Tuesday, May 22, 2018

TV review: 13 REASONS WHY season 2 (Netflix)

This blog contains spoilers for season 2 of 13 Reasons Why.

Since its release last March, 13 Reasons Why, the Netflix adaptation of Jay Asher’s novel, chronicling why High School student Hannah Baker took her own life, was met with controversy. Many people felt the show glamorised suicide, not least in the way Hannah made 13 cassette recordings with a reason and person named on each tape, to be listened to by the people who contributed to her decision to commit suicide. In season 1, the characters named on the tape, unsurprisingly, were wracked with guilt and recriminations over who was ‘most’ culpable, flew between the accused.

Season 1 of 13 Reasons Why was a self-contained mystery, with each episode dedicated to each of the reasons listed. There were flashbacks reconstructing the events mentioned on the tapes, as Clay, a close friend of Hannah’s who had been madly in love with her tries to recall the events (he is named on the eleventh tape) tried to piece together a timeline. Ending the show with the final episode of season 1 would have been a bleak but suitable coda, and done right by the book.

Whilst that would have left some issues unresolved (such as the fate of Bryce Walker, the football captain who rapes Hannah and her friend Jessica, and is the cause of much of her despair) by closing the show there, which may seem unsatisfying to some viewers, ultimately, the show is called ’13 Reasons Why’, so presenting each of the reasons, and them as a standalone, would have made for a satisfying mystery show.

But due to the show’s popularity, it was renewed for a second season, meaning that the writers of the show couldn’t go back to the book for inspiration, and had to invent new storylines.

The main plotline of series 2 is the continuing court case of Hannah’s parents vs Liberty High School. The school are being sued for not taking good enough care of their students, and recognising that Hannah was fragile and at risk of hurting herself. Several of the characters that take the stand to testify in favour of the Bakers are the characters named on the tapes. For some of the characters who committed lesser transgressions against Hannah, this plot device offers a window of deliverance, giving them a chance to make right their slights against Hannah.

Courtney Crimson, one of Hannah’s classmates, had closetly had feelings for her, but, when photos of the two sharing a drunken kiss were released, Courtney said Hannah had kissed her. At this point, Hannah was already gaining a reputation for being a ‘slut’, so Courtney’s claim added fire to hurtful and inaccurate slurs on Hannah’s virtue.

Up on the witness stand, Courtney admits to her lie, apologises and admits that despite all the terrible things said against her and Courtney’s betrayal, Hannah never resorted to outing Courtney. It’s a powerful moment of a character admitting who they are to themselves, as well as seeking atonement for the part they played in an unrepairable tragedy.

Unfortunately, for the most part, having the court case and characters re-telling their recollections of Hannah adds things to the plot which are at odds with Hannah’s account on the tapes, and have very little continuity what was presented to us on the tapes. For example, Zach Dempsey, another popular jock, was named one on of the tapes because he hid anonymous compliments that had been placed in Hannah’s locker. When testifying, it turns out that, after his slight against her, Zach had found Hannah, apologised, and the two had a whole summer romance, where they lost their virginities to each other.

In this case, I believe Hannah should have long forgiven and forgotten Zach’s childish prank (which, in the grand scheme of things, wasn’t anywhere near as heinous as what Bryce did to her, or the photographer who leaked photos of her and Courtney kissing, say). So her secret relationship, revealed this season, merely makes Hannah look petty and unable to let things go, rather than enriching her version of the story.

Another shortcoming of season 2 is that there is little propulsion behind the plot. The court case drags on, whilst at school, characters soul-search about Hannah. This was trying enough as it was in season 1, as there was discourse back and forth about Hannah being a drama queen, the fact that she blew things out of proportion, etc. But at least in season 1, the tapes were unfolding episode-by-episode, so there was enough dramatic thrust keeping me interested.

Due to the criticism about the way series 1 romanticised suicide, particularly how the show presented Hannah slitting her wrists (the pivotal 13th episode where she does so, was rated 18 due to it showing her carrying out vertical wrist-slitting, which is considered an ‘imitable technique’ by the BBFC due to its efficacy), the second series has clamped down hard on any suggestions that suicide is the answer.

While its heart is in the right place, the execution is sloppy. Lines are written for characters that are far too ‘after-school special’-sounding, and lack veracity. In one scene, Justin Foley says, ‘no matter how bad it got, I always wanted to live’. Given that Justin was born into hardship that even Charles Dickens couldn’t envision: a drug addict mother who was too busy shooting up to take care of him, he ran away, lived on the streets and fell into heroin addition, such an assertion feels a bit contrived.

Whilst the writing on the show is questionable, the acting has uniformly improved. 13 Reasons Why’s ensemble cast have to do their share of emoting, angst and despair, and everyone gives impressive, convincing performances. The standout is Kate Walsh as Mrs. Baker, Hannah’s grieving mother who is living a nightmare but trying to hold it together for the memory of her daughter. The actress is given more material this season to exhibit her dramatic chops, and she really captures the heartbreak of a parent who has lost a child and is desperate to bridge the pain that has caused.

Of the teenagers, I was most impressed by Brandon Flynn as the troubled Justin, who ran away at the end of season 1 out of guilt for enabling Bryce to rape his girlfriend Jessica. Flynn nimbly thumbnails how a former High School ‘golden boy’ has descended into his own personal hell following a stream of bad decisions. When he gets a longer sentence than Bryce for accessory to sexual assault, the character shrugs, ‘it’s what I expected’, given his fractured home life. There is a powerful scene where Clay asks Justin if he’d want to be adopted by Clay’s parents, and Brandon’s raw, heartfelt reaction moved me to tears.

Amongst many other things, 13 Reasons Why is a thesis on the saying that ‘a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth can put its pants on’. This motif was also explored in the 2010 comedy Easy A, where its protagonist, Olive, had her name sullied, despite not actually having done anything scandalous. Now, I know 13 Reasons Why and Easy A aren’t directly comparable (one’s a straight-faced drama, the other’s a comedy, not the mention Olive doesn’t endure half the awful things Hannah did), but what these two illustrate is that adage, ‘life’s a tragedy for those who feel, a comedy for those who think’.

Judging from the final episode of season 2, the show clearly wishes to stay mired in tragedy.

Starting optimistically, Jessica has found the strength to go to the police about being raped by Bryce, and whilst his wealth and privilege afford him a risible 3 months probation as punishment, she still feels stronger for acting. The majority of the characters have learned from Hannah’s tragic death, acknowledging just how toxic the High School environment gets when cruelty begets cruelty.

In one of the show’s most touching moments, Hannah’s mum gives Clay a piece of paper titled ‘Reasons Why Not’. Clay is on twice. The page, the words on it, and the actor's exquisite broken reaction to reading it really captured all of the pathos of the show, in a rewarding moment of emotional catharsis.

Any glimmers of hope these brief moments of redemption offered are undercut by the show’s producers needing to sustain dramatic tension for the third season. In doing so, the show (and its writers) do Tyler Down, the originally ‘creepy photographer’ who showed a more sensitive side this season, so dirty. At the end of season 1, we saw Tyler had a cache of firearms, a literal Chekov’s gun, if there ever was one.

Due to his anarchic behaviour this season, which traverses blackmailing Marcus (a boy who had groped Hannah on their date and them shamed her for not putting out), to vandalising the school fields, causing the baseball season to be cancelled, he was put on a corrective system. On return to school, Tyler says he’s better, and that genuinely seems to be true.

That is until Monty, one of the school bullies, and two other jocks, brutally assault him in the bathroom. The two goons push Tyler's head down a toilet whilst Monty rapes him with a broom. The sight of the broom head be forcefully pushed up his bum causes the viewer visceral distress, and the  way the broom is covered in blood after leaves no ambiguity about how much pain was inflicted. It’s a shocking, aversive moment, the show’s most horrifying to date (and 13RW has no lack of disturbing moments), and several critics have queried whether it was necessary for a show intended for teenagers to contain such strong visual detail.

Tyler’s fragile mindset, particularly given how hard he had tried to improve, only for his efforts to be thrown back in his face in the most appalling manner by some school bullies, is the fuel for his planned school shooting, something which is particularly resonant given America is currently still reeling from the tragic Sante Fe school shooting.

Fortunately, in this case, casualties are spared when Clay intervenes. Throughout his listening to Hannah’s tapes in season 1, Clay had exhibited somewhat of a saviour complex, and there was a self-aggrandising element to his love for the dead girl which I found way too indulgent. But in this precarious moment, he is exactly the saviour Tyler needs, talking him out of carrying out the attack.

The season finale captures all of my problems with 13 Reasons Why in a microcosm. I commend the show’s writers for broaching difficult subjects such as rape, bullying, school shootings, toxic masculinity, loneliness, homophobia, depression, substance abuse, etc. I think it was important that the show showed that victims of sexual assault can be male or female, and that rape is not about sex, but the power, particularly taking the power away from the victim (credit to Devin Druid’s heartbreaking performance as broken kid in the finale). And the way Tyler was tipped over the edge by the rape is a chilling lesson that someone could be ostensibly doing OK, but one heinous act will push them over the edge. And then, who knows what they're capable of?

But the portrayal of the rape was way too graphic (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’s revenge rape scene looked tame by comparison), and the way the writers stockpiled all these upsetting evils on one poor character, just to have him contemplate shooting the school, before being talked out of it, was artificial and overly-staged.

As the show’s executive producer Selena Gomez trills on ‘Kill Them with Kindness’, one of the songs on the show's soundtrack, ‘the world can be a nasty place’. It is laudable that 13 Reasons Why doesn’t shy away from the nastiness that modern teenagers face at High School. But with their sensationalist, often heavy-handed treatment of certain issues in an unnecessary season 2 of the show, they’ve created more questions than they have answers.



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Unknown said...

I totally agree. The actor who played Justin gave a really strong performance.

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