We’ll be the first to acknowledge that the first season of Netflix’s teen drama 13 Reasons Why has some merit to it. Don’t get us wrong: its insensitivity toward mental health sufferers is reprehensible, and its misguided use of suicide and rape as dramatic devices makes it difficult to champion any of its strengths. But as a whole, the first season is generally well made, with strong performances, several potentially interesting character relationships, and moments of genuine emotion amid all the overbearing despair.
Unfortunately, little of that merit carries over to the second season. Instead of learning from the controversies that continue to hound the series, the show’s writers have been emboldened by the outrage, as if saying, “People are angry, so we must be doing something right!” This new batch of 13 episodes continues to linger on the fallout left behind by Hannah Baker’s suicide tapes, her case now being fought over in court. It’s a set-up that becomes annoyingly similar to the first season’s structure, and doubles its focus on the show’s weakest qualities. Instead of allowing the story to grow organically, the series only gets flatter, more bloated, and more bizarrely tone-deaf.
But first, it’s worth mentioning that 13 Reasons Why season two also isn’t objectively awful all the way through. There are still several good performances here, particularly from those playing characters that are actually going through fresh emotional territory. Now-homeless jock Justin (Brandon Flynn) is far more sympathetic here, while Alex (Miles Heizer)—who has survived his own attempt at taking his life—gives us a more interesting portrayal of mental illness than we ever got with Hannah. However, again, it’s the adults who shine the brightest. Mr. Porter (Derek Luke) becomes a desperate man seeking justice his own way, while Mrs. Baker (Kate Walsh) becomes the image of fortitude as she endures a trial that quickly becomes a media circus. And when the show is finally brave enough to challenge its own ideas from the first season, the sudden enlightenment is refreshing.
However, there simply isn’t enough good to save 13 Reasons Why’s second season from being relentlessly mediocre. From the get-go, it becomes evident that the show doesn’t quite understand how to use its storytelling devices. Its courtroom structure is devoid of the kind of tension and building intrigue you might be expecting. Instead, the testimonies given during these trial scenes function as unnecessary extended recaps of the entire first season, overemphasizing every other character’s faults while failing to deepen our understanding of Hannah’s own mental illness. And these testimonies are stretched over the course of entire episodes, through voiceover narration—another device that this season completely misuses. The narration here often has nothing to do with the scenes that accompany it, and the result is confusing and needlessly dense.
And then there’s the truly shocking decision to bring back Hannah (Katherine Langford) as a literal ghost, who talks to protagonist Clay (Dylan Minnette) throughout the season. Except she isn’t really a ghost; 13 Reasons Why can’t decide whether this Hannah is a real apparition or a result of Clay’s own mental breakdown. The ambiguity is meant to be intriguing, but it just comes off lazy and irresponsible. The first season was accused of glorifying Hannah’s tapes as a way in which one could “live forever” while tormenting one’s bullies, and this ghost mischief just makes it worse. It doesn’t help that these interactions with Hannah don’t make Clay more interesting; he is, in fact, the season’s worst character, making dumb, hasty decisions and still being depicted as some sort of tragic hero.
It also doesn’t help that, beyond these storytelling gimmicks, the show simply isn’t filmed very well. Gone are the pockets of humor and joy from the first season. Everything is now dull and dour, and because the season resists showing any shred of positive emotion, its attempts at creating a realistic atmosphere fraught with danger ring false. It’s self-serious, mostly dramatically vacant, and loaded with plodding dialogue that sounds nothing like how real teenagers sound. And if this isn’t enough, every single episode insists on being as long and as meandering as possible. There is no structure to the proceedings, the voiceover narration clumsily trying to stitch disparate scenes together in some sort of logical flow. And these episodes go on for an hour at a time, with the finale clocking in at a horrifying 70 minutes—as long as some episodes of Game of Thrones.
In the event that none of what we’ve just mentioned bothers you, and that the few good elements in this season of 13 Reasons Why are enough to satisfy you, whatever fulfillment you’ll have built up toward the end should be demolished by the last episode. 13 Reasons Why’s second season concludes with a mean-spirited and downright vile finale that spends most of its time setting up for an inevitable season three while erasing whatever positive progress some of its characters have made. It also contains a truly pointless act of sexual violence that’s meant to introduce the issue of American school shootings for the third season, but its treatment of the issue is, again, skin-deep and reductive. It couldn’t have come at a worse time.
13 Reasons Why suffers from a fatal misunderstanding of what it means to depict real-life experiences of violence and trauma. The show thinks that there is inherent value in simply reenacting these experiences and reflecting them back to the audience, with the hope that they can spread awareness and reach viewers who are less knowledgeable about these issues. But suicide, mental health, and school shootings are common knowledge now. And viewers aren’t stupid. As a popular show on a widely accessible platform, it has a responsibility to be better—to elevate discourse, to be thorough in its research, and to find nuance and hope in subject matter that they should know is still the subject of vicious debate. No matter how relevant it wants to be, 13 Reasons Why is not what we need right now.