I first picked up Jay Asher's novel 13 Reasons Why in high school, shortly after the book's publication. The novel resonated with some of my friends, but I couldn't connect with it — partially because I believed that Hannah, who was essentially the "narrater" of the story, was using her suicide as a misguided revenge scheme.
Cut to years later, when I was tasked with recapping the first season of Netflix and playwright Brian Yorkey's adaptation of Asher's work. I expected to feel that same unease that I did reading Asher's novel. Instead, I was floored by how, through Yorkey's careful vision, the source material bloomed into a smart, thoughtful, and incredibly painful examination of not just the complications of being a teen, but of the systematic sexism that often first rears its ugly head when teenagers come of age.
I understand why not everyone is comfortable with 13 Reasons Why. The series was heavily criticized for depicting Hannah's suicide onscreen, despite certain media guidelines insisting it dangerous to do so. Some also believed, as I did reading Asher's novel, that the way Hannah gets to "live on" via her 13 tapes romanticized suicide.
I certainly would not want anyone to watch the show and feel like they were harmed for having done so. I can only assume that Yorkey and his team felt the same way when planning the second season.
In season 2, 13 Reasons Why took criticism from its audience and applied it thoughtfully — the biggest piece being that Hannah (Katherine Langford) had used her suicide as a cruel revenge scheme on her classmates. In doing so, the series retroactively corrects many of the issues that even fans like myself took with the first season. But it's more than just fixing what was possibly broken. Season 2 also reveals the true ethos of the show. We shouldn't just feel empathy towards Hannah, but towards everyone.
Season 2 of 13 Reasons Why busts open the narrative that Hannah was anything but a teenage girl. Through testimonies from her classmates (who become the "new narrators" of season 2) we learn that Hannah is no martyr, like some critics accused her of being in season 1. Hannah was a deeply flawed person, whose complicated past includes a secret sexual relationship and a time in which she was also a bully.
As we learn more about Hannah, the true point of this story is revealed. It's not that Hannah was an innocent girl who didn't deserve to have her life destroyed by slut-shaming, bullying, and sexual assault — it's that she was a person. She didn't deserve what happened to her because none of us do.
It's a tough pill for Clay (Dylan Minnette) to swallow. Clay thought he was getting revenge, just as, maybe, critics of season 1 did. But season 2 of 13 Reasons Why really drives home an uncomfortable point: Hannah is already dead. You can't save her. But maybe, you can help the other people who are still here.
Could 13 Reasons Why have explored these more nuanced points about Hannah as a stand-in for all survivors in its freshman endeavor? Absolutely. But it also was focused on telling Hannah's specific truth — something that not all survivors are capable, or physically able to do. The only thing the show could do to rectify its past missteps is to move forward as thoughtfully as possible.
No, it does not depict a suicide in season 2. (Though it could have). However, it's really in how it humanizes Hannah that makes it a smarter, more considerate season.
That's why it's so disappointing to see critics suggest that season 2 was unnecessary, that Hannah's story was already "over" as it was in the book. Sure, there were no more tapes, but isn't Hannah's story really that of a young woman who faced sexual assault, harassment, and slut-shaming, ultimately leading her to see no alternative but to take her own life? If we're talking on a cultural scale, that is anything but over.
13 Reasons Why depicts that brilliantly in season 2, illustrating how many sexual assault survivors there are (it even has its own #MeToo moment) while also showing how sexual predators like Bryce (Justin Prentice) are able to get away with their crimes over, and over again.
Had 13 Reasons Why truly been a limited series, it would have existed as a flawed one, to be debated by fans and critics until the end of time. Season 2 added to the conversation we all need to have. Whether I want a season 3 is another thing entirely, but for me, 13 Reasons Why absolutely needed its first two seasons in order to tell a complete, honest, and ultimately hopeful story.
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).