Deputy Editor Kat Smith voices her opinions on the controversial second season of 13 Reasons Why
About a year ago, I wrote a review praising the authenticity of 13 Reasons Why. A year later, my opinion of the show has been transformed.
There are two definitive camps when it comes to this Netflix original, one that states it tackles real-world issues in a bold and unapologetic way, and the other slams it for indulging and invalidating mental health and trauma. While season 2 aims to remedy some of the issues identified after season 1, it still bounces between being helpful and harmful.
The idea of there even having to be thirteen reasons why a girl committed suicide doesn’t sit very well with me. Mental illness itself was never explicitly discussed in the first season, meaning one of the standout quotes of season 2 coming from Skye’s mother, saying to Clay ‘She’s not upset, she’s ill’. The acknowledgement that mental health is not always tied to events or circumstance is a relief. Skye is a reminder that chemical make-up of our brains or the darkness and control of our own thoughts can have a momentous impact on our health, we don’t need to endure the hardships that Hannah did.
But it’s a brief sense of relief, with the focus on reasons why Hannah killed herself and the case against the school being the most prominent themes in the show. All this means the focus of the show is a little confused: am I watching a show about how bullying/trauma affects people, or how mental health does? This show seems to perceive these two things as inextricably linked and while they can be in many cases, it’s not always the case. Having a plethora of reasons somewhat invalidates the feelings of those who have mental illness while living what perceives to be a happy, fruitful life.
The story itself fails to be as captivating as the first season, with the story relying on shock rather than relatability to keep viewers hooked. It covers too many bases, with drugs and homelessness coming into the spotlight also – while the reality of teenage life is vast and complicated, 13 Reasons becomes a slight caricature of it. And Hannah as a ghost/figment of Clay’s imagination is all a bit much. It left me feeling unable to invest in the case, or Skye and Clay’s relationship or whether Alex would remember things. Yet the first season had me hooked.
While it misses the mark in some respects, it’s spot on in other cases. When a second series was confirmed it seemed kind of pointless. The reasons had been explained, there wasn’t much else to say surely? We’d learned our lesson to be kind to others and spot the signs. But a second series exposes the web of problems and humanises the previously romanticised Hannah Baker. We see that everyone is dealing with their own sh*t. Clay becomes a bit of an arsehole. Skye’s confusion over her own mind and actions are a breath of fresh air for a show that largely looks for reasons why, providing some validation for those who don’t have 13 reasons why they are depressed. Mr Porter is an emotive representation of how we all feel like we can do more for those who need us. Bryce is an accurate portrayal of the untouchable sports star, so often seen in the news.
My biggest praise goes to Jessica’s story. Jessica’s experience of rape and the subsequent victim-blaming and recovery she experiences is all too realistic, with her abuser being the one most people want to believe. At a time where #MeToo is prevalent, it’s a heart-breaking reminder how easy it can be for something so terrible to remain overlooked. In all fairness, there is quite a lot that is right in this show and it mainly lies in the characters.
Nonetheless, in its choice to be bold in its depiction of rape and suicide, it prevents itself from being appropriate for survivors of sexual assault, or suicidal individuals. How can those behind the show claim to combat issues that can’t even be watched by those who experience them? While neither of these matters are particularly glamorised, this didn’t need to be combatted by graphic depiction. This prevents it from tackling these issues but rather sensationalising them for the shock factor – yes, it may show all possible realities of American high schools, but I don’t know how this helps any more than to entertain.
Overall, 13 Reasons Why is a frustrating mix of problematic and accurate. It’s baffling how many things it gets right about teenage life while still portraying mental health in an invalidating way and indulging it. With the door being ajar for a third season, I hope that the screenwriters get more right next time.