Noise over Nuance
Editor's note: the following article contains spoilers from 13 Reasons Why. Due to the nature of the show, sensitive subject matter is also discussed. If you or anyone you know is struggling, please contact 1-800-273-8255 for help.
Before Netflix ruled the medium, 13 Reasons Why may have never been turned into a television show at all, much less been given a second season.
It isn't hard to imagine a world where Jay Asher's novel would have become a tight, silver screen adaptation in the mold of David Fincher's Gone Girl. That world is four short and massively distant years ago, in the days when Netflix had just started its quest to be both the seminal curator and creator of all content. By any measure, they succeeded in that quest. And so, instead of a standalone film, 13 Reasons Why became a sprawling 26 episode series.
Much like its debut season, the second installment of the young adult drama was immediately deeply polarizing, so much so that the American Parental Council (PTC) has urged Netflix to cancel the show altogether -- in large part for its depiction of a young man being assaulted by bullies in a school washroom and then brutally raped with a mop handle.
“I would just suggest that they Google the news,” Mandy Teefy, the show's executive producer said of the rape scene in an interview with ET Online. “It’s shocking, it’s horrific, but it’s happening. There’s videos that people post and that’s online forever. It’s [in] the culture, so just look it up and educate yourself that you need look out for this.”
Both those camps have valid points, and the discussion is worth having. Is there an added narrative and artistic value in explicit violence over implied violence? Does shying away from showing those scenes belittle their gravity, or is just knowing what happened sufficient? Is there even a way to draw a line between acceptably graphic and gratuitously graphic without it being arbitrary?
But in the conversation of whether 13 Reasons Why should continue, the answers to those questions are ancillary to a far simpler justification for cancelling the show: season two just wasn't good enough to warrant a third installment.
In that sense the show is both a victim and a success of its time -- a story that could have been told in a ninety minute film was stretched across 26 bloated episodes that venture into content its source material never even desired to cover. Season one managed to, for the most part, conceal that bloat by unfolding as the book did -- a slow-burn murder mystery with thriller-like pacing.
Season two never found that balance and, to be clear, it didn't necessarily have to. Other sequels have recently found success by forsaking known formulas and letting the past die. Instead, the balance it sought was between unveiling unknown truths about its characters all while building a new narrative to give the show a reason to continue.
That goal is lofty, and made all the more difficult by deciding that each of those unveilings had to be tied to Hannah Baker. Given that the reasons why she decided to take her own life were already put on wax and made clear -- that was entirely the point of following Clay Jensen around in season one as he listened to the cassettes she left behind -- any further reasons can't be more than the self-reflective speculations of the other characters in this world.
Adding more levels to an already layered back story as opposed to exploring grief and the delicate process of moving forward was a risk -- a creative decision that carried with it an inherent possibility of backfiring. Unfortunately, it did.
More often than not, the truths unveiled diluted the dynamism of the story rather than adding to it. Were exploring the details of Marcus struggling with his ambitions and expectations, or Courtney grappling with her sexuality, or Tony's troubles with self control, or Justin's substance abuse necessary to the Hannah Baker story?
By becoming an Avengers-esque ensemble of teenage issues, in burying them all within this larger narrative and glossing over them in ways that couldn't possibly do them justice, the show attempted to be more than the Hannah Baker story all while continuing to tell it, and in turn lost sight of the gripping simplicity that made it work in the first place.
Sometimes extra layers are just weight.
To be clear, that isn't to say those stories weren't worth telling. Both as standalone narratives and as conversation starters in society, they're all deserving of being told. Somewhere along the line though -- likely after season one exploded in popularity with the force of a freight train whose brakes had never been installed -- the creators became deeply aware of that societal gravity their show possessed as well as the responsibilities that came with it, and then buckled under the weight of their own importance.
Season one didn't pretend to have answers. Rather, it presented problems with a subtlety and nuance that reflected the depth and complexity of the struggles being shown. It was raw, and somber, and committed -- at times, arguably to a fault -- to graphically depicting a young woman failed by the world around her.
Season two felt the need to not just present problems, but show solutions as well -- most of which boiled down to talking about your problems. Conceptually, that is commendable. Emphasizing that there are ways out of the darkness after hours of drowning your viewers in it can only be seen as a good thing. But there's a chasm that exists between concepts and execution, and this season never found a way to bridge it.
Conversation and good company aren't cure alls. Heroin detox isn't accomplished with Gatorade. School shootings aren't stopped by telling a homicidal teenager that you understand. By attempting to provide solutions but presenting them in reductive ways that feel more like PSAs than plot development, the show ultimately belittled the very problems they want to shine a spotlight on.
However, nowhere is the discrepancy between the two seasons more pronounced than in their quintessential divisive moments -- Hannah's suicide and Tyler's sodomization -- both of which serve as analogous synopses for the seasons themselves.
Hannah's suicide was the kind of quiet that makes skin crawl -- a viscerally unnerving 30 seconds of television that lingers long after you've stopped watching. The sound drops out and your stomach drops with it as she presses the razor against her wrists until your ears are filled with the pressure it takes to force metal through skin. It's emptying, and devastating, and impossible to look away from because the 12 episodes preceding it earned the moment a gravity that makes looking in any other direction impossible.
Tyler's sodomization was loud and violent and destructive. It was shocking, not just because the presence of the act in a television show is unexpected, but because it appears without any warning or justification. There was a randomness to it, a spur of the moment "wait, hold on, there's more" feel that, whether by design or not, only makes it all the more disturbing and damaging. It forced you to keep watching in the way that Saw forced you to keep watching -- an impossibly gripping and miserable blend of disbelief and horror.
If there is a line between acceptable and gratuitous violence, perhaps it can be drawn with the action's purpose. Hannah's suicide was a period. The necessary conclusion to a long and devastatingly honest sentence about how much hurt one person could handle before letting go. Tyler's sodomization was a comma, a signifier that this list of awful events isn't going to end and the story will keep going to a destination no one quite knows or understands or feels equipped to arrive at.
Those differences and the shortcomings they represent are important because this show has made itself important. Whether you see their boundary pushing as bold and vital or reckless and harmful, no one has attempted to shed light on as many issues as it has. In that way, it has served its purpose. Even though it was the show to bring these problems into the public discourse, it has also made clear that it can't be the one that shows us how to actually address them.
Of all the lessons that 13 Reasons Why attempted to impart, that's the one it conveyed best and it's the only one it didn't go out of its way to articulate: our means of discussing real issues remains woefully insufficient, and no number of mix tapes can change that.