Wood's Homes Blog

13 reasons why season two should not be viewed alone

May 23, 2018
By Dr. Angelique Jenney, Wood's Homes Research Chair in Children's Mental Health
13 reasons why season two should not be viewed alone

It was last May when I first wrote about the controversial Netflix series 13 Reasons Why, providing parents with information about the contents of the show, how to talk to their teens about watching it (or not) and even suggesting that parents watch the show WITH their teens, if possible.

This past weekend, Netflix released season two of 13 Reasons Why and, despite my reservations after watching the trailer, our family binge-watched it (apparently the only way to watch if you’re in high school and don’t want to be exposed to all the spoilers on the first day back!). I can honestly say I’m really happy we all watched it together – not just to get through the hard parts, but also because there are so many parts that are actually very funny and offer up wonderful opportunities to recover from uncomfortable scenes and get everyone talking.

I admit that as a mental health professional, I was pretty enamoured with what I saw as Netflix trying very hard to redeem itself for some of what might be considered blatant irresponsibility when they produced the first show.  For example, the second season begins with all of the actors introducing themselves and the various trigger warnings for the show. When it comes to shock value, this season does not disappoint; there is sex, sexual assault, graphic violence, and often extreme, vulgar language – even the teens in our household were expressing disbelief at the amount of foul language used – substance use, mental health issues, suicide and suicidation, self-harm, bullying to the extreme, guns, and lots and LOTS of drama.  While I applaud the show for opening with trigger warnings, having viewer discretion warnings before each episode and directing viewers to crisis resources at the end of each episode, it still manages to cross the line in terms of family-friendly viewing with the final episodes.  So here are my 13 reasons why this series should not be viewed alone (as well as some questions that can be shared with your family):

1. It starts with trigger warnings. And it absolutely needs to! Many scenes are graphic and disturbing. However, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a show that offers this many opportunities for viewers to reconsider watching and repeatedly provides immediate access to resources. Clearly, the producers heard the public’s genuine concern about the first season’s content and addressed it head on instead of simply being defensive or declaring artistic freedoms. Sadly, one still has to ask why some of the most upsetting scenes were even necessary.

That was an extreme scene, I’m actually sorry I saw that and probably won’t be able to get it out of my head for awhile.  What helps you get stuff out of your head that you don’t want sticking around?

2. It deals extensively with sexual assault and the issue of consent. In the last season, the show was rife with sexual assault and rape scenes, but all that was being discussed was suicide and mental health. This season is very different. Likely spurred by the Harvey Weinstein case and the #MeToo movement, this season has strong messages around consent, which is a very good thing.  That said, there are scenes that are hard to watch, graphic images shown and episodes not easily forgotten.  Those trigger warnings are important, but likely not enough – your kids are going to see disturbing content that will stay with them.   Even when you look away (and I admit that I had to on more than one occasion) the soundtrack of human suffering cannot be blocked out. On the upside, there is a very moving and positive portrayal of the development of a sexual relationship between Hannah and Zach, which provides a great opening for discussions of healthy sexuality.

The way Hannah and Zach’s relationship progressed over time was kind of beautiful, don’t you think?  Why do you think it went so well for the two of them?  What did she mean when she talked about getting over her own feelings of shame first in order to really enjoy herself?

3. It deals with substance abuse. Characters use and abuse alcohol, pot, ecstasy and heroin, and although there is always the risk of such scenes being glorified, the creators do not gloss over the down side of drug use (e.g. the crash after the high) and the very real risk of addiction and spiraling out of control. Character Justin Foley is rescued from a life on the streets by his peers, but the struggle to stay clean from heroin is real and not romanticized. This opens up the opportunity to talk to your kids about substance use. 

Why do you think the characters want to use these drugs?  How can they ensure that it doesn’t get out of hand?  What do you think is going to happen to Justin?

4. It raises the issue of guns, gun violence and the spectre of school shootings. It was an unfortunate coincidence that the show was released on the very same day as the Texas school shooting, when that plot line was evident from the beginning (in fact foreshadowed in the first season’s finale). This season ends with Tyler going to the spring dance heavily armed, presumably to take out as many students as possible. Although the concept of everyone taking responsibility for how another person’s pain is being manifested is commendable (Clay heroically tells everyone to lock the doors of the school, to not call the police, and then goes out to confront Tyler himself – ultimately saving all of them, including Tyler), it seems incredibly irresponsible to dramatize a single student being able to talk someone out of shooting everyone, all the while having an automatic rifle pressed up against his throat.  This offers an important opportunity to talk to our kids about how to do the right thing AND stay safe. 

That seemed like a pretty unrealistic ending, don’t you think?  What could Clay and some of the other students have done instead?

5. It beautifully illustrates recovery and repair. So many characters are getting a second chance in this episode. Jessica (and others) works through her experience of rape and its aftermath – we see her getting help from a support group, another student, her friends and family, and, ultimately, she survives the experience of the justice system and begins to heal. We also see Mr. Porter work through how he failed Hannah and offers up the opportunity to see how things might have gone better.  A lesson for everyone that it’s better to face your demons and grow from the experience.   That the only way out sometimes is to go through that pain. 

Who do you think in this series is going through the most personal change what do you think is helping them most?

6. It never stops talking about suicide/suicidality and offers up opportunities to see that recovery is possible. Character Alex Standall, who shot himself in the head in the first season, illustrates his painful road to recovery, but also how important it is for him to be alive. Other characters talk about the way it feels too hard to go on, and yet they want to keep living.  It is discovered that Hannah herself actually wrote a list of 11 reasons why not to kill herself, and there is very real dialogue about there being so many more reasons to live.  Clay has the opportunity to both confront Hannah’s ghost, to tell her how her suicide has hurt him and so many others, while also making peace with her and himself, and releasing both of them from the shared suffering in a beautiful speech he gives at her memorial service. He quotes Skye when he states: “I can love you and still let you go”, which is an opening for some good conversations about grief, loss and not remaining in relationships that might hurt us.

That was a really moving eulogy Clay just gave, what do think viewers will take from that into their own lives?

7. The portrayal of mental illness. I have mixed feelings about this part of the season. I feel like the writers wanted to make a statement about mental health, recovery and how hard it is to understand what someone is going through, and that some issues won’t go away without professional help – all good messages. However, they missed opportunities to talk about mental health more generally and contributed to some of the ongoing stigmatization when Skye is sent away to live in a therapeutic treatment facility – a largely unrealistic option for most youth today. The show contributes to the mystery of mental illness and this false idea that you have to go away to get better.

What do you think about what was going on with Skye?  Will she stay away forever or come back?

8. It brings parenting back to the forefront. Last season, no one was talking to their parents about anything, but in season two the parents are starting to become main characters in some of the plot lines. There are still important messages about parents being connected to their kids, and figuring out how to listen and how to talk to them.  As a parent, the hardest part of this show is admitting how disconnected a parent can be, even when they think they are doing everything right (Hannah’s parents are faced with hearing about a part of their child’s life they didn’t really know).  There are lots of parents who are missing things while doing their best, this could open up some further lines of communication with your teen. 

Hannah’s mother really missed what Hannah was needing right there, what could she have done differently?  Have you ever tried to tell me something like that and I totally missed it?  I hope that if I ever make a mistake like that, you will feel like you could tell me so I could try again to get it right.

9. It doesn’t dance around diversity. Diversity has always been a strong point in this show, as it provides an in-depth look at characters from all walks of life, and addresses many issues such as socio-economics, racism and homophobia head on. For example, what happens in the court case itself is a lesson in reality for many.

Why do you think Bryce only gets a three month sentence for committing the rape, but Justin gets six for not reporting it?  Why does Jessica think her Dad is upset because her new friends are black?

Many characters are developing their sexuality and the show illustrates those who experience acceptance from friends and family, and those who do not. The scene where Courtney’s two dads try to figure out which lesbian-positive DVD to watch with their daughter is both hilarious and heartwarming, and illustrates that even when they are sort of getting it wrong, they are still getting so much of it right.  

That is such a great scene with Courtney’s dads, she is clearly mortified and yet understands how much they love her and want to get it right.  What do you think she wishes they had done instead?

10. Relationships are complicated. Both for adults and for teens. There are a lot of very complicated relationships in this season, both for the kids at the school (think Chloe and Bryce, Jessica and Alex/Justin, Alex and Zach, and Tony and Brad) and their parents.  We see the struggle between parents as they try to parent together, parent alone, manage a temporary separation, a permanent divorce, and all the conflict and connection as they work through so many difficult moments. 

It’s clear that not all relationships are meant to last, and that’s ok – what appears to be the one thing that determines what goes right and what doesn’t?  How do you think people make decisions about whether or stay or go in a relationship?

11. It’s not always necessary or possible, but you can start again if you need to. I think this is an important theme to discuss with young people. There were so many characters who wanted to run away, start again and forget who and where they had been.  This is a really natural part of life and development; learning to live with regret and to work through the mistakes we’ve made is an important part of personal growth.  That said, there are times when starting fresh might be just what someone needs, even though it’s not always possible. 

Could things have been better for Tyler if he had come out of his Diversion program and started at a new school? 

Part of the fantasy is the idea that if no one knows about your past it won’t define you – but several characters illustrate clearly that your past is part of you and how you integrate it into your life moving forward is part of the importance of healing. 

Jessica’s friend Nina tries to keep secrets from herself and others, but it is still holding her back, why do you think that’s happening? 

Bryce seems likely to benefit from his move to a new school, what do you think about that? 

When traumatic things happen for kids at school (like sexual assault or extreme bullying) this could be an important discussion to have with them about how a new environment might be beneficial, or how the same environment with better supports (like strong peer relationships) could be the best place for them.

Do you think any of the kids in this season should think about transferring to a new school?  What do you think the benefits/downsides of that might be?  Have you ever wanted to go to a new school?  How do you imagine it would be different for you there?

12. Empathy. There are so many opportunities for the characters in the show to evoke and demonstrate empathy for themselves and for others. I’ve said it before and will say it again: any chance we get to learn how to think about the lives of others in a sensitive, thoughtful, caring way – the world becomes a little safer.

What do you think it is that has really brought this group of friends together this season?  They’ve been through so much together and it’s a bit like the glue for them – what is that all about?

13. There is still so much to talk about. The show itself offers up so many opportunities for parents to openly talk to kids about so many of the important issues right now.

This show brought up so many things for us to talk about, I really enjoyed that opportunity with you.   I hope we can continue to talk about things in real life in the same way.   In the meantime, make sure you download that soundtrack!

If you know someone who needs to talk, we're here to listen. Wood’s Homes has a number of ways that people can reach out for help.