13 Reasons Why's first season had its issues, but its second season is nearly unwatchable. This is an unfortunate turn of events given the Netflix series is trying in earnest to do what few shows are doing these days — take the real experiences of teenagers seriously — but the team behind the drama appears to lack the most basic understanding of character development or storytelling to pull off sensitive explorations of issues like suicide, depression and sexual assault.
This last topic becomes the show's driving theme in the second season, as the Bakers' (Kate Walsh and Brian d'Arcy James) trial against the school evolves into a means of forcing high school jock Bryce (Justin Prentice) to be held accountable for raping Hannah (Katherine Langford) and Jessica (Alisha Boe) among others. While shows like Marvel's Jessica Jones have taken great strides in how sexual assault is portrayed and explored on television, it's still an issue that is rarely handled with sensitivity, grace or nuance. That's why it's such a shame 13 Reasons Why squanders this opportunity, using Bryce's predatory behavior to drive a one-note mission that hinges on the idea legal action should be the immediate and primary focus in the healing process for survivors.
In a society that typically doubts or maligns victims and protects the accused, it's baffling to see a show in which so many characters are focused on the idea of a conviction equaling justice or healing without ever directly challenging the notion or forcing the main perpetrator of this line of thinking, Clay (Dylan Minnette), to engage in a thoughtful conversation about slut-shaming, systemic misogyny or the failings of the criminal justice system. But while the show's "justice"-based exploration of sexual assault is disappointing and riddled with issues, the series does get one thing right about the survivor experience that is worth praising.
When the second season picks up, Jessica has not chosen to press charges against Bryce. Instead, she has refused to even name her assailant, choosing to pretend she doesn't remember who raped her. It isn't until the penultimate episode of the season that Jessica decides she's ready to come forward with her story and pursue legal action — a decision that is, unfortunately, predicated by Jessica's story having already been shared with the school since Clay releases Hannah's tapes online. While Clay doesn't seem to grasp the notion that survivors of sexual assault should be given autonomy over their own experience and when and how to share it, simply by allowing viewers to watch Jessica figure out how to do just that is an incredibly important thing to see.
Although Clay would like to think otherwise, it isn't easy to name one's attacker, particularly when it's someone whom the survivor trusted. To be violated by a confidant can be a signal, rational or not, that their judgment cannot be trusted and that other people cannot be trusted. Survivors are too often blamed for being the catalyst to their own assault, whether it's based on what they wore or what they were doing or drinking, that there's already a pervasive environment that encourages them to question their own judgment. This feeling may only be compounded when the rapist is a friend, a situation that raises more self-doubts over why one wasn't savvy enough to foresee that a person they knew so well — particularly someone like Bryce who had exhibited many signs of misogynistic and dangerous behavior — would be capable of such an act. And so if one's judgment isn't good enough to be able to separate a rapist from a friend, why should their judgment be good enough to identify who in their life might be trusted to support them and who might cause more betrayal?
Adding more pressure to Jessica's dilemma is the fact that if she were to name Bryce as her rapist, her actions would affect far more people than just herself and Bryce. She understands that the second a survivor shares what's happened to them, there's no going back. Suddenly, there are new expectations regarding behavior for the people in the survivor's life, whether they want there to be or not. As long as other people in Jessica's life don't know what happened, they can't betray her by doubting her story or worse, by believing it but choosing to still keep her rapist in their lives. And this last scenario can be one of the most painful consequences of an assault, because for every person who knows what Bryce did but does nothing about it is another person who is telling Jessica that what he did to her doesn't matter, that she doesn't matter.
So, for Jessica, not wanting to take action against Bryce isn't about protecting him; it is about protecting herself. I'm sure many people will interpret Jessica's journey this season in different ways, reading into it different meanings based on their own personal experiences. But as a survivor, what I saw in her struggles wasn't someone who wanted to pretend as though everything was normal because she wanted to ignore what happened; it was someone who was pretending because she feared permanently isolating herself from the life she used to live, the people she used to rely on and the only identity she had ever known.
It's not to say these lines of thought are warranted, healthy or should go unchecked, but they are understandable initial impulses from someone recovering from a traumatic event. Learning how to discount these thought patterns was a huge part of my own healing process after I was sexually assaulted, and my struggles with that made the process of moving forward a slow and arduous one for many years as I did everything I could to try to preserve as much of my previous life — including my relationships with my rapist's close friends — as possible. That's because after a sexual assault it can feel as though every relationship, every crumb of one's old life is a lifeline. It's as if you are physically incapable of suffering any more pain or isolation. And so many survivors cling to the inbetween for as long as they can, like a twisted version of Schrödinger's cat — as long as you don't say the words out loud, there's still the chance you can return to life the way it was before. So, why say anything when that may only lead to more hurt?
The thing that is crucial to understand in these situations — and that I only began to appreciate much later — is that not taking an easily observable, results-oriented action doesn't mean you're taking no action at all. What Jessica is doing is one of the most important actions a survivor can take sometimes. She is learning what she needs, mentally and emotionally, in order to feel safe and in control again, and she finds some of those answers through group counseling and sharing her story with people like Mrs. Baker and fellow survivor Nina (Samantha Logan). Although there is much relief that can result from a legal conviction, before prioritizing an outside-facing desire like this, Jessica is allowing herself the time to look inward and figure out what healing looks like to her as she rebuilds her sense of security and collects the tools and support system she needs to feel strong enough to face what comes next, whatever it may be.
And ultimately, Jessica does decide that she's ready to draw that line and publicly name Bryce as her rapist — not because Clay or anyone else wants her to, but because she independently determines that she feels strong enough to bear the challenges that a criminal case would entail, a process she acknowledges often revictimizes survivors who find their own lives and characters put on trial. She comes to this conclusion with open eyes after watching her worst-case-scenario fantasies play out before her in the Bakers' trial against the school: first in the slut-shaming of Hannah Baker by the prosecution and various witnesses, including Bryce, and again when Bryce's girlfriend Chloe (Anne Winters) decides to take the stand to testify against him. During the trial, however, Chloe can't bring herself to share the truth, instead opting to claim that her sexual encounter with Bryce in the Clubhouse was consensual.
Afterward, Jessica tells Justin (Brandon Flynn) not to blame Chloe for what happened in court. Although Clay and some of the others are up in arms over Chloe's reluctance to name Bryce as her rapist, Jessica maintains nothing but compassion for her, despite the fact that Chloe's actions protected the man who assaulted her too. "She wasn't ready. She wasn't strong enough to tell her story and that's not her fault," Jessica explains. "If she says it out loud, if she points at him and says he did this, her whole world comes crashing down."
Having just found out she was raped seemingly days before taking the stand, Chloe isn't given the time or space to process what's happened to her before she agrees to deliver her testimony at Jessica and Clay's request. And by Jessica reaffirming that Chloe shouldn't be villainized for not being ready to share her story, the show is highlighting the importance of allowing survivors the freedom and autonomy to determine their own path forward, even if it doesn't fall in line with what others may necessarily want or need.
While Jessica eventually does assert that she's ready for her story to be told and that she wants to pursue legal action, I applaud the show for giving viewers a dozen episodes in which they simply get to see a young woman learn what healing looks like to her. Because so few rapes are reported (an estimated two thirds of sexual assault are never reported to police) and actual convictions are so rare (out of every 1,000 rapes, 994 perpetrators will walk free), it's important to see stories of survivors learning to heal that don't hinge heavily on an indictment. Even after Jessica does decide to press charges against Bryce, she isn't devastated by Bryce getting off with just three months probation. It's because Jessica's decision to come forward and tell her story is a means of helping herself heal rather than an attempt to hurt Bryce or have the legal system validate that what happened to her was wrong and not her fault.
"It's insane, but somehow I still feel stronger," she tells Clay after the verdict is read. Later, she explains to Nina that Bryce's verdict isn't even "a surprise," but that she still feels a sense of peace. "I'm good," she declares.
Although 13 Reasons Why wastes a lot of time this season on the misguided notion that taking down Bryce would provide Jessica or those still grieving Hannah with exactly what they need to start moving forward, it ultimately delivers a message preaching the exact opposite. Rather than putting all of one's energy into trying to make other people do what they think they need them to do (like Clay), and rather than heaping all of one's expectations onto an outside force, such as a jury (like Clay), real healing is an internal process. It is one that each person must figure out for themselves, hopefully with the support and guidance from friends, family and experts who will stand by them on this journey.
It was only when I began talking about my own assault, learning to trust people enough again to hear my story, to understand my trauma and to support my recovery, that my burden began to lessen. But it took me years to get there, long enough that the people I went to high school with — those to whom I was afraid to name my attacker out of fear that I would lose that friendship and stability too — are no longer in my lives, but I still think about telling them what happened to me to this day. Not because I want them to know the type of person they still call their friend, but just to show myself that I have learned to trust people enough again that I'm not afraid to tell my story.
That's exactly what Jessica does in the finale, and there is great power in that. Though so many people in Jessica's life seem to have made it their mission to try and tell her story for her — or worse yet, stop her from telling her story at all — Jessica never lets them wrest control from her. Until the very end of the season, everything Jessica does, she does for herself and on her own terms, and that's largely the reason she is able to eventually reach a place of peace.
Of course, this isn't to say that Jessica's storyline is handled perfectly (far from it), but I saw myself a lot in Jessica's struggles this season. And I know that if seeing this meant this much to me, years later and now in healthy relationships with both a fiancé and therapist, I can only imagine what it might mean to all the young people out there still in those early stages of recovery, trying to figure out the first steps to moving forward and feeling all the pressures over the "right" ways to feel and proceed. I hope that in Jessica they can at least see someone who shows that it's okay to take your time, that it's okay to process at your own speed, and that it's your right — and your right only — to decide who to tell and when to tell them. Because no matter when you decide you're ready, that's when it will be the right time for you.
13 Reasons Why is available to stream on Netflix now.