Understanding the compelling complicity of Zach Dempsey in 13 Reasons Why Season 2

For better or (often) worse, 13 Reasons Why champions itself as a conversation starter on a number of difficult and sensitive topics, like suicide and suicidal ideation, self harm, depression, sexual assault, substance abuse, bullying, and violence. As with the first season of the hit series, Season 2 of 13 Reasons Why was arguably too long and too stuffed with dramatic and convoluted storylines as it tried to address most of these sensitive topics at the same time, to a dizzying effect.

While the trial between Hannah Baker’s parents and the school district slogged on as the central frame of the season, the Liberty High teens were dealing with more drama than Season 1 of The OC…in exactly half the episodes. But while the series’ handling of these sensitive topics was mixed at best — Jessica and Alex’s respective recoveries were a high point, while Tyler’s descent into violence was a supremely botched mess — one of the most compelling arcs in the series was also arguably one of its most subtle.

Prior to its release, showrunner Brian Yorkey revealed that one of the major themes of 13 Reasons Why Season 2 would be complicity and the culture surrounding toxic masculinity and sexual abuse, specifically surrounding Bryce Walker and the Liberty High baseball team.

And it was shown through many lenses. Through Coach Rick’s (Ben Lawson) both deliberate blind eye to their gross misconduct and knowingly covering up the illegal activities (the synthetic pee, you guys!) of his baseball team. Through Montgomery and a number of the baseball guys, who in addition to taking part in this abhorrent behavior, serve as Bryce’s body men in covering it up. Even Bryce’s girlfriend — and victim — Chloe, exemplifies this in standing by him despite knowing his true nature.

However, the most important and compelling depiction of complicity features Ross Butler’s generally well-meaning popular jock, Zach Dempsey.

From the get-go, Zach has always been depicted as the relatively good guy in a sea of popular, athletic bullies — but one who too easily succumbs to peer pressure. In Season 1, he was generally relegated to a major supporting role as one of the jocks in Bryce and Justin’s orbit, albeit a more sensitive one. Throughout the season, he’s shown as being generally kind and even having a crush of sorts on Hannah, of which he’s teased about by his friends. However, after being rebuffed by Hannah, he shows off a petty side, stealing her notes, as revealed on one of Hannah’s tapes, and seemingly throwing away her devastatingly honest letter to him. But as he’s an established Good Guy™, he actually held on to the note and carries it around as a reminder of that shitty thing he did.

Luckily, Zach (and Butler in turn) received the gift of major character development in Season 2, which saw a fan favorite friendship with Alex Standall and a sweet (and also consenting and sex positive!!) summer fling with Hannah — which may have really worked had it not muddled the Season 1 narrative. But most importantly, Zach’s Season 2 storyline delved into the complexity of complicity.

From his introduction in Season 1 and certainly more outwardly in Season 2, Zach’s portrayed as someone who goes out of his way to not ruffle any feathers. In many ways, he’s the ultimate bystander — never partaking in the behavior but not having the nerve to either stand up to Bryce and his teammates or call attention to their behavior out of fear for the repercussions. It’s what makes him truly complicit to everything that’s happening — and is made even more compelling by the fact that throughout Season 2, he knows it.

In the beginning of the season, it’s shown in subtle moves, through his half-heartedly distancing himself from Bryce and the team outside of practice and spending his free time helping Alex with his recovery. But still, he maintains the facade of a friendship with the baseball guys, not doing anything that would jeopardize his position on the team. Furthermore, he’s caught in this culture of his baseball team being a “brotherhood” where complicity is not only encouraged but expected — by his teammates and his coach.

Even his mother — who is admittedly not privy to the entire story — encourages him to do what he can to keep his head down and do what is perceived to be the socially acceptable thing to do, rather than focus on the truth.

During the latter half of the season, we see the cracks in this facade as he purposefully ditches the Walker Field ribbon cutting and later has an altercation on the pitcher’s mound with Bryce, calling him out as a rapist and quitting the team. Minutes later, we learn exactly how much the inaction has been weighing on him, as Zach reveals to Clay and Justin that he’s been the one sending the polaroids and tipped them off about the clubhouse. He then reveals that he’s too much of a coward to do anything about the culture of sexual abuse perpetuated by his teammates but hopes the “braver” Clay can do something.

This revelation sparks a major shift in Zach, who later confronts Coach Rick about the behavior on the team. After Coach tries to call Zach’s outburst on the mound a disagreement between “family,” Zach calls him out for being a terrible father figure in fostering and encouraging a toxic environment that enables dangerous behavior. (It’s a scene Jason Bateman and the guys of Arrested Development should definitely check out!)

Zach’s someone who fashions himself to be a pretty good guy — and for the most part genuinely seems to be — but his inaction regarding the many crimes of the baseball team has pretty dark ramifications. It’s something that throws his Good Guy™ status for a bit of a loop. He may not have partaken in the culture of sexual abuse like his teammates, but he certainly knew about them and was too afraid to speak up. It’s something we also see in new character and fellow baseball player Scott Reed (Brandon Butler), whose shifty looks of discomfort all season serves as an important clue for Clay and by the end, he proves to be an ally to Clay and company.

They aren’t bad guys per se, and certainly aren’t the bad guys, but their continually looking the other way and keeping their heads down allows for some very bad things to happens. It prevents them from truly being the good guys and is sadly, all too common in real life.

In a season overwhelmed by trying to cover too many sensitive topics, the storyline stands out because it largely never feels like it’s trying too hard. While many of the other storylines strive to serve both drama and the “larger conversation” — often landing neither — this narrative generally feels more natural, although towards the end it veers in that direction. The arc is also helped by a stellar performance from Ross Butler, who is so likable as Zach that it’s frustrating to see him knowingly stay silent, and who never overdoes Zach’s internal conflict.

What makes Zach Dempsey’s arc so compelling this season is that it’s something most people can relate to — although on a much different scale. It’s an important reminder that you don’t have to be a terrible person to be complicit to an awful injustice, all you have to be is silent.

Season 2 of 13 Reasons Why is currently streaming on Netflix.

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