered on the stand, the decision was made to saddle Langford with playing what we’ll refer to Ghost Hannah, a manifestation of Clay’s (Minnette) broken psyche following the harrowing events of season one who follows him around, sometimes offering him insight into the new things the trial was forcing him to learn about his friend, other times merely haunting him. It’s nothing more than a naked ploy to keep Langford and Minnette’s winning chemistry intact, but it fails at doing even that because Ghost Hannah isn’t exactly Hannah and Clay seems to be losing his mind, so there’s not much joy to be gleaned from their scenes this time around.
As Yorkey and his writers attempted the build the world out a bit this season, making the focus a bit more on Liberty High and the nefarious behavior going on within its halls—a necessary move if Netflix wants to keep this train rolling into season three and beyond—the show begins to buckle under the weight. There are conspiracies, multiple sexual assaults, guns a plenty, at least one new drug addiction, and so. many. secrets. By the time we reached the 70 minute season finale, an episode too long by half, we were just ready for the whole thing to be over, despite the dread at the terrible event the season was so clearly building to.
So, let’s talk about that event. Yes, it involves that cache of guns Tyler was amassing at the end of season one. Yes, it’s clear from the not-so-subtle prevalence of firearms throughout season two that we’re building to a moment of gun violence. And yes, when it finally does come, it feels about as irresponsible as the parent watchdog groups are inevitably going to proclaim it—not to mention as poorly written.
After Tyler returns to school following a month in a program meant to help curb the possibility of violence within him that the school has, yet again, willfully turned a blind eye to, he’s brutally sexually assaulted by one of rapist Bryce Walker’s (Justin Prentice) desperate lackeys in a scene that was viscerally painful to watch. It’s enough to send him over the edge and plan an attack on the school’s spring dance the next day. Somehow the students are tipped off to his imminent arrival and rather than stay inside and wait for help like the rest of his classmates, Clay meets Tyler outside as he’s strapping his artillery on, where he attempts to talk him down, telling him that the only way out of this he can see will lead to Tyler’s death and that he doesn’t want him to die.
As the sirens get closer and closer, Tony (Christian Navarro) arrives with his car, ready to act as Tyler’s getaway ride, leaving Clay holding the massive automatic rifle as the credits begin rolling. Yep, the whole thing happened simply to leave us with a cliffhanger. In a year when more schoolchildren have died from gun violence than have active duty armed forces members, a show obsessed over by the very youth dying at an alarming rate presents them not only with a remarkably poor example of how to react to the threat of gun violence (staring down the barrel of an AR-15 while trying to talk them down on your own), but with an example of said violence itself that’s been reduced merely to a means to an end, a plot device to drum up interest in a new season. It’s not a good look.
Look, this isn’t to say that there isn’t a log of good stuff happening in the new season. Minnette and Walsh both still command the screen with every scene they’re in, with Minnette especially stepping up to the plate as Clay becomes further and further unhinged in his quest for justice. (Sadly, the bizarre nature of Hannah’s inclusion in the story this season robbed Langford of material deserving of her talents.) And Alisha Boe, who stars as another one of Bryce’s victims, Jessica, more than holds her own in a vital and timely storyline, as she comes to terms with what happened to her and takes steps towards receiving some sort of justice of her own.
And the themes Yorkey and his writers are exploring this season are important and worthy, topics like sexual assault, male privilege, bullying, and gun violence. And yet, the show seems to service none of them well as it struggles under the weight of its own self-importance and narrative pretzel-twisting
Season two has been a potent reminder that sometimes the reasons why to do something can seem to overwhelmingly outnumber the reasons why not. But like Mrs. Baker reminds Clay in the season finale, no matter how many reasons there might be why, there are always more why not. Hopefully Netflix remembers that when they start thinking about a possible season three.
13 Reasons Why is now available to stream on Netflix.