13 Reasons Why Paints a Troubling, Uneasy Picture of Teenage Life. That’s Why It Matters.


Warning: This post contains spoilers for season 2 of 13 Reasons Why.

Early in the season 2 finale of 13 Reasons Why, there’s a sequence that may qualify as the most literal onscreen depiction of the #MeToo movement to date. Jessica (Alisha Boe) is finally testifying in court against her rapist Bryce (Justin Prentice), and recounts her experience in harrowing detail: “I will never forget the sheer terror of feeling your weight on top of me.” Abruptly, Jessica turns into Hannah (Katherine Langford), who committed suicide in the wake of her own assault by Bryce. Then it’s Nina (Samantha Logan), then Courtney (Michele Selene Ang), and Mack (Chelsea Alden), and Hannah’s mother Olivia (Kate Walsh), and Clay’s mother Lainie (Amy Hargreaves); almost the entire female cast of the show, all revealing their separate experiences of sexual assault. Significantly Lainie recalls a male colleague inviting her over to his hotel room to work and “answering the door in a bathrobe,” in an overt reference to Harvey Weinstein’s alleged MO.

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Like much of the show’s second season, this moment is jarring and a little inelegant; it’s unclear whose POV we’re in or whether the entire scene is a dream sequence. But that doesn’t truly matter: The raw collective power of these women’s stories, laid out before an uncaring institution, speaks for itself. Still, Bryce, a popular athlete from a powerful and wealthy family who loves to brag about his round-the-clock legal team and limitless resources, ends up being sentenced to just three months’ probation for raping Jessica. He lost his scholarship offers and has had his bright athletic future compromised, so, as his defence attorney takes pains to remind the judge, “Two young lives have been changed forever.”

Alisha Boe in 13 Reasons Why

Alisha Boe as Jessica in 13 Reasons Why


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Bryce gets to walk free, as those accused of rape so often do, and takes pleasure in reminding former friends like Zach (Ross Butler) that he’ll be back on the football team soon, albeit at a new school. Through Bryce, his teammates, and particularly the baseball team’s coach, this season has tapped skilfully into the idea that toxic masculinity starts early, exploring the pitfalls of jock culture and a power structure that puts male athletic ability on a pedestal above everything else.

Despite the slap in the face of Bryce’s lenient sentence, Jessica is still happy she testified, cautiously telling Clay (Dylan Minnette) that she feels “stronger” for it. Boe gives a raw and committed performance through the season as Jessica suffers debilitating panic attacks, struggles to communicate with her father about her experience, and ultimately gets to a point where she can face her attacker in court. It’s the kind of detailed recovery arc that remains too rare for victims onscreen, and it’s reason alone for this second season to exist, despite a popular refrain that the show should have ended after its first. The epidemic of campus sexual assault is far more widely discussed than high school assault, and yet, per RAINN, around 44 percent of sexual assault victims are under 18. A wildly popular teen drama like 13 Reasons Why shining a light on this matters, and this time, the writers seem more cognizant of their platform and the responsibility inherent in it. Of Bryce’s victims, season 1 saw Hannah die and Jessica silenced; season 2 emphasizes that these are not the only outcomes for a survivor.

Christian Navarro, Miles Heizer, Dylan Minnette

Christian Navarro (Tony), Miles Heizer (Alex), Dylan Minnette (Clay)


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Which brings us to Tyler (Devin Druid), and the finale scene which has perpetuated the show’s reputation for deliberate provocation. A perennial outcast with a creepy history of photographing female students both with and without their consent, Tyler has spent most of this season fighting back against the jocks alongside fellow misfit Cyrus (Bryce Cass), culminating in a grand final gesture where they burn the word “RAPISTS” into the baseball field. After a stint at a behavioural diversion program, Tyler returned to school with a new sense of calm and purpose—until a gang of vengeful jocks, led by Monty (Timothy Granaderos) accosted him in the school bathroom and sexually assaulted him with a broken mop handle. The scene is extraordinarily graphic and difficult to watch, and has sparked a similar level of controversy as season 1’s excruciating suicide sequence.

In the wake of this, Tyler is shattered enough to follow through on a threat that’s been looming ever since his stockpile of guns was introduced last season, and drives to the high school Spring Fling with a loaded rifle and several handguns. This dance is specifically marked as happening on April 20, the same day as the Columbine massacre, and this is not the only deliberate parallel drawn to that event. Depicting a school shooting onscreen remains deeply taboo (though they arguably shouldn’t be, when they are a near-weekly occurrence in America) and having the threat loom over the season as 13 Reasons Why does seems designed to bait controversy. And yet the finale wraps up on a strange scene that could almost be called wholesome: Tyler does not go through with the shooting, or even get inside the building. Instead he’s intercepted by Clay, who persuades him not to go through with it. It’s a little corny and a little rushed, but it’s also an ending that chooses anticlimax over drama, and hope over despair.

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There are real and glaring missteps in the finale. In stark contrast to the season’s generally nuanced handling of sexual assault, Tyler’s attack comes at minute 38 of the hour, leaving no space for it to be treated as anything but a plot device to spur him into violence. Rushing it into the finale, rather than placing it earlier in the season, makes the scene feel exploitative in ways that have nothing to do with its graphic content. And as has been noted, Clay choosing to confront an active shooter—and doing so successfully—sends an irresponsible and potentially dangerous message.

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But would the alternative have been better? Had Clay stayed inside with the rest of the class and Tyler had gone through with the shooting, the finale would have ended on the same note that made season one’s ending so bleak: that the only possible consequence of trauma is death. Season 2 flips that script, making the case that there is hope for assault survivors, that outcasts can find a sense of belonging, and that there can be redemption even for a kid desperate enough to take a gun to school. Whether or not Tyler’s assault scene ultimately feels justified will depend on how his storyline is handled in an unconfirmed-but-inevitable third season, but the writers have perhaps earned the benefit of the doubt.

Ample trigger warnings are attached to this season, and rightfully so. But the conversation about triggers often overshadows the alternative: that for many people, fiction is a safe space to process dark subject matter. One person’s trigger can be another person’s catharsis. As a teenager in a different era of television, I was drawn to Buffy the Vampire Slayer because—with its central metaphor of a high school that literally sits at the mouth of hell—it was the only show that came close to reflecting how dark the world often felt. I had the fortune to grow up in England, where the possibility of facing a gunman was not even on my radar, and 13 Reasons Why would have been a revelation about American school life. Last week, I attended a 13RW panel whose audience were mostly teenage fans, and recognized the fervor in their faces, the tremble in their voices as they spoke about the show and what it meant to them. In its uncynical, guileless, melodramatic honesty about teenage life, 13 Reasons Why is resonating deeply with its audience in a way that goes way beyond provocation.


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