Enough has been said about the show up till now that I can comfortably begin this piece without having to give the customary introduction. Cutting long story short, the story is about Hannah Baker’s suicide and a series of tapes that she leaves behind expounding the reasons for her actions: we have thirteen episodes then, each one unfurling the story through a particular character apparently responsible for her death. From what I’ve seen, the show up till now has divided people into two camps, and I definitely belong to the one which cannot stand it.
The very concept of killing yourself and leaving behind a bunch of tapes explaining why you did it by blaming the people around yourself is something that I couldn’t digest in the first place. I’m not a mental health expert, and neither am I at any position to judge what people who have been driven to the depths of despair can or cannot do, for I am sure there are circumstances in life that are unimaginably difficult. But the ease and confidence in which this concept is even executed leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Even the poetic nature of the show, thirteen reasons for thierteen people for killing yourself, is sickening.
Let’s start by examining the target audience of 13 Reasons Why: it’s based in a high school, so obviously high school kids would watch it, and so would most middle-schoolers, since its obviously so trendy. I don’t think it’s inaccurate to say kids from 13-18 would be watching the show. And while the show attempts to tackle the very serious issues of depression, suicide, bullying and sexual assault, I think the only one that it hits right is the last one: the rest are truly lessons into how to defeat the very point of your story.
I’ll begin with the most irritating bit in the narration: the sass in her voice. Why in the world is Hannah Baker so sassy and sharp tongued about the ordeal of her life and the eventual desperation that led her to kill herself? What is with the dialogue here? Not just when she addresses the people who were the cause of her death which is bad enough as well (“And Justin, honey, stick around. You’re not going to believe when your name crops up next”) but also in the narration. “By the way,” Hannah Baker says in the middle of one of the tapes, “I’m still dead.” It sounds more a line from a tongue-in-cheek chick-lit novel than a girl going through intense mental anguish. For the most part, the screenplay is stereotypical, clichéd, and unforgivably lame, not adding anything new to the genre. It happily brings back and recycles all the typical characters: a bunch of American teenagers proud that they are misunderstood and happy to hate the whole world.
Just rewatch the scene when Hannah and Jessica, on account of being the new students at school, are made to meet the counselor. For me, it’s one of the worst scenes in the series, with unnecessary sass in the dialogue making a mockery out of someone who seems to be completely sensible and quite kind, by two girls who aren’t really cruel characters.
“Welcome to your tape, Jessica,” Hannah says, and by the end of the episode, we find out that Jessica is on the tape because they stopped being friends because Jessica thought Hannah was trying to steal her boyfriend and slapped her. And while heartbreak is a big deal, and it’s totally understandable why a sixteen years old girl would consider it so, what I don’t get is why this is shown in a way that it’s given approval.
There is the whole issue of absolving yourself of guilt if you blame a suicide on the actions of others around you. It’s really a morally dubious choice in the circumstances of the show, because killing yourself and sending everyone else on a guilt trip about it might end up seeming a very cool option for actual teenagers to whom high school IS the whole world.
While Clay Jensen is a total cutie, he makes some very strange choices despite seeming like one of the few sensible characters on the show. He talks about making his own justice for he was in love with Hannah, he talks about doing something for her- but when the time comes that he actually could make a difference, he completely avoids it and in a completely unconvincing way. He avoids talking to Hannah’s mom, tells everyone that he just knew her as an acquaintance, and doesn’t really talk about the tapes to anyone in authority.
Tony as this mysterious character just didn’t work for me: he’s weird, cryptic, follows Clay around to make sure he hears the tapes and doesn’t fall in bad company, just repeating over and over that they must do as Hannah said, with no motive that explains his actions.
I’m not saying 13 Reasons Why shows implausible things: everything that happens on the show is very probable. There’s a new girl in school and the whole school has it in for her. One incident leads to another, and you have everyone passing comments and bullying her. But the way it is shown is so unbelievable and stupid: Hannah’s anonymous depression poem is published into the school magazine without her consent, and a teacher for some reason finds it appropriate to read it aloud in class, knowing full well that it could have been a submission from one of the students sitting right there, and throws it on the floor to a bunch of hormonal teenagers to analyze and discuss. What kind of school even allows that? Even if it happens, why isn’t it disapproved at all? What kind of kids even read the school magazine? (haha) Hannah’s parents later find it appropriate to question the school authorities on why nothing was done when a poem that talked about drowning was submitted by a student. But is the school morally bound to investigate because a poem seemed to exhibit depression? If my poems were taken that seriously, I’d be signed off long ago.
In fact, not a single teacher in the entire school is shown to make a single sensible decision, which is honestly such a bad picture created of teachers. I found lots of role models in my teachers, and maybe I couldn’t talk to them about personal stuff, but they certainly inspired me.
Another article pointed out that Hannah Baker makes another’s trauma her own: when Jessica was raped at her own party, Hannah Baker recalls that night by saying, “I never should have walked through those doors that night.”Also, Jessica maybe??
As for Hannah Baker’s parents, they seemed to be perfectly reasonable and normal people, a little distracted by their jobs if I want to stretch it, but that’s about it, although we see Hannah’s mum taking a personal interest in Hannah’s life throughout the show. When Hannah loses the deposit they had given her, they had a reaction that any other parents in the world would have. The point is, she did not seem to have a troubled family life at all, and in fact the opposite maybe, so in times when she was stressed by her school life, it’s not so believable that she didn’t find an anchor in her parents. “Nothing you do is stupid” her mother told Hannah, and if that isn’t a statement of unconditional love and support, I don’t know what is.
Of course it’s not all bad: there is some excellent narration, great switches between past and present, and fantastic depiction of sexual harassment and assault, which for me is the only redeeming point of this show (sadly still not enough). The ‘bro code’ between the guys, what’s-mine-is-yours attitude, the casual pinching of the ass, are all very true and scary realities.
And of course the most intriguing character in the series for me is Justin Foley, partly because of some incredible acting, but also because of his characterization which is so conflicted, yet somehow rings so true.
Another great scene on the show was Hannah’s mother’s reaction when she finds her dead in the bathtub. She takes her out and tells her don’t worry, everything is okay, you’re fine and in the same breath screams at her husband to call 911. For me, that was so much more believable than anything Hannah did on the show.
I’m trying to think of how much cooler the show would have been if they showed the people’s version of events starkly different from Hannah’s, which would bring in the whole point of how each individual sees and perceives the world and events so differently, and most times mental illnesses result from building up things in your head which are far from actual reality.
The storyline not only assumes, but also affirms, that you find a reason to live only in acceptance, which is not the case. Loneliness has a strange way of finding beauty, in art, ambition, simple acts of care, and life itself. The problem with the show is not that it brings up issues, but that it brings them up and tackles them in a very problematic way. Showing the suicide is not the issue, but glorifying it as this cult, cool act, like, take this, suckers, is sickening, grotesque, and extremely dangerous for a young audience, and in times of internet access like this where kids would want to see this show just because it’s cool, actually extremely worrying.