10 Problems with 'Thirteen Reasons Why' Season 2
Content Warning: suicide, rape, sexual assault, guns
Recently, there’s been a lot of discussion about this controversial show. Having reached success in the first season (despite a debate over the romanticising of suicide), the second season was recently released on Netflix, and what’s more, the show has been renewed for a third season. Many people have argued that it's a show that's downright dangerous to allow young people to watch, despite the show’s creators’ counter-argument that the show deals with tough topics and opens up the conversation about mental health. When I watched the first season, I could understand where the critics were coming from. Nonetheless, I thought it was a reasonably good show and that it was well-structured. Although I didn’t feel like it said anything new or profound about mental health, I had no issues that stopped me from being curious about the second season. When I did get around to watching it, I was disappointed almost immediately.
In the wake of Mental Health Awareness week, here are some of my thoughts about the show and how it could do better. Settle in, this is a longer one.
Needless to say, this post contains spoilers through seasons one and two.
In the first season Skye is introduced as Clay’s childhood friend with whom he’s mostly lost contact. It’s clear that she also struggles with her mental health but this isn’t addressed in the main plot of the story. In season two, Skye and Clay are dating and much of this sub-plot revolves around their inabilities to become physically intimate. Partly because of Clay’s continued obsession with Hannah and partly due to Skye’s self-harm. When Skye is invited for dinner with Clay and his parents, she gropes him underneath the table before they both rush upstairs in a fit of passion. Clay abruptly changes his mind about sex with Skye and she accuses him of still being in love with Hannah and unable to let her go. Given that Clay is hallucinating Hannah at this point, it doesn’t seem unfair. Skye leaves, very visibly distressed. The same night she makes a suicide attempt and is hospitalized. Clay goes to the hospital where she tells him that she needs to cut off contact with him so that she can get better. Upon another visit Clay is told by a nurse that Skye has been admitted to a residential psychiatric facility and that the situation is not about him. Instead of trusting Skye to contact him when she is emotionally and mentally able to do so, Clay repeatedly calls her against her wishes. Eventually she returns his calls and he arranges to visit. She reveals that she has bipolar disorder and has started medication. She also tells him that they need to be finished so that she can start anew and focus on getting better.
I will cover my issues with Clay’s behaviour later, so for now I’d like to look at the portrayal of Skye. She appears in the first three episodes and in one later episode (the one where Clay visits her). However, in none of her appearances does it feel like her bipolar disorder is actually represented. She cites her groping Clay under the table as a symptom of her manic episodes and I feel this is the only arguable depiction of her mental illness. In truth, it doesn’t feel like the show’s creators really made an effort to depict her illness. Given how little screen time she is given, her mental illness feels more like a box-ticking exercise than any real representation of people living with bipolar. All in all, she’s a neglected character who exists to make the show’s creators feel like they’re being enlightened and inclusive.
Where do I begin with Clay Jensen? Despite his privileged position as a protagonist, which means that he is allotted a certain amount of self-absorption, rarely have I seen such a selfish character that I was still supposed to like. He manages to make Skye’s suicide attempt about him and consistently presumes that he is the centre of everyone’s thoughts and attention. He idolizes and demonizes Hannah by turn, becoming the embodiment of the Madonna/Whore complex. While he still thinks she didn’t sleep with anyone, he adores her. The second he learns of her sexual life, he begins to slut-shame her in the same way he judges the girls in the Polaroids who seem to be having fun and posing with the baseball team. Before later being raped, something he fails to take seriously enough. Unless it's a girl he has a sexual interest in, like Hannah. He fails to acknowledge female autonomy over their own bodies and slips down the path of victim-blaming.
I recognise that Clay is also a foil for the show to deliver a half-assed message about women’s rights, but he never progresses beyond childish self-involvement. After two seasons, I didn’t feel like Clay had grown at all. He remained impulsive, petty and entitled. Admittedly, I imagine that this isn’t entirely the show’s fault, or the fault of the writing. Some of it may well be due to the lead actor’s inability to create or maintain nuanced expressions. He oscillates between sullen, confused and angry with nothing more complex or interesting in between. Then again, if he had more interesting writing to work with...
S2: E13, That scene
Without a doubt, the most controversial moment of the show. A scene which many people felt was played for shock value. This is indeed a terribly cynical attitude towards the show, but it may not necessarily be wrong. In the final episode, Tyler Down returns to school, having completed a program which successfully helped him to communicate and process his feelings in a healthy way. He is attacked in the bathroom by a group of angry athletes and sexually assaulted with a broom handle. The entire scene was uncomfortable and brutal, but that wasn’t my problem with it. My issue is that this scene felt entirely separate to everything that had gone before. It serves as a painfully obvious tool for plot progression. Rape and sexual assault should not be used gratuitously as motivation, either in the victim or in the people who care about them. And let’s face it, the entire season was built around rape.
After his assault in the bathroom, Tyler reaches for automatic weapons. When a group of the students realise Tyler's intentions to storm the school dance, Clay insists that nobody call the police (because Tyler’s life would be over) and that he go to talk to the would-be shooter himself. He runs out of the building to meet him. To start with, I can’t imagine a worse person than Clay Jensen to try and talk someone out of a violent act. If there’s anyone in the show with less chill, I can’t think of them. Furthermore, I don’t feel like the show serves anyone well by perpetuating the myth that mass shooters are misunderstood victims. If shooters were victims first and foremost, we would see similar behaviour from the people who are most abused by society; women, people of colour, LGBTQIA people. And yet, overwhelmingly, mass shooters are male and white. It feels as if the show’s creators wanted to be edgy and relevant, but failed to treat the subject with the authenticity it deserved. If, for example, there had been any mention of gun control prior to this, the show might have succeeded in opening up an all too relevant dialogue, rather than looking like it was just using shock tactics.
The “sweet, injured boy”, as he’s referred to by Hannah in season 2. Of course, Hannah is actually just a manifestation of Clay’s unconscious at this point and we already covered how I feel about Clay. But let’s not forget that the sweet, injured boy did allow his girlfriend, Jessica, to be raped as he sat outside in the hallway. Not only have the characters forgiven his actions, but the viewer is also expected to have forgiven him. Perhaps it’s because he ran away from home afterwards and became addicted to heroin. Perhaps it’s because his mother is a meth addict. Perhaps it’s because he finally did the bare minimum and testified that he witnessed a rape. In my opinion, Justin does very little to redeem himself and yet I was clearly supposed to feel some kind of sympathy for him.
Representation of Women
For a season that seemed almost entirely centred around rape and the aftermath of it, I couldn’t help but feel like the female characters were underrepresented. There are Jessica Davis, Lainie Jensen and Olivia Baker, the most prominent women. And then there are minor characters with little screen time, like Skye Miller, Sheri Holland, Courtney Crimsen, Chloe Rice, Nina Jones, Nora Walker, Carolyn Standall, Jackie, Mackenzie and Sonya Struhl, the litigator.
The most awkward moment, in my opinion, was in the final episode. Jessica is publicly addressing her rapist in court and she transforms in Hannah who gives her own account, then morphs into every single female character in the show by turn, each giving their own story of abuse. I feel this moment is intended to signify the universality of misogyny and the widespread nature of sexual abuse, but instead it highlights to me just how little the female characters have been permitted to say so far. And not just about their experience with assault. Courtney Crimsen, for example, has a role to play early on in the season. She appears on the witness stand and comes out as a lesbian. After this point where she is useful to the plot, she all but disappears from the show entirely. Such is the fate of characters like Courtney and Skye.
The Absorption of Hannah
I think it is truly a sad thing that in the second season Hannah becomes entirely absorbed by those close to her. If the show had been a bit more creative, they could have explored how someone’s death begins to eclipse their life. Or how someone’s personality is subjective and how others begin to project the things they wanted the loved one to be in life, rather than what they truly were. The show doesn’t focus on this but on the litigator’s task of demonising Hannah in order to win the case. Thirteen Reasons Why could have explored grief in a sincere way. Instead, the show fixates on the secrets Hannah kept and just how many people she had been romantically involved with. The show spends altogether too much time picking at Hannah’s love life. And, more importantly, the show focuses on how these dates and relationships have an impact on the protagonist, Clay. Hannah becomes a secondary character in her own story.
Therapy and Lack Of
For a season which appears to be based on recovery, there is no actual recovery ever depicted. The closest we get is Skye. After her suicide attempt, she is installed in a residential unit, begins medication for bipolar disorder and cuts off contact with Clay. She, presumably, recovers and learns to cope with her mental health, although the viewer never actually sees this. She doesn’t reappear in the season. Are we to infer from this that her prospects are good? She got out of the dysfunctional show. Good for her. Otherwise, we have no evidence of therapy or medication, nor any real indication that such steps would be beneficial to the characters who struggle in this season. Instead, there are awkward passing references, such as Olivia Baker’s admission to seeing a therapist and Cyrus (Tyler’s edgy friend) who has seen a therapist following his parents’ divorce. These are just not enough. Therapy in theory isn’t enough.
While the series is all about suicide and suicidal thoughts, very little time or space is given to really talking about depression. And while the disclaimers in each episode point to a list of crisis resources, nobody acknowledges the most important thing: that depression stops you from realizing you’re in a crisis. Depression lies to you and tricks you into thinking that the problem is you. Depression gags you and stops you from reaching out. Depression stops you from wanting to do the things that will make you feel better. Nobody ever acknowledges this and that is part of the problem.
Eleven Reasons Why Not
The list that Olivia Baker finds on her computer, a list that Hannah wrote, of reasons why not to die. The most problematic moment for me was Olivia’s comment that Hannah “came up just short” of enough reasons to stay alive. Wow. Where do I start? This suggests a pros and cons approach, which is a fundamentally flawed way to view suicide or mental illness. All too often, people with mental illnesses have a black-and-white world view. Everything is good, or everything is bad. For some people it becomes impossible to see goodness in the world. Furthermore, it suggests Hannah’s responsibility. It suggests blame. And blaming people who struggle with mental illness for struggling? Not good. Finally, the list itself is a plot device that has little to do with Hannah at all. Like so much else in the show, it exists for Clay’s benefit. To give him closure. He is on the list, twice, and derives comfort from it. It seems cheap to use Hannah’s suffering as a plot-point to make her would-be boyfriend feel better.
All in all, I can’t help but feel the second season of Thirteen Reasons Why would have been disappointing even without the problematic areas. But its tokenism, box-ticking and lip-service in lieu of real, hard-hitting conversation was beyond the pale for me. The issues in it exist to serve the show rather than to open dialogue or to challenge the viewer. If you’re in search of a show that really addresses mental health and depicts it in an unflinching way, I highly recommend both Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Bojack Horseman, both on Netflix at the moment. Both shows have a comedy slant, but I think that sometimes comedy can go to dark places that just aren’t accessible otherwise. For a book that discusses mental health, I heartily recommend Matt Haig's Reasons to Stay Alive.
Thirteen Reasons Why repeatedly signals that it’s about to say something important about Real Issues, but always stops just short. Wordless trauma is just a shock tactic, not a truthful representation of mental illness. Finally, I can’t help but wonder if there would have been as much trauma in the second season if season 1 hadn't outraged so many people and taken up so much space on Twitter?