This article will go into spoilers. And potentially triggering themes.
13 Reasons Why is infamous for a great many reasons, but one of those reasons is this: back when the first season came out, I made not one, not two, but three Instagram posts ranting about how much it sucked (before I had this website, I made my reviews on Instagram. It wasn’t that efficient). This won’t be as hot-blooded as those three posts, but mostly because I’m very, very tired of this show’s shenanigans.
13 Reasons Why almost needs no introduction at this point. If you hadn’t heard about the release of season 2, you probably heard about the first season. The reason why probably wasn’t for the same reason you heard about Stranger Things or the first season of Daredevil, though. You probably heard about it because of the graphic events that take place throughout the series. The way the show portrayed themes of sexual assault, depression, and suicide were all pretty terrible, and if I had one hope for season 2, it was that these themes would be better handled. For the most part, they aren’t. Let’s get into the first of thirteen reasons why this show is a blight upon humanity.
This show tries to handle the same themes as last season, but it still hasn’t learned subtlety. Characters will often describe exactly what they’re feeling, or the precise details of their character changes. At times, it even feels like the show is using their characters as a soapbox, almost like it’s trying to make up for the fumbling of the last season’s themes. However, the show has only become more heavy-handed. There are multiple scenes of characters saying something offensive, another character getting offended, then a lecture ensues. Usually the person saying the offensive thing is our main character, Clay.
Dylan Minette is a great actor. The show got lucky when they cast him in the lead, because he manages to make what he’s given seem more compelling than it is. However, he’s not given terribly much. The first season was driven by Clay’s discovery of the reasons why Hannah killed herself through the tapes. We found all the information out at the same pace as Clay, which gave him a reason to be there. He was the eyes and ears, our vessel. Here, the main story surrounds Hannah’s family suing the school for not doing enough to prevent her suicide. The episodes are structured around testimonies from most of the main cast, with each one taking up an episode. Clay’s got nothing to do aside from give his testimony in one episode. His main function is now to say and do stupid things, be sad (quite convincingly, I might add), and get mad. Oh, and also have very weird and badly implemented ghost of Hannah that he has full conversations with out in the open. At full volume, too. There’s a potentially very interesting subplot about Clay’s deteriorating mental state, but instead of developing that into a compelling character challenge for Clay, they make that his entire character. Everything he does is influenced by his borderline obsession with Hannah, and you get the feeling that he wouldn’t be a character without this. In fact, Clay isn’t the only character with this problem.
Every character has this problem. They’re all one-note, and defined by a tragedy or terrible circumstance. Clay by Hannah, Jessica by her assault, Justin by Jessica/his newly-acquired heroin addiction, Tony by his violent past, Alex by his suicide attempt, Zach by his inability to emote (the only issue they do well in this whole show). They’re all merely vessels for drama, nothing more than problem carriers waiting to unload on each other. However, there’s one character who’s defined by nothing. One character who exists only to tease a potential plot that we have to wait all season long to actually see any results from. And it’s terrible. That character is…
In the first season, Tyler had a potentially interesting plotline: he’s a bit of a stalker photographer. They could have done something interesting with that, but they this season they dropped it in favor of a half-baked school shooter plot that they introduced in the last moments of the first season. They seem to have a lot of fun making us think that he’s about to carry out the act. They have numerous fake-out moments, where it looks like Tyler’s about to shoot something, blow something up, etc., but he’s just pulling some kind of prank with his new punk-rock friends. This kind of misdirection fills me with dread, and not because it’s a tense moment where the filmmakers are playing with your expectations of whether or not Tyler’s gonna shoot up the school. I mean, that’s exactly what it is, but there are two problems with this:
First, Tyler doesn’t really have any reason to shoot up the school. He only decides to do so after he’s assaulted in the last season, which invalidates everything else that came before. His motive for becoming a school shooter is no longer the buildup of bullying he endured (he undergoes a form of therapy after being suspended for vandalizing the school and gets over it), it’s the assault. Everything that came before this is rendered completely invalid in terms of his character progression. Second, why on Earth would a school shooter plot be a good idea for this show? I don’t think that making a shooter plot is a terrible idea in itself, but you have to handle that subject with the utmost care. Unfortunately, this show doesn’t know how to do that. This show is, in fact, consistently terrible at that.
This show cannot handle important subjects. The way they handle topics like mental illness and drug abuse is still very poor. It’s revealed that Skye has bipolar disorder, and they treat her like bipolar is her only character trait. She isn’t a character with bipolar, she’s the bipolar character. Media’s never been consistently good about presenting mental illness in an understanding light, but this show acts like it’s a herald for awareness and understanding. It’s not. Take how they handle mental illness, for example. Mental illness isn’t a black and white thing. You don’t have to have a specific reason for your illness, sometimes you just have it even when it doesn’t make sense. As someone who struggles with depression pretty constantly, it’s frustrating to see this show act like it knows what it’s talking about. Mental illness isn’t something that defines who you are, it’s something you have to live with. But this show paints everyone with a mental illness as if that mental illness is the only thing interesting about them. Most people probably wouldn’t know I’m depressed if I didn’t say anything. I don’t let it define who I am. If only this show had the same mentality.
They improve their handling of sexual assault and suicide, but only marginally. The only reason that I feel the suicide bit’s improved is because it doesn’t feel like they’re romanticizing it anymore. It’s like they realized that the last season forgot to make it clear that Hannah was not in the right when making the tapes, so they make a point to mention that multiple times. In terms of how they handle sexual assault, they have this: in the last episode, they have a pretty good moment where Jessica finally talks about her assault to the judge. In a surprisingly poetic fashion, they have other women from the show take the stand to describe what they’ve been through. Jessica is acting as a vessel for other victims to finally let go of the pain they’ve been holding on to for so long. She’s the only one who speaks, but countless other characters live through her confession. It’s a shame that this moment completely kills the pacing, but it’s probably the best we’re gonna get in terms of how they handle weighty topics. However, they still have no restraint when it comes to showing anything surrounding these topics.
The worst thing last season did by far was showing Hannah’s suicide in full. It wasn’t poetic, it wasn’t artful, it was crude. It was insulting. It played out like a how-to video rather than a depressing character end. There isn’t anything that’s as offensively done in this season, but they still don’t understand that restraint is sometimes more effective than obscenity. There’s a moment where I thought that they’d learned. Tyler reveals to Alex that he took pictures of him while he was in a coma from his suicide attempt. When he shows Alex the pictures, we don’t see them. This is a good thing. We don’t need to see them. The only reason why they would show them is for more unnecessary shock value. Alex’s reaction is all we need. This moment made me think that maybe this season was going to show a little restraint, that it had learned. I expected too much. This season has a scene where Tyler is sodomized with a broom handle. Why? Because this is a Netflix show, and they can do whatever they want. I’m so tired of people mistaking pointless violence/shocking stuff for maturity. It’s a mistake that a lot of student filmmakers make, where they think that if they throw in a bunch of bloody violence and language, they’ll be taken seriously. They are wrong. Toy Story 2 is more mature than this show. You might think I’m being hyperbolic, but Toy Story 2 can at least take the themes it wants to convey and write them well. Which is something this show evidently does not know how to do.
The main reason this show fails in the execution of it’s themes is because of the script. When it isn’t attempting to shock you, the show tries to make you think through dialogue. You might be surprised to learn that the dialogue is atrocious. It’s like the writers were trying to imagine how teenagers talk, but they didn’t bother to ask any actual teenagers whether or not they’d say these things. It takes a skilled writer to capture the awkwardness, stupidity, and emotional instability that is being a teenager. These writers failed to capture that, often times missing the mark by an impressive margin. Even beyond this, the way the show plays itself out is written in a way that’s simultaneously gripping and frustrating.
The first season, despite the rampant stupidity, was a lot more interesting than this one in terms of storytelling. The tapes were all condemning, and despite how long it took Clay to get through them all, it was less boring than this season.
I’d describe event-based TV as TV that forgoes meaningful character development in favor of building suspense for the next big moment (Walking Dead after season one). This works to an extent. On one hand, when in between events, the audience is left in anticipation for what’ll happen next. However, this usually means that whatever’s happening between these events is boring, and that is especially true for this show. The major events in the show sometimes had me at the edge of my seat, or gasping in surprise, but when I look back at all the time I wasted getting to those events, it’s hard for me to say it was worth it.
There were times when I’d fall asleep during episodes because what I was being shown was so repetitious and boring that I checked out in the middle of a scene. In these in-between moments, I wasn’t learning anything new about the characters, I wasn’t being shown some kind of meaningful interaction between two characters who never really got to speak before, I was just being shown people arguing about things that had already been argued about. Either that, or they were waving a carrot in front of my face, promising something would happen in the next episode, only to have to wait another hour. On top of that, each episode feels like it ends four times. They’ll play the same kind of menacing montage that they play at the end of each episode, but the episode just… keeps going. These episodes could afford to be thirty minutes long, and they’re all double that. After all the filler, the false endings, and the repetition, you’d expect the reveals to be earth-shattering. And they usually are, but what ends up happening as a result is the show would raise more and more unanswerable questions.
Hannah Baker is rewritten in this season. We learn stuff about her that calls many events of the first season into question. Zach got his own tape and you expect me to believe that she just forgot to bring up their summer fling? The one where they dated for the whole summer and had an extremely close connection? Do you expect me to believe that Hannah wouldn’t have brought up her dad’s infidelity in the tapes at all? Especially with her having to keep it a secret from her mother? Possibly the most insulting to the continuity is the reveal that Hannah and Bryce hung out a few times before the assault. Yeah. Hannah had hung out with her rapist before it happened and she didn’t bring that up on the tapes ONCE. It’s hard to get truly invested in this show when you know that they’re just gonna pull something out of their butts without any form of foreshadowing. They treat each revelation as if it’s equally important as the last, even if it isn’t. If it is, it makes the first season make less and less sense. I guess my biggest problem with these revelations are that they’re far too important to be hidden. Then again, everything in this show is far too important.
Everything that happens in this show is the most significant thing to happen in the entire world. Rape, suicide, near-suicide, assault, PTSD, drug abuse, depression, these are all topics that are dealt with on an episodic basis. We get one break from the constant onslaught of depressive, world-ending events in this whole season, and it’s at the end. It doesn’t even last, the final episode has Tyler’s assault interspersed throughout. It’s draining and distressing, and not in the way that movies like 12 Years a Slave or Requiem for a Dream are.
What makes movies like the two I mentioned better in their brutality is one difference: justification. Those movies have intense themes and scenes, but they handle it infinitely better than this show. They have very good reasons for showing what they show, and they display restraint where it’s appropriate. This show has no good reason to show what it shows, which results in one massive problem: the show drains you. The show is twenty-six hours of upsetting themes and imagery without any real justification beyond shock value. It’s not compelling. It’s not interesting. It’s just exhausting. It leaves you with a void in your soul, and you’re left wondering what they were trying to prove with what they showed. What was gained by showing Hannah’s rape? What was gained by showing Tyler’s assault? What was gained, learned, or proven by anything they showed? Nothing.
I recognize that I didn’t have some kind of clever transition between this point and the last. Guess I’m a little inconsistent with the way I present this article. Kind of like how this show is inconsistent with the quality of it’s presentation.
This show has some excellently done moments. There’s a moment where Bryce confronts Marcus after Marcus was blackmailed into condemning Bryce’s actions, and it looks great. The two are silhouetted by glass doors that lead to the bright outside, and it’s done so well that even though you can’t see their faces, you could watch the scene with the audio turned off and get the same message. And in the same show, there are unending stretches of time that are populated only with shot-reverse-shot dialogue scenes with absolutely no creativity or intent behind the way they’re filmed. It’s the good old-fashioned audiobook style, and it really grinds my gears. With different material and better focus, I really think this same team could make something genuinely gripping and amazing. It’s a shame they got stuck with this absolute mess of a story.
13. Sending a Message
And so we arrive at the last reason. One that, if you’re a fan of the show, you might have been itching to yell in my face so you could discredit the points I’m bringing up. “It’s sending a message!” “It’s starting a conversation!” This is sometimes good justification, but not here. To start a conversation, you have to make a point deeper than just saying something is bad. The messages this show sends are skin-deep. “Bullying is bad.” “Rape is bad.” “Depression isn’t fun.” Some of these messages are even muddled to the point where they’re actively harmful. Like the first season, the show continues to promote (whether it’s aware of it or not) the idea that if you’re depressed, or if you’ve been bullied, the next logical step is suicide, violence, or something similarly harmful. Alex, Tyler, and Skye all attempt suicide or an act that they know would result in their death. Clay struggles with a mental illness that (while it’s unclear as to exactly what the illness is) drives him to the point where he almost kills Bryce, and once he realizes that’s not a good idea, himself. Justin is depressed that Jessica doesn’t like him, so he turns to drugs. All of these reactions are extreme to the point that any message they’re trying to send gets caught up in the brutality of those actions. They attempt to send the message that if you’re hurting, you should reach out to someone, but the sheer amount of characters who don’t do this overwhelms that point.
I guess you could say that me writing this review is evidence of it starting a conversation or sending a message. If you want to be that binary about it, sure. Let’s say it did. I would argue that the message the show tries to send is unintentionally harmful to the point where people are forced to talk about it. I’m not starting a conversation on the themes presented in this show, I’m starting a conversation on why this show is harmful in the way that it attempts to present those themes. The way the show tries to start a conversation is through controversy, which is the least graceful way to talk about anything. And when you’re attempting to handle topics like sexual assault, mental illness, and suicide, you need to be graceful.
This show would be just fine if it didn’t attempt to be so important. It would be a Riverdale-tier teen drama with some good acting and decent tension. If it just embraced the outlandish storylines and didn’t try to be a herald for raising awareness, I’d probably consider it a guilty pleasure. I really would. I like watching Dylan Minette act, I like some of the presentation, I even got half-invested in some of the reveals. Episode six was the closest the show got to legitimate quality. The romance between Zach and Hannah felt somewhat well-done, it was almost an entire episode of levity in this draining slog. But that’s maybe half an hour of quality in twenty-six hours of garbage. It’s not worth it.
Not like this review matters in the least, they’re making a third season. See you next year.
Up next: Listen to the song “Software Upgrade” by Poppy. That’ll give you a good idea of what I’m reviewing next.Connect to me