When Netflix announced last summer that it had renewed the popular teen series 13 Reasons Why, many wondered if another season was altogether necessary. It's true that the series, which was adapted from Jay Asher's young adult novel of the same name, was one of the most popular, if also controversial, series of 2017. It's also true that the show earned a must-see label for the way it explored the complexities of grief and guilt in the wake of Hannah Baker's (Katherine Langford) heartbreaking suicide. But there was also a definitive ending to the story both on the page and onscreen, and based on the show's sophomore follow-up, which premiered on the streaming service May 18, it's clear that a second season was less about having more story to tell than it was about making money.
Without Asher's novel to act as a guide, the sophomore outing of 13 Reasons Why is at best unmoored and at worst misguided. The second season lacks the nuance and emotional intelligence that made the first season if not an addicting watch, certainly a necessary one. A school shooting that has been teased since the end of Season 1, for instance, never transpires (thankfully), but the storyline ends with Clay (Dylan Minnette) protecting the potential shooter and helping him escape before law enforcement arrives. What kind of message does this actually send?
Meanwhile, Jessica's (Alisha Boe) sexual assault arc actually does a decent job of portraying a survivor's journey toward personal healing, but it's still problematic. It's also overshadowed by the show's insistence its focus is still Hannah Baker. The series' many weaknesses become more apparent as the season progresses, eventually revealing an obvious but perhaps overlooked truth: the true measurement of success for an adaptation like 13 Reasons Why, or even Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale and HBO's Big Little Lies, is its ability to successfully move beyond its source material.
The second season of 13 Reasons Why struggles out the gate to successfully build upon the narrative of Season 1. Its two mysteries — who's sending Clay the ominous polaroids and who is threatening students into silence in the courtroom? — aren't developed enough to add much depth to the show's ongoing arcs. The writers eventually resort to simply retconning Season 1 storylines to fit the new version of the story they want to tell. The introduction halfway through the season of a lengthy but secret sexual relationship between Hannah and sort of nice guy Zach (Ross Butler), for instance, is shoehorned in and then explained away with the excuse that most of the show's characters, including Clay, who remains viewers' entry point to the story in Season 2, were out of town at the time it happened.
The show's revisionist history is worrisome certainly, but it's also merely a symptom of a larger problem: the writers' aforementioned refusal to let Langford, and thus Hannah, move on. In addition to her appearance in new flashbacks, Hannah appears to Clay throughout the season, often engaging him in conversation, even when others are around. Is she a ghost? Is she a manifestation of his guilt? Or is she a delusion, the result of a psychotic break? The series is comfortable letting viewers decide for themselves, but the decision to bring Langford back full-time, and in this particular way — 13 Reasons Why is far too serious and grounded for this to actually work — really just highlights how little story was actually left to tell.
It's something fans of Big Little Lies should also be paying attention to, because the show, currently filming its second season, could find itself in a similar situation. Many have wondered if Emmy winner Alexander Skarsgard, whose character Perry Wright is revealed to be the person killed in Season 1, will return for the show's sophomore outing. Given that Perry was married to Nicole Kidman's Celeste and his abuse of her played a major role in her life, it makes sense Skarsgard might appear in flashbacks. However, it's also possible to explore how Celeste, her children, and the rest of the small but wealthy community they call home move on or move beyond Perry's death without also bringing Skarsgard back to play a ghost or a manifestation full-time. It's important that writers recognize that it's possible for a character's lingering presence to still be felt without them physically appearing.
13 Reasons Why's attempt to recreate the format and structure of Season 1, in which Hannah's tapes explaining her actions acted as the narration for all 13 episodes, is also a major issue for the series. Season 2 is set against the backdrop of Hannah's grieving parents (Kate Walsh and Brian d'Arcy James) suing the school over her death, and the writers use the testimonies of whomever is on the stand in any given episode, be it a fellow student or an adult employed by the school, as that episode's narration.
Ignoring the fact the show's courtroom scenes frankly do little to excite or draw viewers in, very few, if any, of these voiceovers actually work as they are intended, because they ultimately reveal very little of actual consequence to the viewer. They promise to uncover previously unseen sides of Hannah, but with a few exceptions, like Zach's history with Hannah or the revelation that Clay and Hannah once did drugs together, many of the testimonies only reveal to the court information to which viewers are already privy. Compare all this to how the Hulu drama The Handmaid's Tale is handling its own ongoing narrative arcs in its second season and the superfluous nature of 13 Reasons Why's becomes even more apparent.
In its second season, The Handmaid's Tale is using the groundwork laid out in Season 1 to further develop characters and thus deepen its world through flashbacks that reveal instead of revise or repeat. In the second episode of the season, viewers witness the tragic circumstances of how Alexis Bledel's Emily, who was a queer married college professor before the fall, came to be a handmaid after she was denied the chance to leave the country with her wife and child because her marriage was no longer viewed as valid.
And since Emily was sent to the previously unseen Colonies last season, the show's sophomore follow-up is able to spend time in the toxic wasteland where women convicted of crimes are sent to die. This gives Emily room to grow and change in response to what has happened to her since the country fell apart and Gilead rose up in its place. This is what should be happening to the teen characters on 13 Reasons Why, but very few are given the opportunity to truly and properly address what's happened to them, at least initially.
Perhaps one of the reasons the show ultimately fails its characters and thus its audience is because it's no longer being guided by the hand that brought it to life; Asher was not in any way involved in the making of the show's second season. (The author has been accused of sexual harassment, though his non-involvement does not appear to be the result of the allegations.) In comparison, although Margaret Atwood has stepped into a consulting role for Season 2 of The Handmaid's Tale (she was a supervising producer on the first season), she still regularly reads drafts and gives showrunner Bruce Miller feedback when necessary. Meanwhile over at HBO, Liane Moriarty, who wrote the novel upon which Big Little Lies was based, is also involved in the former limited series' upcoming second season; David E. Kelly has again written seven episodes that are partially based on a story by Moriarty. This isn't to suggest that every adaptation need be guided by the original creator's hand to be successful once it moves beyond the source material, but in this case, it might have helped the writers to rein in some of 13 Reasons Why's worst tendencies.
The inclusion of the high number of characters in Season 1 made sense, but the series would have benefited from limiting screentime and storylines to essential characters only in round two. The structure of the season as it was set against the Bakers' trial meant the show could easily and believably bring back characters like Ryan or Courtney when they testified, but neither character actually added much to a series that was already too bloated.
Much like it did during the first season, Season 2 also suffered from having too many episodes and not enough story to fill them. Episodic running times were also unnecessarily long; each episode clocked in around an hour, sometimes longer. This is hardly a problem unique to 13 Reasons Why; nearly all Netflix Originals suffer from being too long. But one could at least understand the streaming service's decision to have a 13-episode first season since Hannah left 13 tapes. That argument is less important in Season 2, especially when most of the season turns out to be almost completely unnecessary. In this context, it becomes incredibly clear that this season was nothing more than a cash grab for Netflix.
And honestly, it's kind of hard to fault Netflix's decision in that regard; from a business standpoint, the decision to renew the series was completely sound. After all, the company is going to need capital if it is going to release 700 original shows and films on its service in 2018. But from a creative standpoint, 13 Reasons Why is such a mess, and the writers so clearly lack the ability to tell a meaningful and nuanced story, that viewers would have been better off if the streaming service had let the show exist as a limited, single season. Every story has a beginning, middle and end. Even though Season 2 ended on a cliffhanger, Netflix should learn from its mistakes and accept that a third season would only create more chaos.
13 Reasons Why is now streaming on Netflix.