Rachael loves to watch TV on streaming sites. She reviews TV shows with attention to themes, tropes, and character development.
How I Got Here
I thought the first season of Thirteen Reasons Why was gripping. Some moments of it were intense, dark, and many of the scenes had dialog and acting that felt real. A lot of it resonated with me emotionally.
I understood the criticism of the show glamorizing suicide, but for me it really wasn't glamorizing anything. It was showing suicide as merely a fantasy "way out". By showing the mess it leaves behind and the emotional turmoil it causes, it shows that suicide is not a real way to deal with one's suffering. I felt like the show's message was real and important.
The Challenge of Doing a Second Season
Clearly there was a struggle about how to proceed with Thirteen Reasons Why after the first season, because they were out of material from their original source, a novel by Jay Asher. So moving forward, they had to find a way to add more layers to the story, and show more events in the aftermath of High School student Hannah Baker's suicide.
What I would have liked to see is more about how grieving is a complex process that's never really over. But what we see happening is that the story by necessity moves away from Hannah, focusing more on Jessica and her journey to heal, and seek justice, as a rape survivor. (And I did think those parts of the second season were the ones that had the most emotional impact for me.)
Which would have been fine, except they awkwardly rope Hannah into everything in a way that feels incredibly forced; by having Clay literally see and talk to Hannah as a ghost. Yep. That happened.
Increasingly I was frustrated with the way the show was continuing, but I couldn't not watch it either. I was hate-watching. So let me talk about all the reasons the second season of Thirteen Reasons Why failed.
Trials Do Not Work That Way
The story framework for the second season is that the school is being put on trial for causing Hannah's suicide, and characters from the previous season are being forced to testify concerning their role in Hannah's bullying or for participating in the general culture of bullying at Hannah's school. This whole trial has less resemblance to real American court cases than a Federation court martial in Star Trek. I felt like, breaks from reality in fiction are fine, but this was not researched or thought out at all.
Fictional breaks from reality work if it's acceptable that something like that might happen. Especially in a show that's trying to have a gritty and realistic feel, the writers had some obligation to make a trial that could have possibly happened in reality.
For one, it was not clear who was being sued and why. You can't just sue an entire organization and put everyone in that organization on trial all at once. Adults with specific duties, like the school counselor and principal, can be sued for negligence. Or violating their own policies. Sure.
But the kids involved, even the ones who had little direct involvement with Hannah? Fo one, minors are not held to the same level of legal accountability as adults. But also with Hannah's suicide, multiple parties played a role, making it unclear that any one of them could be pinpointed as the cause of the problem. This is sort of like suing Walmart, but instead of having the manager and cashier responsible for the problem on trial, they put on trial everyone who ever worked at any Walmart anywhere.
Also, for the purposes of continuing the "this day = this person's tape" formula from before without the tapes, they made it "this day = this witness' testimony", making a trial that is drawn out way more than any trial would be in, ever. Having a different day for each witness is not efficient. Also, trials usually know who will testify and who won't in advance. None of this "It's your day Courtney, are you going to testify" crap. The witnesses would have agreed or not agreed to testify prior to the trial, not during it.
Drawing out the trial like this also allows more time for guilty parties to attempt to intimidate the witnesses. In a real trial this is avoided by having most trials, even famous-people-murder trials, take only a few days at most.
Anyway, I'm not really a legal expert, but the whole idea of this trial, especially the lack of protection or confidentiality for witnesses under the age of 18, made me uncomfortable. Because then it reminds you that you're watching a fictional show, breaking the suspension of disbelief.
The Way It Handles The Theme - Still Wrong
Suicide is a personal choice. All personal choices are influenced by other people, but the final decision to end one's life is one's own.
The idea that suicide is a personal choice, and is not necessarily "caused" by anyone else is not discussed in the show. That does a big disservice to the anti-suicide cause the show is trying to promote.
They portrayed Hannah as a victim, and she was. But she also made a conscious decision to end her own life. A decision many people in similar circumstances have not made. By making suicide a "who done it" mystery, they'e robbing Hannah of agency. By extension, they're making it seem like being a victim, or female, robs you of your agency.
What's interesting is that while this is a problem in the first season, in the second it's made worse by the introduction of the school being on trial for Hannah's death. No one in defense of the school thinks to speak about suicide as a personal choice, nor does anyone think to argue that Hannah's decision was her own alone. Clay is crushed by a sense of responsibility for it that he should not feel. Conversely, characters are portrayed as villains if they do not take an attitude of personal guilt for Hannah's death. Again, I have problems with this because it implies that Hannah lacked agency, the ability to make her own decisions about her own life. It implies that suicide is something that is done to you, but it's something a person does to themselves.
The Focus Should Be on Jessica
If anything saved season 2 for me, it was the story line about Jessica. As a rape survivor, Jessica passionately desires justice, and also deals with how to move on with her life. She befriends a fellow rape survivor, and learns that coping with her trauma may take time. Bryce is eventually put on trial for rape, but he only gets community service (again, this show has no idea how the law works).
This part is moving and meaningful for me. You know what's dumb though? Almost everything about Clay and Hannah. I was ready to move on from the focus on Clay and see how the grieving process and period of healing from Hannah's death went for various other characters. I liked the stuff about these "side characters" like Zach, Justin, Tyler, and Jessica more than dealing with Clay. But they kept the focus on Clay this season, and his inability to accept the reality of Hannah's death. This created a lot of scenes that were dull, awkward, and felt like repeats of incidents involving Clay in the previous season. It's still mostly just Clay going places, talking to people, and getting his ass kicked. But now we also have the awkwardness of Clay talking to "ghost Hannah", in an otherwise non-supernatural series.
I never really liked Clay all that much to begin with, but he's not better in the second season.
The Reveals Make Little Sense
Again this is just a problem caused by the desire to make a second season out of what was already a complete story. They had to have some juicy tidbits revealed about Hannah that were not revealed by her suicide note tapes.
The problem with this is the question of why these facts were not included in the original tapes. And mostly, nothing revealed in season 2 has any sort of explanation for this. The main reveals are:
- Hannah actually lost her virginity to Zach during the summer before the fall when she killed herself. She had been in love with him but he was not willing to tell his Jerk Jock friends he was with her, so they broke up.
- Hannah knew about her father cheating on her mother, but said nothing.
- Hannah had experimented with drugs, and Clay did too.
- Hannah had hung out with Bryce before her sexual assault at his party, and possibly had a crush on Bryce.
As interesting as these revelations are, you are kind of left wondering why Hannah didn't reveal these things on her tapes. Hannah is not some 90 year-old Bible thumper with hangups about talking about sex or drugs. In fact, it was her candor that I found charming when I watched the first season. Making the tapes was her way of saying everything that was on her mind. But then since we learn it was not everything, it makes the tapes feel less like a raw, genuine outpouring of repressed emotion, and more like a carefully edited version of her life. It means the tapes were designed to make Hannah look saintly. It retroactively makes me like, and trust, Hannah less.
That does correct the problem of the first season, which was that Hannah is too perfect, too saintly, and her suicide was too often played as a "too good for this sinful Earth" thing.
But, it creates a new problem. And that is the unfortunate implication that Hannah was a bad person because she had sex, because she experimented with drugs, and because she was actively interested in boys. It plays into purity culture by giving these facts about Hannah as character defects or flaws as factors that help explain her suicide. And I got mad at the way Clay reacted to finding out that Hannah wasn't the virgin he thought she was.
And if you're already planning to kill yourself, what the hell do you care if people know that you did ecstasy? You can't get in trouble for that after you die, Hannah.
There's a lot of feeling behind Thirteen Reasons Why. There is a real need felt by the show's creators to spark a conversation about issues affecting teens these days. They clearly wanted to talk about guns, homophobia, toxic masculinity, bullying, sexual assault, alcohol, drugs, poverty, violence, and suicide. These issues affect people's lives and they are important.
But Thirteen Reasons Why has many flaws that impact its ability to tell the story of these issues. It does not break my suspension of disbelief, which is weird because even Sailor Moon could do that for me. But Sailor Moon, for all its fantastical elements, had real human-feeling drama in it, while Thirteen Reasons Why constantly reminds you that what you're watching is fictional, unrealistic drama.
I endured this so you don't have to, but I can't really recommend season two. Season one is mainly just OK, with some episodes being really good and other episodes just being passable. Season two does have some good performances and scenes, but it's a lot worse over all. I wanted to like this, and I did want more Thirteen Reasons Why, but I guess this isn't what I wanted.