‘Heartbreak High’ Somehow Gets Even Gayer in Season Two

In middle school, I changed my entire personality because of a high school girl I met over one week in the summer and occasionally instant messaged with. I did not know her last name. I did not know what part of my state she lived in. And by “changed my entire personality,” I really just mean changed my interests and aesthetic. I started wearing floor-length skirts in busy patterns and listening to The Beatles and wearing a rhinestoned Rolling Stones baby tee even though I couldn’t name a single one of their songs. I became the girl I thought Summer (yes, her name was Summer and we met at Christian summer camp) wanted. A performance of a fantasy of a projection.

In season two of Netflix’s Australian teen drama Heartbreak Highcharacters intermittently experiment with changing themselves for others. They learn over and over the hard lesson that they cannot and should not change for superficial reasons. The storytelling in season two also drives home that changing on the surface is different than deep, radical personal growth — something that takes time, effort, and a whole lot of self-work that’s difficult to do when you’re being a normal teenager doing normal teenage shit.

Central best friends Harper and Amerie are back, having repaired the fractures of the friendship fight that defines season one. In fact, Harper is living with Amerie now, floating in limbo following the violent events of last season. Amerie continues to be one of my favorite focal point characters in an ensemble teen soap, because she doesn’t at all fit the typical “outsider” narrative. She’s ostracized at school not for being different or weird or easy-to-pick-on. She’s nasty, impulsive, selfish, and prone to lashing out and hitting below the belt. In another series, perhaps she’d be the prototypical mean girl or the one-liner bully, but here, she’s allowed to be flawed, complex, someone to root for or against in oscillations. What I wrote about Heartbreak High is season one holds true in season two and perhaps even moreso: It’s deceptively complex, and its sharp tonal shifts genuinely echo the fraught emotions of teenage experience.

Darren saying "Literally everyone is queer now."

Some of the best storytelling concerns Harper and her attempts to get back to a sense of normalcy. People keep trying to offer her support, including her principal who is worried about Harper’s mental health as she tries to navigate preparing for a trial against Chook and the other boys who attempted to abduct her after the musical festival last season. The writing isn’t always airtight on this show, sometimes pandering to easily screengrabbable moments and not delivering much that feels novel or nuanced in its humor rooted in characters like Sasha who’s sort of a one-note self-important queer social justice crusader. But especially when it comes to some of its more serious storylines (of which there are many! This has Degrassi-level drama and soap to it), it will suddenly hit you with an incredible monologue or complex character dynamics that suddenly propel the narrative forward in interesting and layered ways.

Early on, for example, Harper breaks down in the principal’s office, because what she needs isn’t hugs or are you okays; what she needs are nice clothes for the trial, a car so she doesn’t have to take three buses to her lawyer’s office, and a place to stay so she doesn’t feel like she’s intruding on Amerie’s family and life. Heartbreak High delivers the big, big soap operatic moments, but it also balances those out with these more zoomed-in details and stakes. Ca$h’s storyline is similarly textured, Harper making it clear she doesn’t owe him forgiveness given his connections to Chook and ultimate complicity in the night Chook tried to assault her. But she still thinks he deserves a shot at finishing school and ends up advocating for him. And while the series never attempts to downplay Chook’s violence or villainry, his relationship with Ca$h is further developed, too, making it clear and complicated why Ca$h was all tangled up with him in the first place.

Season one bloomed beyond Amerie and Harper’s central tension to explore a multitude of intersecting storylines between its other characters, and season two blossoms even further. Missy, the queer Aboriginal character from season one, takes up more screen-time here. Following his curiosity after the threesome last season, Malakai is on a whole queer journey that is quite sweet. When Amerie freaks out about his budding romance with a new also bisexual character, it isn’t rooted in biphobia but rather hurt feelings that he tricked her into wanting an open relationship instead of being honest about his feelings. Indeed, so many of the conflicts central to Heartbreak High are rooted in characters’ inability to properly express their feelings, the lifeforce of most teen dramas.

Missy saying "We're bloody bisexual icons."

And so many storylines come back to these ideas about performance, about changing one’s self. In the case of Amerie, her attempts to become a better person are noble, and she really struggles with it in ways that make it clear one can’t just “become a good person” overnight. But meanwhile, she’s also changing herself for wrong reasons when it comes to other things, like convincing herself she can keep thinks casual with Malakai when it’s clear she wants something more. Malakai gets caught in a bisexual love triangle. Harper just wants to do normal reckless teenage shit instead of being treated as fragile. Darren and Ca$h figure out ways to be intimate that don’t force Ca$h out of the boundaries of his asexuality, but Darren eventually overcompensates, suppressing their own desires in the process. When dickhead Spider gets wrapped up with Missy, he vows to become a different person so that they can be more public about their relationship, but it’s a failed experiment, because of course it is. It’s easy to try on new personalities as teens, but those costumes are usually just an attempt to escape what their real problems and feelings are.

A lot happens in these eight episodes, and not ever subplot lands perfectly. Quinni ends up mainly functioning in service of other characters’ arcs rather than taking up narrative space of her own, which is ironic given that part of the point of her arc this season is supposedly that she has decided to unmask and stop giving the version of herself that others find most palatable. There’s a Pretty Little Liars-level overarching villain plot concerning a mysterious figure codenamed Bird Psycho who has it out for Amerie, and while the initial reveal to viewers of who it is does indeed surprise, once that reveal is made, the momentum peters out and begins to feel overwrought. Whereas other melodramatic developments on the show end up working with the help of a strong foundation of character development, this one just feels goofy.

The SLTs have new adversaries in the CUMLORDS, a purposefully ridiculous acronym for what is essentially a new men’s rights group on campus. But the battles between the SLTs, the CUMLORDS, and an emerging group of Puriteens end up feeling reductive and mostly just played for laughs rather than needling into some of the more meaningful places Heartbreak High is willing to go elsewhere. Sex and sexuality are still at the forefront of the series, which often confronts the contradictions, anxieties, and uncertainties of desires. But Heartbreak High sometimes skids confusingly into reductive and essentialist territory, even as it’s supposedly trying to make the point that people’s identities aren’t fixed or formulaic.

Much like season one, season two of Heartbreak High is queer across the board. Remember: This whole series started with a sex map connecting basically every student to one another. Indeed, at this point, shipping just about any combination of characters is fair game. There’s queer romance and heartbreak, sure, but also plenty of storylines that take queerness beyond the realm of romantic relationships and sex. Missy grows beyond her codependent friendship with her ex Sasha and connects with Malakai with their shared identities as Indigenous bisexual baddies. Harper, Darren, and Ca$h’s individual struggles with not having solid familial foundations leads to them all moving in together and creating a home that really feels like their own.

Spider saying "God isn't anyone just straight anymore?" in Heartbreak High season 2

I’m not sure at what point I realized just how much I was faking about myself when it came to my little performance for Summer from summer camp. I never saw her again after camp, and yet the performance persisted. In Heartbreak High, characters are often consumed by this impulse for self-possession, desperate to change themselves in the name of love or self-preservation. It’s in the ways these characters flounder and fail that the series succeeds.

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Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is the managing editor of Autostraddle and a lesbian writer of essays, short stories, and pop culture criticism living in Orlando. She is the assistant managing editor of TriQuarterly, and her short stories appear or are forthcoming in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, Joyland, Catapult, The Offing, and more. Some of her pop culture writing can be found at The A.V. Club, Vulture, The Cut, and others. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram and learn more about her work on her website.

Kayla has written 844 articles for us.

2 Comments

  1. In my opinion, one of the biggest strengths of the series is that it has many queer characters
    And on the other hand, one of the biggest weaknesses of the series is that it apparently has only one queer actor.
    Of course I’m just sure James Majoos is non-binary, not sure about Sexual Identity.
    However, I’m so happy that Netflix doesn’t cancel series with queer women characters, I don’t expect it to support queers more :D

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