When a TV series with a reasonably closed ending becomes a huge success, the temptation to renew it is always much too strong. Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why proved to be a huge phenomenon last year, gathering appreciation and criticism in equal measures. For some, it brought an uncompromising look at how cruel and ruthlessly misogynistic high school culture can be. For others, it glamourised teenage suicide. Several US schools sent out letters asking parents not to let their children watch the series, which just contributed to the media-fuelled controversy around it. New Zealand went as far as actually creating a new censorship category to ban under-18s from watching it without adult supervision.
The burning question: was a second season of 13 Reasons Why necessary? Like most things, the answer isn’t that simple. In a nutshell, its first season introduced us to Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford), a teenager who recorded a series of tapes – 13, to be precise – explaining the reasons why she decided to take her own life. Perhaps the most striking aspect is that Hannah is already dead by the time the narrative starts, and thus the responsibility to provide a conducting thread lies with her classmate Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette). In this new season, Hannah’s mother (Kate Walsh) is suing Liberty High for being complicit in the harassment culture that drove Hannah to suicide; the trial provides most of the season’s drive. In a way, it’s a self-indulgent excuse to delve into what had already been shown in the first season, adding the courtroom drama cliché.
13 Reasons Why’s first season ended with all the cards on the table; the only logical way in which it could continue would be to reinvent itself. Perhaps surprisingly, it managed to do so by changing the focus of attention from school bullying to rape culture, (yet) another one of the great problems plaguing our society. While the prosecution attempts to establish a pattern of bullying and harassment systematically ignored by the school, the defence endeavours to discredit the victim and convince the jury that perhaps she wasn’t entirely innocent. Maybe she made it all up to get attention. What was she doing alone in a jacuzzi with Bryce (Justin Prentice)? What was she wearing? Did she really resist? Art imitates life, and courtrooms, press and social media are awash with similar questions.
Although its second season attempts to follow a few other story arcs, such as those of Jessica and Alex (Alisha Boe and Miles Heizer respectively), Clay continues to take centre stage (though he clearly hasn’t learned much). For the drama to continue, it’s necessary for Clay to revert to who he was at the beginning of the series, the introvert full of good intentions who spends too much time in his own head to acknowledge what’s going on around him, now with the overzealous preoccupation with his girlfriend Skye’s (Sosie Bacon) welfare.
Clay’s obsession, however, isn’t directed towards Skye, but towards himself. He’s scarily unable to realise she may be going through a tough time, and when he does, he can’t (or won’t) do anything about it. He wants to be both friend and saviour but refuses to take the time to listen or even think about what she wants or what her problems might be. He’s still spending too much time navel-gazing, though proclaiming he wants justice for Hannah or Jessica. Is that what Hannah would have wanted, or what Jessica wants? Or is it just his need to not feel worthless?
Bryce’s portrait as the antagonist is, once again, one of 13 Reasons Why’s loosest threads – the stereotypical rich daddy’s boy who’s used to doing whatever he wants with whomever he wants. It would’ve been better if they had taken a leaf out of Sweet/Vicious’ book and presented the rapist as an actual person, rather than a caricature bully. Alex and Jessica are still processing the terrible things that have happened and must learn how to manage their anger and pride. It’s not difficult to empathise with Jessica, who’s unsure of how to carry on with her life when Hannah’s trial is forcing her to relive every trauma. Though she tries not to be a victim, that proves difficult when her friends are convinced they know what’s best for her. She’s also got the added factor of her skin colour. Who are people going to believe: a party-loving black girl or a rich, white athlete?
However, 13 Reasons Why’s highlight is still the dynamic between Minnette and Langford; their conversations act as direct commentary on the criticism which targeted the show. In a way, Hannah represents the guilt he feels from what he heard on those tapes, but also a part of his conscience which knows he’s not doing enough. A few characters mention how important it is to talk, to not keep to yourself those overwhelming feelings which can destroy you, and that through talking one can exorcise them, preventing tragedies which are in no way limited to Hannah’s suicide. The lack of communication between parents and their children, and among friends, is one of the key themes of the show’s second season, which also clearly criticises the schools and groups which told teenagers not to watch 13 Reasons Why. Liberty High prohibits its students from talking about what happened to Hannah, which doesn’t make things any better – indeed, it makes them worse.
Directly addressing the normalisation of rape culture and the social pressure endured by victims of sexual assault is essential in order to raise awareness. 13 Reasons Why attempts to involve young people in feminism, gender (in)equality and abuse of power. It does so on its own terms, that is, in between lessons, with hormones, rumours and lies – and of course, clichés, but that doesn’t stop it from putting the “high school drama” setting to some use. After last year’s backlash, Netflix was sensible enough to place a warning on the show, including a video in which cast members discuss the issues the show deals with, and give advice to viewers, and a website with information and contact details for support organisations in a number of countries.
In a way, this second season is more difficult to watch, especially if you’ve made it through high school bullying but still have to endure day-to-day street harassment, gender-related violence, fear or guilt. The victim-shaming and blaming, the accusing, doubting sentences we hear in the show are the same ones our friends say. Or that we say while allowing this self-perpetuating cycle to continue. Or that we read on Twitter and hear on the news. This season may not be as outright shocking or as graphic as the first but, above all, it exists so we can start asking the right questions. It’s not innovative nor perfect – in fact, it’s far from it – but, unlike the first season, it feels like it actually has a purpose.
Only a few weeks after releasing 13 Reasons Why’s second season, Netflix has already confirmed there’s a third season in the pipeline for 2019. The latest season’s ending has left fans wondering whether the next one will be dealing with the All-American reality of school shootings. One thing that seems certain is that Hannah Baker won’t be making an appearance – or, at least, won’t be as relevant. I guess we’ll wait and see.
Suicide prevention is a topic that’s quite dear to me. I’ve struggled with negative thoughts more times than I can possibly count. A large part of dealing with that is knowing when to ask for help. If you’re struggling, don’t ignore it. If you know someone who is, don’t stand by and watch. There is help out there. It sounds cliché, but please remember: you are enough. It’s true. If you’re feeling like you want to die, it’s important to tell someone. Please. You don’t have to struggle with difficult feelings alone.
If your life is in danger, you have seriously harmed yourself (for example, by taking a drug overdose or cutting) or are thinking of doing so, please call 999 or go straight to A&E, or ask someone else to call 999 or take you to A&E.
Some helpful resources…
(All phone numbers are free of charge to call)
Samaritans – Everyone
116 123 (24/7, 365 days/year)
Papyrus – Under 35s
If you’re under the age of 35 and may be having thoughts of suicide or are concerned about someone who is.
0800 068 41 41 (10AM-10PM weekdays, 2PM-10PM weekends and bank holidays)
CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably) – Men, any age
Male suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK.
0800 58 58 58 (5PM – midnight 365 days/year)
www.thecalmzone.net (webchat available)
Rape Crisis England & Wales
If you’ve been the subject of sexual assault.
0808 802 9999 (12 noon – 2.30PM, and 7.00PM – 9.30PM, 365 days/year)