The sophomore outing of Netflix’s divisive teen drama, 13 Reasons Why is here. Last year, the show found itself in the midst of controversies particularly targeting its modus operandi of romanticising and sensationalising teenage suicide. Either incredibly bold, or tremendously irresponsible – the show’s approach of involving rape, bullying, slut-shaming & depression as subplots amidst the central storyline of how any kind of inflicted pain can have monstrous repercussions, is something which has been questioned by a great many people around the globe, myself included. It starts a conversation, yes. But is that the extent of it? Can the showrunners blatantly claim that the show does not excessively dramatise, or sensationalise some extremely sensitive topics that might have a lasting impact on the demographic it showcases? People have constantly raised concerns over the fact that Hannah Baker is shown to be seemingly immortalised by the nature of her suicide, and in doing so, gains far more attention posthumously, than she did during the time she was alive. It is bound to raise some thoughts in the minds of some already troubled teenagers, who might amateurly perceive the show in a direction that is 180 degrees opposite to what the showrunners may have intended. Which is why – now, an opening address from the cast keeps reminding you that you should only be watching the show if you’re mature enough to take it all in. Will that do any good? We’ll see.
This time round, Hannah returns as an apparition in Clay’s life, just as we begin witnessing the proceedings of the Bakers’ lawsuit against Liberty High school for letting circumstances escalate under their roof, which ultimately led to their daughter committing suicide. The show addresses last year’s ‘sensationalising suicide’ controversy, mental health concerns & #MeToo movement head-on in a few episodes, giving us a string of impactful scenes that will be both admired and questioned somewhere down the line. But it also adds a new troublesome subplot to the equation – gun violence. I’ll be fairly honest – I got around to binging the entire first season only recently, and while that season did seem to be heading in a particular direction – given its narrative framework, this one just doesn’t. Court testimonies have replaced Hannah’s cassette tapes as the central plot device. Each character does their own narration, and we get to see what all transpired from their perception, rather than Hannah’s, giving us far more insight into everything that we witnessed last season. The drama is still top notch, but the show now relies on its more than capable cast to carry the narrative forward, rather than its own central storyline. There will be times when you will question the monstrosity of what is happening, while others where you’ll be wondering if the magnitude of consequences can be as severe as what’s being showcased.
Speaking of the cast and crew, the actors have truly embodied the characters that captured everyone’s fascination since the previous season. It is hard not to feel for Devin Druid’s Tyler, a victim of severe social isolation who is subjected to bullying throughout a major chunk of the season. A couple of rather shocking scenes in the finale involving his character are bound to make you flinch & look away from the screen. From getting involved with a bunch of punk kids and being cajoled into vandalising activities, to being sent for rehabilitation – his character arc is one of the strongest ones you’ll be witnessing this season. Similarly, a string of revelations involving Zach (Ross Butler), Justin (Brandon Flynn), Bryce (Justin Prentice) & Chloe (Anne Winters) make for a really compelling viewing experience. Anne Winters’ take on the head cheerleader Chloe is rather commendable – for those who are not aware, Winters had originally auditioned for the titular role of Hannah Baker last season, only losing out to Langford in the final rounds. Probably for the best, as she adds a certain vulnerable charm to Chloe that makes you sympathise for her in all those low moments. Alex (Miles Heizer) is recovering from his head injury from the previous season finale, while Tony (Christian Navarro) reveals some of his sweet and bitter experiences via a few well illustrated flashbacks. Justin (Brandon Flynn) has the cliched drug addict storyline, but his later dynamic with Clay (Dylan Minnette) is executed quite well. Minnette’s Clay Jenson, of course remains central to the plot – we see him reacting to situations and acting out in ways similar to the first season. I wish they showcased more of him and Skye (Sosie Bacon), as that was truly one of the most engrossing and fresh parts in the initial episodes of this season. If there was one character that made more impact than anyone else’s, it was Alisha Boe’s Jessica. Her story was easily the most affecting, as she struggles knowing that things will never be the same again, given what all went down last season.
That being said, the insertion of certain character arcs into the narrative goes beyond the ‘forced’ mark, annulling some elements from the previous season that are quite unnecessarily rendered senseless. You’ll probably get a hang of which character’s storyline with Hannah I’m referencing to, once you hit episode six. Also, the quasi-ghost rendition of Hannah Baker almost feels like nothing more than a forced license to keep Katherine Langford central to the show, even though she naturally shines in every single flashback scene she’s in. The illusory talks with Clay though? Not so much. She was one of the major reasons why the first season was an overwhelming success, but due to the new narrative structure of this season, she has very little to do other than roaming around as an apparition with Clay and making him constantly question himself. There are quite a few other concerns I have for the show, but I’ll leave them out for some other article.
Which brings me to the most important question – Was a second season really necessary? My initial verdict, after having watched a couple of episodes was ‘No’. The ending of season one didn’t exactly warrant a second outing, the success & numbers did. As I progressed further into season two, however, my opinion somewhat changed. The season struggles to justify its existence, but it comes with quite a few exhilarating moments, even though it will still be classified as difficult viewing. Triggering graffiti, substance abuse, instances of sexual assault, gun violence and abusive bullying – these are never easy things to watch, especially for people having had some personal experiences along similar lines. By the end of it all, the show just deviates from what seemed to be the direction we were going in, perhaps to include more bold or graphic instances in high school teenager’s life, but that isn’t a very smooth transition. The pathway for season three is quite open here, but it’s hardly 13 Reasons Why anymore. We aren’t going to invest in Hannah Baker’s reasons for committing suicide this point forth, it would honestly make much more sense to just have a spin-off series for ‘Liberty High’, further exploring the dark lives of these teenagers rather than forcefully trying to convince us that it’s still Hannah’s story, and there is still something left to do with ’13 reasons’ even after everyone has closure.
In one of the strongest scenes this season, someone says – “We lost Hannah, but not the things she gave us – compassion, understanding, love. Those don’t go away.” I hope the showrunners realize that it’s time to let Hannah and her ’13 reasons’ go too and invest in all the other compelling storylines centrally.
Final Verdict: In its sophomore outing, the controversial show tackles new problems with the same bold & graphic approach that it previously did. It takes a few episodes to find its stable footing, but the approach, albeit more binge-worthy, still runs in a directionless manner trying to justify its existence all throughout. The drama is still top notch, but it won’t evade controversies – it’s hardly going to win the show any new fans, but the ones who were invested last season would enjoy seeing their favourite characters evolve as the story progresses. “The tapes were just the beginning”, you say? Well, where do you even plan to end it?