‘13 Reasons Why’ Season 2 Has Few Reasons to Keep the Story Going
Sometimes you do just have to move on. “13 Reasons Why” premiered on Netflix last year as a powerful, gut-wrenching drama about youth in our time. Adapted from the novel by Jay Asher, the episodic format gave it adequate space and time to explore multiple characters and events. It all culminated with the tragic suicide of high school student Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford), after we had seen every friendship, betrayal and emotional injury which had led to her decision. Season 2 now arrives with little reason to exist other than to continue a popular title. Because the first season covered the entire novel this new batch of episodes attempt to keep the story going. There’s one fatal flaw: It really is just rewinding itself, going over everything that happened previously but with added twists.
Five months after Hannah’s suicide and her hometown remains shaken by the aftermath. After the discovery of her 13 recordings detailing her spiral into depression, her friends and others involved are trying to move on. Clay (Dylan Minnette) is now dating the rebellious Skye (Sosie Bacon). But everytime they come close to finally sleeping together Clay backs out, haunted by the memory of Hannah, whom he loved but never had the courage to truly open up to in the first season. Meanwhile Alex (Miles Heizer) has returned home after his own suicide attempt but with a hazy memory. Jessica (Alisha Boe), is also returning to Liberty High after leaving for a while following her own trauma at the hands of campus jock Bryce Walker (Justin Prentice), who had also raped Hannah, helping drive her deeper into her fatal choice. But everyone will have to face their demons when Hannah’s family decides to sue Liberty High for having ignored her plight and signs of distress. Character after character from her tapes will be called in to the witness stand.
“13 Reasons Why” now joins the ongoing trend of certain studios or networks to adapt popular literature into successful shows, then finding themselves stuck with the question of how to continue the narrative. Hulu has extended the original story of Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” and HBO surprised many with how well it extended the storyline of Tom Perrotta’s “The Leftovers.” But the challenge with “3 Reasons Why” is that the original premise depended so strongly on one key element: Hannah’s tapes. Her narration in the form of a taped record of her experiences provided the harrowing guide into her experience, which served as a powerful microcosm of what it is to be a modern teenager. In the first season Liberty High felt like an emotional arena with individual stories of identity, sexuality, class and other issues formed a unique fabric. In season two the series struggles with how to find a new gimmick. The best the showrunners have invented is a set of Polaroids involving Hannah and others mysteriously popping up in characters’ lockers or other spots, with ominous messages in the style of “She Wasn’t the Only One.” Jessica in the first two episodes is assaulted by graffiti calling her a slut, because apparently while she was away Bryce accused her of having hooked up with him consensually, only to later accuse him of rape. Characters who served as good anchors due to the tapes in the first season get small billing here. Tony (Christian Navarro), who guided Clay with a wise and interesting presence in the first season, is here reduced to mere cameos, leading us on for the first episodes as hiding something and even burning photos and tapes.
In terms of narrative the season feels like an odd kind of loop. We are catching up with the main characters as the series insists on continuously going over everything that happened in the previous season. When witnesses are called to testify in court, they are there to recount an event from the first season, but with some kind of new spin. The shy photographer Tyler (Devin Druid) will admit he stalked Hannah quite often, and was smitten with her but noticed she spent so much time with Clay. But Hannah’s story was so powerful the first time around we don’t need additional filler.
What is missing here is the almost anthropological experience from the first season, where the very experience of being a teenager was captured with eloquence and honesty. Season two wants to be more of a thriller, with characters suddenly shifting gears in unconvincing ways. For example school counselor Kevin Porter (Derek Luke), who in the first season was a tragic example of school officials who become too tedious and inadvertently miss alarm signals from students, becomes a tough-talking, semi-vigilante here. In the season premiere he corners Bryce in a bathroom, slamming him against a wall and threatening him if he starts any trouble. If season one vibrated with an eerie realism, season two gets started with pyrotechnics worthy of “Riverdale.” Another trick that doesn’t work is the literal conjuring of Hannah as some sort of entity or ghost that follows Clay around. In the season premiere she simply appears as a sort of memory or flashback, intruding on Clay’s thinking as he tries to be intimate with Skye. But in the second episode it becomes clear she is some sort of specter he can interact with (“you talk now?”). It is a move that is simply unnecessary, and which takes away from the truly haunting power of the story.
Where season two is equal to its predecessor is in the quality of performances. This cast is top notch and they again bring convincing, hurt and empathetic acting to scripts asking them to stretch out the story a bit too thin. Dylan Minnette again proves why his character became a TV cultural moment last year. Even with a story lacking in the substance of the original, he becomes a recognizable portrait of youth trying to figure things out. Kate Walsh as Hannah’s mother Olivia also shines in moments of raw pain and quiet frustration.
“13 Reasons Why” season two is a collection of good acting in an unnecessary premise. Make no mistake, the first season will endure as a great modern drama about the battle of growing up. This new season inspires curiosity, but it wants to add too much to a good thing.
“13 Reasons Why” season two premieres May 18 on Netflix.