On Friday, May 18, Netflix dropped the second season of 13 Reasons Why, a teen-focused drama about the 13 reasons why its main teenaged female character committed suicide. That same day, America was rocked by reports of yet another school shooting in which ten soulslost their lives. In light of the tragedy, Netflix cancelled plans Friday night for a season two premiere event because of a story arc that involves a thwarted school shooting.
Oftentimes in a write-up of a series like this, the reviewer will urge parents to watch with their children. Make no mistake, though the series is rated for mature audiences only, the target audience is clearly high-school-aged children. Few adults will have any interest in revisiting the high school years and all of its attendant emotionalism and drama. If your high-schooler is interested in watching this series, they certainly should not be permitted to watch alone — there’s a lot to process, and no child should have to process it alone – but no high-schooler should be encouraged to watch. I cannot conceive of any good that would come of watching.
Season two opens in the aftermath of Hannah’s suicide. Her parents (now divorced) have brought a lawsuit against the school for failing to protect their daughter from the bullying she was experiencing at school. Various students and members of the faculty are called in to testify, and the narration shifts throughout the series based on who is on the witness stand that day. Much of the action revolves around Clay Jenkins, who harbored a deep (unrequited?) crush on Hannah and seems to be most deeply affected by her death. He imagines her in the room with him and talks with her throughout the series as he seeks to reconcile the idealized image he held of her in his mind, and the sometimes-sordid details he learns about her through the trial.
In the first episode, student Tyler Down is called to testify. Tyler is an amateur photographer who takes pictures for the school yearbook and had arranged a private photo shoot with Hannah. Tyler became obsessed with Hannah and engaged in stalker-like behavior which eventually led to him spying on her and photographing her while she was “sexting” with another boy. When he returns to school after testifying, he is labeled a “perv” which leads to more bullying and social isolation for him. Eventually he joins up with a group of other outcasts, led by Cyrus. Together, he and Cyrus decide to settle the score on their own by calling out the hypocrites and rapists who are being protected by the school’s social caste system and by the administration itself.
As the story unfolds, other students are targeted with menacing messages and other bullying tactics, usually in connection with their time on the witness stand. Jessica Davis, another rape victim, has photos of her sexual assault posted on a classroom whiteboard. Alex Standall, who attempted suicide at the conclusion of the first season, is anonymously sent a single bullet, then later, a gun with the suggestion that he should try again. Clay is sent polaroid pictures of star athlete Bryce Walker sexually assaulting other girls. Cars are vandalized and broken into.
As Clay and his allies in the school try to prove that Bryce Walker raped Hannah, they try to persuade Jessica to go back on the witness stand to testify about her rape, but she is reluctant because of the way she was treated during cross examination her first time testifying, and her fear that if she got back on the witness stand she’d only do harm to the Baker’s suit. She is finally persuaded to go to the police to file charges against Bryce for her rape, but it is her ex-boyfriend who corroborated the rape who serves time in jail (as an accessory), while Bryce gets off with three months’ probation.
Tyler is labeled as troubled for his acts of vandalism (spray painting words like “rapists” and “hypocrites” around the athletic field and on school lockers, burning the word “rapists” on the grass) and sent to an intervention program. When he returns to school, he is rejected by his former friends, and then brutally beaten by a group of jocks in the boys’ bathroom (in retaliation for the end of their season being cancelled, for which they blame him) and then — in a shocking, gut-wrenching scene — sodomized with a mop handle. As a viewer, you share his feelings of isolation and loneliness, of hopelessness and despair. It’s also clear that things will never get better for him, and that high school will continue to be an unremitting hell for him. Ultimately, Tyler drives to the school dance with a car full of guns and ammo intending to open fire on his classmates.
Clay intervenes, talks him down and finally persuades Tyler to leave before the police show up.
Where are the adults while all this is happening? The kids never bring these things to the attention of either the police or the school authorities. Instead, they take it upon themselves to see that justice is delivered, and to hold Bryce Walker accountable for his sexual assaults. The adults in this series, if they are there at all, are either completely clueless about what’s really going on in their kids’ lives and how best to help them, completely absent, or complicit in allowing the abuse and bullying to continue.
If you need help, or know somebody you think is in need of help, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or go to www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org and Click to Chat
Before the second season debuted, Netflix rolled out a new PSA encouraging young viewers who are struggling to “reach out to a parent, a friend, a school counselor, or an adult you trust,” but that message is undermined by the series itself which conveys the message that there’s no point in seeking help, because the “system” will fail you. The rapists get off with only a slap on the wrist, and the bullying will continue indefinitely, and it’s the victims that are punished in the end.
A teenager watching this series who is already the victim of bullying or sexual abuse will not walk away from this series feeling hopeful about the future or about justice ultimately being served. There is no light at the end of the tunnel. No promise for a better future. No message of hope. Not even the suggestion that life goes on beyond high school. Even teenagers who haven’t been victims of bullying or abuse will likely feel depressed and despondent after watching.
For kids who are already on the edge, watching this second season of 13 Reasons Why could push them over.
It’s hard to imagine any positive outcome for anyone watching this second season of 13 Reasons Why. It offers no solutions. No path forward. No hope.
Netflix was advised not to air the first season. They aired it anyhow. Netflix is aware of the possible psychological impact of this series on impressionable viewers. It’s why the conclusion of every episode directs viewers to their website for mental health resources and helplines. School counselors are on high-alert in the wake of the second season release. Yet they released a season that will only add fuel to the fire of depression, suicidal ideation, or despondency potential viewers might already be experiencing. While we hope there will be no real-life consequences, after reviewing season two, we’re only left with grave concern for children who watch the show.