Thursday, June 14, 2018

13 Reasons Why (Season 2)

Creator: Brian Yorkey
Starring: Dylan Minnette, Katherine Langford, Christian Navarro, Alisha Boe, Brandon Flynn, Justin Prentice, Miles Heizer, Ross Butler, Devin Druid, Amy Hargreaves, Derek Luke, Kate Walsh, Brian d'Arcy James, Brenda Strong, Jake Weber, Michele Selene Ang, Ajiona Alexus, Sosie Bacon, Steven Weber, Anne Winters, Samantha Logan
Release Date: 2018

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

**The Following Review Contains Plot Spoilers From the Second Season of Netflix's 13 Reasons Why**

The biggest challenge facing a second season of Netflix's teen suicide drama, 13 Reasons Why was in convincing audiences it's even necessary. That there was more story left to tell when it appeared to have reached a clear, logical conclusion last year with Hannah Baker's suicide. It was a climax we knew was coming, yet the details surrounding it, recorded on 13 tapes that Hanna left behind, provided the structure and substance behind one of the more complex, intelligent depictions of teens in recent series television. And with that came controversy, as the suicide prevention disclaimers that air before and after each episode this season remind us, bookending a brutally honest show that earned its following by not pulling many punches.

While "suicide contagion" is real and even directly referenced and discussed during the season, the need for a content warning does seem to be a greater reflection of our current cultural climate of heightened sensitivity than the actual series itself. It's a safe bet we wouldn't have seen it a decade earlier, and after witnessing what occurs in this season's final episode, I'm not sure it's still entirely due to last season's graphic suicide.

"13 Reasons Why is a fictional series that tackles tough, real-world issues, taking a look at sexual assault, substance abuse, suicide, and more. By shedding a light on these difficult topics, we hope our show can helps viewers start a conversation. But if you are struggling with these issues yourself, this series may not be right for you or you may want to watch it with a trusted adult. And if you ever feel you need someone to talk with, reach out to a parent, a friend, a school counselor, or an adult you trust, call a local helpline, or go to Because the minute you start talking about it, it gets easier."

So, how do you follow a phenomenon that seems entirely self-contained to a single season, setting up and concluding its narrative within its 13 episodes? Luckily, the first season wasn't merely a one-trick pony, successfully mapping out a universe and developing even its most minor characters well enough that's there's still a surprisingly rich well from which to draw, despite now losing most of Jay Asher's YA novel as its guidepost. And after a slow start that makes you wonder whether the producers were more interested in finding ways to shoehorn Golden Globe nominee Katherine Langford back into the show as Hannah, they somehow manage to deliver a sensational, at times jaw-dropping, sophomore season that not only expands the scope of the series, but effectively continues a story many believe had run its course.

By framing the episodes with individual court testimonies, this season provides bigger acting opportunities to a greater number of its hugely impressive cast, still developing into an essential next chapter minus Hannah's tapes or even a particularly sympathetic protagonist. It also benefits from being timelier than its preceding season, tackling more than teen suicide and diving head first into controversial, hot button currently issues facing schools and society as a whole. Everything doesn't work, but with creator Brian Yorkey attempting so much, that was almost inevitable. And while I'm still not sure I'm on board with Netflix's campaign to reframe the completely fictional series as some kind of teaching tool for teens (complete with an accompanying "Beyond The Reasons" special with licensed psychologists), the final result speaks for itself, at least as far as its ability to entertain.

Justin Prentice as serial rapist Bryce Walker
Sometimes just honestly depicting serious issues on screen with raw, believable performances and strong writing is enough. And in the case of this second season, it's more than enough, justifying its existence by confronting rape, suicide, sexual abuse, drug abuse, male privilege, bullying, homophobia, slut shaming, vandalism, racism and school shootings head-on. Is it over-the-top? Maybe, but good luck trying to look away or dismiss the discussions sure to emerge from it.

With Hannah Baker (Langford) now gone and her 13 tapes heard by its intended audience, focus shifts to the court case brought against Liberty High by her grieving, now separated parents Olivia (Kate Walsh) and Andy (Brian d'Arcy James) as well as Clay's (Dylan Minette) attempts to move on following the loss of the best friend he considered the love of his life. But he's not having much luck, talking to hallucinations of Hannah as he reaches his psychological breaking point, consumed with proving popular, privileged baseball captain Bryce Walker (Justin Prentice) raped her and exposing a toxic culture of abuse and faculty negligence at Liberty.

Clay will not only have to battle against a legal defense strategy painting Hannah as a slut and a school staff looking to cover their tracks, but enlist the help of the returning Jessica Davis (Alisha Boe), who herself was raped by Bryce while her boyfriend and Bryce's best bud, Justin Foley (Brandon Flynn) did nothing. Getting her to speak openly about what happened on the stand and tracking down a now homeless, guilt-ridden Justin become Clay's chief objectives, and while good friend Tony (Christian Navarro) tries to help, he's busy struggling with anger management issues of his own.

Alex Standall (Miles Heizer) drowns out the pain
Returning to Liberty with ex-girlfriend Jessica is Alex Standall (Miles Heizer), whose attempted suicide over the pain both caused Hannah has left him physically and emotionally broken, leaning on an unlikely ally for support in kindhearted jock Zach Dempsey (Ross Butler).  One-by-one witnesses take the stand, as new details about Hannah's relationships with each of them that aren't found on the tapes start to surface. As  the true severity of this school's problems are revealed, the battle lines are drawn, with Bryce and his boys willing to do anything to exact revenge on those testifying.

Sick of it all is social outcast, sometimes "peeping tom," Tyler Down (Devin Druid), a bullying target who turns to the rebellious Cyrus (Bryce Cass) for help in striking back. And for guidance counselor Kevin Porter (Derek Luke), the guilt of having routinely dismissed Hannah's cries for help has inspired him to take action like never before, possibly to his own detriment. With tensions reaching their boiling point, it's clear that while Hannah's no longer alive, the underlying causes of her problems are still very prevalent at Liberty.

We should probably breathe a sigh of relief that the writers didn't pull out another batch of 13 more tapes in order to artificially continue Hannah's story. Having each of the witnesses take the stand as previously unseen bits and pieces of their relationship with Hannah unfold works really well, as does this shift of narration from her voice to theirs, leaving us constantly wondering just how reliable their accounts are. And since there's more to her life than was heard through the tapes, it doesn't feel cheap or manipulative that we're now privy to information that wasn't previously accessible.

Clay converses with Ghost Hannah
All this new info angers an already tortured Clay, who listens to painful details about Hannah that not only shatter his idealized image of her, but present her actions and choices in a horrible light. Of course, this is the cornerstone of the defense's case, as they attempt to prove it was a reckless lifestyle full of promiscuity that led her to take her own life rather than the school ignoring or dismissing clear warning signs. If she seems to be the one on trial here, that's exactly the point.

A less effective use of Hannah, or rather Clay's memory of her, is as a ghost with whom he has  frequently heated discussions and arguments. That, and his new doomed relationship with tattooed  barista and estranged childhood friend Skye (Sosie Bacon) comprise some early episode lowlights until the season finds its groove shortly thereafter. The former device starts to make more sense as Clay's psyche further unravels under all the stress of the trial while the latter subplot disappears entirely, replaced with an unlikely bromance that proves to be one of the show's biggest rewards. Those creative hiccups and a bewildering subplot involving Olivia's friendship with an anti-bullying advocate (played by Kelli O'Hara) that seems to go nowhere is all that doesn't really work in these otherwise satisfying and ambitious 13 episodes.

What's conveyed exceptionally is just how hard it is for a rape victim to come forward, regardless of the circumstances or how much or little of a support system they have. The idea that the victim is actually raped twice, once by the perpetrator and again by the legal system and court of public opinion is agonizingly depicted as Jessica must return to Liberty and walk the same halls as her assailant, while Hannah, even in death, is continuously stripped of her dignity in a courtroom because she supposedly "wanted it."

Jessica Davis (Alisha Boe) takes the stand
The show would seem to be preaching if it didn't sketch its characters with such depth and so viscerally convey the true extent of complicity that makes any kind of justice for these victims impossible  No one wants to rock the boat and are willing to sweep anything under the rug when the careers and reputations of the school's faculty are on the line. And that's emblematic of this entire season, as kids continue suffering because of either a broken system or apathetic adults determined to maintain the status quo.

The privileged existence of Bryce Walker (who Justin Prentice plays with a terrifying smugness) contaminates everything around him, his popularity and family connections helping to protect a culture of rape and bullying that's become accepted as the norm. And the jocks follow him like sheep, covering his tracks even while we learn just how prevalent and far-reaching his crimes are. It even engulfs his new girlfriend, the almost equally popular Chlöe (Anne Winters), who remains in the dark and eventually in denial about who she's really with. When confronted with indisputable evidence, we're reminded yet again why so many rapists go free, as even those with the strength to come forward always end up sacrificing the most in the process.

One of the season's more cleverly constructed devices involves Bryce's secret "Clubhouse," where damning Polaroid photographs take the place of Hannah's cassette tapes as this season's retro tech smoking gun, providing evidence of his and the team's sexual assaults. Clay and company being able to obtain that evidence and get it into court will prove to be one of their biggest challenges.

Justin Foley (Brandon Flynn) returns to Liberty High
One of Bryce's most loyal followers was troubled childhood friend, Justin, but as his disappearance and subsequent descent into addiction prove, he can no longer bare the burden of having done nothing to help Jessica. Much of the season revolves around Clay bringing Justin back to testify, and the roadblocks preventing it. Justin's emotional instability tops the list, while also leading to one of the more unlikely, genuine friendships of the series with him and polar opposite Clay. And to a lesser extent, even his relationship with the Jensens (Amy Hargreaves and Josh Hamilton) who, along with the rest of the parents, seem more actively involved this time around.

If many of the supporting characters benefit from Hannah and Clay ceding their spotlight within this new storytelling structure, so too do the actors playing them. While Katherine Langford was heralded as the show's breakout star with her turbulent, controversial role, you could easily argue Alisha Boe continues to evolve as the show's strongest acting presence, as Jessica's fight with PTSD is brought to the surface with the pressure to out Bryce as her rapist. One of the season's powerful moments comes when she realizes that if white, girl-next-door Hannah's reputation is being dragged through the mud in court, what could happen to her, as a black girl, if she chooses to come forward?

Brandon Flynn does equally powerful work as Justin, plumbing the depths as a heroine addict with a toxic family life who leaves all traces of his former popularity alongside Bryce behind, determined to do right by Jessica, even if he destroys himself in the process. Physically, Miles Heizer's Alex is in the worst shape of all, having survived his suicide attempt only to discover the broken pieces of himself he's left for both friends and family. Barely able to walk and isolating those closest to him out of pride, his extensive memory loss limits any potentially meaningful contributions he could make in the court case.

Mr. Porter threatens Bryce
The only adult who senses the full gravity of the situation and is actively attempting to make a difference in these teens' lives is embattled guidance counselor Kevin Porter, who's torn apart by the guilt he could have done more to help Hannah when she came to his office. Derek Luke really nails the role, infusing one of last season's more frustrating, one-dimensional characters with a renewed moral compass, wrestling with the realization he's on the wrong end of this case, defending a school system that didn't do enough.

Realizing his days at Liberty are numbered and determined to clean up the school with his own form of vigilante heroics, it's clear he stopped caring about consequences a while ago, pissing off the apathetic principal and doing everything he can to take down the Bryce and his cronies. It's kind of thrilling to watch, especially his big moment of truth on the stand, which reveals what happened to Hannah was as much the school's responsibility as his, failing to provide the tools and training necessary for him to effectively do his job.

From the very start, you can almost sense these episodes heading in an ugly direction that will elicit more debate and controversy. You can argue it started at the end of last season when Devin Druid's Tyler revealed a chest full of automatic weaponry and ammunition that uncomfortably invoked everyone's worst recollections of Columbine's Harris and Klebold. We eventually see the chest again, but it's the inciting series of events surrounding Tyler throughout the season that makes its reappearance so terrifying. While the yearbook photographer was established as an eccentric loner from the series' start, harboring an unhealthy, potentially stalkerish obsession with Hannah, a dangerous combination of chronic insecurity and mistreatment soon lead Tyler down an even darker path.

Tyler Down (Devin Druid) hits rock-bottom
The Emmy-worthy Druid might have the toughest role of any actor in the cast since it isn't often we're unknowingly given a 26-episode glimpse into what both makes up and creates a school shooter. He gives us clues both subtle and obvious, until the subtlety ends and we're just left with a bathroom assault scene that rivals Hannah's suicide for sheer emotional terror.

It isn't the scene's violence that gets to to us as much as Tyler's desperation, attempting and failing to utilize the tools he was told would help him improve as a person. It seems that every time he comes close to a breakthrough, he sabotages himself. This time he didn't and actually tried to do the right thing, only to receive the worst, most humiliating punishment imaginable for his efforts. And that's what sends him over the edge.

It's natural to understand critics' and audiences' discomfort with the season-closing arc, which pushes us to feel empathy for someone we suspect is about to commit an unthinkably evil act. But there's no denying that the writers and Druid's performance attach a very specific, slow burning "how," "why," "where" "when" to it, which is far more than can be said for most depictions of senseless violence on screen. That it never gets that far only seemed to increase the criticisms, with many accusing the show of using a potential school shooting situation as cliffhanger bait. But that's missing the point.

That it's Clay, still traumatized from his inability to prevent Hannah from taking her own life, who ends up talking down Tyler makes a lot of sense since they always seemed cut from a similar cloth in how they handle perceived injustices. And anyone who thinks the show's endorsing the idea of confronting active shooter probably shouldn't be watching. This isn't a school safety training video. It's a drama that's only obligation is to its story and characters. That Netflix hasn't buckled under the pressure of politically correct resistance has served the series well, continually keeping its emotions grounded in reality, regardless of how heightened the circumstances become. 

Clay speaks at Hannah's memorial
The Hannah Baker suicide is undoubtedly put to bed in the final, powerful episode of the season, as it should be. While it's inaccurate to say that the single inciting event that most impacted and shaped all these characters and their stories could ever truly go away, it was admittedly a little awkward to have Hannah's (or rather Katherine Langford's) physical presence still occupying such a huge chunk of the series. If Clay is to continue being the show's anchor, she has to be completely gone, especially since so many of the supporting players have been developed to the point that this now revolves around them. Plus, her story's over, as Clay clearly found his own type of painful closure both at the school dance and her memorial service.

While this season wasn't as clearly defined as it's last and even a little messier, the 13 Reasons is in no need of any type of creative rehabilitation and calls for a return to first season form are not only needlessly premature, but sort of ridiculous when you consider how many more moving parts it now has. If the series has supposedly stirred up all this outrage, it's brought to the forefront just as many necessary conversations, whether people are ready to have them or not. For a show everyone claims to hate, it's sure giving us a lot to consider.