13 Reasons Why Season 2 Is All About Who Owns Stories Of Sexual Assault

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix.
Warning: Mild spoilers ahead for 13 Reasons Why season 2.
One of the most obvious things you’ll notice in 13 Reasons Why’s second season is just how massive this world is. While the series began as the tale of the late Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford), it has grown to involve every person she indicted on her infamous tapes, their friends, their enemies, Hannah's parents, everyone else’s parents, and various legal and school administrators. With this many people populating your Netflix screen, it’s inevitable that every single individual likely wants something different, and those goals will likely be in direct conflict with someone else’s aims.
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This quandary proves to be the biggest issue when it comes to Liberty High School’s disturbingly expansive culture of sexual assault. While season 1 seemed to suggest walking trash bag of toxic masculinity Bryce Walker (Justin Prentice) was simply Liberty High's sole serial predator, 13 Reasons season 2 proves the jock’s wasn't the only student displaying flagrant violent behavior. Now, there are a many, many survivors of sexual assault walking around the LHS campus. The question then becomes who deserves to tell those upsetting, deeply personal stories, and when do they need to tell them?
The answers to those queries are that survivors are the only people who should be sharing details about their past, and they can do it whenever they feel ready to. The most important thing anyone around them can do is support these people. It takes 13 episodes for everyone to come to consensus on that fact, but it eventually happens.
13 Reasons Why enters this debate through Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette), Jessica Davis (Alisha Boe), a rape survivor, and the late Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford), who was also a rape survivor prior to dying by suicide. Clay, the drama’s living protagonist, is desperate to get “justice” for Hannah, which, for the teen boy, equates to seeing her rapist Bryce, who attacked both Hannah and Jessica, behind bars. It’s unclear if Hannah actually wanted Bryce legally punished for attacking her, since she never says as much in her season 1 tapes. Even Hannah’s “ghost,” who starts following Clay around in the season 2 premiere, “The First Polaroid,” calls into question whether outing Bryce’s crimes and sending him to prison is what she wanted. After all, the aftermath of Bryce's brutality isn't merely Hannah's story to tell.
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Yet, Clay becomes increasingly obsessed with toppling Bryce throughout season 2. This drive only becomes more intense when he finds out about The Clubhouse, a secret jock meeting spot where multiple sexual assaults took place. A mystery person kicks off the season by dropping a Polaroid taken at the Clubhouse in Clay’s locker; it shows two unknown students drinking in a dark room. The next surprise photo reveals Bryce, naked from the waist down, raping an unconscious girl. The third shows another pair of previously unseen students having sex — the young woman looks inebriated, so it's unclear if the scene depicts another rape or consensual sex. Eventually, Clay uncovers the Clubhouse, as it’s called in the third Polaroid, and finds a literal trove of photos of girls being plied with drinks and drugs before being tossed into vulnerable situations with Liberty High School’s baseball players.
If Clay were focused on revealing the depths of darkness emanating out of the Clubhouse to save another girl from its intrinsic violence, it's almost possible to understand his crusade. But, instead, he is simply trying to out the venue, and all the girls who have been harmed there, for the Bakers’ case against the Liberty High school district.
That’s what leads to one of the season’s most powerful scenes, when Clay confirms he doesn’t care about any living girls’ story, just “protecting Hannah.” In the back half of the season, the teen yells at Alex Standall (Miles Heizer) and Justin Foley (Brandon Flynn), both of whom are Jessica’s exes, about the rape survivor, “Maybe it’s time for her truth to come out, too!” Clay, terminal Nice Guy that he is, has seemingly forgotten it’s not his story to manage, no matter how much he believes it will “help” Hannah.
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In a show of real allyship, Justin finally counters Clay’s bullish screaming, which couldn’t be more upsetting or detrimental to survivors’ actual well-being. Justin asks, “What the fuck gives you the right to decide what needs to come out?”
That very important inquiry plays into the other major half of this season, which is Jessica, who has been sleeping on her parents’ floor for weeks and is terrified of physical sexual contact, coming to terms with her PTSD. Jessica, who has begun going to survivors' support group meetings, is the one who really needs protecting, whatever she considers that to be, since she is alive and breathing and having panic attacks in fitting rooms.
Some of the best parts of that season explore what would actually help Jessica, and we soon learn that talking to Nina Jones (Samantha Logan), another young woman of color and survivor going through similar experiences, is a big part of the solution. Clay is too busy yelling and betraying people’s trust to learn this lesson. That is especially upsetting when you realize Nina is one of girls who was attacked in the Clubhouse of Clay’s obsession and was roped into posing for a Polaroid photo to prove as much.
Despite Clay’s willful ignorance, the tension between Jessica’s understandable stumbles toward mental health and Nina’s avoiding speaking about her history fuels some of the season’s most important moments. It’s hard to forget how Nina’s kindness during Jessica’s PTSD-influenced panic attack quickly morphs into self-protecting hostility when Jessica nearly reveals her new friend’s history as a survivor to Nina's boyfriend, Garrett (Brandon Black). It’s even more interesting, and realistic, to watch Nina begin to push Jessica away as she begins asking questions about Nina and Garrett’s relationship, like why Nina won’t talk about her past with a loved one, whether that should be a red flag, and how she feels about her Polaroid. These are important questions for survivors to consider, and shouldn't be bullied about them by outside forces. As usual, there are no wrong answers here — only a hope for growth.
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This is why Nina’s season 2 resolution is so important. Not to spoil things, but it allows her to take back her power, and self-image, no matter how men like Clay, or worse, hope to manipulate it. The girls whose faces are scattered through the Polaroid box, and the countless disturbing arcs of 13 Reasons Why, are the masters of their stories, and no one should ever take that from them.
If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please call the RAINN Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).
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