This editorial is a part of a new column at The Young Folks called “Editors Note.” The column aims to discuss topics currently prevalent in Hollywood. Spoilers for season two of 13 Reasons Why below and trigger warning for discussion about sexual assault.
Season two of 13 Reasons Why was never going to surpass the first, something that was apparent right when we realized the story wouldn’t be neatly tied up at the end of the first set of 13 episodes. Hannah’s story was over, Clay had found what seemed to be a bread crumb of peace, and while not every storyline had been given a specific send off, there was an air of finality to it all. Season two almost immediately proves the cautious fans right with an assembly of fumbles, with Clay’s characterization being tanked, too much focus on Alex, Bryce and Tyler, and a lack of awareness of what made the first season so popular.
Even so, after episode six it felt like the show might be on the path to righting itself. The rest of the season remained flawed, but the momentum had picked up and characters were beginning to make new and promising bonds that encouraged us to continue binging. Then, episode 13 happens and Tyler is brutally raped by three football players after being physically assaulted and tries to bring a gun to a school dance. Each beat after that terrible scene in the bathroom continued to leave a deepening welt on the season as a whole. Directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez, the finale, “Bye,” deserved a greater content warning for a scene I wish I could erase from my memory.
There’d already been something to be mad about within the finale when Bryce was only sentenced to three months – a mere slap on the wrist. In this case, however, unhappy as the outcome may have been, it felt unfortunately true to life where abusers so often walk away. It might’ve been nice to be given some sliver of a happy ending after two seasons of misery, a shadowy hint of escapism within a show prone to punishing their characters’ potential happiness, but it made sense just why the showrunners chose to go down the bleaker path.
But then, Tyler is raped and he tries to bring an assault rifle to school to exact revenge on those who hurt him, and all of a sudden that queasy sense of “this is so wrong” morphs into something more horrifying. In this moment, the show decides to empathize with Tyler, to give him an out despite the fact that no matter the heinous and evil acts that were forced upon him, nothing justifies what he was about to do before Clay manages to intervene, take the gun from his hands, and send him away with Tony for a quick escape.
What were the writers and filmmakers trying to achieve by highlighting such an act of brutality? It feels smug, as if the filmmakers feared we didn’t already know just how abhorrent and indefensible rape is. More than anything else, it’s as if this was a way for the showrunners to get a leg up on viewers – fans and naysayers alike – who’d criticized how they handled Hannah and Jess’s assault (and, in the former’s case, subsequent suicide) by letting us know they could go darker and deeper and more calculated in how cruel they could be to their characters. They extend little empathy to the Tyler character, instead using him as a cheap way to expel the waste that is shock value.
We should be angry. Television isn’t obligated to serve as a dramatized PSA – plenty of shows that are considered the “greats” exist in a world where flawed individuals do very bad things. That being said, there’s no separating 13 Reasons Why from its target audience – teenagers – and the implications being made at the end of the season that forgoes seeking guidance in favor of violence aren’t just misleading, but troubling. The world we live in today has grown increasingly hostile towards our youth, with toxic masculinity tallying an unfathomable death toll. Tyler’s assault was the episode’s first mistake, not just because it happened, but how it was shown and done. It was cheapened by using it to primarily upset. The second mistake happens when his rape is used to seemingly absolve Tyler of any true consequence for his actions; he was hurt – terribly and unforgivably – but he isn’t therefore justified in inciting more violence. It’s a grievous, irresponsible, and slippery slope to set for itself and an ominous way to present tragedy and the ripple effects it causes.
At Vulture, the show creator Brian Yorkey has already spoken out about this with a tone-deaf attitude, calling out viewers for not getting as outraged over Jess and Hannah’s sexual assaults in season one (spoiler: they were, you douche) while also lamenting on how important it is to talk about it rather than be silent.
Then talk about it – have the much needed discussions about rape culture and sexism. Don’t show it in a sensationalized manner, which undoes any of the supposed goodwill you’d been trying to build. People were furious over the sexual assault scenes in season one and the only difference is that this time, what with the newfound statements over content warnings, viewers believed that the show had taken heed of the complaints and turned a new leaf.
To what gain is it to depict a violent and visceral rape scene? Where is the justification in making sure every painful detail is captured so that we feel immediately sick to our stomachs? Sexual assault has long moved past being necessary in any visual storytelling device and if a story revolves around that event, well, there are manners to implicate a plot point without explicitly showing it, which can result in just as powerful storytelling. From The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo to Red Sparrow and Irreversible, scenes of sexual assault have become archaic. Stories of trauma can be told without the brutal imagery involved with it and can be become more powerful because it hands the point of view to the victim, not to the assailant or viewer.
The message that the season finale is trying to convey is at best warped and, at the worst, dangerous. The writers handled it so indelicately that it’s hard not to believe that the season two finale was nothing more than the writers flipping the bird to anyone who made them stamp their content warnings at the start of the episodes. Season one of the show was imperfect, but its core group of characters and the performers behind them, along with a trust in its teenage protagonists, elevated it beyond what might’ve typically amounted to nothing more than misery porn.
Season two strips that goodwill away with a shocking lack of affection for their characters and instead sets to finding ways in which to repulse an audience who’d stuck with them through a tumultuous first season and into an ill-conceived second. I don’t know if there will be a season three. I imagine there will be, and if there is, I hope the showrunners take a good, long look at the current climate and at the repulsion they’ve caused (instead of say, a passionate discussion) and reign in their cheap, shock value tendencies and return to working on the characters who helped bring the audience back for a season two in the first place. At this point 13 Reasons Why isn’t a show about healing, discussing mental health or a reckoning with recovery. Instead, it’s become a part of the problem.