Netflix’s thought-provoking and controversial series, 13 Reasons Why, returned for a second season after its popular first. In the premiere season, the thirteen episodes were structured around the thirteen taped recordings the late Hannah Baker, played by Katherine Langford, left behind before committing suicide, each explaining why thirteen of her peers receiving the tapes were the reason she decided to take her life. This time around, there are no more structurally-convenient tapes and the show uses the testimonies made during the case surrounding Hannah’s death as the new guide. The latest episodes do a great job of encapsulating where each character ends up following the aftermath of discovering the tapes and Hannah’s death, but major missteps take away more attention.
Based on the novel by Jay Asher, the Selena Gomez-produced show completes the novel’s story by the end of the first season. Its sophomore season tackles the external and internal chaos Hannah’s tapes and their truths create for the characters, specifically as the trial against Liberty High School for negligence is underway. The best part of the entire season was a way of addressing how the people Hannah identified as the root of her demons and those she loved had to cope with the information she left behind. Her story is powerful and important, but the new episodes find an effective way to convey the mess the tapes create. Kate Walsh’s layered and impactful performance as Hannah’s mother, specifically, drives the narrative with love, confusion, and determination to show the audience the difficult road the characters are forced to take to get justice for Mrs. Baker’s daughter.
The problem, though, is that it fails to figure out how to make up for Hannah and her tapes’ absence as the key narrative voice. Since the story from the original source material was completed in the previous season, the episodes often focused on new details about what happened in Hannah’s final years, revealed by the people called to testify. These revelations start off as being interesting looks into Baker’s life that may not have been explained on the tapes, but it soon becomes confusing as to why it was relevant to the overall plot, especially as some discoveries seemed to come out of thin air. With so many characters to follow, their storylines aren’t strong enough to navigate an entire season of hour-long episodes. When Jessica, portrayed with a strong performance by Alisha Boe, has insecurities about her curly hair and being surrounded by white friends as a biracial girl, it felt as though it was addressed simply to add plot points to her episode, not to add nuance to the character. While I was curious to see where the characters were going to go following season one, packing the episodes with information that wasn’t even hinted to in the previous season gives more reasons why the series may not have needed a second season.
Both seasons feature sexual assault as a major storyline, stirring controversy about how it’s handled. This season, the first episode begins with the actors explaining that the show might not be for everyone and features graphic, possibly triggering scenes throughout the season. Many episodes also begin with a warning of the type of scenes that will occur in the episode, stating that it is for mature audiences. As a whole, the show discusses the topic very well, using Jessica’s journey of coping with her trauma and deciding if she should come forward. The actual portrayal, however, does more harm than good. A disturbing and graphic rape scene in the last episode, by the end, seems to only serve as a way to introduce the next hot-button issue the next season will address, not actual character development. Of course, there’s the argument that it’s important to show the indignities that happen to people every day, but it should be done so in a manner that is productive to the story. It’s as if they didn’t consider why it was absolutely essential to include the overly graphic rape scene. There’s nothing wrong with graphic scenes as they can allow the audience to recognize the brutalities that occur constantly, but they must be done with a purpose to the narrative.
Through its second season, the series had to prove why and how the story continues after the first season and where the book ended, but I’m not sure it was able to find a conducive way of doing so. It showcases some good performances from its actors, but the show never really recovers from losing Hannah as its voice, even with Katherine Langsford’s still in the mix. Assuming there will be a third season from the way this one ended, my only hope is that they are more responsible in the way they portray their next issue.