By Calder Stenn, Editor-in-Chief
In the closing moments of both seasons one and two of the hit Netflix show “13 Reasons Why,” the question is asked, “What do we do now?” These five words appear to be directed at this TV series’ audience, yet the show itself is inconsistent in providing answers during many instances throughout the story.
Set nearly five months after high school student Hannah Baker’s (Katherine Langford) suicide, “13 Reasons Why: Season 2” focuses on the court trials of the people on Hannah’s tapes, as well as how the proceedings are affecting Liberty High School.
Protagonist Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette) now has a girlfriend; Justin Foley (Brandon Flynn) has disappeared; Alex Standall (Miles Heizer) is still in recovery from his attempted suicide; Jessica Davis (Alisha Boe) is returning to school after struggling with PTSD from her sexual assault; Bryce Walker (Justin Prentice) is living in denial of his past actions; and there is a new mysterious distributor of a series of polaroids that, in addition to the tapes, hold hints of incriminating evidence.
While “13 Reasons Why” may have been coined as a romanticized suicide story, this sequel season is an elaboration of Hannah’s narrative from different perspectives, thus providing greater insight into potential factors of her death by portraying a more well-rounded view of Liberty High’s culture.
Because this new installment is not part of the original book written by Jay Asher, creator Brian Yorkey is given flexibility to explore more than just Hannah’s suicide. There’s a prominent focus on issues such as sexual assault, bullying and gun violence, as well as themes of power, family and truth are also essential in telling the story of this season.
In the wake of the #MeToo movement, Jessica Davis in particular provides the audience with a disturbing narrative about a girl who lives in constant fear of the men around her. Her assault at the hands of Bryce Walker proves to be an instrumental part in the case, both for and against Hannah’s family; the lawsuit on Hannah’s behalf, and Davis’ struggle to tell the truth in court are meaningful representations of the fear rape victims endure with regards to speaking out about their experiences.
In relation to this narrative is the power dynamic Bryce and his family hold over Liberty High, as he is the most popular kid at the school, and his family possesses the money for prominent lawyers to protect him. Since the Walkers’ wealth is also a source of revenue for Liberty High’s sports program, it induces Principal Gary Bolan (Steven Weber) to side with the Walkers, leaving counselor Kevin Porter (Derek Luke) to help and defend all the other students on his own.
As a result of this conflict, Porter is essentially forced to play the role of hero throughout the rest of the season, trying to get students to speak up about their problems and even making house calls to those for whom he is concerned.
Porter’s role in this latest season stands out because he represents not only a cause of the problem, but also a potential, even potentially necessary, solution. In other words, while the Liberty High School counselor was depicted as a predominantly complacent faculty member who was oblivious to the atrocities happening right in front of him in the first season, Porter redeems himself in season two by realizing his prior training is not and has never been enough to properly care for the student body. And although Porter is not entirely successful in carrying out this role, the underlying message in relation to his performance is one that promotes a positive force for change.
On the other hand, the majority of the issues “13 Reasons Why 2” addresses aren’t effectively portrayed in a way that offers a potential solution or where audience members can glean any useful information. The incessant bullying that occurs throughout is a salient example of this, as those who are subjected to bullying merely respond in aggressive retaliation, which creates a cycle without any sort of profound moral.
Tyler Down is the primary subject of this season’s bullying. Walker’s cronies always tend to target Down — even when he has had no involvement in their problems — and despite Porter’s efforts, he is still left to his own devices without the administration’s support.
This recurring predicament could be very discouraging to audiences because it essentially implies that bullying has few solutions, unless a victim decides to seek revenge against their perpetrator. Unfortunately, not only does Down seem to view this as his only alternative, but Jensen is also induced to blackmail Walker’s entourage, at times resorting to methods even more extreme than Down’s.
The whole concept surrounding bullying and superior versus inferior students at Liberty High seems quite flawed, especially because the problem is simply exacerbated as the season elapses. The bullies respond to their newly-seasoned adversaries with even greater threats, and the conflict then reciprocates until the audience is left with a scene of merciless bathroom bullying and a very unstable student.
Additionally, because Principal Bolan’s conflict of interest is with the Walkers, the Liberty High administration is predominantly portrayed as a force that tends to work against rather than for students. This is another discouraging message for audience members — specifically those who are high school students — as it reinforces a commonly-held belief among students that administrations are not a viable source of help for students facing serious problems.
Again, while tension between high school student bodies and their respective administrations does exist in reality, the show’s failure to indicate any sign of improvement or a potential solution is problematic.
This lack of solutions provided for both the students and the administration ultimately leads to the emergence of a dangerous student shooter. The shooter’s narrative and development appear quite realistic, as they draw parallels with recent profiles conducted of students involved in school shootings across the country. The narrative also presents a model for audience members on what to look for in a potential shooter.
However, the way in which Yorkey wraps up this aspect of “13 Reasons Why” seems confusing and somewhat misleading.
The students who deal with and attempt to neutralize the shooter make rash and illogical decisions, contradicting much of the protocol kids should follow when in that situation. Regardless of whether or not the show’s creators intentionally made this decision, the entire subplot surrounding the school shooter is a bit self-defeating in its efforts to counteract a sense of hopelessness around school shootings, as it ultimately furthers the belief that students don’t know what to do when handling a student at risk — as opposed to demonstrating a situation in which they do react to the situation properly.
Beyond the examination of Liberty’s hostile environment, “13 Reasons Why 2” also explores the struggle of family through both Mrs. (Kate Walsh) and Mr. Baker (Brian d’Arcy James). While not completely accountable for their daughter’s actions, the couple is revealed to be somewhat at fault for past instances that they kept hidden from both each other and Hannah.
Arguably the most profound trial is Mrs. Baker’s because she is constantly peppered with questions that place some of the blame on her. Eventually she turns quiet, realizing that, even in her state of denial, there are situations where she or her husband were not the best parents. This was not meant to depict parents as irresponsible, but it delivers the message that everyone, even those who try the hardest to protect and support victims, can do better.
Unfortunately, this rather generic statement was the only huge takeaway from “13 Reasons Why 2,” even though that was the same superficial moral extracted from the first season. In other words, despite the array of modern day issues Yorkey includes in this sequel season, not much can be drawn from it, except by an audience who is completely unaware that bullying, sexual assault, power crises and familial struggles exist.
“13 Reasons Why Season 2” certainly addresses and brings these issues to the audience’s attention, but it fails to simulate a way in which they can be resolved.
3 out of 5 stars