What made the first season of 13 Reasons Why so addictive wasn’t its drawn-out mystery about the reasons Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) took her own life. It was the show’s ability to capture the nuances of modern high school life—the frankness with which teens discuss sex, the nebulous relationship dynamics that play out via text and social media, and the way that high schoolers are smart enough to recognize the unfair social structures around them but not yet self-possessed enough to transcend them. Unfortunately, despite a willingness to actively engage with some of the critiques against it, 13 Reasons Why’s second season doesn’t seem to realize where the show’s strengths actually lie. The season doubles down on drama, intrigue, and violence, to the point where it starts to feel like a po-faced version of Riverdale. That would perhaps be less of a problem if the show weren’t also trying to offer a grounded, serious exploration of heavy topics like suicide and sexual assault.
In place of the audiotape structure that anchored the first season, the second is built around a trial. Five months after Hannah’s death, her mom Olivia (Kate Walsh) decides to sue Liberty High School for fostering a culture of pervasive bullying, which she believes led to her daughter’s suicide. Each episode is built around the testimony of one of the major players involved in the first season. So even as the students of Liberty High try to move on with their increasingly fraught lives, the trial ensures they’re still haunted by Hannah’s life and death. And that’s especially true for Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette), who carries on regular conversations with a ghostly vision of Hannah who sometimes comforts him and sometimes challenges him (neither mode is all that interesting).
Like a lot of heavily serialized contemporary TV shows, 13 Reasons Why offers very little in the way of plot recap, instead expecting viewers to remember every minor detail from its complex, character-filled first season. That becomes a problem when the courtroom testimonies start to challenge or deepen the stories Hannah recorded on her tapes. Flashbacks from the first season are revisited with new scenes that flesh out the full story and sometimes refute Hannah’s version altogether. But if you don’t happen to have an encyclopedic memory of, say, exactly how Courtney and Hannah’s bedroom kiss played out in the first season, it can sometimes be confusing to tell which bits are new information. On the other side of the equation, these flashbacks sometimes add so much new detail to Hannah’s backstory that they threaten to undermine the idea that she was ever that much of a loner.
For the most part, however, the flashbacks offer the season’s strongest material because they center on grounded, nuanced high school dynamics and let Langford shine as a non-ghost version of Hannah. Unfortunately, outside of providing an excuse for those flashbacks, the trial itself is a massive drag on the season. The show bizarrely attempts to graft the dynamics of a rape trial onto the Bakers’ lawsuit; the school’s bulldog defense lawyer viciously maligns Hannah’s character and credibility in the way that many real-life layers have done to survivors of sexual assault. But that strategy just doesn’t make much sense in this scenario. It’s hard to imagine a jury being swayed by a lawyer’s cruel, uncaring smearing of a recent suicide victim. Plus, the degree to which the trial digs into school gossip becomes increasingly absurd (at one point Hannah’s love poems are read aloud in order to suss out which student she might have secretly had a crush on). That the judge permits so many unrelated issues to be brought up in court means that scoffing at his many “I’ll allow it”s becomes this season’s equivalent of yelling, “Just finish the damn tapes, Clay!”
Although there doesn’t seem to be a teen-related issue this show doesn’t want to tackle (steroid use, homelessness, opioid addiction, juvenile detention, cutting, mental illness, and anger management are just a few of the issues added to the first season’s already full plate), the season’s biggest through-line is about sexual assault and rape culture. And that exploration works much better outside of the courtroom than in it. In one of the season’s most compelling storylines, Jessica Davis (Alisha Boe) begins the slow but never hopeless journey of reclaiming her identity following her rape by star athlete and resident rich kid Bryce Walker (Justin Prentice). And while Bryce himself remains a bit of a one-note jock stereotype, 13 Reasons Why at least offers a more nuanced understanding of the ways in which toxic masculinity pressures otherwise decent men (and women) into enabling powerful rapists and abusers.
More scattered and less addictive than the first season, the second at least does a better job highlighting the breadth of the show’s talented ensemble. Although Clay is still central to the story (arguably, for the worst), it’s a lot of fun to watch unexpected friendships blossom among the diverse group of students brought together by Hannah’s tapes. In addition to Boe, Brandon Flynn (as Justin Foley) and Miles Heizer (as Alex Standall) are season highlights who elevate material that would feel far more trite without their strong performances. And Ross Butler proves he definitely made the right choice in sticking with 13 Reasons Why over Riverdale, as he’s given one of the standout roles of the season as sensitive athlete Zach Dempsey. Elsewhere, Kate Walsh and Derek Luke (as guidance counselor Mr. Porter) also excel with far better material than they were given to work with last season.
Yet despite what seems to be the best intentions of everyone involved, 13 Reasons Why still struggles when it comes to blending sensitivity with high school operatics. For instance, the season is more than happy to gleefully play up the specter of Chekhov’s school shooter in socially awkward photographer Tyler Down (Devin Druid), who was shown stockpiling guns and ammo at the end of the first season. It’s hard to imagine anything being in worst taste, though that doesn’t stop 13 Reasons Why from trying. Although the season seems to be actively challenging Clay’s savior complex while delivering a thoughtful message about the importance of trust between between teenagers and adults, it eventually undoes all that with a few really unpleasant late-season events.
Although the second season tries to directly address some of the complaints against the series (it more explicitly links self-harm to mental illness and acknowledges the dangers of glamorizing suicide), it can’t help but return to the over-the-top drama it so clearly loves. There’s a season-opening PSA about the importance of starting an honest discussion about difficult topics, but it seems 13 Reasons Why’s biggest goals are actually to shock its audience and stretch out its run for as long as possible.