Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Season 2 of 13 REASONS WHY is a different show, but still emotionally powerful

For my 13-part series discussing the first season of 13 REASONS WHY, go here.

Don't worry - I don't think I can get 13 distinct posts out of the new season of 13 REASONS WHY, but I am going to be talking about it this week, starting with this broad review - and I assure you, I've taken great care with this to discuss the high points of the season without including any spoilers that would ruin the experience.

Last season ended with Clay listening to the last of the tapes Hannah Baker made before her suicide, seemingly answering all questions as to why she took her life. (And showing us those heartbreaking moments in painful detail.) He confronted the counselor who failed to act on her suicidal behavior and got Bryce Walker, the star athlete who raped Hannah, to admit to that act on tape. Hannah's parents were delivered copies of the tapes, at last getting a window into what preceded the worst weeks of their lives, and Clay reached out to a depressed friend, Skye, literally driving off into the sunset with her.

It could have ended there, even with the two loose threads of creepy photographer Tyler stockpiling guns and the suicide attempt of Alex, both of who were named on the tapes as reasons Hannah killed herself. I wrote last year of these loose threads:

"If that's foreshadowing a school shooting story, I'm gonna get nervous. Part of the appeal of season one is how universal many of the traumas felt. If we get to school shootings and rape trials in season two, a little bit of that verisimilitude gets lost and this could become just another teen drama. As a writer, I get the appeal of "13 Reasons Why... I shot up my school" though."

Welcome to Season 2, where indeed there are stretches where the reality is slightly heightened from what we experienced last season. At times it DOES feel like "just another teen drama," albeit a well-written and exceptionally well-performed and produced one. To be fair, this was pretty much the only option if the show was to evolve out of its old model

Season one had a tight focus, using Clay's journey through Hannah's tapes as its spine. Half of an episode was devoted to Hannah's fall while the other half was Clay's reaction to what he learned, which spilled over into smaller threads involving Hannah's parents and their plan to bring a lawsuit against the school, as well as other students determined to stop Clay from completing the tapes. Despite all that the show explored, Hannah's suicide was always the core, explored from both sides, with the emotional heart coming from the love story between Hannah and Clay.

In contrast, season 2 splits its focus amongst multiple subplots that make this more of an ensemble than season 1. The Bakers' lawsuit against the school goes to trial, which makes for the most unifying thread of all the stories, as the subjects of the tapes take the stand and testify about Hannah, often bringing new details that they remember differently from Hannah, or in some cases, that Hannah didn't disclose at all.

Most of the divergences from what we know of Hannah's story seem to play fair. I've seen some fans react to season 1 with the notion that any time a character's version of events didn't match Hannah's, that meant that she lied on the tapes. It's a notion that overlooks the idea that they other person's recollection is just as subjective and that Hannah is only telling the story as she experienced it. Most of what season 2 adds to Hannah's story fleshes out some relationships in ways that ring true - though two major discoveries (which I won't reveal here and will handle in later posts) threaten to change not only what we knew of Hannah, but also undermine some of the most resonant aspects of season 1.

Katherine Langford's participation isn't limited to just these flashbacks this time around, and by the end of the first episode, she's appearing to Clay as a sort of ghost. Ghost-Hannah personifies his developing conflicted feelings about the Hannah he thought he knew and the new truths he's discovering. Yes, it's a conceit to keep the excellent Langford around and in scenes with Dylan Minnette, but it works. At first, Hannah haunting Clay threatens to become too cute a concept, but in the back half of the run, Clay allows himself to feel more anger at Hannah, and an even later use of Hannah's ghost in an intense episode soon before the finale delivers a Minnette/Langford scene that's as haunting and heartbreaking as some of their best work last year. (Their interaction in the finale is about as perfect a conclusion to Season 1 as one could hope.)

Wisely, the writers never stray from the idea that whatever ghost-Hannah says is a figment from somewhere in Clay's mind. She represents whatever side of Hannah that Clay is fixated on, someone to confront with the hard questions that he can't really know the answers to. And her appearances remind us just how much what Clay experienced last year has left some permanent psychological scars.

Though Minnette and Langford both delivered Emmy-worthy work last season, the clear breakout was Langford, in her first major role. This year, it's Dylan Minnette who's leading the charge through the emotional grinder, with Clay's breakdown over the course of the season. I suspect he'll be overlooked again, but he has to go to some dark places this year. His journey alone makes this season worth it.

Season one trained us to expect that Minnette, Langford and Kate Walsh would break our hearts. One of the delights of season two is how every returning supporting player has raised their game. Alisha Boe is the standout among this faction of the cast, as her character Jess deals with the aftermath of her rape last season.

Also excellent is Justin Prentice as Bryce Walker, who is so good at being the intersection of white privilege and toxic masculinity that it could typecast him for years. Alternately charming and chilling, Prentice plays Bryce as the cool jock everyone wants to be while effortlessly letting the monster he is peek through the mask now and then.

Miles Heizer's Alex is dealing with memory loss after surviving his suicide attempt, and the frustrations that come with it and his relationship with Jess both play one of the season's core themes of healing. Ajiona Alexus is another returning actor who gets meatier material this year as Sheri and really stands out for it. Ross Butler brings some welcome depth and conflict to Zach, a jock who faces the struggle of being a nice guy amid a social group of sociopaths, and I underestimated Brandon Flynn, who gets a pretty powerful arc that takes him from Clay's adversary to ally and carries material I wouldn't have expected him to handle after season one.

Christian Navarro's Tony seems to get less interaction with Clay this time around, in a story that deals mostly with his anger management issues, but he really shines in scenes where he gets to play his devotion to Hannah. And I can't forget Sosie Bacon's Skye, who becomes the first overt echo of Hannah's problems in a season full of them.

Plotwise, I wasn't too far off-target with some of my guesses. One of my private suppositions was that Clay and Skye might get involved in a relationship out of his desire to prevent another suicide, but that they ultimately were too different and Clay might find himself guilted into staying with her out of fear that leaving her would trigger another depression. It seemed like an interesting dilemma that could grow out of his survivor's guilt. It's probably also a bit obvious, which is season 2 front-loads this story and doesn't spend too much time dwelling on it.

The trial storyline unfortunately locks Kate Walsh's character into a plot where she ends up playing many of the same emotional beats as season one. She has more screen time, but a lot of it is eaten up looking tense at the plaintiff's table in the courtroom. When they hand her the ball, she drives it into the end zone, though, as with one moment where she recalls offering Hannah advice on her appearance and now laments, "Why couldn't I just tell her she was beautiful?"

For the first two-thirds of the show, the trial works better as a device to interrogate the players on the stand than it does in reshaping our opinions about Hannah. In particular, great use is made of Clay's more questionable tactics in season one, when his shadier actions compromise him on the stand and his anger at making things worse for Hannah leads him to do something that may be his most ill-advised action yet.

The Bryce Walker storyline soon expands to reveal a years-long buried history of sexual assaults involving the top jocks at school. Clearly taking its cue from rape cases like the Stubenville High School events, the show explores it as a mystery-thriller. Related to this are a series of mysterious Polaroids left for Clay, telling him "HANNAH WASN'T THE ONLY ONE." Someone seems to be targeting several of the people on the tapes, threatening them physically and with notes. This show isn't totally built to be a thriller in this way, and some of the creaks show now and then in the first 2/3 of the arc. Where it ends up is pretty effective, though.

Less successful is the running subplot surrounding the bullied Tyler. I've enjoyed the irony that this is a series about someone who was bullied and about how many of the characters learn they need to be more empathetic... and then proceed to shit all over Tyler at every turn. Not that Tyler hasn't done some stuff to earn their disgust, but it's interesting to see the "Be careful of people's feelings" get harder to follow when the victim isn't a pretty and charismatic teenage girl. But the fact remains that Tyler just isn't as compelling as some of the other characters and so his evolution into a potential school shooter becomes one of the season's lesser threads.

Throughout the season, the show finds ways to engage with criticisms levied at it. One scene threatens to make the subtext into text, as the school principal speaks of the damage that Hannah's tapes could do if people see them as empowering, while Clay counters that Hannah's suicide has started a much-needed conversation about things no one was talking about. In other occasions, Hannah's motivations for making the tapes is called out. Did she want revenge? Or was she just trying to tell her story? Did she lie? The show presents a counterargument to many criticisms of it without pretending there are easy answers, and without seeming too defensive.

And importantly, the show explores many alternatives to suicide - through Jessica's story and her friendship with another rape survivor, through Alex's recovery from his attempt, through Skye, through the grief of everyone touched by what Hannah did. If season one started a conversation, season two definitely makes an effort to deepen it in a way that should redress much of what people found missing the first time around.

Overall, while season two hits some powerful emotional heights, it's by design less often less intimate and personal than season one was.  One of the major exceptions to this is the season finale, which feels like an almost-perfect conclusion to two seasons of story. For those who find parts of season two too great a departure from the first, the finale binds everything together in a way worthy of the best episodes of season one.

There's a genuine sense of closure to a lot of character arcs in the finale. Minnette and Langford again share some powerful scenes where Clay finally sorts out his feelings about Hannah. If that doesn't reduce you to tears, a late callback to a significant moment from season one should melt even the most hardened heart. Without giving too much away, I'd argue THAT scene would have been the perfect conclusion to this episode and the series.

I don't know where a season three of this show can go, or even IF the show could go own, but this is a group of performers and creators who I will make a point to follow for a long time to come.

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