13 Reasons Why: Halftime Review

After conversing with other binge watchers like myself, I discovered that I was one of the rare few that was looking forward to a second season of 13 Reasons Why. Most people that I talked to either couldn’t finish the show because of the graphic content or thought that it was altogether too extreme. As someone who used to work in public safety, I am a bit hardened to graphic content; perhaps this is what makes me one of the few that was not so dismayed by the material. I felt the benefits of the series outweighed the parts that were a bit too much — in the first season, at least.

I can always applaud efforts to open conversations. When there are stigmas associated with topics, especially anything mental health related, people are always more afraid to open up and talk. For this, I applauded 13 Reasons Why for taking the chance of trying to hurdle that barrier. The characters were real and believable. I empathized with them, even the ones who had made questionable choices. When it was announced that there would be a second season, I actually internally commended 13 Reasons Why for going “there” — to the places that most shows don’t go: the aftermath, the repercussions, the hurt and pain that often follows these types of incidents for years.

Then, I began the sad, slow journey of getting through the first half of 13 Reasons Why season 2 and discovered the painful path that the writers decided to take with a show that could’ve had so many opportunities. This is the review of the first six episodes, so before those who watched the whole season weigh in, I am warning you that I am breaking these episodes down from the perspective of someone who formally worked in public safety.

Disclaimer: I am no expert in mental health, assault, addiction or medical issues; however, I come with some experience with working with people who struggle in these areas and have some familiarity with the topics.

After watching the first six episodes of 13 Reasons Why season 2, I was highly disappointed. This season had so much room for potential with revealing the true aftermaths of tragedy. So many times on television, there is limited time; therefore, the only development is the perfect 30-minute execution of opening, crisis, resolution, and ending — only to present viewers with the idea that everything can be resolved in a half hour (or hour) of television.

This series’ second season had so many opportunities to talk about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, victimization, grief, and the flaws in the criminal justice system; but all of these opportunities were either missed or barely touched upon thus far. I completely understand that the age range of the target audience here dictates that there has to be a little drama, but with the heavy content that is already present, there is little extra drama needed or warranted.

Alisha Boe’s performance as Jessica, a victim of sexual assault and bullying and a girl who lost a friend to suicide, is one of the only moments that is keeping me invested in 13 Reasons Why season 2. With content so controversial — so heavy — the series did not need a ghost of Hannah or a potential hostile criminal threatening the whole school from telling the truth. Jessica’s storyline, however, is tough and real. Boe’s performance as Jessica stood in the mirror crying during episode 3 was truly heartbreaking; and I believed every tear and every moment of pain she experienced. In episode 4, Boe has a conversation with Alex describing how she doesn’t believe herself to be the “perfect rape victim” because she is not as wholesome as Hannah was nor is she white. I thought this was a brilliantly written conversation about how even victims of sexual assault can feel that they do not belong as a victim. This is a very real depiction of the insecurities and vulnerabilities that can come with victimization; these are the issues that 13 Reasons Why should have focused on.

Kate Walsh plays Olivia Baker; like Boe, she saves the show. There is a scene in episode 2, “Two Girls Kissing,” where Jackie finds a blood-stained dress in one of the dresser drawers in the spare room. Walsh portrays a truly heartbroken mother as she explains that she couldn’t part with a dress that had her daughter’s blood on it — the last piece she has of Hannah. Walsh made my heart ache in every possible way with her performance. Without Walsh and Boe, I do not know that I would have many positive things to say about 13 Reasons Why season 2.

Another strong part of the first half of the season was the relationship between Zach and Alex. I thoroughly enjoy the depth of the conversations between the male characters on this series. I think 13 Reasons Why actually represents male relationships very well in the sense that it shows more than just the “locker room talk” that many others convey. Alex really reveals personal information to Zach about the impotence resulting from his accident. Instead of Zach dismissing the controversial information, he tries to truly talk to Alex, comfort him, and give him hope that his injuries are not permanent. I thought this was a great scene because it showed the evolving bond between them and the brotherly nature of their friendship.

In every testimony, viewers learn new information about the original 13 tapes that turned the lives of these characters upside down. This was important for me to enjoy 13 Reasons Why season 2 because, as people know and understand, there are always several sides to stories. More importantly, people can omit the truth out of fear. Even after we thought we knew everything, we learned more because that is the truth of life: There is always more to the story; the whole truth may not always come out right away.

Now, let’s tackle all that is lacking and/or frustrating. I’ve touched on the unnecessary drama added to the series, but I cannot emphasize enough how much I dislike this added mystery to the show. The threatening, the notes, the bricks through cars makes it feel like this really important show took a page out of Pretty Little Liars and is just throwing curveballs in here to add unnecessary suspense. I was somewhat enjoying the idea that Clay was going to learn that Bryce had offended before Hannah and Jessica, because why wouldn’t a predator like Bryce have offended before? But even the element of the Polaroids and the mystery behind them has taken away from what the show should’ve been about: awareness of sexual assault, victimization, suicide and all of the topics that this show has claimed to discuss when other shows wouldn’t.

The reality is that characters like Bryce Walker are real: entitled, spoiled, rich members of society that think that the world should revolve around them and cater to their privileges. 13 Reasons Why ruined an opportunity to show the factual, alarming realities of our society. In a Hollywood-like attempt to show that people like Bryce do not pay for their crimes, the show brings in the amateur elements of threatening and teenage detective-style mysteries, rather than tackling the real issue at hand. The reality is that, due to his status and privilege, the American criminal justice system would benefit Bryce, the poster-boy for the rich, white, jock and his wrongdoings anyway. That is the true horror, no Hollywood necessary.

Justin’s storyline in 13 Reasons Why is also incredibly irresponsible, especially in a time where opioid addiction is an epidemic in this country. As someone that claims to be using a gram of heroin consistently, Justin Foley would not be a functional member of society within a few days. Withdrawal symptoms are different for every user, and to indicate that a little vomiting and some Gatorade will help a heroin addict is an incredibly inaccurate portrayal of the heroin and opioid epidemics in this country. With a show that claims to want to open the conversation, I feel like the writers should have been more responsible with this topic.

I may certainly be missing the point of Clay’s visions or conversations with Ghost Hannah; but regardless, the whole plot line is distracting and — again — takes away from all of the potential good that could have come from this show. Do the hallucinations stem from guilt? Is he not over Hannah, so this is his way of understanding her and saying goodbye for good? Is he really talking to a damn ghost? I don’t know, but this storyline is detracting away from the true heart of this show: the realness of difficult topics. If this storyline is supposed to be revealing an underlying mental health issue that Clay is experiencing, then the series needs to make this more obvious to the viewer. This show claims to want to open the conversation to topics regarding stigmas, so open the conversation rather than carry on an intrusive plot with no foreseeable path.

Stay tuned for the review of the second half of 13 Reasons Why season 2.

13 Reasons Why can be streamed on Netflix; the current season became available on May 18.

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