Every so often I hear about something through social media through the warnings not to watch it. Whether it’s because of the actions of the director, the treatment of animals on the set, or the way that sensitive subjects are handled, my Tumblr and Facebook blow up with warnings not to watch. Sometimes I can see the validity of the boycott straight away: who wants to give their money to really shady people for exploitative work? Other times I feel the need to check out what I’m being told to watch so that I can see whether I agree with their reasons. Is it all being blown out of proportion? Of course, this meant I had to watch Netflix’s new controversial teen drama, 13 Reasons Why.
13 Reasons Why, a television adaptation of Jay Asher’s 2007 novel, follows a boy named Clay Jensen after he receives a collection of tapes in the mail from Hannah Baker, a girl who had recently died. In these tapes, Hannah details thirteen reasons for her suicide and thirteen people who were at fault. Each person on the tapes is given them to listen to before passing them on to the next person on the list. Clay is number eleven.
The overall story of 13 Reasons Why has been the centre of controversy (which I will come to) but I’ll start with one of the show’s biggest strengths. Its examination of the many forms grief takes, the way people react to a suicide, is really impressive. It shows such variety. The thirteen embroiled in Hannah’s blame-game are generally more focused on trying to stop the parts they played in her death from coming out, which rather invalidates the way some of them cope, but other characters were really strong depictions of grief. Both parents, with very different ways of handling, were stripped raw and I must commend both actors for it. The mother just desperately trying to find a reason, a person to blame, something that stops their daughter from being the unknowable mystery her suicide made her. The father trying to reconcile the struggles with his business on top of his daughters suicide, desperate to find a way to move forward. And Clay. Even before knowing he is one of the thirteen, Clay is obsessed with Hannah’s suicide and thinking over what could have been if events were just a little different. And the reactions of those at the school add a whole other set of dimensions, from those taking selfies next to Hannah’s memorial to the teachers freaking out about what they could have missed. While I think the show missed the mark on a number of subjects, the way it depicts the human aftermath of a suicide is something I think they did pretty well.
Sadly, no matter how well the show depicted grief, 13 Reasons Why is overshadowed by the controversy it has caused. I’ve seen post after post all across my social media saying that people should avoid the show because of the careless, triggering way it has handled delicate subjects like sexual assault and suicide. While it has been reported that 13 Reasons Why went against professional advice, for most of the series I felt that the uproar was probably overblown. Yeah, the show has some problems with the message it’s giving out. And maybe if you were really sensitive about certain issues you would need to avoid the show. But Game of Thrones is way more vivid. Hell, I’m pretty sure Eastenders has gone further. Then came episode nine. And then episode twelve too. THIS was where I could understand some of the Tumblr protests. The series doesn’t back away from the potentially triggering material and a tiny warning prior to the episode doesn’t change that. I will admit that I’d expected the upset about the potentially triggering nature of the show to be blown out of proportion, the Tumblr-ati marching against something they have only read the concept of, but I will agree that the later episodes have some heavy stuff that some people probably shouldn’t watch. But I don’t necessarily think it was wrong of the show to depict these things and their affects. One in four girls under the age of eighteen are sexually assaulted and that’s not even taking into account the fact that it’s a hugely under-reported issue. Chances are that those watching the show either have been through something similar or know someone who has and a dialogue needs to be opened about this.
I think one of the things that disappoints me most about 13 Reasons Why is that there are moments of moments of brilliance, providing real insight into the way it feels to be an isolated teen and opening up some valid discussions, before it is very quickly ruined by the blame-filled, you-were-so-nasty-to-me drivel. Episode seven was a prime example. Hannah’s introductory dialogue describes the all-encompassing loneliness that can come with depression perfectly. I thought maybe it would be a real turning point for the series. Then we were straight back to the same old thing. Yeah, Clay was going a bit crazy, but that wasn’t providing any of the emotional perceptiveness that the series needed. And unfortunately it’s all a bit too little too late. If I hadn’t been determined to finish the series then I wouldn’t have reached the moments of true reflection on a teen on the brink. Waiting until 9, 10, 12 episodes in to get anywhere beyond the blame-game is too late.
While I can appreciate the value of many of the characters, I struggle with the one character I feel like I should be able to connect to. 13 Reason Why‘s Hannah is supposedly the wittiest, funniest person ever while everyone else (e.g. Jessica, who can’t even guess that by “our office” Hannah means the coffee shop they visit every afternoon) is stupid or otherwise insufficient. Clay is consistently told by Hannah and her friends to re-style his hair, drink some beer, Hannah won’t like you if you’re such a nice guy… Hannah seems very superior at all times, even when narrating the reasons she blames various people for her death. She blames other people for isolating her, leading to her suicide, while she calls everyone weird and treats them like she’s infinitely better than them. Hannah also seems to have a complete victim mentality – everything that people do is clearly against her. People get texts in front of her and it’s clearly something bad about her. I mean, yeah, she was right, but it’s far from the only time it happens in the show. It just makes her feel like an it’s-all-about-me snowflake that killed herself for vengeance and attention which, as someone who has had suicidal thoughts in the past and has friends who have too, makes me angry. This is another big problem with 13 Reasons Why. We should surely feel sympathy for Hannah, just as we should want to support those vulnerable people like Hannah who are looking at suicide as a solution to their problems, but instead I just felt angry at her. The part of me that’s been on the inside, dreaming of a way out, riles against the way her reasons are simplified and pushed upon other people, grabbing attention but not owning up to the decision. The part of me that has been on the outside, watching someone I care about fall, is angry about her choice to ignore the finality and affects of her choice. For a show that has supposedly been made to give vulnerable teens a point of reference and reflection, it’s done a hell of a lot to fuck up its main character.
Further to this, 13 Reason Why‘s entire premise revolves around the blame-game. Hannah’s tapes give the stories of the people “at fault” for her suicide. A dead girl making threats and demands, presumably with the thought that she would get some sort of post-suicide retribution for all this? Is this a healthy thing for a teenage audience? Showing them that a person can make all the problems in their life get punished by killing themselves? The blame-game annoys me, in part because it just doesn’t fit in with my experiences with depression/suicidal feelings and I don’t see the logic in it. She’s pushing the responsibility for her actions onto others. Most of the people on her list were just living life. Their actions weren’t against her, she was just affected by them. Should those people be blamed for how she took everything? Yeah, some of them were a bit shitty but do they deserve to have the responsibility for someone’s suicide? Bryce’s actions deserved punishment. Rape, whether it’s related to a suicide or not, is never okay. Never. But while many of the others did wrong things, did they deserve direct blame for Hannah’s choice. I mean, stalker Tyler probably should have been reported. And Mr Porter sure as hell dropped the ball. But these were little things adding onto an avalanche – did they deserve to be given an equal part in her death when her suicide was comprised of reasons even beyond the thirteen she provided?
It is possible that I’ve misread the story of 13 Reasons Why and the reason I’m questioning myself is all down to Mr Porter. The whole show is a question of blame and, if you listen to Hannah, it’s about the way that a person’s actions can lead to tragic consequences. That people are to blame. However, what if that’s not what the show is about? What if it’s actually about the blame culture in society? Mr Porter, in a conversation with stalker Tyler, asks him what he (Tyler) can do to minimise the bullying. He effectively blames Tyler for what befalls him and, yes, what happens to Tyler is in part because of what he did to Hannah, but still that moment made me question the meaning of the show. Is 13 Reasons Why, rather than suggesting that the choice to take one’s life is simply a blame-game, actually questioning the entire blame culture in today’s society? If yes, I have far more respect for the show than I had ever considered but, unfortunately, if it’s not clear then it’s unimportant. And when dealing with a subject as sensitive as suicide, targeted at a vulnerable teenage audience, it needs to be clear that posthumously calling out the people who have wronged you to get some sort of vengeance is not the point. Or have they learned nothing from their own story?
So the story of 13 Reasons Why has issues but the show is otherwise made up of some really good elements. On the writing side, the dialogue is pretty good – colloquial, engaging. There are some great lines that I just connect with so much, which is a shame given the more problematical nature of this show. It’s not going to become one of those iconic teen shows that everyone is going to quote – it’s become too much of a shitstorm and it’s just not one of those happy, quotable things you’d want to share with all your friends – and so those great lines are meaningless.“We shower every day and it’s just… a lot.” Truer words were never spoken, Clay. Shame that line is wasted.
The acting in 13 Reasons Why is pretty solid across the board. Katherine Langford as Hannah and Dylan Minnette as Clay carry the series really well. They are believable even when dealing with some of the biggest drama in the series. The star, however, is definitely Kate Walsh’s Mrs Baker. She’s phenomenal. Her portrayal of a grief-struck mother is just so raw and powerful. But honestly, the entire cast should be commended for their work on this show. There’s no one I can think of that broke the immersiveness of the show.
Sadly, the same can not be said for 13 Reasons Why‘s pacing. It sucks. Honestly, I got so bored while trying to push through the episodes. It’s not a good binging show – each episode is fairly formulaic, revealing who did a bad thing, how Hannah felt about the bad thing, the effects of the bad thing on the wider picture – which makes it really boring to watch all the episodes in a row. This is a huge problem when the show is on a platform like Netflix: home of the binge-watch. There is a certain amount of escalation through the episodes, and you can feel it building, but it’s not enough to break the monotony of the languid pacing and repetitive episode structure. If I hadn’t been determined to reach the end so as to have a valid opinion about the show’s controversy, I would have stopped watching after the second episode. I’d have intended to go back purely to find out Clay’s part in the narrative but never would have.
13 Reasons Why has a brilliant cast, some brilliant lines, and faces some powerful issues that need to be talked about head on. Unfortunately I’m not sure if that’s enough to make up for the pacing problems and the lack of clarity in its ultimate message. Do we support the blame-game or don’t we? And, when dealing with something like suicide, a vague message is not an option. While they need to show sympathy for Hannah, it should have been clearer that suicide did not solve her problems. Instead, it destroyed multiple lives even outside of her thirteen reasons.
If you some support/advice about suicide, there’s a link to international helplines here. You are not alone and there is always someone to turn to.