Like everybody else with access to a Netflix account, I have now watched 13 Reasons Why in its entirety. Initially, I was sceptical as its high school setting led me to believe that this was going to be another saccharine teen drama that says nothing about modern adolescence. Although there are some flaws, my misconceptions were challenged and I quickly became interested in its portrayal of the tragic suicide of Hannah Baker (played by Katherine Langford) as well as the reasons behind why she did it.
Based on the successful novel of the same name by Jay Asher, this project has been in the works for several years, originally set to be a film starring Selena Gomez as Hannah (which, let’s face it, would have been awful) before she decided to produce the series for Netflix. As I already said, the story follows the suicide of a teenage girl, but does so by giving the viewer unfettered access to tapes she recorded before her death. Each one corresponds to a person she believes helped to facilitate her suicide, with the show unfolding from the perspective of the subject of “Tape 6: Side A”: Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette).
What follows is a depressing exploration of how toxic high school can be for some, with the tapes weaving Hannah’s experiences of psychological and physical abuse into the upsetting tale of her death. Moreover, the show also digs a little deeper into the problem of teen suicide too, analysing how less obvious causes of her suicide, such as inaction, can cause a vulnerable person severe damage. This is why Clay, who was Hannah’s closest friend, is surprisingly included on the tapes, with his reluctance to intervene reinforcing Hannah’s helplessness.
Aside from actually taking on challenging material, one of the most important aspects of the show is its portrayal of a lot teachers and parents as clueless. In classroom scenes after Hannah’s suicide, for instance, I was reminded of another movie about such subject matter: Heathers. In this film, the two protagonists go on a killing spree of popular teens at their school, making them look like suicides to get away with it. Their school then sets up patronising sessions for the students where they are encouraged to discuss their feelings, a campaign which reaches its apex when an embarrassing anthem is written to champion this cause (see below). 13 Reasons Why pay homage to this, with teachers failing to acknowledge the root cause of the problem (bullying) until Clay feels he has to interrupt a lesson in order to make this point to a teacher.
Another important feature are the performances of the cast as they help to create a convincing environment despite only being in the early stages their acting careers. This, perhaps, is due to the fact that they are millennials, something which allows them to possibly draw upon personal experiences from their recent high schools years. Langford, for example, convincingly portrays a teenage descent into depression, going from a vibrant character impervious to insults at the beginning of the show to someone desperately trying to hide overwhelming sadness from her detractors. Dylan Minnette also excels, helping to brilliantly juxtapose his reserved and awkward personality before Hannah’s death with the angry, crusading one he develops whilst listening to the tapes.
Despite all of the praise this show has received, it does have some flaws. Firstly, its guilty of Hollywoodizing certain elements of the show, with just about every character, no matter what their social standing is, resembling the airbrushed elite of 90210. Although its understandable that the popular characters look this way, for somebody like Clay it does not seem right to have a pin-up inhabit the role of an unpopular person. Also, the show dangerously seems to imply that what Hannah has done by recording the tapes is justified. Some may interpret this as victim blaming on my part, but in order to circumvent romanticising her actions I felt that Hannah’s character could have expressed more regret that this is what she felt she had to do. Finally, I am pretty sure that I am not alone in believing that the recordings could easily have been made on a computer or a phone, a feature which seems to have been ignored in order to cynically appease hipster culture rather than make the show more realistic.
Although these problems undermine it, I still feel that this is an important show for young people to watch as, due to the rise of social media, bullying can now become a pervasive aspect of a person’s life. Watching such content will therefore help them to consider mental health not just from their own perspective but from that of a peer’s too. This, I feel, is a fundamental lesson we must all learn whilst growing up. Sadly, though, many are taught this because of the belief of a surprising number that somebody who commits suicide is the only person to blame. This must change.