When books get adapted for screen or television, it’s almost certain there’s a clear and definitive end, at least if it’s not a book series being adapted. If you read the book prior to the adaptation, you get to decide if the movie or show is a worthy interpretation of its original source material. Or if you haven’t read the book before watching the adaptation, it may convince you to read the book. I’ve always been convinced a standalone novel that becomes a movie or TV show would always be enjoyed as a self-contained story, a one-time piece of entertainment to consume and re-watch whenever you feel like revisiting it. Instead, when a show or limited series becomes a massive hit, albeit a bit controversial, studios are quick to renew it for another season. That’s the end result of Netflix’s original series 13 Reasons Why.
Last year’s show about a young teen girl who commits suicide and leaves behind 13 cassette tapes explaining her reasons why she decided to take her own life, along with naming those she feels are partly responsible for coming to that grim conclusion, became an unexpected hit for the streaming service. The story of Hannah Baker should have ended with her death and Netflix’s original 13 episodes. But because of 13 Reasons Why’s massive success, the show got picked up for Season 2. Herein lies the problem—just because a series becomes popular and gets everyone talking, both for and against the subject matter the show addresses, doesn’t mean it should continue.
When it was announced 13 Reasons Why would have a Season 2, I was one of the ones skeptical of having the story get expanded beyond what was written in author Jay Asher’s novel. Showrunner Brian Yorkey believed there was still more of Hannah’s story to tell to justify having another season. The new season debuted on Netflix last month and everything I feared would happen, if the show continued, has happened and it just about undermines the impact of what was created in the first season.
I’ll be keeping this review spoiler free or spoiler lite. If you’re interested in watching the series, major plot points or character developments won’t be discussed.
Season 2 picks up five months after Hannah Baker’s (Katherine Langford) suicide and her infamous tapes. Some are making attempts to move on from Hannah’s death, like Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette) who is now happily dating childhood friend Skye Miller (Sosie Bacon). And others aren’t quite ready to move on until justice is served, which is the case for Hannah’s mother Olivia Baker (Kate Walsh) who is suing the school for being negligent and complicit in the bullying and death of her daughter.
While Season 1 had the cassettes and Hannah’s narration as a framework to move the story along, Season 2 uses the trial as a way to push the plot forward. For every student or adult who is called to testify in court on their interactions and personal views of the late Hannah Baker, they each act as a new narrator for every episode throughout Season 2. By having someone different telling their version of events that Hannah mentioned in her tapes (or didn’t in some instances), it forces the characters to reinterpret what they thought they knew about Hannah Baker. For every revelation uncovered, no one is more affected or troubled by the new information than Clay, who may not be as over Hannah’s death as he’s leading everyone, including himself, to believe.
The trial and the revolving door of narrators throughout 13 Reasons Why’s Season 2 is mostly an unfocused and melodramatic mess. The show is attempting to flesh out the other secondary characters we briefly got to know from the first season and who have been involved with Hannah in some shape or form. While I certainly like the young cast of the series and would enjoy seeing this group assemble in another show or movie somewhere down the road, 13 Reasons Why Season 2 is an addition I wish never existed.
There’s a greater amount of absurdity in this season that isn’t present in the first one. Between a scene in one episode where most of the male student population at Liberty High get locked into an all out hallway brawl to a secret romantic relationship that appears to come out of nowhere, the show struggles to find its footing. In keeping with the show’s reputation for not shying away from serious, real world topics affecting today’s teenagers that some might be uncomfortable watching as a casual viewer, this season moves past bullying, sexual assault, and suicide to include gun violence and drug addiction into the mix. By trying to cover multiple themes all at once in 13 episodes actually weakens the messages and lessons 13 Reasons Why is trying to convey. I think the writing could have been tighter and stronger if the show only stuck to exploring the toxic nature of bullying and its effects on those who are the victims of it, sexual assault, and suicide. One of the actual bright spots of this season is the handling of rape survivor Jessica Davis’ (Alisha Boe) subplot. The show digs into the struggles a sexual assault survivor goes through, as they try to pick up the pieces of their life and move forward. It shows the trauma and emotional turmoil still affecting a survivor long after the crime has been committed and how simply reporting their rapist is a lot more complicated than we think. When the show isn’t focusing on hard hitting issues, it makes sure to train its attention back to Clay and Hannah.
When Season 2 and actress Katherine Langford’s return to the show has been confirmed last year, most assumed that Langford would have a limited presence on the show through the occasional flashbacks other characters would have of her. One of the things Season 2 centers on is how others saw Hannah and showing a different perspective on key moments from Season 1 that may have played out differently than Hannah remembered or chose not to include in her tapes. Because the actress has become the face of 13 Reasons Why, it’s not surprising that the writers and showrunners would find a way to extend her role in the second season by having Hannah not only appear in flashbacks but also come back as a ghost or hallucination that only Clay can see, hear, and talk to.
I get the decision to have Ghost Hannah haunt Clay. Langford and Minnette’s onscreen chemistry with each other is one of the best aspects of 13 Reasons Why Season 1, and it’s hard to resist capitalizing on that further in Season 2. They’re the emotional and beating heart of the first season. You mourn along with them of what could have been but never will be between these two. Their meeting and interactions from the first season has all the ingredients and trappings of a John Hughes teen film, minus the depressing and tragic ending. But loving the couple and the actors who play them doesn’t mean it’s a good choice to use a cliche, hokey plot device to keep them together in a scene. As much as I love every single scene Langford and Minnette had together in Season 2, and there are some pretty damn good moments when those two share a scene together, I really didn’t love the overall presence of Ghost Hannah at all. At times her appearance became silly and downright unbelievable to accept.
For instance, there’s many scenes throughout the season where Langford’s Ghost Hannah has several different wardrobe changes. It’s a small, minor detail but it somehow bugged me. If Hannah’s dead and she came back as a ghost, why in the hell would she need to change clothes? Or if Hannah is a figment of Clay’s imagination, and indicative of how fractured his mental state really is, I doubt the last thing Clay would think about is what cute dress or outfit Hannah would be wearing when she appears in front of him. If you’re going to use the apparition gimmick, take a page out of the Patrick Swayze movie Ghost—spirits wear the same clothes they wore the day they died, or at least clothes their loved ones remember them wearing on the final day of their life.
Despite some memorable moments and strong acting from a talented cast of young actors, 13 Reasons Why Season 2 is a largely unnecessary expansion of a story that already had a conclusion. Without any written material to act as a guideline to create and shape the story of these Liberty High School kids, the latest season fails to be as compelling, emotionally strong and satisfying as the first season. There’s already talks of a potential Season 3, which might happen when you consider the cliffhanger Season 2 ends on. I’m hoping this show remains done. But on the off chance 13 Reasons Why does get picked up for another season, I’ll be tuning in again because it’s a show I can’t resist watching, flaws and all.
Reviewer Rating: 6.5/10