13 Reasons Why, Netflix’s hit new show, is an impossible endeavor. Adapted from the #1 New York Times bestselling young adult novel by Jay Asher, 13 Reasons Why revolves around a suicide and prominently features cyberbullying and sexual assault. For many, the subject matter is deemed too weighty; for others, the “teen drama” genre is dismissed as insubstantial. But these seemingly contradictory elements combine in a way that makes the show all the more important. For all of its flaws – and the internet proclaims that there are many – 13 Reasons Why succeeds in bringing certain issues into the open, promoting discussion in order to de-stigmatize. Through a staggeringly talented cast of young actors, the show also offers a more authentic look at the teenage experience (as opposed to, say, anything on the CW) that should be embraced by current teens, former teens, parents of teens, and pretty much everyone else, too.
Jay Asher burst onto the literary scene in 2007 with Thirteen Reasons Why, a book that became a sensation among teens and young adults. The title refers to the thirteen people whose actions or inactions contributed to the suicide of a high school student named Hannah Baker. Before taking her own life, Hannah recorded her story onto cassette tapes and dropped the box of tapes over at a friend’s house, with the intention of having the tapes circulate to all 13 people she feels wronged her in some way. The Netflix adaptation is pretty faithful to the book, save for some name changes and notable character shifts to allow for more LGBTQ inclusion. And it seems Netflix couldn’t resist the appeal of stretching the 13 reasons into a (Netflix standard) 13 episode series, but the show definitely could have benefited from a condensed storyline or at least shortened episodes. Lengthening each storyline leaves each episode more susceptible to the creeping danger of delving into melodrama.
Indeed, at first glance, the plot can seem worryingly sensationalistic – after all, elsewhere on television the “dead girl” trope exploits a silent, ethereal, female corpse to garner instant sympathy from the audience and propel lurid drama within a story. But as Vulture points out, 13 Reasons Why subverts the trope by giving the “dead girl” a voice: a boldly vindictive, tenderly vulnerable, lively yet damaged voice. That voice (as well as the body that accompanies it) is played by beguiling 21-year-old Aussie Katherine Langford. Hannah narrates her own story, but she is as unreliable a narrator as they come, and she is questioned within the show by the former classmates that show up on her tapes. But there is one person who believes her: Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette), Hannah’s friend (or more than friend?) who is as baffled by Hannah in death as he was by her in life, who agonizes over his position on those tapes while morally harassing everyone else who appears on the tapes alongside him.
13 Reasons Why uses visual techniques to capture the passage of time, syncing a conversation between Clay and Mr. Porter (Derek Luke), the school guidance counselor, with a conversation between Hannah and Mr. Porter several weeks earlier, making it appear as though the two talks are occurring simultaneously. Haunted by Hannah’s voice, Clay also frequently sees Hannah in the hallway by her locker, or in corporeal form as she regales the listener of the tapes with the story of her life and death, until she is literally wiped from the screen as the memory gives way to tragic reality. There are instances when Clay yearns to comfort her, when he attempts to rewrite the scenes of his own memory to align with Hannah’s – or to change them. But the ending has already been written, and the precariousness of a life is made brutally clear. As one former classmate observes: ”If one thing had gone differently somewhere along the line, maybe none of this would have happened.”
But 13 Reasons Why is not a time travel story, and it’s not, despite the cringe-worthy tease of a title, a conventional mystery. What happened cannot be changed, but can it be understood? Can it be prevented in the future? 13 Reasons Why deals with consequences, a fraught, mature theme to be sure. Each of Hannah’s classmates deals with Hannah’s death in different and completely understandable ways: some, like Clay, are guilt-ridden, while others are defensive and selfish-minded, and still others shrug off the concept of blame altogether. “Hannah’s decision was her own,” is a phrase recited like a mantra by a variety of figures throughout the series, but the show questions whether we can – or oven should – accept that.
Controversies aside, the show has been roundly praised for its stellar cast, each actor embodying the different personalities, ethnicities, sexualities, and cultures that populate the average American high school. Tony (Christian Navarro) is a gay, Latinx Catholic, Courtney (Michele Selene Ang) is an Asian, brainiac popular girl with gay dads, Justin (Brandon Flynn) is an athlete with bravado and a guilty conscience, and Jeff (Brandon Larracuente) is a wonderful subversion of the “jock” archetype. Clay, our everyman protagonist, is the prototypical “nice guy,” but he is not without his own issues. And then, of course, there’s Hannah.
The fact that Hannah is far from perfect is part of the point: suicide is a real-life issue that affects real people, so depicting Hannah as a cherubic ingénue would undermine the emotional and moralistic heft of the show. When Hannah sits down to talk to school counselor Mr. Porter, as an attempt to “give life one more chance,” she sets him up to fail – and fail he does, missing her suicidal signs, displaying discomfort when the subject of rape comes up, and woefully underestimating her fragility. True to its title, 13 Reasons Why does explore the particular events that led to Hannah’s decision to take her own life – there are viral instances of cyberbullying, sexual assaults, and seemingly minor instances of petty unfriendliness – and taken as a whole, these “tapes” enable us to recognize Hannah’s helplessness and hopelessness, leading us to the same wretchedly uncomfortable reality that led her, ultimately, to suicide. But, importantly, even as we come to understand why Hannah killed herself, the show – and the creative talent behind it – stay far away from condoning what she did. We learn to empathize with Hannah while also recognizing that there should have been another way out, a better way to ease her suffering. And, moving forward, that’s on us.
From the short documentary that accompanies the series on Netflix, it is clear that everyone associated with the production of 13 Reasons Why was drawn to the project because of its potential to make a tangible, positive difference. Selena Gomez, an outspoken mental health advocate, served as an executive producer for the show and was integral to seeing the project through to completion. Psychiatrists, psychologists and counselors were on hand to advise writers and actors on how to handle and present the show’s tough themes. A website associated with the show, 13ReasonsWhy.info, provides crisis hotline information. Because in order to make a difference, 13 Reasons Why must confront the unconfrontable.
One of my high school classmates died by suicide (sidenote: see this link for a helpful primer on appropriate terminology when discussing matters of suicide) while I was in college, but when I visited the family during the Jewish ritual mourning period, I had no idea how this boy had died. No one spoke of it. No one mentioned it. I heard several different accounts before deciding it wasn’t my business to know, and I let the matter drop. It was only in whispered conversations after the fact that I found out the truth – and even that felt obfuscated. This is part of why I feel that 13 Reasons Why is correct to speak so openly about suicide – far from romanticizing it (as several articles have suggested), the show aims to destigmatize suicide as a means of encouraging at-risk teens to seek the help they need, and put the rest of us in a position to provide that help. These discussions – including questions of accountability, and the guilt and shame that accompany both rape and suicide – occur within the show as well, providing an arena of conversation that can and should continue off-screen.
When I read Thirteen Reasons Why as a teenager, my biggest takeaway was this: be kind to others. You never know the kind of day someone’s having, you never know the effect you can have on someone, and you never know if someone is on her way home to kill herself. This is the lesson that Clay learns, after wallowing in unproductive guilt for most of the season. “It has to get better,” he tells Mr. Porter in the show’s final episode. “The way we treat each other and look out for each other. It has to get better somehow.” Indeed, Clay puts his words into action moments later, wandering the Hannah-less halls of his high school, when he notices a girl, Skye, who has been sulky and removed throughout the events of the past few weeks. After a moment’s hesitation, Clay realizes what he has to do. He realizes what he can do. And that’s something we can all do as well.
One addendum: If I was disappointed by any aspect of this show, it was undoubtedly the ending – or, well, lack thereof. The novel ends with Clay approaching Skye and uttering a single word: her name, leaving us with an appreciation of the good that each of us can do to help someone who is hurting. Though the final episode of the Netflix series includes Clay’s conversation with Skye, the show then proceeds to spool out unfinished threads that hint at a potential season 2. Now that reeks of exploitation.
***Editor’s note: I’m a huge fan of Allyson Gronowitz’s writing. For more info on her body of work, please go to her personal website.