Season 2 of 13 Reasons Why comes out TOMORROW so in anticipation – here are my thoughts on the phenomenal season one.
I’m a fan of good storytelling – I love that feeling you get when you get sucked into a story and can’t do anything but think about it. 13 Reasons Why sucked me and stole all my attention when it first came out.
The show follows a group of high school students – specifically Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette) – as they grapple with the 13 reasons why Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) died by suicide. Instead of leaving a written note, Hannah records a series of cassette tapes, each side detailing a ‘reason’.
Each ‘reason’ is a specific person’s actions. Actions that individually range from minor to large – but as a collection create a crushing weight on Hannah. We get to hear the tapes from Clay’s perspective and experience his reaction to the revelations about his classmates and friends.
The rules of the tapes are simple – the people listening to the tapes are the ones on the tapes. So we know from the outset that Clay is a reason why. The tapes are passed around in the order in which the tapes are recorded so the person involved in reason one listened first, the person involved in reason two listen second and so on. We don’t know where Clay fits into this and as the reasons get more intense, as an audience we get more and more concerned about how Clay fits into these tapes.
If you need a re-cap this is a great video:
I started watching this show because my 12-year-old Girl Guides were obsessed with it. These girls are pretty on-trend with their viewing habits, so I knew if they liked it – it would be a big hit. My initial reaction to the show was that it was a realistic portrayal of high school.
I knew girls that were a ‘Jessica Davis’, a ‘Courtney Crimsen’, or a ‘Sheri Holland’. I knew guys that were a ‘Marcus Cole’, a ‘Zach Dempsey’, or a ‘Jeff Atkins’.
So as I thought about all the people I knew from high school that reminded me of these characters, I was pulled deeper into the storylines. At first, I thought this was a great show for my Guides because it was realistic – but as the show got darker and darker, I became increasingly conflicted that the kids were watching it.
Because while it’s so so dark and intense… I think it’s one of the best teen tv shows ever made.
Let’s pop on the soundtrack and break down some of the best episodes and my reasons.
Tape 1: Side A. Justin
Episode one set the tone for the whole show. This is a very well done pilot. Right off the bat, you could tell this show was going to be different. The tone was fresh, it felt relevant. Coming off his Oscar win for Spotlight – director Tom McCarthy created a compelling cinematic world of Liberty High School. His lighting choices – cool in the present, warm in the past – are incredible. He treated this ‘teen’ show with the same respect as Spotlight. I’m beyond impressed with him and grateful for the producers (*cough* Selena Gomez *cough*) who hired McCarthy.
The casting on this show is also immediately noticeable. These teenagers are not big celebrities. They are ‘unknowns’ in the best possible way. Many have acting credits, but nothing at this scale. I’m not distracted by celebrity – I’m able to really believe that these actors are the characters. Bonus points for the fact that these teens look like teens. Granted, they look like grade 12s rather than grade 10s, but I’ll let them off the hook. For a project this big, it would have been easy to go with big names. Kudos to the person who cast Australian Katherine Langford in the lead role with only three professional credits to her name. This was a great call.
As pilots go, this one goes from zero-to-hundred. What starts off as a ‘normal’ high school, we quickly jump into the very difficult, but very real topics of teen suicide and online harassment. When Justin’s photo of Hannah goes viral around the school – we know what the implications are. It’s a brutal way to begin your grade 10 year as a new girl. Hannah is justifiably very angry and hurt. If this is just tape one, we know this is going to get crazy.
Tape 1: Side B. Jessica
Again, kudos to the casting team. Alisha Boe is amazing as Jessica Davis.
The relationship between Jessica and Hannah is complex – like many female friendships. There is an element of frienemies here that I know most women can relate to. Moreover, much like Hannah and Jessica, I think everyone has had a friend-falling out. And… they are brutal.
I loved that this show wasn’t just about Hannah’s relationships with boys – the show is also about her relationships with the other women in her life. Sadly, the boys got in the middle in a very unfortunate way. I don’t know if this episode would pass the bechdel test considering their falling out was over Alex but – Jessica is one of only two girls on the tapes and these female-centric episodes are well needed.
Plus – we know Hollywood has a Diversity problem, so let’s start with women.
A 2017 study of 900 popular films from 2007 to 2016 found that of the films surveyed in 2016, 31.4% of speaking characters were female, unchanged from 2015 and not much higher than the 29.9% logged in 2007. The overall ratio of male to female characters was 2.3 to 1, and 34 films had a female lead or co-lead, compared to 32 in 2015.
It is nice to see a show with a female lead (Katherine Langford) and very nice to see co-leads in episodes like this that are also women (Alisha Boe), and women of colour.
We know that Jessica will have a major storyline in the 2nd season. I hope that this show continues to feature women and women of colour.
I cannot wait to see how her story evolves.
Tape 2: Side A. Alex
The list. Everyone loves a good list. Buzzfeed has made a whole media empire off the power of a list. Hot or Not lists have dominated pop culture for years. Who wore it best? Who is the Sexiest Man Alive? We rank people. This is just what the world does.
In this case, what could be seen as ‘flattering’ is seen as incredibly cruel. We know he created this list to make Jessica mad, but it backfired on Hannah and for the first time, we see her get physically assaulted by Bryce.
It’s upsetting and jarring and something that I think high school girls deal with all the time – and that’s awful.
Beyond the implications of the list. Alex’s character is fascinating and becomes increasingly apathetic to his own life and at the end, shoots himself.
I’m super interested in seeing in how they deal with his attempt at suicide and what physical and emotional ramifications that will have.
Tape 3: Side A. Courtney
We all know a Courtney. I probably related the most to Courtney – which is awful – but for the sole reason that she was a Student Council Type. If I went to Liberty High School – I would have been friends with Courtney – or more realistically, she might have been my rival. Smart, driven, and involved could have described 16-year-old Paula or any of my friends. That’s where the similarities end.
The issue with Courtney – is that she will stop at nothing to keep her perfect reputation spotless – including steamrolling Hannah.I feel like Courtney probably watches Scandal – and aspires to be like Olivia Pope – but instead of wearing the white hat, she’s wearing a black one. Courtney deflects the rumours about her into larger more damaging rumours about Hannah.
Again, I’m going to give a shoutout to the casting team here. Courtney (Michele Selene Ang) and Tony (Christian Navarro) are important in the larger context of Hollywood casting. In a different Hollywood diversity survey – of the 19 speaking queer characters in 2014’s top 100 films, a full 84.2 percent of them were white. Having Queer Kids of Colour is so important.
Tape 4: Side A. Zack
Ross Butler – when you quit Riverdale, I wasn’t sure if that was a smart move. After seeing the second season of Riverdale and watching this episode, I know you made the right call.
I love Ross Butler. I want to see him in more things – and I hope that more people like him are cast in roles like this.
I will say that this tv show is one of the best teen tv shows ever because it had Ross Butler in it.
Tape 5: Side A. Justin Pt. 2
In homage to other kids from the wrong side of the track, Justin Foley feels a bit like the Ryan Attwood, maybe a Pacey Witter, a bit of Landon Carter. The difference here is that Justin doesn’t get the big hero moment – he doesn’t carry Marissa Cooper out of Tijuana.
He just fails. He let’s his buddy Bryce rape his girlfriend. He tries to justify it by explaining how much Bryce has done for him over the years, but that’s not good enough and we all know it. He knows it. He runs away at the end of the episode.
This storyline brings into play the Survivor side of sexual assault. Hannah did not survive her rape, but Jessica does. We ended season one with her telling her father what happened to her.
In teen shows relationships between teens and their parents can range from unrealistically close to unrealistically distant. In this show, we see Clay and his parents – perhaps the most healthy of all the kids/parents. Zach and his overprotective mother. Justin has an awful relationship with his mom- maybe why he’s so screwed up. Hannah and her parents clearly didn’t have a strong relationship – they were too distracted by the store to notice their daughters failing mental health. But we have a chance here with Jessica and her dad. I’m super interested to see how her revelation to her dad will impact her ability to heal.
Tape 5: Side B. Sheri
Again, Sheri’s tape brings up another key teen issue – drunk and/or reckless driving.
I think a lot of know someone who was young and died in a car crash. This is sadly a common experience:
Tape 6: Side A. Clay
Oh Clay Jensen, how I love you so. Dylan Minnette’s Clay is the reason I’ve watched this show so many times. He reminds me of a friend I had when I was around this age. He also reminds me of Seth Cohen.
The nice guy, the guy that is a bit quiet, super clean cut. He’s the opposite of Hannah. The ying to her yang.
I like that this show centres around two kids that seem ‘normal’. We’re getting the ‘perfect’ couple – we’re getting a flawed friendship that tries it’s hardest to be something more and ultimately goes up in flames.
I was that person who watched curled up in a ball, bawling throughout the Clay episode. Then obviously I went online and watched countless fan videos… like this one, set to the song they danced to at the dance 😭😭😭
I blame the music for making me cry so much. I could talk about it for days but instead I’ll just leave this podcast about how they added music to the show here…
Tape 6: Side B. Bryce
When we talk about heartbreaking episodes – this is not one. This is a rage episode. I watched this episode with disgust.
Bryce Walker (Justin Prentice) is the character at the centre of all of Hannah’s issues. The one who sent out the photo. The first one to assault her. The one who raped Jessica. Then raped her. If we’re going to blame someone for her death – I’ll go ahead and blame Bryce.
Showing rape on a TV show for teens is risky – it could be seen as ‘too mature’ for kids. But I respect that they did. I think it’s incredibly important to make the bad guys – guys we know.
“Date Rape is the most common form of rape (78%) with 1 in 4 girls expected to fall victim to rape or attempted rape before they reach 25, and 3 out of 5 rapes occurring before a woman reaches age 18.”
Why should a show shy away from the risks that girls experience?
Tape 7: Side A. Mr. Porter.
The adult characters in this show failed. I’ve talked about the parents. But the teachers are the worst.
Mr. Porter does nothing. He is a dud of a guidance counsellor. He was just the worst those kids could have had at that moment. Hannah reached out and he told her to ‘move on’. Wrong call buddy. Then theres Principal Bolan – who also has no clue what he’s doing.
Mrs. Bradley aka Lane Kim aka Keiko Agena – might be the only one with a clue but even then, she bows to pressure to stay silent from her work colleagues.
I’m going to bring this back around to why I’m very conflicted about my 12-year-olds guides watched this show.
This show forced me to have conversations with kids that I work with. I asked them things like – “Do your parents know you watch this show”, “What do you think/feel about the show”, and “You know that I’m an adult in your life that cares – you can call me, at 3am – or whenever- if you ever need help”. Plus I had larger conversations about community resources like Kids Help Phone. Shout out to Girl Guides for putting together a great guide to talking to kids about this show.
The show got a lot of slack for ‘glamourizing‘ suicide.
I disagree- the scene in which she kills herself made me almost throw up. I had to pause the show, get water and calm down before I could continue the first time. On re-watch 2 and 3, I knew to skip this scene. I tell anyone who hasn’t seen the show to skip it because it’s so graphic. Glamourizing is the wrong word.
But – I’ll give the team respect for meeting those complaints head on and releasing quite a few videos about suicide prevention and mental health supports. Including this one:
I’m quite interested to see if this feedback will impact how they do season two.
I don’t want them to back down from their vision for this show – I want them to lean in and realy dive in more.
I’m hitting publish on this post at 11pm – I only have an hour to go and then I’ll have all my questions answered with Season two!
See you in a week to talk about it 🙂