After season one, fans of 13 Reasons Why — Netflix’s controversial drama about a teenager who commits suicide and then explains her decision posthumously through a series of recorded messages — generally fell into two camps. There were those who felt that continuing the story of Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) beyond the confines of Jay Asher’s novel would diminish its power as a cautionary tale — and then there were those who loved the show (and its extraordinarily beautiful cast) and simply wanted more.
Of course, it would be foolish to expect Netflix, or any network, to sacrifice a hit show in the name of narrative purity — all we can do is hope that the writers will be able to expand their characters’ worlds in way that feels authentic and entertaining rather than cynical and makeshift.
Though 13 Reasons Why can sometimes be as exasperating and melodramatic as teenagers themselves, the second season nets out as a success despite some overly-instructive moments and one truly baffling storytelling device. (Important note: We will be discussing said storytelling device, which is an inconsequential spoiler, later in this review. You have been warned.)
Five months after the release of Hannah’s tapes revealed an ecosystem of bullying and sexual assault at Liberty High, the Baker family’s lawsuit against the school is about to go to trial. This year, 13 Reasons trades in tapes for testimony, as each episode follows a different character’s time on the stand, sharing his or her version of the events Hannah described — including her rape by charismatic jock Bryce (Justin Prentice).
Meanwhile, Clay (Dylan Minnette), still broken-hearted over Hannah’s death, is trying to move on by dating Skye (Sosie Bacon), a young woman struggling with emotional issues of her own. But Clay’s life is once again disrupted when someone starts leaving mysterious Polaroids in his locker indicating that Bryce and his buddies may have assaulted other girls.
Though Hannah’s mom Olivia (Kate Walsh) and Clay both urge Jessica (Alisha Boe) to reveal that Bryce also raped her, Jessica is understandably worried that publicly acknowledging the attack will allow it to define her.
The Polaroid mystery and its connection to Hannah’s trial allows 13 Reasons to expand its focus into a timely examination of sexual assault and its aftermath. Thanks to a new friendship with fellow rape survivor Nina (Samantha Logan), Jessica begins to confront the anger and shame she feels about the assault, while Bryce’s relationship with his girlfriend Chloe (Ann Winters) is the conduit for a subtle yet effective subplot about consent and partner rape.
The issue of suicide and mental health is somewhat sidelined, but still receives due diligence in season 2.
Alex (Miles Heizer), who shot himself in last season’s finale, grapples with the physical and emotional aftermath of his actions, while officials at Liberty High prohibit students from talking about Alex or Hannah Baker, in an effort to avoid copycat suicides. This ill-advised policy leads to a conversation in episode 9 between Clay and Principal Bolan (Steven Weber) that’s clearly meant to address criticism of the show itself:
Principal Bolan: “Suicide contagion is a real thing, and we’ve got to take measures to protect you kids.”
Clay: “I don’t understand — how does silence protect us?”
Principal Bolan: “Kids get talking about Hannah, maybe even admiring what she did. They might think somehow that this is an answer…”
Clay: “Maybe they just wanted to start a conversation.”
Bolan goes on to say he doesn’t want depressed teens to think that pulling a Hannah Baker will allow them to “live on forever” after they die — but the show undermines this argument with one mystifying plotline. (Warning: We’re about to discuss that spoiler I mentioned above.)
This season, Hannah is a ghost. Not a fleeting specter that haunts the peripheral vision of her living loved ones, but a walking, talking, Patrick Swayze-in-Ghost ghost.
“Are you corporeal?” Clay asks, in one of many one-on-one chats he has with the apparition, which only he can see. The writers’ decision to use the device is baffling; Hannah’s presence is not needed to drive the Polaroid mystery forward, and Langford makes far more interesting appearances in flashbacks, as students share new, often-revelatory memories of Hannah during their testimony.
Ghost Hannah could have derailed season 2 entirely, were it not for Minnette’s endlessly endearing performance. Clay Jensen may be the most put-upon protagonist in all of TV Land, but Minnette’s earnest style and inherent sweetness keep the character grounded and sympathetic, no matter how melodramatic the circumstances.
The fact that I feel dirty praising Justin Prentice, who plays serial rapist Bryce Walker, is a testament to how excellent he is in the role. This season especially, the actor is masterful at portraying the slippery charisma of a sociopath, and his scenes with Brenda Strong (as Bryce’s aloof mother Nora) are particularly chilling.
Parents on 13 Reasons Why are still generally one-dimensional — they’re overbearing, anxious to the point of neurosis, or too eager-to-please — but Kate Walsh gives another moving performance as Olivia Baker. With her red-rimmed eyes and close-cropped grief wig, Walsh brings a depth to her character’s pain, as Olivia slowly begins to accept the responsibility that she and her husband Andy (Brian d’Arcy James) bear for Hannah’s death.
It almost feels punitive to tell you that gun violence also plays a role in the new episodes — how much adversity can one California high school take? — but there are enough moments of levity to make it a slightly less traumatizing binge than The Handmaid’s Tale.
The show is entertainingly self-aware about its characters and their Gen Z tics. (“Is that racist? I’m not racist… Am I racist?” worries Clay during a tense conversation with Tony (Christian Navarro), who replies, “Okay, don’t go into your Clay-hole.”) The writers accurately capture the center-of-my-own-universe angst of the teen mind, and this season’s mystery delivers on twists and OMFG moments.
13 Reasons Why finishes season 2 as a show you don’t so much enjoy as endure and appreciate later — much like adolescence itself. Grade: B+