As I’ve said on my Instagram, I normally avoid high school shows like the plague.
- The acting is normally terrible
- The plots are normally very formulaic and focus far too much on love stories.
For those reasons I was hesitant to watch 13 Reasons Why. Aside from its constant promotion on Netflix I was actually most motivated to watch it due to Dylan Minnette, who was one of the highlights of Don’t Breathe. I figured that if he was in it, there would at least be one good actor in the film. Additionally, the subject matter is of personal interest to me.
I have not read the book that the series is based on so I can’t compare it to the source material, although the show follows the book pretty closely from what I understand. The story revolves around Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford), a high school sophomore who commits suicide. After her death, a friend begins distributing 13 tapes (recorded on 7 cassettes) Each tape contains Hannah’s perception of one high school colleague, who each serve as one of her reasons for committing suicide. The story is told from the point of view of Hannah’s friend, Clay Jensen (Minnette).
Firstly, the acting was a pleasant surprise from all parties. I expected Minnette to be great, but every major cast member delivers. Some are stronger than others, but none of the actors came across as weak in my opinion, which was a pleasant surprise. Perhaps my standards were set too low since I didn’t expect much from the show, only rewatching will tell.
Another thing I loved about the show is that it does not shy away from all the rationalizations that are normally used to defend or downplay bullying and the suicide that sometimes results from it. Throughout the series different characters say that Hannah was far too emotional, too dramatic, or that the bullying she faced was no different than what other high school kids go through. Even Clay, who is portrayed as Hannah’s best friend at the time of her death, calls her out on her dramatic tendencies at one point.
The act of suicide and the tapes are clear signs that Hannah had some mental issues, but we also see Hannah’s behaviour through flashbacks. Some of her classmates deserve to be on the tapes far more than others. There are cases where she takes things too personally, where she lashes out. While some of the acts committed against Hannah are unquestionably cruel, some people may still argue that someone mentally stronger wouldn’t have committed suicide. Hannah isn’t portrayed as perfect or right in what she did, and I think that makes her character better. We see a conflicted person whose high school experience was tainted with numerous bad experiences, and let those experiences get the best of them.
The show has received some criticism for its portrayal of mental illness, specifically targeting the idea that more kindness can help someone who may have serious mental issues. To be fair, some of the acts Hannah experienced could not have been counteracted by a little more kindness. However, it is also true that many people who seemingly have numerous reasons to be happy still commit suicide. With that said, this criticism isn’t enough to ruin or diminish the show.
The show has also led to controversy over its graphic depiction of sexual assault and Hannah’s suicide.People who have contemplated suicide have been advised to avoid the show since it may encourage them to pursue suicide. It is true that Hannah does get more attention and sympathy after her death, but 13 Reasons Why isn’t afraid to call out the disingenuous attention someone’s suicide bestows on them. Clay Jensen does that masterfully below.
Additionally, Hannah’s death is not portrayed as a glamorous exit from her troubles. As someone who watches and writes violent material, I still found the suicide scene very hard to watch. A big part of my discomfort is that Hannah’s actions represent the actions of numerous other people. She hesitates before she does it. She is scared to press the needle to her skin and cries in pain when she finally does. There is no music, no ambient sound to distract from her pained cries. Things only get worse when her parents find her. Selena Gomez, who serves as an executive producer, was apparently in consideration for Hannah. I am very grateful that didn’t happen. Hannah is the central focus of the show and a weak actor in this role would have brought everything else to ruin.
There are two other scenes that are also hard to watch but I am glad that the show gave us an unflinching view of the horrors that can afflict teenaged girls, and the effect it can have on one who is already coping.
Throughout the series, Hannah’s flashbacks continue to fill in temporal gaps and ultimately complete a puzzle that connects all of the main characters. Characters we hate become characters we like, and vice versa. Just like real life, people’s true colours can contrast with the image the image they present publicly, creating figures whose two-faced nature makes it easy for them to say that Hannah’s tapes are full of lies.
From what I have looked up, the show has received some criticism for its pace. Clay doesn’t listen to the tapes in one sitting, generally going piecemeal throughout the series. However, I believe that this makes sense given his character. Clay is initially reluctant to listen to the tapes at all, not wishing to relive the pain of his friend’s death. He only becomes more invested in the tapes once they reveal truths that everyone else wishes to suppress. The other people on the tapes all take an active role in ensuring that the tapes stay buried, hoping Clay doesn’t go public with them. Although the tapes have questionable legal power all of the accused realize life will be easier if they remain buried.
13 Reasons Why is one of my favourite shows of the year and I am eager to see where season 2 leads.