May 16, 2018
’13 Reasons Why’ Season 2 Review Round-Up: Why Is This Show Still Going?
Netflix famously doesn’t release viewership numbers for its individual shows or movies, but it’s safe to say that 13 Reasons Why made a big splash when it debuted on the streaming service last year. The show earned high praise from critics, courted controversy for its depiction of rape and suicide, and seemed to be all anyone could talk about for a while after its release.
Despite leaving some lingering unanswered questions, it seemed as if the series could wrap up after one season. But it’s coming back for a season two later this week, and early reviews from critics suggest it should have quit while it was ahead.
13 Reasons Why Season 2 Reviews
Season one took place the aftermath of Hannah (Katherine Langford)’s suicide, as she left behind tapes explaining the thirteen reasons she decided to kill herself. But the second season reportedly recontextualizes what we thought we knew, and that left a bad taste in the mouth of Mashable’s Proma Khosla:
13 Reasons Why Season 2’s main narrative tool, new flashbacks to Hannah’s life, is difficult to digest. The problem is that they don’t just add to her story; they alter it. The puzzle pieces now add up to a different big picture, which means Hannah was in a very different place when she chose to take her own life.
This is addressed, lazily, more than once. Clay (Dylan Minnette) confronts Zach (Ross Butler), asking why none of his revelations from the witness stand came up in Hannah’s tape. “Did she say everything on your tape?” Zach retorts.
But in Season 1, we were told that we did have the whole story. Hannah may have been selective and emotionally distressed, but the chapters she apparently left out range from puzzling to pivotal (Zach’s in particular)…
…It feels like we are being told that Season 1 was meaningless, that it only skimmed the surface and isn’t the real story. But Season 1, crucially, was Hannah’s perspective, and try as Season 2 might to include her, she no longer owns her story. Season 2 tells us that Hannah was an unreliable narrator, but potentially introduces a dozen more. To wait on Season 3 and then yank some of these testimonies out from under us would be cruel, and yet no longer out of the realm of possibility.
Kelly Lawler at USA Today opened her review with this succinct phrase: “We don’t need 13 more reasons.” She called the second season “insufferable” and “a tawdry, unnecessary exercise, a blatant grab for the headlines the teen suicide drama garnered last year”.
Set five months after Hannah’s death, the new season follows the civil trial as her parents sue the school district for its part in her death: not doing enough to curb bullying and sexual harassment at the school and ignoring Hannah’s calls for help. Instead of focusing on one “reason” per interminable hour-long episode, each episode this season revolves around testimony from one of Hannah’s classmates. It is, quite literally, a rehash of all the events we saw in Season 1.
The show manages to shoehorn in the ghost of Hannah as Clay’s (Dylan Minnette) talking hallucination and through further, completely unilluminating flashbacks to the time before she died. The writers also try to up the melodrama, spinning tiresome conspiracies and mysteries at the high school and putting the traumatized teens through more harassment and abuse than they were subjected to in Season 1. A rape victim finds a sex doll strung up on her front porch, duct tape over its mouth and “slut” written on its chest. And that’s only in the first two episodes.
Kevin Fallon at The Daily Beast seems somewhat conflicted, praising aspects of season two’s courtroom narrative but admitting it doesn’t have the juice to keep the pacing where it should be:
Those court scenes are when the episodes are the most intriguing. It is excruciating to see the ways in which pictures, anecdotes, facts, and, more often, lies are used by lawyers to spin false truths, excuse heinous actions, and vilify a sweet young girl with normal whims and vices as an asking-for-it jezebel who cried depression and killed herself for attention. It’s gross, and yet pathetically believable. Given how the manipulation and distortion of information resonates in the real world today, these are fascinating, if uncomfortable scenes.
But while there was a clear engine driving the first season—13 reasons that built on each other and revealed shocking truths and secrets about the characters—there’s nothing to push the narrative gas pedal in this first half of season two. You’re spending hours and hours watching characters wait for something to happen, for something shocking to come out of the trial. You’re waiting, too.
The collateral damage of this framing is Hannah herself. The broad premise of the season and the trial is the pursuit of justice for Hannah, but in turning the attention to the students who are racked with guilt, paranoia, or denial over what happened, they collectively become the victims.
Alan Sepinwall at Uproxx says he gave up on the new season after four episodes, saying that it felt like the showrunners expanded on the weakest aspects of the first season in order to keep the story going beyond the book on which season one was based:
With each new revelation, each new flashback that adds additional context to one of last season’s flashbacks, it begins to feel less like a sensitive teen drama than like one of those forgettable Lost rip-offs that thought the key to success was introducing five new questions for every old one that gets answered.
It’s really disheartening (and led me to tap out after only four of the 13 episodes), despite continued strong work from so many members of the ensemble. But even that feels tainted by the hoops season two jumps through to keep Katherine Langford prominent throughout. Langford was the deserved breakout star of the first season, achingly tying the many different Hannah Bakers that her classmates saw to the one that only she truly knew, and season one was so flashback-heavy that it was easy to feature her a lot. Season two? Well, it features some flashbacks, albeit not as many, and for the rest of her screentime…well, [the showrunner] opts for a device that frequently plays as funny when it’s not meant to, and that causes severe tonal whiplash on the rare occasions when the laughs are intentional.
But despite the show’s seeming lack of a reason for existing (aside from season 1’s surprising popularity, of course), it at least seems like the performers are giving it their all in season two. Variety’s Kevin O’Keefe had especially good things to say about Dylan Minnette, who plays protagonist Clay Jensen:
Minnette is a marvel, turning in one of the most committed, insular, intense performances you’ll see anywhere on television. The 21-year-old actor reads as a blank slate when he’s still — maybe a hint of a perpetual grimace on his face, but ultimately inoffensive. As a result, Clay is often seen looking pensive, quiet, and expressionless.
When he breaks, however, Minnette shines. Clay screams, cries, and generally loses his cool this season, and Minnette captures it all without missing a beat. Every bit of pain seems to leave an extra wrinkle or crag on Clay’s face. Minnette himself makes Clay feel heavier as the season goes on, like having to do any small thing would cause the young man to explode. Minnette plays Clay as a teen on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and you can’t take your eyes off him.
A good deal of the cast is good this season — particularly Kate Walsh as Hannah’s grieving-but-furious mother Olivia — but Minnette stands above the pack. His is a tour-de-force performance that goes a long way to making “13 Reasons Why’s” second season feel worth the drama. Are there still concerns with how it handles suicide? Absolutely. Could the show continue to be more deft with how it handles sexual assault? Yes, although there has been some improvement, largely in how the series centers women in these stories more.
And Liz Shannon Miller at IndieWire acknowledges the show’s flaws, but still thinks it’s worthwhile viewing:
“13 Reasons Why” features no shortage of missteps. But it’s a show that so deeply feels for its characters, so deeply feels these scenarios, that it’s hard to be mad at it. At its core, it’s a show about young people on the cusp of discovering everything good that the world has to offer them, more often than not are slapped down by life’s toughest realities. The show doesn’t offer solutions, but it does offer empathy. And sometimes, that’s exactly what’s needed.
Sounds very much like a “your mileage may vary” verdict on this one, and you’ll be able to discover where you fall on this spectrum when 13 Reasons Why season 2 arrives on Netflix on May 18, 2018.
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