In 2017, 13 Reasons Why, a teen drama concerning the suicide of a young woman called Hannah Baker debuted on Netflix. Through cassette tapes, Hannah told her story, including the key situations which, the show implies, led to her decision to die by suicide.
13 Reasons Why was controversial from the start. In The New Statesman, Neha Shah criticised it for being both sensationalist and reductive. Yet the show also received generally favourable reviews for its portrayal of contemporary teenage struggles through a diverse cast, and, as a viewer, I found the storyline compelling enough to keep me hooked even when I found myself disapproving of it.
In a very measured statement, the Samaritans offered guidance for viewers the day before Season Two premiered. They stated that much of the show’s content might well be triggering, especially for those who have experience dealing with self-harm, but stopped short of advising against watching it. Instead, they suggested anyone who struggled with the issues the shows portrays should seek help by calling 116123, or emailing email@example.com.
The statement also reminded readers that, in fiction, “issues are often exaggerated for dramatic effect”.
When Season Two arrived, and I was stuck in bed with tonsillitis, I thought I might give it a go. Here are 13 reasons why I wish I hadn’t.
1. Suicide is once again reduced to a plot device
We know from Season One, episode one, that Hannah took her own life. The method wasn’t relevant to the plot, and neither was the camera lingering over it. The second season follows on from a second suicide, albeit a failed attempt, and while it stops short from showing us every detail, there’s never really any effort to truly probe what is going on, as the character conveniently develops amnesia. Suicide is, once again, reduced to a plot device.
A note to the producers: including a disclaimer at the start of the new season and pointing viewers towards help at the end of each episode doesn’t make up for the show itself.
2. Season Two repeats this mistake with rape
Season One focused on the circumstances in which a young girl died by suicide, whereas this season instead looks at how one of the main characters raped multiple girls in the school. The first season included two rape scenes, which are repeated in this one. The show certainly attempts to portray rape culture, albeit clumsily. The baseball coach character reveals he is aware of what the boys do, but maintains it’s all a witch-hunt, and besides, they’ve got a big game to win.
Meanwhile, the two most prominent assaulted girls (who are still alive) don’t remember their attacks well, if at all, due to their being drunk or drugged.
The actors do their best to embody the impossibility of their situation in wanting to seek justice but knowing they won’t be believed. Alisha Boe, who plays Jessica Davis, in particular does a good job of expressing this turmoil. But the narrative focuses on a court case, rather than her trauma. Once again a deeply disturbing incident looks like a handy plot device.
3. It’s exploitation, not exploration
For all the criticism of the first season, the rape scenes and suicide were not as needlessly graphic as that found in the second season’s finale. A physical assault is followed by a drawn-out shot of a teenage boy being sodomised with a broom, while being called a “faggot”.
The scene is there to shock, and it achieves that, but there is no insight into the victim’s mind, nor any real, believable established motive for the attack. The main perpetrator received little screen time, and his victim was pretty inconsequential to most of the season. To trivialise assault in this way, particularly with the homophobic overtones, is more than just lazy or careless writing: it’s dangerous.
4. There is no payoff
If you are going to subject viewers to scenes like the above, you really should be thinking about the end game. Yet the narrative leads to a series of anti-climaxes. Worse still, there is a transparent attempt to create anticipation for a potential third season by a school shooting. The whole sequence achieves nothing (spoiler: the shooting never happens) except trivialising one of the most pressing issues facing high school students in America.
5. There is no life beyond the source material
The Handmaid’s Tale is currently providing a masterclass in how to absorb everything from your source material to create a new narrative that feels like it came from the author themself. Season Two of 13 Reasons Why tries hard to rewrite the characters, but it comes off as rushed and this leads them into making other mistakes, such as…
6. …Still glamourising suicide
In Season Two, suicide is a means to haunt people both literally and figuratively, as Hannah follows Clay throughout the season, talking to him and affecting his behaviour even after her death. As the Samaritans statement noted of this dramatisation: “This is of course very far removed from the reality of suicide. When a person dies by suicide their life is over forever and there are no longer opportunities to get help or turn things around.”
7. The polaroids don’t help
The first season was problematic, to say the least, but its tight structure and genuine mystery made it gripping. Season Two attempts to replicate that through several smaller mysteries (who’s sending polaroids? who’s sending threatening letters? who’s putting up pictures in the school?), but none are nearly developed enough to remain interesting or memorable. Moreover, some of these polaroids depict rape. Another small way of reducing assault to a plot device.
8. It undermines the good bits of Season One
Retconning: to retroactively revise a fictional piece of work. See JK Rowling’s Twitter for examples.
Through the story of Hannah, Season One critiqued the way men and boys destroy women and girls’ reputations. Yet Season Two introduces a retroactive storyline about Hannah and Zach’s secret summer romance. This is underdeveloped, and also manages to be at odds with a lot of the message of the previous season. The other characters struggle to explain away the massive plot hole.
9. The cast is bloated
In Season One, the high number of characters was tolerable because they all felt necessary to the plot. In Season Two, most of the characters testifying in court contribute virtually nothing to the story or indeed the court proceedings. So many characters competing for screen time makes the show’s failure to handles sensitive subjects almost inevitable.
10. It’s a trial to watch the trial.
The trial has very little to do with its own premise (suing the school for not protecting a student), and instead provides a venue for clunky expositional monologues. Hannah bullying a girl at a previous school, her father having an affair, her secret relationship – they’re as brief as the polaroids this season uses as its motif. Such snippets of exposition don’t allow the show to explore the truth of teenage pain – one of Season One’s redeeming qualities.
11. There are too many episodes
Critics argued that the first season could have been shorter. Their advice was not heeded: the structure and pacing in the second season is far messier. While the first season had a clear and clever plot device (the 13 tapes meant 13 episodes), this season lacks any such direction. It struggles to find its purpose between overlapping plotlines and priorities. These stunted plots compound and contribute to an overall narrative that fails to give its delicate subject matter the time and attention it needs to avoid being harmful.
12. And yet it feels rushed
Despite it being overly long and meandering, 13 Reasons Why doesn’t actually give enough time to the mental states of the sexual assault victims at the heart of its story. The first season’s challenge was presenting the build up and aftermath of a suicide without glamourising it. The second season feels more like dealing with the aftermath of the first season’s criticism, while lacking a true narrative of its own.
13. It confuses story with backstory
In the first season, the tapes were entirely backstory: we knew Hannah killed herself as a result of them, but they still managed to push narrative forward. The trial doesn’t achieve this. The story never seems to develop or move forward until it’s suddenly over, much like the season itself. All we, the audience, are left with are repeated, lingering portrayals of sexual assault and suicide. And so we are left with a vague, splintered picture of the supposed reasons why, but, sadly, never the reasons why not.
I wouldn’t hold out hope for Season Three.