Netflix’s teen drama sparked huge controversy with its graphic depiction of suicide and rape. As season two hits screens on Fri 18 May, we meet the cast and creator to find out what comes next
If you thought 13 Reasons Why was just a one-series flash in the pan, then think again. What you binged last year was just the beginning.
“Season one was quite the experience,” says showrunner Brian Yorkey, sat comfortably in a swanky hotel room in Rome. “But we always knew we we were going to be revisiting a lot of the events from a different perspective. After all, there’s another side to every story and in season two we’ll discover things no one expects.”
Based on the best-selling novel by Jay Asher, season one was a compelling mystery-drama that ranked among Netflix’s most binge-watched shows of 2017. Its plot revolved around Hannah Baker, a troubled high school student who takes her own life and leaves an accusatory suicide note on 13 carefully recorded cassette tapes. As they circulate, one-by-one around Hannah’s horrified classmates, each scrambles to bury the evidence and protect their name. But by the dizzying final episodes, the truth finally gets out.
It’s a difficult watch. Teen suicide and rape have rarely been portrayed so graphically and the show’s themes resonated strongly with young people. Google searches for suicide awareness spiked following its release and 13RW became Twitter’s most-talked about show of the year. Even Yorkey didn’t expect it to blow up so violently.
“We knew there was going to be conversation around it and I think we wanted that,” he explains. “But the volume and the intensity of it? That was surprising.”
Some praised Netflix for widening the conversation, but others — including parents, mental health professionals and even indie bands — voiced concerns. Their main gripe? The overly graphic portrayal of Hannah’s final act, which flouted broadcasting guidelines that specifically advise against depicting “methods of suicide” on screen. However positive the intentions, there is always the risk that some will see it as a ‘how to’ rather than a ‘why not to’.
Chief among these critics was Car Seat Headrest frontman Will Toledo. He branded the show “kind of fucked” in a Twitter rant and shamed the writers for “telling kids how to turn their miserable and hopeless lives into a thrilling and cathartic suicide mission.”
“The wrath of a millennial – you do not want to brave it!” – showrunner Bryan Yorkey
For Dylan Minnette, who plays Hannah’s closest friend Clay, the words still smart. “It was unfortunate because I’m an unbelievably huge Car Seat Headrest fan,” he says sadly. “I hope he did his research and watched it all before he formed his opinion because he’s quite outspoken about a lot of things. I guess it was just ‘Will being Will’, but when it’s about something you’re part of it kinda sucks.”
For the most part though, the response was positive — especially from fans. Research carried out by Northwestern University showed 71% of all teens surveyed were more likely to talk about their problems after watching 13RW.
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Problem solved, right? Well, not really. Apart from the backlash, there were other things standing in the way of a return. The plot, for example.
At the end of season one the tapes are finished, Hannah is dead and — although some questions remain — Asher’s source material goes no further. Yorkey had to make a choice: leave it there, re-examine the events through a different lens or venture out into unknown territory. In the end, he went for a fudge of the last two.
“We always knew that we wanted Hannah to come back,” reveals Yorkey. “We wanted her to be a presence in Clay’s life because he still has to go through the process of letting her go, of coming to terms with her death. We wanted to find a way to dramatise that process.”
New narrators have been added, and there’s a different plot device to drive the narrative. Instead of tapes drip-feeding information, each episode is framed around a single polaroid photo. It’s something Yorkey’s got a lot of stick for from a young audience.
“I made some remark in an interview last year about how [the polaroids] were gonna be a new technology that millennials would have to google,” he chuckles. “Immediately, I had at least half a dozen kids tweeting me: ‘We know what polaroids are, please. I have a polaroid camera!’ The wrath of a millennial – you do not want to brave it!”
As for the identity of the mysterious polaroid-taker, Yorkey remains coy. The person behind the snaps “has a very specific reason why they want polaroids and not just pictures on their phone.” But whoever they are, it seems like Clay will be the one tasked with tracking them down.
“People are genuinely affected by the work. They care so much” – Katherine Langford
“This isn’t an easy season for Clay,” admits Minnette. “When it picks up, we find him trying his hardest to move on completely from Hannah. But when the [school goes on] trial [for negligence] it forces him to jump back into action to get justice for Hannah.”
Luckily for Clay, his parents have now bought him a car. So don’t expect a repeat of the late night bicycle chases (and crashes) from season one. Maybe he won’t permanently have a plaster slapped on his forehead too? “I think Clay is always going to find a way to get some wounds,” laughs Minnette. “There’s just no way around it!”
All jokes aside, Clay — and his relationship with Hannah — remains the beating heart of 13RW. When I meet Dylan Minnette and Katherine Langford, who played Hannah in her first ever role, they’re all smiles, laughing and joking their way through our short chat. But it must be weird, I think, to get your big break as a character who’s killed off even before the first scene?
“It’s strange,” says Langford. “But for me, Hannah felt very much alive throughout season one. [Director] Tom McCarthy told me really early on: ‘You’ve got a long way to go.’”
Despite Langord’s feelings, Hannah is very much not alive in season two. So how does she feature? “Every time you see Hannah this season it’s filtered through the eyes of someone else,” reveals Langford. “You see her in flashbacks, some true, some untrue, and then also in the present day with Clay as a presence.” What, like a ghost? “Sort of. Hannah’s character is something that is discovered over the course of shooting. But I’d say presence is probably the best way to describe it.”
In fact, Hannah’s appearances in season two are mostly confined to Clay’s mind. As the trial progresses and the strain increases, he begins to see more of her while nobody else can. In many ways, 13RW is as much about Clay as it is Hannah. It’s the story of a young man unravelling in the wake of unimaginable trauma. Hannah’s continued “presence” is simply proof of Clay’s inability to cope.
Similarly, the young cast might have buckled under the pressure. But they didn’t. As we speak, there are hundreds of fans (mostly young girls) queuing outside the hotel, hoping to catch a glimpse of the two stars. Surely that’s difficult to handle?
“I was very adamant to myself that I wouldn’t change anything when the show came out” – Dylan Minnette
“These people are genuinely affected by the work. They care so much,” says Langford. “I came from Australia where I’d never done anything and now I’m on the biggest Netflix show ever.” She continues: “I’ve found a home with fans. They genuinely bring me a lot of comfort and motivation.”
Minnette is more business-like about it. He’s filmed blockbusters with Hugh Jackman and Jack Black and has more experience in the spotlight. “There’s a lot of different ways to handle it,” he says. “I was very adamant to myself that I wouldn’t change anything when the show came out.” Is that possible? “I just said to myself: ‘You don’t owe anybody anything. Be yourself and live the life that you’ve been living.’ That’s how I stayed healthy and happy.”
As for dealing with the show’s dark material, that’s a different matter. Alisha Boe, who plays fellow student Jessica, has some of the most traumatic scenes in the show. In season one, her character is raped at a party by jock Bryce, while her boyfriend Justin lets it happen then tries to cover it up afterwards. Sensibly, support was made available should it all get too much for the young actors.
According to Boe, there were “doctors on hand to talk to” and the cast worked closely with It’s On Us — an organisation that aids sexual assault survivors in their recovery. At one point, there were even dogs on set. “We would be crying and there was suddenly a puppy right there that you could go and hug!” grins Boe. “There was so much support available.”
But what about Jessica? Does she get help in season two? Is justice served to Bryce? “I hope so,” says Boe. “We will be exploring that [in this season]. It’s about Jessica’s journey and how she’s trying to recover. One day it can go really good and the next come crashing down. We follow her as she goes through it.”
Disappointingly, some fans weren’t as understanding as Boe had hoped. Several slut-shamed Jessica online, while others implied the rape was her fault. She wasn’t surprised: “I felt like that was parallel to how society views survivors,” she says. “It’s very common to victim blame.” Later, the #MeToo movement gathered pace and Jessica’s story took on new relevance. “The article by Ronan Farrow came out in the middle of filming,” explains Boe. “It was so empowering to see women speaking out and then going to work because it ran so close to the story that we were telling.”
One of the movement’s biggest celebrity supporters also played a huge part in making 13RW happen. Originally down to play Hannah — her mother had optioned the book on release — Selena Gomez ended up as an executive producer instead. “By the time it came round as a TV show, Selena was already a global pop star,” says Yorkey. As a result, she decided against starring as it would throw things “out of balance”. But she still wanted to be involved and worked hard behind the scenes.
“Selena’s been very open about her own struggles with mental illness,” says Yorkey. “She has a gigantic fan base filled with young people that she really cares about. Having her as our guardian angel and guiding light has been really powerful.”
It also meant she could attend the wrap party, a night Gomez documented on her Instagram. Photobooth snaps, uploaded to social media, show her getting chummy with the cast. They look ecstatic, thrilled to have a megastar in their midst. But Minnette was actually “desperately trying to get back to my apartment in time to watch the mid-season finale of The Walking Dead.” And Langford was “tremendously sick.”
“I had to go home within two hours because I was so ill,” she reveals. “Then I got a phone call at 5AM because it was the day the Golden Globes nominations came out and I had to write a response for press. Then we shot that day in the afternoon. It was a weird 24 hours.”
Ultimately, Langford didn’t win the category she was up for — Best Actress in a Drama TV Series. But she’s now in the public eye and a popular name among casting directors. In a strange twist of fate, considering Hannah’s status in 13RW, Langford’s become a Hollywood ‘it girl’. But it’s not a phrase she’s fond of. “I don’t like it because it makes me feel like I’m a moment in time, like I’m not a substantial thing that’s going to continue,” she explains. “I’m here for a long time.”
So, what’s next for Langford & Co. — is season three in the pipeline? The cast seem keen. “I’m definitely interested in seeing more of Clay’s life. I would love to keep exploring that.” says Minnette. “If it makes sense to have a story then there should definitely be another,” agrees Langford. As for Boe? She says she “doesn’t know anything” and that we have to “wait until season two’s out”. Only Yorkey doesn’t respond, probably under strict orders to stay quiet. “You’ll just have to wait and see.”
13 Reasons Why is available to stream on Netflix from May 18
Fresh faces in old places
Showrunner Brian Yorkey spills the beans on season two’s new characters
Who: A respected runner on the athletics team. She tries to help Jessica come to terms with her rape, but sometimes pushes too hard and makes things worse.
Played by: Samantha Logan
What Yorkey says: “She’s a track star at school with a secret. She comes into Jessica’s life and really has a big impact on her.”
Who: The bubbly head cheerleader at Liberty High. At first she seems nice and reaches out to Jessica. But as the series goes on, Chloe’s forced to make some tough decisions that will change how we see her.
Played by: Anne Winters
What Yorkey says: “She’s Bryce’s girlfriend so, you know, you can extrapolate from there.”
Who: Rock-loving outcast who lives to cause trouble. He’s a friend to all loners, but an enemy to the jocks and anyone who conforms.
Played by: Bryce Cass
What Yorkey says: “Cyrus actually becomes a friend of Tyler’s in a really cool, unexpected relationship.”
FOR HELP AND ADVICE ON MENTAL HEALTH:
- ‘Am I depressed?’ – Help and advice on mental health and what to do next
- YOUNG MINDS – The voice for young people’s health and wellbeing
- CALM – The Campaign Against Living Miserably for young men
- Time To Change – Let’s end mental health discrimination
- The Samaritans – Confidential support 24 hours a day