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13 Reasons Why returns with another controversial but compelling season

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Last year, Netflix original 13 Reasons Why took high schools all around the world by storm. Based on the 2007 novel, the show had all the components for a classic, binge-worthy high school show: drama, parties, romance, etc. But the show mixed in a few more ingredients- suicide, sexual assault, stalking, bullying, and more- that made for a shocking, controversial show.

Season one introduced viewers to the world of Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) and her thirteen tapes. Having endured gross mistreatment since she first joined Liberty High School, Hannah was driven to end her life. Before her death, she arranged for 13 tapes to be distributed to 13 individuals she believed contributed to the decline of her mental health; each tape corresponded to the story of one of the 13 individuals, told from Hannah’s perspective. Season one followed main character Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette) as he received the tapes and processed the suicide of the girl he loved.

Following its booming success, 13 Reasons Why announced a season two, which came out recently. Season two branches out from the tapes; the plot is now framed around the trial Hannah’s mom has pursued against the school for the role- or rather lack of role- they played in her suicide as a result of their repeated negligence.

For a story that met its end within a season, I thought the further development of the plot and characters was amazing. When a season two was announced, I was with the many who disparaged the dragging out of the show– after all, there was only one book, and it ended with the tapes. But, season two successfully tied up loose ends and continued to expand up the original 13 Reasons Why universe. For instance, I felt like the darker side of the tapes was never addressed in the first season. Objectively speaking, the tapes were a deeply emotionally manipulative thing, regardless of the atrocities exposed on them. However, I think season two helped to address that flaw in the tapes, and also the weight of suicide itself, by depicting how broken the community and its individuals truly were in the aftermath of Hannah’s passing.

With the expansion of the 13 Reasons Why world, the characters within it also experienced greater evolution. I really liked that; season one was predominantly about Hannah’s story, told by Hannah. Season two provided a platform for the other characters’ perspectives and stories, which was an interesting ride for viewers. The character development of Hannah and Clay was especially compelling as the show revealed the flawed and more human sides of its protagonists.

Moreover, I think there were things that were missed or not quite emphasized in season one that were finally acknowledged in this season: racial issues, the selfishness of suicide, and also Hannah’s crumbling mental state. Especially with that last one, season one focused perhaps too greatly on the external events occurring around and to Hannah. Yes, the things that Hannah endured were horrendous, but Hannah was clearly also dealing with internal, mental issues- like depressions and anxiety- that contributed to her eventual suicide.

But what first launched 13 Reasons Why to notoriety was its brazen- and what some might call reckless or misguided- depiction of quite heavy and delicate topics. Many denounced the show for its take on such topics as suicide and rape, especially because of the controversial and graphic nature of some of the season one scenes.

As such, I think the show creators attempted to mend some of their previous mistakes, beginning and ending each show with a reminder of where viewers can find suicide resources (13reasonswhy.info); additionally, there was an intro clip to the season advising those in crisis to refrain from watching or discuss with a trusted adult before preceding. While I’m sure the producers had good intentions, I still think there were some faults in the way the show addressed some of these topics. I understand failing to censor the portrayal of such difficult topics for the sake of inciting conversation and awareness. But in trying to preserve the authenticity of the narrative- of Hannah’s narrative- some of the characters’ actions could wrongfully be viewed as an example. The show creators were trying to tell a genuine story– so of course the character will not always do exemplary things. But with such sensitive topics being addressed with such an influential audience, that is a dangerous path to take, because what is right is not always so obviously indicated.

As for the graphic nature of season one, that was more or less topped in season two. Again, I understand the intent of little censorship, but I don’t know how I feel about its necessity. Sometimes messages can be delivered without the horrifying, explicit images.

As a whole, it was still nice to return to the show that captured the world’s attention a year ago. There’s no denying the tragedy of Hannah’s story and that of so many others like her, and despite the show’s clumsiness when addressing such awful and difficult topics, it successfully gave Hannah the voice she so sought after, and in turn, hopefully did so for many others as well.

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