The first season of “13 Reasons Why,” an adaptation of Jay Asher’s young adult novel of the same name, was a binge-fest for young viewers. But the Netflix series, which centers on the lead-up to a teenage girl’s suicide, also became a cultural lightning rod, triggering critical takes on its value and potential danger.
While the first season focused on the suicide of Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) and the cassette tapes she left behind as clues for her classmates to piece together what led her to take her life, the second season, which launches Friday, moves beyond the source material to explore the aftermath.
A major theme will be sexual assault—in part, exploring the sexual assaults of Hannah and her estranged friend Jessica (Alisha Boe) by classmate Bryce (Justin Prentice).
The Times talked to showrunner Brian Yorkey about the new season andand the timeliness of the subject matter. .
There was strong reaction to the first season. How did the response inform your approach for Season Two?
We knew we were making bold and unflinching choices in the storytelling. So the fact that there were strong reactions to it was not surprising. What was surprising was the level of intensity that the reactions had and the amount of people who saw the show and who weighed in with their opinions. We had no idea there would be the kind of attention paid to it. I think that it, as sort of overwhelming as it can be at times, it was something that we were actually, at the end of the day, glad we got started.
Were you worried it would paralyze you heading into Season Two — the pressure of knowing all eyes would be on you?
It certainly takes acknowledging that that pressure is there and searching our souls as writers and as storytellers and saying, “What got us here the first season? What were we most proud of the first season?” The answer was always that we set out to tell the most truthful story we could and to tell it unflinchingly so that when we took on these difficult, challenging themes and story threads, when we got to the hard parts, we weren't going to look away. . So what we said with Season Two is, “We wanna know what happens next with these characters.” We think there are things that Hannah didn't tell us. We think there are still things to learn about these characters. Let's try to tell the truth and be as unflinching with it as we were Season One.” That was our North Star.
Some showrunners adhere to the idea of not looking at reviews or social media reaction. But with a show like this, given the subject matter, how important did you find it to know how people were responding?
I think it's very important for all of us to be aware of all sides of the conversation that are going on around it.. I think you have to listen to as many different voices as you can, especially the voices that maybe didn't like everything that you did.Then it's important to process that information against your goals and your truth and the story you want to be telling. Strengthen your purpose where it matters.
There was some doubt that there could be a second season. People were sort of like, ‘Where do you possibly go from here?’
I think we're conditioned to think that once a book is adapted, once that part of the story is told, that the characters’ lives end there. I was always the kid who would finish a book and want to know what happened next to the characters and you're left to your own imagination.
People said, “Well, the story was told. We heard all 13 tapes.” That to me was astounding. No. 1, you're like, “Really? You think that Hannah put the whole story on her tapes? That she told the whole truth? That there wasn't anything she left out?” The fact is, no. For every tape, there's another side to that story. There's a kid on that tape who has their version of events. Not to say that Hannah lied, but she was making those tapes for a very specific reason. She had a thesis that she was getting to. So, there's undoubtedly a great deal that she didn't put on the tapes, that might actually be relevant to us. We learn about them in Season Two.
What became very clear was so many people don't even begin to understand that that was the very, very beginning of Jessica's journey as a survivor. It was a hugely important moment, but it was just the beginning. The recovery process of being a sexual assault survivor is a lifelong thing and there was so much more story to tell for Jessica.
In that vein, sexual assault is a through-line this season. The writers broke the season in the first half of 2017, before the Weinstein scandal set off the #MeToo movement. Did it in any way influence or cause adjustments to the season?
By May, we had pretty much locked in the story of the entire season. We watched what was unfolding in the culture and we had sort of two reactions. One of them which was, we were incredibly glad that these conversations were happening because they needed to be happening. The second one was we would look at each other and say, “No one's ever gonna believe us that we wrote this season before any of this happened.”
We had a number of big, orange note cards up on the wall in the writers room that had our themes for the season. Two of them were “What is justice?” and “Can you find justice in an unjust world?” They felt really important to us back then, and they feel even more important now because I think that the question is, what is justice for Hannah for what she went through, particularly at the hands of Bryce. What is justice for Jessica? Those are challenging questions. Can that justice be achieved? I think that many viewers will find the ultimate justice that is delivered, to be dissatisfying. We feel that that's as it should be, because … Unfortunately, justice can be hard to achieve in the real world as well.