13 Reasons Why dropped their second season on Netflix a couple weeks ago and I've had quite a few people ask for my opinion on it. If you're unfamiliar with the show, it's a Netflix original that centers around the suicide of a high school girl and how peers, friends and other families struggle with the loss.
Before I jump into it, it's important to give a heads up that there will be spoilers in this post.
My goal here isn't to post a general review on what I expect out of television. Instead, it's to help parents of preteens and teens understand what their kids have likely already finished watching. This show is a perfect starting point for blogging on tv/film because this season was extremely troubling and it will be coming back for a third season. Here are the biggest problems (in my opinion) this season faced that parents should be aware of.
1. The Target Audience.
This season, we really can't tell who the target audience is. For the most part, when programs use teenagers (or 20-something year old actors playing teenagers) as the main characters, they are targeting a preteen/teen audience. This is not new and not something you should be surprised by. Sure, we adults tend to jump into shows like Riverdale, Pretty Little Liars or Vampire Diaries, but most would consider it a guilty pleasure, admit that it can get cheesy and acknowledge that they don't portray serious situations or reality. 13 Reasons Why uses all of the commonly used techniques that usually point to preteens/teenagers being the target demographic like viewing situations from teenagers' perspectives, high color saturation with lots of contrast, lack of parental involvement, and an adult versus teenager mindset. All signs point to this being a show for teenagers, and this is where it gets tricky. This season is absolutely targeted towards parents. This season, we see more from adult perspectives (a huge clue that there's been a shift). The parents get more air time alongside their children and have substantially more dialogue. It feels like this entire season can be boiled down to one overarching theme: a message to parents that these situations are very much within the realm of reality and require action within the family beyond telling your preteen/teenager to simply get over it or discounting their concerns. The trouble, of course, is that while this season seems blatantly targeted towards parents, it's still set up as a show watched by teens. This dissonance creates a mess of mixed messages.
2. The Ability to Verbally Process
This season, even with the ridiculous plot line of the trial (because we all know that wouldn't happen, right?), the dialogue attempted to act as a guide in portraying healthy conversation between both parents and their children. This is again where it gets a bit divisive. On one hand that's actually a fantastic thing — we need more programming that helps guide parents on how to open up healthy discussions about what is happening in their kids’ lives, both inside and out of school. Having content that portrays such serious topics through a teenager’s perspective could potentially open some adults’ eyes to the fact that there are very real and relevant problems, and most teenagers aren't sure how to process it. 13 Reasons Why allows parents to see the potentially life changing conversations that could happen rather than dismissing their feelings as simple teenage angst. The trouble here is that the dialogue is just so raw that it becomes unrealistic. It almost becomes laughable how well these teenagers are able to discuss their feelings and verbally process some incredibly heavy topics while also working through conflict within community. The lack of consistency and an ability to understand their feelings (let alone verbally work through them with others) is one of the things that makes preteens and teenagers so complex. While these portrayals have the potential to be a guide for both parents and peer-to-peer conversations, there’s also a likelihood for teenagers to feel frustration and guilt when they aren’t able to communicate their feelings so articulately.
3. Tyler’s Rape Scene.
Each episode this season begins with a TV-MA warning. The first couple of episodes, I appreciated it but couldn't really figure out what brought it to that rating. By the time the season finale rolled around, I had all but forgotten or had ignored these warnings. In this episode, Tyler is cornered in a bathroom by 3 boys who smash his face into the mirror, slam his head against the sink multiple times and then proceed to bend him over the toilet where he is sodomized with a wooden mop handle. It comes out of nowhere, it doesn't pan away or even cut to black with a scream. It's a brutal, graphic and bloody scene that I still can't fully make up my mind on whether it was completely necessary to include. Regardless, it's important that adults know of it and what to expect.
4. The School Principal (and what he represents)
I understand that it's a common practice for school officials to protect their star athletes. Whether it be through tipping off on drug tests, test banks or just looking the other way here and there, we all know it happens. I just hate that in a world where we are trying to encourage young men and women to ask for help if they need it, that the show actually perpetuates doubt against school officials and how they care for their students. The school counselor who Hannah had come to before her suicide is racked with guilt and determined to make both himself and the school system better throughout the season. Unfortunately, although he had an awakening of sorts within his career and the importance of his job, the season wraps up with him being fired for placing blame on the school system during his court testimony. Not only is he fired by the clearly untrustworthy principal, but the series finishes this plot line on an ambiguous note where the counselor hands the principal files of students who should be looked into further and could be considered a risk. We’ve seen nothing but shady and egotistical behavior from this principal (which alone is an issue) so leaving these student names in his hands with no resolution is all but implying they won’t be looked into any further.
5. The Lack of Asking for Help from Adults or Authority Figures
This one really gets me going. For a show that prides itself on portraying realistic situations, the show runners do a pretty terrible job of showing what it’s like to ask for help. What pops up in episode one and continues throughout the entire season is Clay’s fixation on Hannah’s death which escalates to full on hallucinations. This would have been an excellent opportunity to help break the stigma of counseling and emphasize the importance of talking to someone after a traumatic event in your life. Did they? Nope. Instead, we follow Clay and others involved in the trial as they are being threatened in regards to their upcoming testimonies. We’re talking real threats, too. The kind that end in police reports. Clay is run off the road by a car while driving his bike; Alex receives a gun and a bullet in a mysterious package; Zach’s sister’s life is threatened, and of course Tyler gets beaten and raped. These are just the big ones that stick out in my head. Not one of the students ever called the police or even let their parents know what was happening, even when parents showed concern. Showing teens reject the idea that parents and authority figures can help them in these (or any) situations is so dangerous in my opinion. While this season does such an excellent job of guiding parents on how to open up a dialogue with their teen, it communicates to teens that while your parents may try to help, it's probably best to not involve them. Sure, you can talk to your peers about it, but goodness, let your parents know if your life or someone else’s life is in danger!
6. Clay’s Handling of the Potential Shooting
This one still falls under the umbrella of the previous point, but the entire scene is just so angering that I’m counting it as its own. The season ends with Tyler heading to the school dance with a bag full of guns and an automatic rifle around his shoulder. One of the students at the dance receives a text from Tyler that makes his intentions clear. We don't see the text and it's implied that she is the only one who receives it. She then shows it to the same crowd of kids who have already deemed parents and authority figures of no help throughout the series and then — I kid you not — Clay delivers what is arguably the most damaging lines of the entire season. He loudly exclaims “no police” over the group and says that “this will ruin Tyler’s life” if police are called. Again being the pseudo-savior of this show, he gives directions to lock the doors and insists that he will go talk to Tyler. Just let that sink in for a minute. Beyond the obvious issues with refusing to call the police, Clay’s decision sends a message that he is somehow able to change Tyler’s decision. Sure enough, Clay ends up with an automatic rifle pressed against his forehead a couple of times before successfully being able to talk him down. To be fair, as a show that seems to pride itself on pushing the boundaries when it comes to portraying traumatic situations, I’m actually relieved that they didn’t end the episode with a school shooting. However, verbalizing Clay's refusal to call the police and then showing him, as a mere acquaintance, talking Tyler down is harmful and careless. If this were reality, Clay would be dead alongside the majority of his peers.
7. Placing Blame
This season follows a jury trial that takes place when Hannah's parents (primarily her mom) sues the school for lack of action around her daughter's death and for creating an atmosphere of bullying and rape while then protecting those offenders. I get the emphasis on justice and I appreciate that the show took that route rather than looking for revenge. I also understand that this season is about still about why Hannah killed herself. However, almost every student who testifies is asked at some point whether Hannah’s death is directly their fault. I’m pretty sure the defense lawyer should be footing the bill for each one of those kid’s therapy sessions after asking them these kind of manipulative and downright mean statements where they suggest that Hannah ended her life as a direct result of their actions. The ruling ends up in the school's favor which again, I appreciated. It's still unclear how our schools play a role in teen suicide and I appreciate the show runners for not taking a firm stance on such a grey area. Still, I hate that these students are each asked if their actions led to Hannah's death. If you're a parent of a teen, it's highly likely that your son or daughter has either known someone who took their own life or know someone who was directly affected by it. Even rational adults will question their own efforts in how they treated someone who was suffering. To show teenagers being confronted (by an adult, mind you) with questions on what they could have done differently and how they could have potentially saved Hannah's life is heartbreaking to watch. Not seeing those points immediately counteracted by discussion on mental illness or depression is downright angering.
Later on in the season, Tyler drops a line that I wish would have had more publicity and not been lost in the chaos that followed. While acknowledging that bullying would likely happen upon his return to school, he told the (new) school counselor that he understands that there are things he cannot change, but he is in control of his actions and no one else’s. Then, of course, that line is all but forgotten after his rape when he makes the choice to not only exclude all adults from his pain but makes the decision to kill his classmates. So, even though the character preemptively takes on any blame for his actions, the implication from the show is that his attackers are the ones that pushed him over the edge. The stigma surrounding mental illness and needing help is a serious issue. I would have liked to have seen the characters more openly discuss what they could not have changed about Hannah's suicide or Tyler's rampage. Implying that teens have such control over whether these tragedies happen is potentially dangerous and allows for all kinds of misguided guilt to come to the surface when they actually do happen.
8. Drug Use/Recovery
When it's decided that Justin should testify to help their case against the school, Clay makes the call to go pick him up off of the streets of Oakland and hides him in his bedroom. Here, Justin proceeds to go through withdrawals from black tar heroin. Yep. Just a casual thing that Clay is somehow able to keep under the radar from his parents for a few days. Even though Justin’s story ends with him relapsing and using again, the portrayal of the drug abuse is minimized in that his withdrawal period is maybe a week long. He's snappy a couple of times but overall still well mannered, and thinking pretty clearly. At no point do any of the friends who are aware of Justin's presence suggest going into any sort of program or finding accountability outside of their social circle. Sure, I guess the parents would likely have suggested some sort of program or even rehabilitation center, but in classic fashion, they are completely unaware. It's no doubt harmful to imply (to teenagers) that getting through addiction is easy and that as long as you have a couple of good friends and a family, you'll be ok, but they didn't stop there. At one point, Alex finds Justin on Clay's bed with a tourniquet around his arm and a needle hanging out of it. He then becomes aware that Justin is beginning to asphyxiate from his vomit. Drug abuse is again minimized because the takeaway from this scene isn't even about the overdose. It's about the fact that Alex was able to push himself physically in order to turn Justin over, preventing his death. Justin's drug abuse and rehabilitation is portrayed poorly throughout the season and it's even more frustrating that treatment is seemingly ignored.
9. The Lack of Cyber Bullying
This could really fall under the umbrella of the target audience confusion or become a moment when it's terribly obvious that this is pointed at parents. There is close to no social media brought into the bullying conversation. Absolutely no mention of Snapchat which is where the majority of teen conversations take place. No direct mention of Instagram or even inclusion of a live video stream. Sure, I understand that neither parents nor school officials really know how to handle online bullying, but it was so rarely brought into the conversation that it created some inconsistencies. When Jessica is testifying, she gives an almost laughable line about how her peers created a Facebook group with the sole intention of talking about her. If you're unsure why this is so ridiculous, it's because that's not even within the realm of an accurate depiction of how cyber bulling takes place. It happens on Snapchat when you're left unread, it happens when friends post a picture and tag everyone but one person to intentionally leave them out, it happens when students create fake accounts in order to see profiles and it happens when people open themselves up to anonymous messaging apps like Sarahah (which, by the way, is still being used by teens). It likely doesn't happen much through a Facebook group. I understand why they did this and honestly, it makes sense. It's an obvious grab at adults watching, because while parents may not get social media as a whole, they definitely understand Facebook. Opening up the world of online bullying in the show would then need tutorials for each platform that is discussed. So, again, I understand the choice to leave out most social media and to even include one that isn't being used by teens. I just think that this kind of harassment is so prevalent and to have a show where the characters are so openly discussing the consequences and pain that bullying brings about without acknowledging how often it takes place behind a screen is a disservice to both parents and teens.
The show as a whole isn't great. Rotten Tomatoes gives this season a 26% which is low enough to not even be considered to have a split audience. Still, people are watching it. It creates buzz and depression/suicide is currently a hot topic in our world.
I encourage parents to be aware and take an interest in what your children are watching. Summer is a time of freedom and it's easy to enjoy that freedom by binge watching an entire series in a couple days. While it has some highs, I personally believe that this season does more harm than good in regards to what teens can take away from it. Be ready to talk about it and more than anything, make sure your preteen or teenager knows that you're there for them and always willing to listen.