I fell in love with season 1 of 13 Reasons Why. My tryst with binge-watching started out with this series and in spite of not having read the novel on which the show is based, I could relate to all the characters, having had a turbulent high school experience myself. I admired how the show, although mired in moral ambiguity, showed multiple sides of a single story, which was the fallout of the suicide of a Liberty High student – Hannah Baker. The show explores different themes which have been brushed under the carpet, especially in India. Sexual assault, drug abuse, depression – all had been dealt with grace, without patronising any character. It had a lot of grey areas fit into one screen.
Season 2 does just the opposite.
The show picks up 5 months after Hannah’s death, and this time, the episodes start with voiceovers of characters who are testifying in a civil suit filed by her parents against the school. Liberty High is the same bleak place that it was in the first season; however, the events are more sinister and show a deeper problem than we’d ever expect. Slowly and steadily, all characters are stripped off their secrets and the pace of the show trots towards an end that is as ghastly, and prone to criticism, as the final episode of the first season.
Hannah’s batchmates, parents, counselor and an old classmate, everyone takes the stand in this 13 episode marathon. Their narration is like a personal address to the audience. It is probably the most gripping part of the series. Their side of the story may leave a lot of strings untied instead of helping you make sense of why Hannah did what she did. The storyline is so starkly different from that depicted in season 1, that it does not bear an iota of conviction. It does more to pour old wine into a new bottle. The show is all drama and little sense; we are introduced to more bullying, victim intimidation, drug abuse and assault which borders on forced storytelling. No amount of screen relief is a relief.
However, it’s Tyler’s tragedy that is the most jarring and troubling aspect of the show. While most of the season was spent dredging up the past, Tyler’s struggle with social identification, peer pressure and his slow descent into a violent streak shows a problematic depiction on the producers’ part. It is sad that the premiere of the show coincided with an actual shooting in a Texas school that left 10 dead, underlining how the debate around gun-violence needs to be deal with care. However in the show, Tyler’s growing obsession with guns is a precursor to the finale episode. His abuse at the hands of Monty and his minions is one of the most horrible scenes I’ve witnessed in my life – the graphic depiction felt unnecessary. His abuse seems to justify his decision to almost massacre an entire school. Also, it appears to be a last minute deed to balance the scale of gender by discussing sexual abuse that happens with men, albeit in a hurried manner. Also letting Clay deal with Tyler in order to break his trance is tipping the iceberg in a dangerous direction, one which could’ve gone the other direction with a lot less ease. It is important to discuss the repercussions of senseless bravery.
The mysterious polaroids is a plot device that is put in to take the narrative of the season forward, implying how Bryce’s corrupt character is far more sinister that shown in the first season, how the culture of Liberty High does nothing to prevent sexual assault and mental trauma. In his conversation with his mother, we finally see how cruel and depraved Bryce is. It is only his character on which the story takes a rigid stand. But post that, the polaroids are an unnecessary, complicated addition, sending the characters on a blind goose chase, which is evidently felt as the end draws nearer.
Every other character oscillates between the black and the white when their story is narrated, so much so that the show ends up condoning the actions of the students. Alex, who shot himself in the first season, has survived the ordeal but is left with physical and mental scars. Justin, who took to the streets, is found by Clay who tries to wean him off his heroin addiction. Jessica is dealing with the scarring reality of attending high school with her rapist. Tony finds love, but he too has to face his demons this season. The show tries to humanise the trials and tribulations of the young protagonists to an extent that they portray all the actions as having emerged from a harsh reality and an unfair system but not as a product of their own choice. But there always is a choice.
The one thing that 13 Reasons Why season 2 gets right is the absolute shock that awaits the parents of various protagonists. From Hannah’s mother’s struggle to maintain sanity in her world that is falling apart at the seams, to Clay’s mother trying to hold on to whatever remains of her son after he has lost his love, their struggle is a reminder of how important it is to involve parents in a constructive dialogue with their kids. Parents know of our struggles and vices, like Bryce’s mother did, but it is the egotism of a parent, that Bryce’s father epitomizes, which convinces them that for whatever reason, their child is different from the crowd. Clay, in a very telling scene, says to his father ‘…maybe we are trying to protect you’. It is this chasm, between reality and a perceived reality of the parents, that needs to be bridged through communication.
Season 1 called on our empathy, the exact emotion that was denied to Hannah. We went on to give it to all characters regardless. The show became a collective call to all people, institutions who continue to pass the buck, to parents who themselves are victims of this system. But in season 2, the entire base on which our sympathy was triggered for the characters is turned into a fallacy. Hannah is stripped of all honesty, her constant ghostly presence is dredged to a point you hope she disappears from the screen. By trying to uncover a new mystery about Hannah’s death in a facile manner, 13 reasons why gives us enough reasons to give it a miss.