Could have used a few more reasons.
Note: this is a spoiler-free advanced review of 13 Reasons Why’s second season, which premieres on Netflix on Friday, May 18.
There was a lot of collective head-scratching when Netflix announced a second season of 13 Reasons Why. Not because the first season wasn’t a well-crafted teen drama (you can see my review here), or because its apparently massive viewership numbers didn’t warrant a follow-up. The confusion came from the fact that Season 1 told a largely finite and self-contained story. The goal was to show us why troubled teen Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) committed suicide, and the first season definitively answered that question. In the process, it used up the entirety of the Jay Asher novel. What is there to be gained from revisiting Hannah Baker’s story?
That’s a question that’s very much at the forefront of the series as Season 2 begins. There’s a self-aware quality to the series, as creator Brian Yorkey and his crew openly acknowledge the criticisms leveled against Season 1 and the lingering concerns over the existence of a sequel. Multiple characters hammer home the notion that there are more sides to Hannah’s story and other points of view to consider. But despite all that, Season 2 never makes an entirely convincing case for its own existence.
It’s not that there aren’t loose ends worth exploring. Season 2 opens several months after the finale, with Hannah’s suicide still casting a shadow over the town and her parents’ lawsuit against the school dominating the local conversation. That trial replaces Hannah’s audio tapes as the season’s basic framing device. Where Season 1 positioned Hannah as narrator and guide for Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette) on his journey of discovery, Season 2 makes Clay and his peers the narrators. Each character, in turn, delivers new revelations about their relationship to Hannah and further complicates the picture of her that was established in Season 1.
As you might expect, the results from this approach are mixed, at best. The idea of there being more than one side to every story makes for obvious narrative fodder. And it is intriguing to see Hannah’s relationships with her friends, lovers, fellow students and parents explored from new angles. But often, the series seems to be straining to add new layers to an already well-defined story. Picture Lost circa-Season 3, where that series found it increasingly difficult to find meaningful new ground to cover in the recurring flashbacks. Some episodes even strain credulity as they attempt to forge closer bonds between Hannah and her classmates. It becomes hard not to wonder why none of this material was referenced in her 13 original tapes.
The new season also struggles to play up the mystery/conspiracy angle. Season 1 itself was a little forced in that regard, especially when it came to characters like Tony (Christian Navarro) who seemed devoted to being vague and mysterious for the sheer sake of it. The new season tries to keep that ball rolling, with new conspiracies involving threatening notes, mysterious stalkers and cryptic warnings like, “Hannah wasn’t the only one.” The harder the series leans on these elements, the more melodramatic it becomes. And frankly, there’s enough going on here that the series really doesn’t need that Lost-inspired conspiracy element.
If anything, Season 2 tries to bite off more than it can realistically chew. There’s nary a hot-button topic concerning modern high school life that isn’t addressed, whether it’s sexual assault, bullying, gun violence, the opioid epidemic or homophobia. The show also makes a concerted effort to spotlight its large supporting cast. Clay is still the anchor and lead protagonist of the series, but more time is devoted to exploring the trials and tribulations of characters like Tony, Jessica (Aisha Boe), Alex (Miles Heizer), Justin (Brandon Flynn), Zach (Ross Butler) and Tyler (Devin Druid). That added storytelling ambition is appreciated, but the result is that the new season feels much more unbalanced and unfocused than its predecessor. Some characters like Skye (Sosie Bacon) and Courtney (Michele Selene Ang) never seem to be given the attention they deserve.
Despite all of these issues, Season 2 still carries some of the weight and emotional heft of the first. Clay’s struggle is no less compelling the second time around. His journey is less about understanding why Hannah died and more reconciling these new revelations with the person he believed her to be. His story is also about learning to finally move on. Minnette was among the strongest cast members last year, and that remains true now. The fact that his performance is often so stoic and reserved only highlights those moments where Clay’s facade cracks and the angry, confused, tormented teen beneath bubbles to the surface.
And unfocused or not, the new season does generally make good use of its supporting cast. Kate Walsh is always dependable as the emotionally devastated Mrs. Baker. Padilla is given more to work with now that Tony is less the sage advice-giver and more an active participant in this conflict. Butler is given far more to do as Zach struggles with his uncertain place in the high school hierarchy. Boe also shines as her character goes through one of the most pronounced and difficult character arcs of the season. The first season received plenty of criticism for its graphic depiction of sexual assault. And while there are still concerns on that front (arguably even more so this time around), I do appreciate how much the story of Jessica and other women becomes about reclaiming their power and agency.
Perhaps no character benefits more from this increased exposure than Druid’s Tyler. The Season 1 finale left the character in a very dangerous place, and Season 2 continues following his troubled journey through depression, bullying, and social isolation. The character is at once repellent and deeply sympathetic, serving as an uncomfortable reminder that Hannah was hardly the only one in her school dealing with depression and suicidal thoughts.
The new season also does manage to build some momentum as it goes along and the trial nears its conclusion. Can Clay make peace with the ghost of Hanna? Will the victims of Bryce (Justin Prentice) and his ilk finally receive some semblance of justice? Those questions propel the final few episodes along, as does a more general sense of unease. There’s a mounting sense that the series is marching towards some new tragedy, even if it’s not entirely clear what that might entail.
Unfortunately, the series trips over itself in the final episode. That episode seems maddeningly unsure of whether it wants to function as a full-fledged series finale or a bridge to an eventual third season. It attempts to provide closure and catharsis for the previous 25 chapters of heartache, and largely succeeds in that aim. These moments come closest to making Season 2 seem like a necessary companion to the first. But at the same time, several last-minute developments come out of nowhere to ensure the season ends on a muddled, unsatisfying note. The idea of a second season was a tough sell as it is. A potential Season 3 seems even less appealing at this point.