There’s no denying that “13 Reasons Why” is a divisive show, especially with its second season, as showrunner Brian Yorkey extended the narrative beyond the story of teenage Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford), following her death by suicide.
Digging further into the aftermath of Hannah’s death, especially its impact on her friends, family, and school community, the season doesn’t pull its punches on examining past tragedies and inflicting new ones on its characters. Sometimes, the show made good choices in this regard. Sometimes, things went awry. Below, we dig into what worked best and what didn’t in the show’s return.
[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for “13 Reasons Why” Season 2.]
Jessica (Alisha Boe) copes with her sexual assault: Anchored by an impressive performance by Boe, a major lynchpin of Season 2 is Jessica’s journey to recovery, one that the show treats with great sensitivity. Watching Jessica go to therapy and attempt to move on made for one of the most emotionally effective threads of the season, one that deserves a lot of acclaim for acknowledging that recovery from a trauma like this takes real time.
Alex’s road to recovery: Alex’s (Miles Heizer) suicide attempt at the end of Season 1 meant that Season 2 included another story of recovery, one that hasn’t been too often portrayed on television before. His attempts to recover physically from his injury include a great deal of nuance as to what real head wound victims contend with. Alex manages to be one of the season’s most empathetic characters as a result.
The reveal of Hannah and Zach’s relationship: One of the biggest surprises of the season was learning that we didn’t know everything about Hannah, including the truth of how she lost her virginity, which was depicted in Episode 6, “The Smile at the End of the Dock.” As told by Zach, their secret love story was full of cute and touching moments, and while so much of Season 1 was about the destructive relationships in Hannah’s life, seeing that Hannah did have some share of happiness before she died was deeply affecting. While things between her and Zach didn’t end so well, they did have a real connection that summer.
Courtney (Michele Selene Ang) comes out: The deeply conflicted girl who covered her kiss with Hannah by contributing to the rumors of Hannah’s promiscuity didn’t have a ton of screentime over the course of Season 2. But she did finally speak her truth, engage with her fathers on the topic, and in the finale reveal that she now has a girlfriend. It’s the sort of positive character change the show has executed well, even in the margins of the story.
The beginning of “The Third Polaroid”: Initially introduced out of context midway through the season, the animation by Jane Samborski and Dash Shaw (the creative forces behind the 2016 Toronto favorite “My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea”) was a beautiful, surreal lull in the midst of the action. We later understand the sequence as a flashback to when Hannah and Clay were tripping, but in or out of context, it was a lovely moment.
Olivia (Kate Walsh) might go to New York: Olivia’s broken heart has always been one of the show’s most wrenching elements. Yet her mentioning her desire to leave town and live the dream Hannah didn’t get to is still tearjerking but in a more hopeful way.
Clay tells Hannah “You did an evil thing”: It’s a brutal scene, but whether or not you agree with Clay on the topic, it was clearly a cathartic moment for the character — and maybe the audience as well.
Hannah the ghost: When Clay tells Hannah that she did an evil thing, he’s not really talking to her. Langford is such a dynamic performer and was so heartbreaking during Season 1, that we can’t blame the writers for trying to figure out a way to keep her involved with the show, even though she had told her story pretty thoroughly in the first season. But the “talking to a ghost” device (beyond fraying the show’s previously grounded approach) wasn’t just a too-easy solution to adding exposition and drama to the series but frayed the show’s already tenuous connection with reality to an unnecessary degree. While she was definitely essential for the Season 2 flashbacks, the overuse of her ethereal presence weighed down the season.
The Jessica/Alex/Justin love triangle: Jessica’s recovery from being raped is an important journey for the show, but it’s weirdly disconnected from her complex relationships with these two other guys, as we see in the season finale. The fact that Jessica chooses to have sex with Justin minutes after kissing Alex on the dance floor just feels baffling.
Clay’s relationship with Skye: At the beginning of Season 2, it seems like Clay has moved on from his Hannah fixation by dating Skye, but early on it’s made clear that she has no shortage of issues that lead to the end of their relationship. The whole storyline feels relatively expendable, beyond the odd statement it makes about Clay being fixated on girls with problems. The fact that Skye’s story ends with her in recovery does feature a positive message about the importance of getting help when you need it. But was it an essential part of the season? Not necessarily.
The polaroids: Standing in for cassette tapes in the opening titles, the sending of compromising photos was a mystery that never really fulfilled its dramatic potential. The implication is that Nina (Samantha Logan) was the one sending them, setting up secret justice, but while the polaroids did lead to the secrets of the clubhouse being revealed, it wasn’t quite the payoff one might have hoped for.
Tyler’s descent: Very early into Season 2, it became clear that violence would make its way onto school grounds, and since the end of Season 1, Tyler was easily the most likely perpetrator. While there was an attempt to twist away from this obvious conclusion, by having Tyler express these urges early enough to be diverted into a diversionary program and seemingly “cured,” it still felt painfully obvious by the end what was going to happen. The only real surprise was the ultimate conclusion — but then…
That cliffhanger: Tyler getting a second chance after what he nearly did demands a level of empathy that you may or may not think he deserves. But the cliffhanger implies that Clay is going to be on the hook for his actions, which leaves way too many questions as to what might happen in Season 3.
The Lacking in Reason
Everything going on with Justin: The show’s least nuanced elements all seem tied to the character of Justin, whose 21st-century Dickensian backstory full-on ends in him becoming the ward of Clay’s parents and drags the show down distracting alleys (sometimes literally). The end of the season seems to jettison some of those elements, but then reduces things to his addiction, which, if Season 3 happens, will likely be a major element of the narrative — one that might have a hard time avoiding cliche.
The use of voice-over: When used organically, such as pulled from the testimony surrounding the Bakers’ lawsuit, the voice-over works. But the show leans on it awfully heavy overall, especially in the last half of the finale, when there’s not really any reason to hear every single one of Clay’s inner thoughts.
The number of episodes: Imagine a version of this season trimmed down to 10, maybe eight episodes — it might have required shedding a few characters and storylines, but the ultimate result would have been a far tighter season, and likely a much more palatable one. The show’s commitment to trying to capture all aspects of a large community coping with grief and other issues is to be admired, but sometimes less is more. One thing we can all agree on when it comes to “13 Reasons Why” is that it is a lot.