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Clay Jensen Is the Worst, and Other Scattered Thoughts on Season 2 of '13 Reasons Why'

By Dustin Rowles | Streaming | May 21, 2018 |

By Dustin Rowles | Streaming | May 21, 2018 |


I have a lot of thoughts about the second season of 13 Reasons Why, and I don’t really know how to organize them, so here they are, scattered as they may be.

Here are the spoiler-free thoughts:

— There were several reviews in advance — I think, based on only a handful of episodes — that suggested this season was “unnecessary.” I might have felt that way after the first three or four episodes, too, because it felt in a lot of ways like it this season was redundant, as though the show were unnecessarily reliving Hannah’s death all over again, or — with Skye — approaching mental illness from another angle. However, once the season found its footing, it turned its primary focus to the realities of sexual assault, to issues of consent, to the ways in which survivors cope, their decisions to report the assault or not, and how traumatic and life-altering it can be for the everyday lives of victims. The culture of bullying, as was the case in season one, was also omnipresent.

— We learn that Bryce assaulted far more women than just Hannah and Jessica, and through 13 episodes, we saw a range of experiences and coping mechanisms. Hannah, of course, ended her life. Jessica spent much of the season trying to exorcise the shame she felt; Nina refused to be defined by her sexual assault, but in doing so, failed to process it; while Chloe — Bryce’s girlfriend — lived in various states of denial. I thought the season was very instructive in illustrating the range of responses, and making every effort not to vilify anyone for how they processed their assaults (or failed to process them). That includes Chloe, who protected her assailant rather than put herself through the torture of reporting him. That’s not the response we wanted to see, but it is a realistic one.

— It also demonstrates how rapists often silence their victims, and not just through some of the overly dramatic contrivances used in the series (death threats, destroying property, running people off the road) but in the more subtle threats, or by gaslighting their victims, or by shaming them into silence, or — most effectively — turning the victim’s friends and classmates against the victims. They use bullying tactics to keep them quiet, and in a high-school environment where emotions are already heightened, that proved to be the most effective method.

— I’ve seen several people suggest that the season may be too triggering and painful for many sexual assault survivors to watch. I can’t speak to that, although I suspect it’s true in a lot of cases, and I would definitely caution women who have suffered sexual assault before watching it. It’s painful. However, I would almost suggest it is necessary viewing for teenage boys, and when he’s old enough, I fully intend to show it to my son. I thought it was instructive on issues of consent. It illustrates the consequences of failing to abide by the rules of consent, and how immensely destructive it can be to so many lives.

— Likewise, I really do think it’s a good show for parents to watch, too, if only to learn from the mistakes of all the parents in 13 Reasons Why. You have to talk to your kids, but more importantly, you have to listen to them. You have to be involved. You have to know what’s going on in their lives. Don’t assume anything, even if that means annoying the shit out of your teenage children until they open up. It’s important to give them space, obviously, but it’s also important to know what the hell is going on in their lives. Be the parent they can open up to. Be the parent to whom they’re not ashamed to admit their shortcomings. I know it must be easier said than done, and I don’t have teenagers yet, but goddamnit, talk to your kids. Be their parents.

— Some of what makes the second season of 13 Reasons Why bad TV — the way it repeatedly belabors the point — makes it even more effective at messaging. Sexual assault trauma does not go away. It is not a convenient narrative arc. It is not resolved. There is no satisfying conclusion. It lingers. Reality, in that way, can make for very frustrating television.

— That said, and this cannot be repeated enough: Clay Jensen is the worst. He always felt somewhat out of place in the first season, like a character tacked on in order to give the season a “hero. In the second season, he felt even more out of place, as we continued to learn that he represented an increasingly small part of Hannah’s life. He just kept injecting himself into the lives of others, always trying to make their stories about him. He was in love with Hannah, and he kissed her once, but he felt like he had to be the White Knight to Hannah’s memory, that she owed him an apology for killing herself. That he had to be the one to take down Bryce. That he had to pressure Jessica to tell her story. He was a tertiary character, at best, but Dylan Minnette is the big name in the series, so I guess the writers felt like they had to put him at the center of everyone else’s story, and give him Hannah as his Dark Passenger, which in a way sidelined a far more crucial and central character in Hannah’s story, Zack. He had the more meaningful relationship with Hannah, but he also had more reason to feel guilty, not that Hannah’s death was his fault, either. But in a lot of ways, Zack turned into the role model for other guys: It’s important to call out your friends, to stand up to them, to rat on them if they commit sexual assault. There are some things that are far more important than your “bros” or your teammates, and I wish that Zack had been given more focus than Clay.

Spoilers for those who have watched the entire season

— I have mixed feelings about the potential school shooter storyline. There’s a fine line between humanizing a potential mass killer and depicting exactly what goes into creating a school shooter — the culture of bullying; the rejection; and the mental illness. The headlines coming out of Texas over the weekend in some ways mirrored what was going in with Tyler in 13 Reasons Why, and that was unsettling. And the thing about Tyler is, the school and his parents did the right thing. They kept an eye on him. His friend told an adult about his fears. They put him in a program. He got help, but the bullying didn’t stop, and Tyler sought to convert his shame into violence. I didn’t empathize with Tyler, but I could see how being sexually assaulted with a broomstick — on top of years of bullying — could turn Tyler into a potential killer.

— I didn’t disagree with the jury’s verdict. In fact, I never liked the case against the school to begin with. It was employed to frame the narrative, and I understand that, but from a legal perspective and from a common sense perspective, it never made much sense. There are so many factors that go into someone’s decision to take their own life, and while the culture of bullying at Hannah’s high school certainly contributed, there were a lot of other people to blame, too, and no one to blame at all. I hate to make a Trump analogy here, but blaming the school was kind of like blaming Hillary for Trump’s victory — sure, she made mistakes, but there were so many other factors involved, too. We can’t, as parents, scapegoat a school in order to absolve ourselves. That said, the school needs to fire a whole lot of people, starting with the superintendent and the baseball coach, for enabling that culture of bullying simply by looking the other way. (I would also add that Derek Luke put on a great performance this season).

— Finally, Bryce is a serial rapist, and he got off with three months probation. It was a gut punch, but as we have seen with men like Brock Turner, it was very true to life. A white kid with wealthy parents was never gonna face a long prison sentence. It’s disillusioning as hell, but I think that 13 Reasons at least tried to show there was some value in reporting the crime, even if it doesn’t amount in a conviction. But I don’t know. It’s also hard not to think, “What’s the point?” For better or worse, I think that’s the situation most sexual assault survivors face, and it’s why so few rapes are ever reported.

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.