For Better and for Worse, 13 Reasons Why Season Two Dives Deeper into Tragedy's Cause and Effect

TV Features 13 Reasons Why
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For Better and for Worse, <i>13 Reasons Why</i> Season Two Dives Deeper into Tragedy's Cause and Effect

I used to know a person with a penchant for using the coinage “everything happens for a reason” in a sing-song tone for the most mundane inconveniences of life. Forgot to buy laundry detergent? Locked yourself out of your apartment? Oh, well. Everything happens for a reason.

There was one particularly grueling exchange when I was tired and aggravated and I wanted to snap back with the darkest thing that came to mind: “Really? Did my friend dying in a car accident a few weeks before she started her freshman year of college happen for a reason?”

I did not say these things. This was both because I am a polite person and a coward who does not enjoy confrontation. It’s also because, of course, the chain of events that followed that haunting tragedy the summer after I graduated from high school tattooed its mark on everyone who loved and knew my friend. Do I think she died solely to teach me a lesson in responsibility? No. That’s trivializing and insane. Do I think there was a cause and effect that led to it happening, and that it might have been avoided? Of course.

For better or worse, Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why is this conversation played out on screen.

Yes, Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) killed herself in the first season of her own volition. And that served as the series’ Memento-style catalyst, as we learned, through tapes she recorded beforehand, about the friends, frenemies and others who hurt her or were at least complicit in her attacks. They misunderstood and underappreciated and lied about her, and she broke. It was a captivating mystery with one central focus and a united story that made it easily bingeable for a network whose business model preaches programming over-indulgence.

Pretty much everyone can relate to the concepts of teen loneliness and bullying, and the plot fed into the zeitgeist with a vengeance. It spawned countless think pieces, including the one I wrote for Paste last year, which dealt with how Season One particularly resonated with my past. Stories about teen suicide and prevention were on the front pages of news sites everywhere. This year, Netflix has created the website 13ReasonsWhy.info and taped a pre-show PSA in response to criticism that the series glamorized suicide.

Season Two of 13 Reasons Why is not as easily categorized as its predecessor. It dives into subplots that pull from the central focus and heap so much more damage onto our heroine that it becomes unbelievable no one saw this coming. For some characters, like the kind-hearted and peer-pressured Zach Dempsey (Ross Butler), it explains their emotional guilt. For others, it increases the severity of sentencing that I, the judge presiding over my own TV room, consider applying: I’m looking at you, Hannah’s dad (Brian d’Arcy James). If nothing else, you contributed to your estranged wife getting an awful and distracting haircut.

At its worst, the second season is exploitative and feels like an attempt to monetize the success of the first season with stereotypes, complicated plot twists and corny language. (Brenda Strong joins the cast this season as Nora Walker, the mother of Justin Prentice’s nefarious Bryce. In one scene, she quite literally slaps her son and tells him he’s brought shame upon their family after she accepts that he is capable of sexual assault—one of many examples in the series of parents really just not getting it.) At its best, the series is a (highly dramatized) depiction of what happens when someone dies suddenly and everyone involved spirals out of control. Life keeps going, whether those left to pick up the pieces want it to or not. While it can lose focus from this thesis, the ensuing court case that dominates the second season reminds us of the big question that all of these people have been avoiding: “Are you responsible for Hannah’s death?” But 13 Reasons Why also asks another one: What will you learn from it?

Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette), the de facto do-gooder narrator from Season One, tries to move forward this year by saving someone else: troubled badass Skye Miller (Sosie Bacon). When she cuts him loose, he goes back to working his way through the Kübler-Ross chart over Hannah and fighting to avenge her. (That said, Brandon Flynn’s Justin Foley makes an excellent point when he asks him, “What the fuck gives you the right to decide what needs to come out?”) And guidance counselor Mr. Porter (Derek Luke) knows he fucked up after he didn’t see the warning signs when Hannah came to him for help in Season One.

Jessica Davis (Alisha Boe) and Alex Standall (Miles Heizer) probably suffered the most last season—Jessica, like Hannah, was raped by Bryce, and Alex shot himself in the season finale as a result of both grief and guilt. Thankfully, they both now slowly seek out the help and friendship they need. Because of Jessica, there’s a particularly poignant courtroom scene toward the end of the second season that’s perfect for the #MeToo era—and will probably start arguments as to whether it’s capitalizing on it.

Others have not become so enlightened, or even tried to. Bryce still has some goons who protect him until almost the very end because he’s apparently quite good at being the rich leader of less economically fortunate jocks. Tyler Down (Devin Druid), the photographer and outcast who was both harasser and harassed last season, seems to be finding his groove—until he’s not. It’s just as dementedly John Hughes-ian as one would expect. But after so many news stories about teen violence, including shootings late last week at a graduation ceremony in Leawood, Kan. and a high school in Santa Fe, Tex., the arc of 13 Reasons Why could have been better thought out—especially since students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. turned their horrific experiences into activism and the debate continues about the effectiveness of movements like Walk Up, Not Out.

“The next time someone is in desperate need and they’re about to make a terrible mistake, what do we do?” Clay asks near the end of the series’ second season. As annoying and trite as my old acquaintance’s saying is, 13 Reasons Why continues to remind us that there are, in fact, reasons why both good and horrible things happen.

Season Two of 13 Reasons Why is now streaming on Netflix. If you or a loved one needs help, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides free, confidential 24/7 support. Visit the Lifeline online or call 1-800-273-8255.

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