I honestly started watching Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why without any context—all I knew was that it was some sort of teen show. I didn’t know about any of the hype or controversy. This might very well mean that I have had my head in the sand for the past three weeks, or maybe it’s because I’m just not a teenager (and also probably have my head in the sand).
At any rate, by the third episode I had the context—and felt it was important to finish watching it, if only to know what the heck is going on in pop-culture. In the process, I discovered a thought-provoking, stylistically unique, and somewhat problematic fictional world.
Spoilers, and all that…
In case you are also not a teenager and/or have had your head in the sand, here is the basic premise of 13 Reasons Why. Teenager Hannah Baker commits suicide, but before she does she records a set of audio tapes mapping out everything that led her to that tragic decision. She has also left instructions that all the people mentioned on the tapes (mostly classmates, but one school administrator) as “reasons why” have to listen to them, in a certain order. As the series opens, intellectual “nice guy” Clay Jensen has just received the tapes.
And so what proceeds is a narrative flipping in and out of the current timeline, as we see Clay in the present and the now-dead Hannah very much alive in the past. Every episode focuses on a member of this continually expanding ensemble cast, as we learn things about their lives and their actions that they pretty much would like to keep secret.
Particularly driving co-protagonist Clay is this foreboding rumor that perhaps what he did on the tapes is worse than anybody…that it was he who ultimately “killed” Hannah Baker. And this brings up a larger issue that I think is at the heart of whether or not you think 13 Reasons Why is problematic (outside the way suicide is handled in the series; more on that shortly).
As much as Hannah has suffered—and she suffers tremendously in this show, with bullying, abuse, sexual assault, and rape—making somebody (in this case, Clay) feel like they “killed” you, when they clearly did not, is a horrible thing to do to someone.
I have the world’s smallest violin when it comes to the character Bryce (rapist), Courtney (two-faced liar), Marcus (liar, groper), and so on. But Clay’s biggest “failing” is that he stopped making out with Hannah when she specifically told him to; and then left the room when she told him to. And then received a guilt-trip that he should have ignored Hannah (clearly in tears) ordering him to stay away from her, and stayed in the room instead.
What the hell was Clay supposed to do, here? He’s half-naked in the room with Hannah, they are both having consensual kissing & whatnot, he did not do anything inappropriate—she gets upset, tells her to get off her, yells at him to leave. Should he have stayed in the room at that point? Because that’s kind of what Hannah insinuates on the tapes; that when Clay left, it started this whole “butterfly effect” of bad things happening, like Jessica getting raped in the same room (I mean for God’s sake: it’s like Clay is getting blamed for that too), Hannah leaving the party with Sheri, Sheri running over the stop sign, Jeff dying in the car crash because of the missing stop sign (again: it’s like Clay is getting blamed for that too), and etc.
Making somebody feel that they are responsible for murdering you—when you are now dead, and nothing can be resolved anymore—is a terrible, scarring thing to do, especially when dealing with somebody like Clay who is clearly established as being an unusually sensitive character. Is there more he could have done to help Hannah? Sure, but he is not a counselor, he is a 17-year-old boy. It was the actual school counselor—one of those named on the tapes—who should have known better.
And so that aspect of the series really bothers me. This does not take away from the suffering of Hannah’s character, or the horrible things her classmates did; multiple horrible things can co-exist (which I think is part of the point the series is trying to make). 13 Reasons Why shines a light on the types of bullying and sexual assault that happens in schools everywhere, and often gets unreported. The show opens up a dialogue on these troubling subjects, and I think that is a good thing.
Further, I think the series itself recognizes, to an extent, that the viewpoints of Hannah, Clay, and everyone else are sort of subjective (the idea that is referenced in the show is about people’s “personal truths”). I mean, objectively, Hannah got raped; it is a fact. Bryce admitted to it. And even when she initially just said it to the counselor Mr. Porter, she should have been believed and gotten support. Ditto for Jessica, also raped by Bryce; Justin & Hannah both witnesses.
But was Jeff drunk when he had the accident? I’m not convinced that he wasn’t. There’s a quick scene inside the car after the accident, and there are like dozens of empty beer bottles and cans on the floor of Jeff’s car. Where is the proof that he wasn’t driving drunk, other than that Sheri knocked down the stop sign? I mean, I’m not Sheri’s hugest fan, but again, as in the case of Clay—there is a push to blame where things are not clear.
Again: I think 13 Reasons Why is very aware of these complexities—and I think ultimately that is one of its biggest strengths. It forces people to really think about things, critically.
The show is not a hagiography of Hannah Baker; I think they show all sides of her, and it makes her more of a human character as a result, rather than being a “symbol.” Ditto for Clay (who does jerk off to a rando pic passed around school that ultimately turns out to be of Hannah and Courtney). Those are good things. It makes well-rounded characters and great television.
But now we get to the subject of the controversy surrounding 13 Reasons Why. Does the show “romanticize” suicide? Is there a danger that the show will spark “copycat” suicides in real life?
Honestly…I think, to an extent, it does romanticize suicide a little bit. Certainly not intentionally; nobody sets out to make a series and says “hopefully, this will make suicide seem like a solution.”
But it’s all the little touches; the Joy Division references, the fact that character Alex is basically a teenage stand-in for Kurt Cobain, the part where Alex tells Clay to Google the “suicide song” “Gloomy Sunday” (no teens need to be Googling “Gloomy Sunday,” trust me). And even the ending when Hannah decides to end her life; it’s definitely done in a triumphant way, I’m sorry.
If you are spending the past 12 episodes establishing that there is no justice in society and that the only thing that will get some modicum of justice (and perhaps even revenge) is suicide + leaving behind your testimony…will that “connect” with some young viewers who are the victims of bullying and worse?
And while at first the graphic depiction of Hannah’s suicide itself (and it is like one of the top 10 most brutal horror scenes I’ve ever watched) might seem to dissuade people from taking their lives in a similar manner…might also the unflinching “honesty” of it lead some to believe they know exactly what to “expect” if they do the same? Does taking some of the mystery away from this type of suicide actually “reassure” some so minded to do the same?
There is so much more I could write here (the comparisons with Riverdale & Twin Peaks for starters), but I’ll leave it at that. 13 Reasons Why is brilliantly-acted complex television; just because it’s about teens doesn’t mean adults wouldn’t get something out of it. But it leaves a lot of questions in its wake, as perhaps all art is supposed to do.
The entire first season of 13 Reasons Why is currently on Netflix