“I know some people don’t want us to talk about what happened,” Tyler (Devin Druid) says in voiceover at the start of “13 Reasons Why’s” second season. “But if we don’t talk about it, it’s never going to change. So it’s important for everyone to understand how it all happened. The whole story.”
This is the very first thing viewers of the new season will hear — well, second, if you include the new trigger warning video featuring members of the cast that plays ahead of the premiere. But the warning and monologue are intertwined, because they’re ultimately about the same thing. The warning acknowledges that, while Netflix’s mega-hit series was well-received in its first season, it also drew plenty of controversy over how it treated its sensitive subject material: suicide, sexual assault, drug abuse, and so on.
But Tyler’s monologue, which we soon learn is delivered from the witness stand, is a defense of season two’s very existence. Yes, the creators (including showrunners Brian Yorkey and Diana son) know of the criticisms. Yes, they know there are questions as to why a season two even needed to happen. But their argument is that the season is necessary — “important,” even. And considering how successful the show has been, the story we see in season two may not even be the end.
The trial in question, which has compelled troubled gun aficionado Tyler’s testimony, is a lawsuit against Liberty High School by the parents of late student Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford). Hannah’s tapes explaining why she committed suicide provided the narrative arc of season one, with each tape focused on a different person in Hannah’s life. The trial serves the same function this season, with each episode centering on a particular witness’ testimony.
The result is something of an inverse of the first season: instead of Hannah’s voice on the tapes, we hear the other students, teachers, and her parents. They open up parts of the story we didn’t hear in season one, though we’re left to to decide on our own if we trust them as our narrators.
Reversing the narrative doesn’t do much to change the core of the series, though. The strengths — the diverse cast, intriguing mystery — remain the same, while the weaknesses — an exploitative edge, inconsistent characterization — have failed to resolve themselves. What is new and improved, however, is Dylan Minnette as Clay Jensen.
Clay is the rock of “13 Reasons Why,” the anchor who keeps us chained to Hannah’s story. No matter whether we disagree with Hannah’s actions, get frustrated with the treatment of rapist baseball player Bryce Walker (Justin Prentice), or would perhaps rather follow the complex, challenging story of survivor Jessica Davis (Alisha Boe), Clay keeps us on track. This is about Hannah, the girl he loved but never got up the guts to tell. This is about his journey to make sure her suicide is avenged — whatever that personally means to him. And this is about his relationship to her and her memory, no matter how many forces of doubt come to challenge that.
Minnette is a marvel, turning in one of the most committed, insular, intense performances you’ll see anywhere on television. The 21-year-old actor reads as a blank slate when he’s still — maybe a hint of a perpetual grimace on his face, but ultimately inoffensive. As a result, Clay is often seen looking pensive, quiet, and expressionless.
When he breaks, however, Minnette shines. Clay screams, cries, and generally loses his cool this season, and Minnette captures it all without missing a beat. Every bit of pain seems to leave an extra wrinkle or crag on Clay’s face. Minnette himself makes Clay feel heavier as the season goes on, like having to do any small thing would cause the young man to explode. Minnette plays Clay as a teen on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and you can’t take your eyes off him.
A good deal of the cast is good this season — particularly Kate Walsh as Hannah’s grieving-but-furious mother Olivia — but Minnette stands above the pack. His is a tour-de-force performance that goes a long way to making “13 Reasons Why’s” second season feel worth the drama. Are there still concerns with how it handles suicide? Absolutely. Could the show continue to be more deft with how it handles sexual assault? Yes, although there has been some improvement, largely in how the series centers women in these stories more.
Ultimately, for a show as sensitive as this, the viewer’s comfort plays a huge part. For some, it will likely be too much. For the teens who drove the show to massive popularity, season two will likely be just as binge-worthy as the first. And for others, there will be questions and concerns — and appreciation for Minnette’s Clay, one of the best TV performances of the year.
TV Review: ‘13 Reasons Why’ Season 2
Drama series (13 episodes, all reviewed): Netflix, Fri. May. 18
Executive producers, Brian Yorkey, Diana Son, Tom McCarthy, Joy Gorman Wettels, Steve Golin, Michael Sugar, Selena Gomez, Mandy Teefey, Kristel Laiblin
CAST: Dylan Minnette, Katherine Langford, Kate Walsh, Brandon Flynn, Alisha Boe, Christian Navarro, Justin Prentice, Miles Heizer, Ross Butler, Devin Druid, Tommy Dorfman, Ajiona Alexus, Michele Selene Ang, Sosie Bacon, Amy Hargreaves, Derek Luke, Kelli O’Hara, Wilson Cruz