The second season of Netflix's controversial teen series 13 Reasons Why premiered amid the news that yet another school shooting had occurred in the United States. The 22nd for the year 2018, the news prompted Netflix to cancel the season's premiere event. There are a lot ironies to unravel in the links between the perceived impropriety of the show's mature content and the real life experiences of America's teens, but those are for other people to dissect in other venues.
While there are many issues with the season's construction and several reviews explaining how and why this new story fails, what interested me the most about these episodes is how they each illuminated that the show's presumptive hero and protagonist Clay Jensen is almost single-mindedly motivated by a desire to restore the reputation of a phantom girl untouched by sexual experience onto whom he can project his own desires and feelings. Hannah is his manic pixie dream girl.
At the end of the first season, Clay is positioned as the only person on the tapes who didn't harm Hannah. She says as much in her own words when she personally absolves him of blame. But I have always maintained that Clay's actions were also part of the isolation and rejection that Hannah experienced. As the first season trundles along, it becomes clearer and clearer that Clay was witness to many of the abuses Hannah suffered and rather than speak up or defend her, he kept his head down, all while pining away for a girl he wouldn't acknowledge in public. With these new episodes however things come into focus.
For much of the season, Clay is haunted by Hannah, literally and figuratively. He sees her ghost at critical moments and argues with her, questions her and defies her as he grapples with the new revelations about her life that come out during the trial initiated against the school by Hannah's mother Olivia Baker. As various students are called to testify, they reveal as yet unknown pockets of Hannah's personality and disclose secrets they had kept to themselves for fear of judgement or social repercussions. Many simply lie. But at every turn, Clay is there drinking in the accusations against Hannah and raging against her ghost for not having been more forthcoming during her life.
When Zachary Dempsey takes the stand, he discloses that he and Hannah had an extended summer fling after the death of his father. Isolated from his widowed mother who preferred to go on as though all was well, the two struck up a friendship that eventually turned sexual. When the school year resumed, Zachary distanced himself from Hannah so as to not suffer the social consequences of being associated with her poor reputation.
Clay's reaction to this news is to insist that Zachary must be lying. He accosts Zachary outside his car and physically attacks him. Later he confronts Hannah herself, angry that she slept with Zachary but was too upset during their own sexual encounter to sleep with him. It becomes clear that Clay is more upset that Hannah "chose" Zachary over him, than that the relationship happened.
Later, when the series' villain Bryce Walker takes the stand, he spins an elaborate tale of a promiscuous girl who leveled a rape accusation as revenge for a spurned romantic overture. Bryce has already been shown to be a predator and serial rapist, and yet Clay's first response is to question the girl he knew; could she have been stupid enough to consort with such a dangerous boy? When ghost-Hannah is insulted that he would believe Bryce, Clay spits back that Zachary's confession had been true, so why not Bryce's? Once again, the very idea that Hannah had a healthy interest in sexual exploration outside of him induces a visceral rage.
Later in the season, after Clay and Sherri discover The Clubhouse; the on-campus location of the baseball team's illicit sexual activity and the polaroid photos that prove their crimes, Clay recognizes some of the female students in the photos and questions why they would put themselves in dangerous situations. It is Sherri who has to then explain to him that girls do not willingly walk into situations that harm them; it is instead the boys who make the situations dangerous by plying them with alcohol and drugs and then raping them, knowing that as girls, they will remain silent about their assaults so that they do not risk their reputations. It is sad and concerning that after everything Clay has learned about Bryce's operating procedure and his predatory antics towards the girls in his orbit that Clay would still find a way to fault his victims for being harmed.
Despite this, Clay's quest to punish Bryce in Hannah's name so that he may clear her reputation is so laser-focused that he actively disregards the rights and feelings of his living victims. When the school's lawyer makes the case that Hannah was simply a promiscuous girl who was rejected one too many times, Clay decides to anonymously upload a digital copy of the tapes to the web in order to turn the tide on public opinion about the case. Of course, included in the tapes in not just the story of Hannah's rape, but of Jessica's.
As we saw in the first season, Jessica had a very difficult time coming to terms with her assault and briefly turned to alcohol abuse to cope. As a survivor (a term she rejects) her story is her own, and she is still figuring out how to make her peace with the violation she suffered and what to do about it. She, ghost-Hannah and other characters explicitly ask Clays not to publicly release the tapes because of the effect they know it will have on all their lives. In the following days, Jessica in particular is faced with pressure to come forward about her assault in order to help Hannah. But Hannah is dead, and can no longer be helped. As Jessica explicitly states, as a brown girl accusing a rich white athlete of sexual misconduct, she has far more to lose than Hannah did by coming forward. She also reminds him that despite Bryce's crimes, what happened to her, is her own story to tell and no one else's. By releasing the tapes without her consent, Clay took Jessica's choices away from her and re-traumatized her by forcing her to grapple with her pain in a way that was unhealthy. Clay's focus on avenging Hannah led him to disregard Jessica's clear and present needs and wishes.
Additionally, Clay finds proof that Bryce has raped his current girlfriend Chloe among the polaroids taken from The Clubhouse. Instead of a measured approach, Clay wishes to immediately turn the photos over the authorities as a further proof of Bryce's crimes. It is Jessica who has to step in and remind Clay that sensitivity is required. Chloe deserves to be handled with care when she is told that a boyfriend she loves and trusts has violated her and lied to her. Clay's bullheaded fixation on Hannah and desire to retaliate against Bryce once again risks harming a living victim who deserves to be centered in the story of her own assualt.
Over the course of the season's 13 episodes, a pattern emerges in which Clay is more invested in restoring his own image of Hannah as the perfect manic pixie dream girl than in recognizing her for the person she is. He insists that he loved her and yet his white knight complex didn't kick in until after she was dead. Clay is unable to see that Hannah was a full person who existed outside his own fantasy of her as the perfect girl, and is driven by his need to recreate the image he idolized so that he may continue to do so. He isn't interested in the complicated, complex and conflicted girl who took her life, but in the perfect, unattainable girl who wouldn't or couldn't be with him. For whatever reason, Clay cannot reconcile that despite their fatal outcome, Hannah's tragic choices were her own.
The manic pixie dream girl trope is insidious specifically because it insinuates that women and girls exist only to make the lives of the men around them better. Clay's rejection of Hannah as a whole person threatens to disconnect him from the reality of her life. Though the show never puts too fine a point on this, it is clear that Clay has an unhealthy obsession with the fiction he has created of Hannah, so much so that she literally haunts him. With the current epidemic of white male violence that is erupting from young men who face sexual rejection, it is more important than ever for boys to learn healthy sexual dynamics so that their rage does not harm the people around them. While Clay is thankfully more driven by a warped sense of justice than by violence, his recklessness still puts other women at risk in a way that is unacceptable.