13 Reasons Why season 2 delves into more difficult topics with imperfect storytelling, but it finds strength in many of its characters.
13 Reasons Why season 2 tells more about the aftermath of Hannah Baker’s death. It departs from the source material, telling a story Jay Asher never did in the book. Clay, Jessica, and everyone at Liberty High School is still trying find ways to heal. Hannah’s parents are pursuing a lawsuit against the school. The aftermath of a suicide and the backdrop of a legal case make season 2 just as heavy as the first.
Kate Walsh’s portrayal of Hannah’s mom, Olivia Baker, is easily one of the best parts of the season. She brings softness and reason to an otherwise hardened character. She balances being a friend to high school students and being a grieving mother — somehow showing both maturity and vulnerability in all her relationships. The short wig they put her in didn’t do Walsh any favors, but the rest of her character is spot on.
Clay did not come out of season 2 as well as Mrs. Baker. His arc is much messier than the other characters’. Though he was always far from perfect, he’s less good and certain than he was in season 1. And while this season doesn’t follow the book in terms of plot, this departure from Clay’s essence feels like the biggest departure from the original story. Such a strong deviation doesn’t serve the character well, especially since his goodness is what held together the first season of the show.
The rest of the characters get more life than Clay. 13 Reasons Why season 2 makes the characters more complicated. It attempts to make them more deeply flawed and more human. The growth and regression of many of the characters feel more natural than Clay’s do. Characters like Jessica, Justin, Alex, and Tony find their voices. Watching them learn is a chance for us all to learn.
This season keeps playing with the themes of season 1, asking how we impact each other’s lives. But it doesn’t answer the more important questions it sets up. How do we help those around us? How do we ask for help? How do we heal? By not addressing those questions, it lets viewers down.
With its intense subject matter, I wasn’t sure that 13 Reasons Why would ever offer viewers something as tangible as hope. But I kept waiting for some kind of catharsis in these episodes. There was not much of it. It was difficult to watch at times because it showed the characters I had come to care so deeply about in so much pain.
Like with season 1, it struggles to find the line of responsible storytelling. The show course corrects with how it handles sexual assault. Jessica’s journey shows a road to help and healing. It shows how to reach out to others. With other topics, such as guns and drug use, the show is less ready to help its viewers. I found the way it dealt with gun violence particularly lacking, and it marred my experience with the rest of the story.
Other than the characters, the real power of this show is the conversations it instigates. It brings topics to the table that we might otherwise be afraid to talk about. Whether or not it always tells its stories the right way, it starts dialogues. It can allow viewers to talk about their problems and reach out to those around them. I hope that’s the outcome of this show that survives.