Last year, the lightning rod that is 13 Reasons Why took us all by surprise. While no one knew what to expect from the Selena Gomez-produced teen drama, it quickly became a controversial hit with its young audience. That’s no shock, as the Netflix series' original episodes explore tough topics like mental health, rape culture, and suicide, all through the meme-friendly lens of Hannah Baker’s (Katherine Langford) 13 tapes that she left behind before taking her own life. But, the second season of the polarizing pop cultural touchstone no longer has the luxury of being an unknown entity we can all figure out together. Instead, 13 Reasons’ dedicated fans have been patiently waiting for a second season for over a year, and their expectations are high.
Thankfully, 13 Reasons Why season 2 doesn’t just live up to its predecessor — it is much better than it. It’s also much, much darker.
We return to the world of Liberty High School five months after the events of 13 Reasons season 1. The depositions we see given in the drama’s freshman year finale “Tape 7, Side A,” have now progressed to a full-on trial between the Baker parents, or, truly, Hannah’s mom Olivia Baker (Kate Walsh), and Liberty’s school district. Although Polaroid photos do take on a major role in Vol. 2 of the young adult series, it’s actually the specific testimonies of the trial that frame each episode of season 2. Outcast Tyler Down (Devin Druid), with his festering sense of right-below-the-surface rage, narrates the first episode. Following the photographer in the season, and in the courtroom, are essentially the rest of Team Tape, despite the fact that some of the individuals on Hannah’s final missives have a difficult road to the witness’ stand. Some never even make it there at all.
But it's not Tyler, nor Justin Foley (Brandon Flynn), nor Courtney Crimsen (Michele Selene Ang), nor anyone else other than Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette), star of the O.G. tape No. 11, who is the protagonist here. When see we Clay again, he seems to have thrown himself into a supposedly Hannah-free life, focusing on his girlfriend Skye Miller (Sosie Bacon, with her one degree separation from Kevin Bacon) and, it seems, little else. Of course, as the drama of the Baker trial erupts, Clay’s mask of “not caring about Hannah” first slides and then, eventually, comes crashing down all together. And, in a plot device necessary to keep Clay’s late crush around in the present-day narrative to ground the series, the apparition of Hannah comes to haunt Clay for 13 episodes.
Being Clay is generally awful — and this time, 13 Reasons Why really digs into why. So much of the high school series’ first season is built on the idea Hannah was the perfect girl, whom so many evil monsters took advantage of. For Clay, Hannah would remain the ultimate One Who Got Away, forever kept on a pedestal due to her suicide. But Hannah, like any living human being, was not the apex of all that was good and pure. As season 2 takes great pains to prove, Hannah made mistakes and had flaws. The best episode of the season, No. 6, opens up a confounding, endearing relationship we never knew about, which truly fleshes out Hannah’s character and gives us a glimpse at who she was when Clay wasn’t dutifully looking on.
What makes this tangled exploration so compelling is that none of it takes away from the fact Hannah didn’t deserve to be bullied, slut-shamed, or raped. Season 1’s message seemed to be, “Look how easy it is to ruin an innocent person’s life.” Yet, season 2’s message is, “It doesn’t matter who someone is, simply don’t ruin their life.” We learn so much about each of the characters in Hannah’s orbit as they come to learn this lesson. For Clay, it’s nearly impossible for him to reconcile the dead, imagined, angel Hannah was with the real-life mess of contradictions the young woman really was. In one of the greatest wins of the season, 13 Reasons Why doesn’t let the young, affluent, white teenage boy off the hook for those kinds of unwittingly sexist leanings.
The thread of Clay probably being generally off-base about everything continues into the season’s biggest mystery, which involves those previously mentioned Polaroids. The throwback photographs, which have been a major part of 13 Reasons’ recent trailers, are the lynchpin to realizing Liberty High’s problem with sexual misconduct goes far deeper than the horrific actions of one mister Bryce Walker (Justin Prentice). As viewers learn in season 1, the rich jock raped both Hannah and Jessica Davis, who, for the record, goes on to become of of season 2’s biggest powerhouses.
In this latest, legitimately upsetting Liberty High disaster of finding out about the school-wide culture of rampant assault, we’re allowed to see there are multiple sides to every story, even when that story is how young women want to handle their own sexual assaults. The resulting resolution is that no woman is wrong even if, as with season 2’s multi-dimensional Hannah, she doesn’t fit into the mold certain men around her would prefer.
One alarming word you might have noticed in that last paragraph was the use of “women.” Yes, 13 Reasons 2.0 features many, many young women grappling with their histories of sexual violence. This unsettling prevalence of assault and rape — which seems more necessary in a #MeToo world, but all the more brutal — is a large part of the truly dismal emotional cloud hanging over this season. Yet, countless other factors, like new drug use, the constant threat of a too-timely-for-comfort school shooting, a viscerally painful season finale, and the consistent air of grief over Hannah’s death also contribute to the darkness of the series. To be honest, there is only about one joke I can remember from roughly 13 full hours of television.
That’s why, if you didn’t appreciate the abject grimness of the first 13 Reasons Why season, this one isn’t going to win you over, even with the greatest catnip of modern television: multiple obscure mysteries and confounding timelines. But, if you do already love this Netflix series, get ready for a very fast, very dark binge.
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