I have successfully binged the second season of 13 Reasons Why since it came out about a week ago. This is an achievement in itself because I have a kid and a dog and a job (occasionally writing about things other than teen-oriented melodramas). What really helped my cause was that it rained a lot last week. Not only did that really set the mood for the unrelenting moodiness of this show, but it also gave me an excuse not to leave the house. Also, I get seasonal depression which really adds another flavor to watching a show where everyone is rightfully hella depressed.
I love teen-oriented shows. I’ve written on a teen sitcom. I wrote a play about and starring teenagers. I write realistic YA fiction. I’m still friends with a lot of my high school friends. I had a subscription for Teen Vogue for years into my adulthood (before it became awesomely woke). In a decade, my daughter will be a teenager (don’t worry, I’m already terrified). Last night, I read through my high school yearbooks (that’s a really good reality check against rosy nostalgia). I occasionally look at my high school crush’s mugshot when I get bored. This is all to say I’m really, really into content about and geared towards teenagers.
I’m here to say that the first season of 13 Reasons Why had its triggers and its controversy, but there were still things that made it watchable and interesting TV. The controversy, for the uninitiated, being the very detailed scene of Hannah’s suicide. The second season, on the other hand, is an even more problematic dumpster fire. Like the kind of dumpster fire that can spread rapidly to other buildings and really make a giant, fiery mess of things.
That being said: Here are my 13 reasons why you can allow yourself to take a pass on this second season. Obviously there are SPOILERS in my list, so if you actually want to watch the show yourself (you’ve been warned) wait until you finish the season, then read my list, and feel free to start a flame war with me over social media because I’m super fired up about the messiness of the season and ready to TALK. Which may be the only positive to watching this show… but do you really need more reasons to be pissed off these days?
1) Clay (Dylan Minnette) became the thrust (no pun intended) of the first season because the tapes were given to him, but this season he seems to insert himself even more into places he doesn’t belong. In the scheme of things he barely knew Hannah (Katherine Langford), beyond having a superficial crush on her. This season he’s pushing girls to file rape charges, stopping an active shooter, and trying to detox a heroin addict in his bedroom. If there was a textbook definition for “doing the most,” Clay’s picture is in the definition. He’s annoying, whiny, and mansplaining. Boy, bye.
2) Katherine Langford is stunning and a really great actress. She gives me young Jennifer Lawrence vibes and I see a similar acting trajectory for her. I understand why the show would want more of her… but they bring her back as a ghost haunting Clay. She’s not just a ghost he sees, but one who gets to trade pithy barbs with Clay. Ugh. I wish they just kept her to flashbacks. There are plenty of those. That’s the bind of this show–they needed to cast a compelling enough actress to entrance the characters and the audience but the whole premise is that she’s dead. The dynamic lead actress has an expiration date. At the end of this season most of the cast gives a formal goodbye to Hannah. This leads me to wonder, if they get a third season, how they can sustain a season without Langford’s talents, let alone Kate Walsh and Brian d’Arcy James (Hannah’s parents), who are also the tentpole strongest actors in this series.
3) The adults are all awful. Look, teenagers already think adults don’t understand them. Why does this show only continue to validate that misguided belief? The parents are either addicts like Justin (Brandon Flynn)’s mom; insanely misguided into thinking sour patch kids aided in their son’s suicide, like Alex (Miles Heizer)’s mom (woefully underused Dawson’s Creek legend Meredith Monroe); using their kids for their own professional gain, like Clay’s mom; or just straight up evil and heartless, like the school Principal (Steven Weber). Even the most nuanced, carefully sketched character of Hannah’s mom is seriously flawed and that flaw is never acknowledged. If anything it’s treated as no big deal that she engages Hannah’s high school classmates in intense discussions of her own feelings or has a conspiracy theory wall in her home. It’s natural that someone who’s grieving would overshare, but it’s never treated with any level of awkwardness or boundary over-stepping that she continues to do that with children. The message to be that’s adults will fail you and you can only trust your peers. That’s a lot of pressure to place on kids and a dangerously message to send about adults
4) Where are the therapists? Hannah’s mom should be oversharing with a therapist and yet that’s never suggested. All these parents worry about their children but NONE of them are being sent to a licensed therapist, either of their own volition or against their will. The one time therapy gets brought up–one of the characters being sent to see one after his parent’s divorce, his friend makes fun of him for it and the conversation moves on.
5) There are so many guns. I get that the writers wanted to show how easy it is to get a gun, lots of guns in fact. But this season they’re treated in this almost sexy, glamorized way. Shooting guns is even shown as a way to let off some steam, like yoga or meditation.
6) The weird mixed messages about sex. This season does share some important messages about consent (albeit heavy handedly), but it’ll then turn it into a joke. After all the rape trauma discussions, Justin easily tosses off to Clay that he “needs to get laid” in order to relax. I understand that teenagers, and adults, can feel very mixed emotions about sex, but that these characters, who’ve experienced so much trauma around sex would make jokes about sex as a way to cure personal problems is bizarre. In fact, this same comment about Clay is made later in the episode by Bryce (Justin Prentice, who I’ll give him a lot of credit for very accurately portraying a familiar version of a high school aged sexual predator), who’s a rapist. How is the audience expected to take those jokes then?
7) The warnings aren’t enough. I’ll give credit to the writers. This season they brought on a ton of consultants from various organizations. They actually did the work this season. They do have a brief intro advising teens that this show may be triggering and advising they watch with an adult. Perhaps this intro is needed before every episode, just to remind people in the binging age, to regularly address the content they’re about to consume. There’s an internet link at the end of each episode for kids who need help, but it’s a link to the show website (that has resources) but that honestly comes off as slightly self serving. Why not end the episode with specific numbers of hotlines kids could call or text. Don’t make people who are struggling already go that extra step. Yes, that would take time in the credits, but it’s Netflix, who cares?
8) That self-congratulatory documentary Beyond the Reasons. First of all, this documentary wasn’t that easy to find. They should have lead straight into it after you finished the finale. The whole point is helping people to digest what they just watched. Don’t make it hard to find. It was an odd talk show-esque format with writers, actors, and advocates involved in the show. So much of it was patting each other on the back, promising that Justin Prentice wasn’t Bryce (wow, you mean the person ACTING the role as a rapist isn’t a rapist himself!? You won’t give the audience that credit but you’ll stick them with THAT SCENE), and doubling down on the importance of the show. It’s awesome that they involved people who worked for specific organizations to be a part of the conversation. At one point, one of the advocates says something mildly critical about the negative way Clay handles a situation and that criticism of the show gets quickly brushed over. This doc needed much more of that. I think it’s important for the show creator and writers to reckon with the negative reaction to the show and talk about why they added more consultants into the mix. This was their moment to do that and it was lost.
9) There’s that scene I refer to in the previous reason. It’s in the final episode of this season and is the inciting incident for why the character of Tyler plans to shoot up his school. It’s a brutal scene of violence and abuse. Tyler gets his head shoved against a mirror and sink and then gets his head repeatedly shoved in a toilet and then one of his jock abusers grabs a mop and penetrates him with the handle. I’m spelling it out for you so that you’ll be better prepared than any viewer was for this moment. Like Hannah’s suicide moment, this scene is shot with the same intensely realistic detail. Yes, these terrible things do happen but it was shot with such realism and there was no special disclaimer at the beginning of the episode. There should have been. Also that this scene gets used as the primary reason why a kid would commit a school shooting is a dangerous message to send out there. It’s not too dissimilar from the framing of the Sante Fe shooter as reacting to bullying. Also the Columbine foreshadowing throughout the season is SO on the nose and I wished they’d read Sue Klebold’s book or Dave Cullen’s book Columbine a bit closer to make the parallels a bit more nuanced. Especially since there’s a terrible scene of a black bag and you assume it’s a bomb but oops it’s just a paint bomb! What a nifty prank!
10) The character of Tony Padilla. One of my friends, Erica, referred to him as a “magical Latino figure” and it’s so true. He’s the one character who’s story isn’t necessarily connected to any of the others beyond being the disseminator of Hannah’s tapes. I’m all about a gay person of color on this show and he has a love interest who’s also a person of color, but their stories never intersect with the others and yet he enters to save the day at all the right moments. His family life and tough background get told to the audience but we never see it. This season he’s even doling out sage advice to Hannah’s mom, which is insane because he is a child. He’s played by Christian Navarro, who’s 26 and looks even older by how slick and put together they style him for the show.
11) The happy storyline between Hannah and Zach. The internet seems to be freaking out about this dreamy coupling. It’s great to give Hannah a bit of happiness but it doesn’t add up with the first season timeline or the characterization of first season Zach. This season he’s suddenly transformed into Mr. Perfect. There also is Hannah suddenly being empowered enough to ask Zach for exactly what she likes in bed. I’m all for young woman seeking their own satisfaction, but this empowered side of Hannah doesn’t click with the rest of her characterization from the first season. Girls do contain multitudes, but this season sexually confident Hannah is suddenly cool with Zach breaking up with her for his reputation and lets him go without an argument. But this also lets us have yet another moment where Clay gets pissed Hannah had a sexual relationship with someone other then him. He’s seriously leaning into being an incel this season.
12) This cast is already so big and has so many underserved characters that suddenly this season the spotlight shifts to some characters not or rarely seen in the first season, who are unfortunately played by some very weak actors. While Bryce is getting placed into the role of the accused, the character of Montgomery (Timothy Granaderos) gets put into the active bully role. He’s such a one-dimensional yes man in the way he’s written and played that it becomes tedious to watch and you’d think that bullies would be a little more subtle with the school under such scrutiny (oh, wait, none of the adults are paying attention to the students still in the school). Then there’s Sheri Holland (played by Ajiona Alexus) who somehow can detox someone off drugs while still keeping those grades up. The flattest actress by far with the meatiest role is Annie Winters who plays Bryce’s new girlfriend Chloe. It’s a great role as someone abused and scared of her boyfriend but also clinging to him for his power. She gets written with moments where she’s not just the vacuous ladder-climber (like when she colors over slurs written in the bathroom or we find out she’s from a poor background) but the actress doesn’t seem to be able to play anything but vacant.
13) Last, but not least, there’s the missed opportunity of Derek Luke. He’s a seriously great actor but the material written for him this season was really not up to par for. His whole engine this season as guidance councilor Kevin Porter was that he was marking time at his job until he found out whether the school board would fire him and so he was using that time to play vigilante. Whether he was physically and verbally threatening Bryce in the halls or going to a drug dealer’s home to play hero and get in yet another physical altercation, he was constantly putting himself at serious risk, and not just for his job. Not every character who’s African-American needs to address their race, but it happens so infrequently in this very diverse show. There’s a great moment in this season where Jessica (the very talented Alicia Boe) says that she won’t press charges for her rape because she’s black and her rapist is rich and white. Who will people believe? It’s a very sad fact and also stands out because it’s one of the very few moments on this show that addresses race head on. It’s another sad fact of our current society that a Black man physically assaulting someone, whether a rich white kid or a white drug dealer, would bring serious trouble on his head and could get him killed. The only threat he gets is a brick thrown through his window. It’s just disingenuous to say that something that Safelite could fix is the worst thing that could happen to him. The show didn’t have to show what could have happened to him but it at least needed to address it.