When people think of the melodrama that goes on in a high school, they most likely believe that it doesn’t go beyond petty disputes,idle gossip and the occasional bust up between testosterone filled teenage boys.
13 Reasons Why, a Netflix teen drama based on a 2007 novel of the same name, not only unravels this assumption, it , shreds it into smithereens and leaves it to the characters in the story to pick up the pieces.
The series revolves around the suicide of Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford), a promising high school student, who at first sight, seems to have everything to live for. She is devoted to her studies, has a potential boyfriend on the horizon and a loving family to tender to her each and every need – and yet, she still makes the decision to take her own life by the story’s end.
After a somewhat acrimonious introduction via the first of the thirteen tapes she leaves behind after her death, it is revealed that Hannah intends to make those who she believes played a part in what happened to her listen to what she has to say – whether they like what they hear or not.
Such is her devotion to saying what she wanted in death that she did not get the chance to in life, she threatens the listener that a separate set of tapes will be released for the world to hear if they do not play their part in her mastermind-esque machinations.
Perhaps the character for which the viewer has the most sympathy for being incriminated on these tapes is Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette), a teenage boy whose unrequited love for Hannah, along with his determination for justice sets him down a path of self reflection and ultimately, one in which costs him his sanity and peace of mind.
Despite Hannah’s posthumous admission to Clay that he should not be on those tapes and is only on them as he was a necessary part to tell her story, the lines become blurred as to whether she is seeking justice or whether she simply craves revenge. The former is something many of us can get behind, as we all desire to right what is wrong in the world. The latter, not so much, which is the likely reason behind the series polarising reception from both viewers and critics alike.
‘Its central conceit – that adolescence is, literally, a horror show – stands up today, although the teenage experience has shifted to an unfathomable degree since 1997’
The criticism regarding 13 Reasons Why has often labelled the protagonist’s narration of the events leading up to her death as being little more than a quest for self gratification interwoven with moments of self destruction, so much so that one reviewer even went as far as to assert that the series dangerously infers that ‘suicide can be an effective way of exposing wrongs and restoring a moral equilibrium’, which is part of the reason why the series is not quite as effective as it could have been.
It is for this reason that there have been concerns that impressionable teens will take away the wrong message about the harmful impact of suicide and whether it contributes towards the current upsurge among young people taking their own lives that it supposedly aspires to prevent.
Indeed, many of the characters in the series (rightfully or not) are vocal about Hannah’s decision to take her own life as being solely her fault and even go as far as to accuse her of doing it for attention. As is the case with high school jock Justin Foley (Brandon Flynn ) whose intimate liaisons with Hannah and the subsequent photos he and Bryce Walker (Justin Prentice) spread around campus play an instrumental part in Hannah’s mental deterioration in ensuing episodes.
Yet to play devil’s advocate, maybe the fact that many of the reasons are seemingly trivial in nature is exactly the point the series is attempting to make. Perhaps the Netflix series’ genius stroke lies in its representation of how even the most seemingly inconsequential of things such as petty jibes or thoughtless tête-à-tête can push someone in a certain frame of mind over the edge.
These micro-aggressions that many can handle in their stride are of utmost significance to those suffer with some form of debilitating mental illness or another. This much is explored extensively by circumstances such as Hannah’s struggle to deal with being pigeonholed as ‘the school slut’ after a series of compromising photos of her are circulated around campus, being back-stabbed by a supposed friend and facing rejection after rejection by the people she believed she could trust.
‘The show starts off with name-calling and petty spats, but by the end, it’s a completely different, much darker kind of tale‘
In this sense, rather surprisingly for a series that deals so intensely with the consequences of choosing to take one’s life, it actually spends little time dwelling on the subject of mental illness itself. In fact, the audience is more privy to the aftermath of Hannah’s death and those friends, peers and family she has left behind than they are of her what the precise nature of her thoughts were in the incidents leading up to her death.
In this way, 13 Reasons Why is a story that verges on undermining the very message it is clearly trying to send out to its audience; that suicide should not an option and is not glamorous in any way, shape or form.
This is in part due to the almost vengeful nature upon which Hannah chastises her tormentors, but also as a result of various plot strands that could have easily been resolved by the series end which are instead left to hang in the air for the inevitable second season.
Perhaps the most memorable of these plot strands is the distinctive lack of a scene demonstrating Bryce Walker, arguably the antagonist of the series, facing any kind of justice whatsoever. He is after all, the one responsible for arguably pushing Hannah over the edge after his rape of her and destroying the relationship shared between Justin and Jessica Davis (Alisha Boe) due to a similar incident. His lack of remorse for these harrowing acts is a sign that he will face comeuppance for his crimes at some point in later episodes.
Equally as important plot points left unresolved at the series’ end are the possibility of a school shooting being carried out by another social outcast featured during the show, as well a moment that is in no way short of irony, whereby another prominent character makes an attempt on his own life via a gunshot wound to the head.
Here therein lies my issue with 13 Reasons Why; it doesn’t just show the viewer how dark and troubling the reality of suicide is – it bludgeons them over the head with it, until they’re almost numbed to the horror of the scenes they are routinely exposed to.
From the depictions of not one, but two graphic scenes of rape to the climatic sequence that the viewer knows is coming from the outset, there is little pause for breath as one brutal event follows another, especially towards the latter part of the series.
On the subject of the scene of Hannah’s suicide itself the director actually opts for a vivid, and blood curdling representation of Hannah’s suicide whereby she slowly and deliberately slits her own wrists in the bathtub. This notably contrasts quite substantially with the more subdued and yet, equally as powerful scene depicted in the novel of the same name.
However, 13 Reasons Why saves itself from going into full territory by the virtue of the strong and realistic characterisation of its leads and the sheer calibre of its actors performances. While the premise of the series is one that might raise a few eyebrows, everything else feels so real, and, if we’re really honest with ourselves, uncomfortably close to home.
From the mixed reactions and subsequent emotional these characters undertake as a result of Hannah Baker’s suicide to her parents anguish and pain at discovering their daughter’s lifeless body in the bathtub, floating in a pool of her own blood, the series does not shy away from showing just how heart destroying taking one’s own life really is, for both the victim and the loved ones they leave behind.
It is alarmingly easy to vilify those who, for reasons only truly known to themselves, choose to take their own lives, and 13 Reasons Why, if nothing else, serves as a reminder to avoid doing just that.
In the words of Clay Jensen, the young but mature headed protagonist who is indisputably the voice of reason throughout the show, ‘It has to get better. The way we treat each other and look out for each other. It has to get better somehow’.
Now that’s something we can all get behind, even if the show itself gets itself a bit muddled divulging this message as it hurtles towards its inevitable conclusion.
Did you know?
Selena Gomez was due to play Hannah in a film adaptation of the novel back in 2012, before it was decided the story would work better in the form of a television series; she elected to stay on as an executive producer of the series instead.
Jay Asher, the author of the book 13 Reasons Why is based on, was inspired to write the story when a family member of his tried to commit suicide.
On the 13 Reasons Why book website, you can listen to the entire series of recorded tapes to your own leisure.
Many of the cast members met with specialists and psychologists to learn and understand their characters’ situations.
Writer Nic Sheff is no stranger to self-harm. He himself once tried to take his own life.
Emotional support helplines:
Samaritans :116 123
Rethink Mental Illness advice line 0300 5000 927 (Monday to Friday 09:30-16:00; local rate)
Sane Line:0845 767 8000
Mind also has a useful guide of support and services, which can be found by clicking the link right here