'13 Reasons Why': Serial Sexual Assault Will Be at the Center of Season 2

13 Reasons Why Still and Brian Yorkey - Inset - Getty - H 2018
Ernesto S. Ruscio/Getty Images (Yorkey); Courtesy of Netflix (Still)

[This story contains spoilers from the first season of 13 Reasons Why.]

Netflix's breakout teen suicide drama 13 Reasons Why will look very different when season two is unspooled May 18.

Following its controversial first season — which featured the suicide of teenager Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) and the 13 cassette tapes of clues she left behind — creator/showrunner Brian Yorkey says the Netflix and Paramount Television series will explore equally heavy subjects, only without such a graphic depiction. The fallout from Hannah's suicide as well as sexual assault will be top of mind in the unexpected second season of 13 Reasons Why.

While season one followed the events of Jay Asher's book, many involved with the series and viewers alike did not expect there to be a second season. To hear Yorkey tell it, the finale set up numerous other storylines that could lead to a larger conversation about subjects including sexual assault, gun violence and more. Among the threads season two will explore are Jessica's (Alisha Boe) coming to terms with being a victim of sexual assault; Tyler's (Devin Druid) isolation and decision to buy a gun and explosives; and Clay (Dylan Minnette) coming to terms with Hannah's suicide.

"To leave them there would be unfair to the characters and to the viewers that had come to care about them," Yorkey said at a recent panel, after which he opened up about his larger plan for season two. "In season two, we explore how these characters deal with the aftermath of what happened to Hannah. [Guidance counselor] Mr. Porter [Derek Luke] will be coming to terms with the way that he let Hannah down and will be determined not to let any kids down in the future. His story is one of the most compelling to me. We’ll see a man who is determined to reach every kid who needs to be reached and help every kid who needs to be helped, whatever it takes. I think he will probably go out of bounds a bit in the other direction, trying to be helpful in the best way that he knows."

Hannah and Jessica's sexual assaults will also be central to season two, with a storyline conceived well before the #MeToo movement surfaced in the fall. (Season two will continue to feature Hannah, though there will also be new narrators.)

"I once read something online where someone said, 'Well, Jessica told her dad she was raped, so her story is over.' I remember thinking that right there is reason enough to do a season two, because her story is just beginning — her experience continues to be a central part of season two," Yorkey says.

Jessica's recovery will also be explored as Yorkey looks to examine what it's like to "go from being a victim of sexual assault to being a survivor of sex assault," as the series started breaking stories in February, before the Harvey Weinstein story broke and the #MeToo and Time's Up movements swept the country. Season two will explore an ongoing case of numerous sexual assaults that is connected to one of the athletic teams at the high school at the center of 13 Reasons Why. The revelation has been described as a "sickening secret" and conspiracy that will come out during the trial between Hannah's parents and the school district, thanks to a series of "ominous" Polaroids.

"We look at the ways that sexual assault has been perpetrated over a number of years and has been in fact documented, and also the ways in which the institutions — the athletic department, the high school itself — are in some ways complicit in letting that happen," Yorkey says of the timely storyline. "When we first developed it, we had these discussions about whether it was realistic to think that serial sexual abuse could be kept secret by so many people for so long. Over the course of the summer, we watched events unfold in our culture that confirmed to us that yes, unfortunately, it is possible for severe sexual abuse at a very high, consistent level to be kept secret by many, many people, and for institutions to be complicit in it. So that’s very much a part of our story in season two, and we’re hoping that enters the conversation around the show, particularly because it is something that girls even at a very young age are dealing with in our culture, and it’s something that needs to change."

Below, Yorkey speaks with The Hollywood Reporter about his larger plan for season two and why, amid his vow for authenticity, the series will not feature another suicide when it returns.

You began writing season two in February and wrapped filming in December. Since the sexual assault storyline is so timely, did you make changes as you went along? 

It’s always evolving. It was interesting this year with some of the storylines that we had. I mentioned the storyline of an ongoing kind of cultural tradition of sexual assault and sexual abuse at Liberty High School and the institutional complicity in it. Also, the storyline of Tyler, who is a kid who might be at risk of being a school shooter. Both of those storylines were very much ones that we developed in the late winter. They were in the first season, and then we really started to continue to develop them in the late winter and early spring — and then we sort of watched as the world unfolded. It was really a remarkable experience. I don’t think it really led us to change that much, but it did reaffirm for us that these were really important stories to be telling.

Those seeds were planted in the first season, which bowed well before the current #MeToo era. 

It’s just so moving. These conversations, especially around consent and around sexual abuse and the culture of sexual violence toward women — and I mean literal violence, but also emotional violence — and the fact that that culture is kind of being exploded for the first time is really sort of thrilling. For those of us on the show it’s like, “Well, yeah.” And I think for so many of us in the world it’s like, “It’s about time.” It's a very different world when season two will be releasing compared to season one.

Is the sexual assault storyline the central theme of the season in the way that the tapes were in season one?

It’s one of the central mysteries of the season. But the driving engine, whereas in season one we had tapes, in season two we have a trial. Hannah Baker’s parents [Brian d'Arcy James and Kate Walsh] are suing the school district for its responsibility in Hannah’s death. Over the course of the season, the trial unfolds. The kids are called in to testify, we get to hear their side of the story; secrets are revealed, and we learn things we didn’t know before. There’s a mystery that Clay, with the help of Tony and some of the other friends, will unfold over the course of the season that ends up being very instrumental in the trial. 

What other themes will you be exploring?

Recovery is a central theme for us. So many of these kids had been through traumatic experiences, both due to Hannah’s death and also independent of that and just as a part of their lives, and we wanted to begin to see them start back on the road toward wellness and wholeness and see what that looks like in the sense that recovery is not a straight line, and it’s not a simple process. That’s a central theme of the season.

How will the trial help with the show's larger message?

Justice is definitely a central theme. We had a number of notecards taped to the wall of the writers' room, and one of the big ones was: What is justice? And: Can we find justice in an unjust world?

Paramount TV head Amy Powell, whose studio produces the series, said there will not be another depiction of a suicide this season. Was that a creative decision in response to the backlash from season one?

It was a creative decision. Hannah’s suicide is the central, inciting incident of the story, but the story is about so many things and tough topics around that. Obviously, Hannah’s suicide continues to be very much a part of the story. 

While you won't depict a suicide, does that also mean that there won't be a suicide at all in season two?

Yes. There’s no suicide on screen or off. And there’s no flashbacks to it.

You knew this show was going to elicit a response, but did you anticipate that the reaction to the depiction of the suicide in season one would be as vocal as it was?

I knew there would be conversation about it. I didn’t know there would be that much conversation. I knew people would watch the show. As we were making it, I said, “This is the kind of show that I would watch and feel passionately about when I was a teenager.” But I watched a lot of things that no one watched and that people thought I was weird for watching. I had a sense that we were going to have a very passionate, very small but hopefully vocal and interested group of viewers. I felt like if we could be an important show for them and touch their lives, that would all be worth it. I did not anticipate that the number of people who watched it would be so large and that the conversation around it would be so intense. I certainly was not under any illusion that it was an easy show to watch or that we weren’t taking on very tough topics, but I think the level of the conversation and the fact that it reached around the world was certainly surprising.

Does the second season leave the door open for a third? Will 13 Reasons Why always be about this town and these characters, or would you consider an anthology?

With the second season, we feel as with the first that we’re following the stories of these characters. I always think there’s more story to tell, but I think that depends on viewers and everyone’s reaction to it and whether it’s important to keep telling the story. I do think that our interest in a second season was because we wanted to continue to follow these people. If there is a future for the show, to me, it’s about these characters, and not necessarily a new set of reasons or a new set of tapes. Someone else might do that, but that’s not my job to do that.

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