Warning: This contains spoilers for Season 1 and Season 2 of 13 Reasons Why. Not seen it? Catch up with our spoiler-free review of Season 1.
Despite its narrative flaws, 13 Reasons Why Season 1 provided an unblinking, poignant portrait of adolescent life and tragedy. While the show generated some controversy over its graphic portrayal of teen suicide, it proved to be a big success for Netflix, which was praised for bringing the issue of teenage depression to the screen. Season 2 was quickly green-lit but many questioned how the show would transform its structure and expand beyond Jay Asher’s original novel. Unfortunately, 13 Reasons Why Season 2 fails to produce a compelling narrative framework and suffers from an over-bloated, uninspired storyline.
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While Season 1 focused more broadly on teen suicide, the second concentrates on the timely subjects of institutional sexism and sexual abuse. Beginning 5 months after Hannah Baker’s (Katherine Langford) suicide, Season 2 deals with the lasting effect of her death on the community and is shaped around the trial between Hannah’s parents and Liberty High School. Olivia (Kate Walsh) and Andrew (Brian d’Arcy James) Baker believe a poisonous culture of bullying at Liberty High was responsible for their daughter’s suicide, while the school’s defence attorney attempts to defame Hannah’s character in proving their innocence.
Each episode centres on a different character’s testimony in court and this set-up is clearly attempting to replicate the neat 13-tape structure of the first season, but it fails to give the narrative any kind of impetus or intrigue. This lawsuit is the season’s through-line, yet the majority of the testimonies add very little to the overall direction of the plot. The trial format quickly becomes dull and secondary to the show’s other drama.
Elsewhere, Clay (Dylan Minnette) is still in mourning and experiencing talking projections of Hannah, which affects his relationship with Skye (Sosie Bacon). Jessica (Alisha Boe) attends group therapy as she’s traumatised by her sexual assault, Justin (Brandon Flynn) grapples with homelessness and addiction, while Alex (Miles Heizer) recovers from a suicide attempt which has left him crippled and with memory loss. Bryce (Justin Prentice) is receiving heat from several rape allegations, although this doesn’t seem to affect his relationship with new girlfriend Chlöe (Anne Winters). Tyler (Devin Druid) befriends school anarchist Cyrus (Bryce Cass), Tony (Christian Navarro) confronts his growing anger issues, and Olivia and Andrew fight their court battle during the time of their own divorce.
Although several of the actors are looking closer to their 30s than their teens, the ensemble cast make this season at least watchable. Prentice plays Bryce superbly, nailing his sliminess and aura of untouchability – he’s the perfect bad guy for the #MeToo era. One scene, where Bryce gives a detailed account of raping Hannah to his appalled mother, is a deeply uncomfortable yet brilliantly acted high point. Boe continues to be terrific, portraying Jessica’s turmoil with real pathos and emotion. Former-jock Justin becomes a much more engaging, sympathetic character this season, thanks to Flynn’s empathetic performance. Derek Luke is a standout player too, imbuing high-school counsellor Mr Porter with a real complexity – his remorse and guilt over Hannah’s death is palpable, while his heartfelt, teary apology to the Bakers for failing Hannah is the season’s most affecting courtroom testimony. Bacon puts in a warm, loveable turn, but she is disappointingly marginalised – her health problems see her spend time in a psychiatric facility and she decides to move town.
Season 2 is juggling so many characters that several first season regulars, such as Ryan (Tommy Dorfman) and Courtney (Michele Selene Ang), frustratingly drop in and out at the service of the plot. Clay was one of the first season’s best characters and although Minnette is clearly a talented actor, he’s given some pretty uninvolving, lacklustre material to work with here. His testimony episode should be an important high-point for the series, but it’s a rather bland and inconsequential affair. Langford’s magnetic screen presence greatly enhanced Season 1, but her involvement this time around feels awfully contrived; Clay’s full-blown conversations with his hallucination of Hannah detract from the sense of realism the show is trying to convey.
With no source material to go off, the second season lazily attempts to replicate the mystery behind Season 1’s tapes with a series of explicit polaroids, which are sent to Clay and hint at a disturbing history of sexual abuse at Liberty High. These pictures are too aimlessly placed throughout the narrative to have any sort of impact and their eventual payoff is underwhelming. It seems like a cheap way to try to generate intrigue in a season that suffers severely from Netflix bloat. The season’s biggest mystery is why show creator Brian Yorkey felt the need to tell this story over 13 near-hour-long episodes. This second run feels like it is clearing up from the events of Season 1, rather than actually having its own story. There are even several retroactive plotlines that reopen Hannah’s original story up for debate, but these add very little purpose to proceedings. So much could be cut from the show’s many meandering strands and it becomes a real slog to finish all 13 instalments.
Season 2 does provide some honest discussion on mental health issues and teenage sexuality, particularly the double standard present for young men and women when it comes to sex. However, the show too often presents these hot-topic issues and then fails to meaningfully discuss them – the season’s most controversial moment is a perfect example of this. It involves Tyler, who seems to have grown out of his rebellious phase, until he becomes the victim of a horrifying, virtually unprovoked attack. A group of Bryce’s friends physically assault and sodomise Tyler with a broom handle. 13 Reasons Why is hardly known for dealing in subtleties, but this is one step too far, as the camera unnecessarily lingers on the degrading act and its bloody aftermath. Worst of all, it doesn’t serve up any discussion on trauma or rape; it’s simply there to motivate a cheap grab for a third season with Tyler’s response to the attack being to plan a school shooting.
After Clay finally lets go of Hannah – a big emotional beat, which is ruined by this needless cliffhanger – he talks down Tyler from shooting up the school, but is left with a gun in his hand and the police on their way. It trivialises both Tyler’s sexual assault and the highly pertinent topic of high-school shootings in America for the sake of creating hype for a further season. Surprisingly, Netflix have already announced a third season for 2019, but after scraping the barrel for most of this season, it’s hard to see where the show will go from here. 13 Reasons Why Season 2 is slightly bolstered by some good performances, but it’s a messy, tedious and misjudged slice of teen drama, which ultimately overstays its welcome.
All episodes of 13 Reasons Why are now available exclusively on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.