As someone who used to work in public safety, I found it incredibly difficult to sit and watch 13 Reasons Why without being left frustrated with how irresponsible a television show could be with real-life difficult topics. This isn’t just a show that is attempting to tackle taboo subjects like death or divorce — no, this is a show that has taken on the task of attempting to start conversations about opioid addiction, suicide, self-mutilation, mental health disorders, and school shootings. In today’s climate of violence and mental health awareness, I always can applaud the people who put entertainment that attempts to shed light on matters that people will not openly discuss, but how far does entertainment go that crosses a line? When does shedding light on stigma-involved topics turn into an exploitation of difficult subject matter for the purpose of shocking the viewer? On 13 Reasons Why, the shock factor is an incredibly inappropriate device, especially when used with the content displayed in the second half of the second season.
In a television series that attempts to shed light on mental health awareness, I found the Hannah hallucination or ghost (whatever she was supposed to be) to be extremely irresponsible. In episode 8, “The Little Girl,” after finally hearing from Skye, Clay visits her at a facility where she is being treated for Bipolar Disorder. Skye explains that the doctors at the facility are trying to adjust different medications for her so that she is balanced, rather than experiencing the manic and depressed highs and lows that people who struggle with Bipolar Disorder often face. I viewed this scene and applauded the writers for integrating a conversation of self-awareness and mental health medication all into one.
Just a few episodes later, in episode 11, “Bryce and Chloe,” Clay, the same person who spoke to his ex-girlfriend about Bipolar Disorder medications and her awareness that she needs to be medicated, is standing with a handgun to his head screaming past a very real Justin at a very unreal, dead Hannah Baker. When I finally saw Clay not dismissing the ghost of Hannah and addressing her in the presence of real people, I said to myself, “Okay, here we are finally getting to the point of all of this. Clay is going to find out he has PTSD or an underlying mental health condition that needs to be addressed.”
And then nothing.
Justin talks Clay into getting into the car and going home, and the next morning, they have a brief conversation dismissing it all. In episode 13, “Bye,” Hannah’s Ghost walks into her own memorial service at church. When Clay says that he needs to let her go, she exits the church and walks into a very predictable “white light.” This is where I cannot support your cause, 13 Reasons Why. When you write a show about mental health issues, you cannot put a hallucination of a dead girl into your show, solely for dramatic purposes or an excuse to tie up questions from your first season. This is a creative device, writers, but the reality is that there are real people who see things and hear things that are not real. There are people with mental health disorders who struggle with hallucinations as a very real and present part of their everyday lives. How shameful of a show about mental health to use a “ghost” as a device for the main character to gain clarity and then never address his own mental health.
As viewers, we were given hints throughout 13 Reasons Why season 2 that Tyler was going to turn to weapons as a way of dealing with his bullying and trauma. There were several moments where he shared how powerful shooting a gun made him feel; he even tells Clay in episode 11 that he names his targets to help his aim. So when Tyler packs the trunk of his car and heads to the high school after he is brutally assaulted, there really is no surprise. What is surprising is that the writers took the horrifying turn that most of these teen dramas take: putting real life intense situations into the hands of unqualified, angsty teens. The “why call the police, the professionals, and the people who are trained to handle these situations because I am a teen who knows how you feel” plot. Clay Jensen is not qualified to talk a young, bullied boy in the midst of an intense mental crisis down from committing a school shooting. Is 13 Reasons Why advocating for the victims of these school shootings to take these tragedies into their own hands, or are the writers once again irresponsibly creating a dramatic scene of bullied boy coaching bullied boy out of a crisis for scene development? It is never responsible to show untrained teenagers to deter violent crises.
Tyler was pushed over the edge due to an assault by Monty in the school bathroom after his return from a diversionary program. Monty is disowned by Bryce after viewers learn that, out of loyalty to his friend, Monty was terrorizing the witnesses who were going to testify against Bryce. Monty confronts Tyler in the boys’ bathroom because Tyler’s actions have caused the end of baseball season for the team. Monty, with the help of two random guys, brutally assaults Tyler in the bathroom by hitting his head off of the sink, striking him, and then suffocating him in toilet water. After viewing this assault of a boy who was attempting to get himself back on the right track, the audience is then subjected to watching Monty sexually assault Tyler with the use of a mop handle.
Yes, I just typed that. And you read it. How uncomfortable you feel having read that sentence is probably not nearly as uncomfortable as viewers watching that scene. What was your decision for showing a brutal sexual assault of a male, 13 Reasons Why? There is no other reasoning for putting a scene such as this into a television series for teenagers than for shock value. To me, as a viewer, a mother, and a former law enforcement officer, that is disgusting. Yes, let’s shed light on the fact that women are not the only victims of sexual assault. Yes, let’s talk and converse about topics encircled with stigmas. But no, we do not play “Hollywood” with teenage boys being assaulted with mop handles. We do not need traumatizing scenes like this to have conversations. This does nothing for awareness and for support except perhaps traumatizing viewers.
Despite all of the extremes, I actually found myself enjoying the second half of 13 Reasons Why season 2 much more than I did the first half. Don’t get me wrong: The graphic content and the series’ flaws most certainly overshadowed the positive aspects, but where 13 Reasons Why went wrong, they also went somewhat right. The plot line involving Bryce and Justin’s arrest is a harsh but real truth in a criminal justice system built for the wealthy. Where Bryce gets three months probation and walks free after his arrest, Justin is imprisoned in a juvenile detention facility and ends up with six months probation even only being charged as an accessory to felony sexual assault. Justice is the loosest of terms in a criminal justice system arranged to benefit the wealthy and the privileged. I appreciate that the show attempted to tackle this issue; but as someone who understands the system, I would have liked the idea of learning about what the felony sex assault was pleaded down to. Was there ever an option to for Bryce to be placed on a sex offender registry?
I talked in my halftime review about Alisha Boe’s performance as Jessica, and the second half of 13 Reasons Why season 2 continued to prove how truly gifted Boe is. In episode 13, “Bye,” I barely wanted to breathe during Jessica’s victim impact statement. When she turned around to stare at Bryce, to look him in the eye and direct her statement to the man who assaulted her I was so proud for this character. The beginning was powerful, with the series female characters talking about their own victimizations as if Jessica coming forward was lifting them up and supporting them. Yes, 13 Reasons Why! This is powerful and viewer worthy because it’s a powerful statement to say that a lawyer, a mother, a friend, and a student all had shared experiences. All walks of life are subjected to abuse, assault, and unnecessary harassment. That is a topic worth exploring. Even tackling the idea of the “perfect victim” was constructed well. Jessica was afraid to be torn apart in the courtroom and by the media if she were to come forward with her story criminally. Because that is a reality: it can seem like the victim is also on trial.
I struggled with Clay’s character this season for all of the obvious reasons that the writers wanted us to. He was just a boy that could not see past an imperfect girl’s flaws. Dylan Minnette’s performance as Clay during the dance scene where Clay hears “The Night We Met” by Lord Huron literally brought me to tears. When hearing the song that Hannah danced with him to, Clay slowly paces to the middle of the dance floor to be met by his friends and supporters. Watching Clay break apart in the arms of his friends, right there in the spot that he finally danced with his crush to the song he remembers her by, was heart wrenching, and I could not help but cry with him.
The relationships in this show made watching worthwhile because 13 Reasons Why went above and beyond to display relationships that are often rarely — or even never — displayed. Jessica’s bond with her father was so impactful. After her sexual assault, rather than just simply having her turn to the female figure in her life, Jessica has open and honest conversations with her father while she struggles. I also found it insightful of the show to display the differences between a locker-room, fraternity type brotherhood versus the strength of true male bonding like that between Zach and Alex. Zach and Alex rely on one another, have open and honest conversations about difficult topics like Alex’s impotence issues after his brain injury, and check in on each other’s emotional state. Compare their relationship to the friendships with Bryce based on fear and empty loyalty. I applaud this show for displaying healthy male friendships.
Justin and Clay also begin to develop a brotherly bond, which is taken to a whole new level with Clay’s parents wanting to adopt Justin to keep him out of the system. Unfortunately, Justin is still struggling with a heroin addiction that he is hiding from Clay and his family. This depiction, as opposed to the first half of the season, is a much more accurate result of opioid addiction, where addicts can struggle even when their life seems to be turning around.
With Katherine Langford, the actress who plays Hannah Baker, having announced that she will not be returning for a third season, I am not sure where 13 Reasons Why would go without the girl who brought the characters altogether. Netflix has not announced renewal information. With such a great cast, developed characters, and great chemistry between them, I can only hope that 13 Reasons Why moves forward in a less extreme, less shock-value but character driven plot. Mental health, addiction, bullying, and crises are all important topics to discuss — but not to exploit for entertainment purposes.
Ultimately, I think that the explorative ideas in 13 Reasons Why are great, but if the graphic content is taking away from the truer meaning that the series is trying to convey, then season 3 will ultimately plunge itself into the same category as season 2: a show trying too hard in too many ways with offensive, unnecessary imagery and drama.
13 Reasons Why: Season 2 is available for streaming on Netflix.