On 13 Reasons

Socrates: And is he not better off in respect of the matter which he did not know?

Meno: I think that too is so.

Socrates: Now, by causing him to doubt and giving him the torpedo’s shock, have we done him any harm?

Meno: I think not.

Socrates: And we have certainly given him some assistance, it would seem, towards finding out the truth of the matter: for now he will push on in the search gladly, as lacking knowledge; whereas then he would have been only too ready to suppose he was right in saying, before any number of people any number of times, that the double space must have a line of double the length for its side.

Meno: It seems so.

Socrates: Now do you imagine he would have attempted to inquire or learn what he thought he knew, when he did not know it, until he had been reduced to the perplexity of realizing that he did not know, and had felt a craving to know?

Meno: I think not, Socrates.

Socrates: Then the torpedo’s shock was of advantage to him?

Meno: I think so.

Socrates: Now you should note how, as a result of this perplexity, he will go on and discover something by joint inquiry with me, while I merely ask questions and do not teach him; and be on the watch to see if at any point you find me teaching him or expounding to him, instead of questioning him on his opinions.

Besides the fact that everything begins with the Greeks, why begin here, specifically with Socrates? What might a snippet from one of Plato’s dialogues have to do with the new hit (read: teeny-bopper) show 13 Reasons? Perhaps I am grasping at straws, or tilting at windmills; whatever the idiom is for fitting square pegs into round holes. But perhaps not.

Socrates in the exchange above is talking about the Greek concept of aporia — a word in English meaning something like being puzzled, confused, or perplexed. His point in the conversation, if I can fast-forward a bit, is that only perplexity, often only a purposeful injection of confusion, can motivate someone to find answers. And sometimes not even then. “The torpedo’s shock” of suddenly realizing an undiscovered tension or contradiction in our thought is, Socrates seems to be suggesting, a prerequisite for growth.

To anyone who’s read the dialogues, Socrates takes the role of this torpedo-slinging gadfly; the harbinger of doubt, often annoying his conversational partners by asking questions that lead to all sorts of contradictory and embarrassing ends. Putting it the other way around, Socrates is saying that affirming everything we already know or want to believe or are even right in believing does very little good — or at least does very little to help us navigate the often gray and murky waters of our moral lives. It is on this point that I believe 13 Reasons is found wanting, if not somewhat of letdown. It doesn’t leave us confused.

There were moments in the show worthy of a muffled sort of praise. In Hannah’s tortured back-and-forth with Clay we catch a few glimpses of a genuine internal conflict we know only too well in our dealings with loved ones. The last two episodes — the brutal depiction of Hannah’s suicide notwithstanding — were a harsh and dramatic change given the middle six or seven episodes reminded the viewer more of a record player on skip than what playwrights call a rising action. I heard in passing, I forget where, that you could watch the first two episodes and the last two without missing a thing — it’s hard not to agree with this assessment.

The choice to show Hannah killing herself in all its gruesome horror, was, it’s true, painfully hard to watch. But perhaps not as painful as it could have been. It’s one thing to find something hard to watch because the depiction of the act itself plucks all the wrong (or right?) feelings, but it can become quite another thing when placed within the larger story. Hannah’s suicide might have had more force if what came before wasn’t so obviously leading us to sympathize with her. We can’t regret Hannah taking her own life if it makes total sense as to why she did it. Who else but Hannah had a point to make?

But just because we can depict something as uncomfortable as a suicide by cutting doesn’t always mean we ought to; not all gut-wrenching moments have the intended effect; not all hard-to-watch scenes deliver us discomfort and epiphany. It’s often more effective to leave things to the imagination, toeing the line between showing too much and suggesting too little — this, of course, determined by the larger narrative structure. Or, in this case, the question or point you want to address.

Hannah’s out was obvious — too obvious — and so the choice to depict the gory scene in all its dark glory was only a reminder of how powerful our will can be; it didn’t, in other words, make us scream “Don’t do it!” at the screen. Who would dare say she didn’t deserve to do this to herself after all that had transpired? What delusion it takes to argue that she had so much to live for given what had happened in such a small amount of time.

Circling back to Plato — we always come back to Plato, don’t we? — I can frame the point this way: Whereas some of the Socratic dialogues end with an asking of the original question that sparked the dialogue in the first place (So what is virtue?) thus making the reader feel like the conversation led nowhere, 13 Reasons begins with a question and rather than leaving us even the least bit anguished or uncertain, answers it plainly. The question “Is bullying bad?” was the only undercurrent, and one that we can only ever answer with a resounding “yes” — especially given the successive and egregious nature of the bullying Hannah put up with. Same answer for “Is suicide bad?” Of course it is, but isn’t it understandable in this case? Is the question “Is suicide bad?” really the point?

In some of my more cynical and intolerant moments, I feel insulted with such in-your-face morals, as is the case with series like The Hunger Games or Divergent. Winnie the Pooh mastered the art of subtly compared to these moralistic charades, and 13 Reasons lands itself in the latter. I can only be knocked over the head so much before I begin to resent — or resist — the tool I am being clubbed with. We are all revolutionaries at heart; contrarians refusing to be condescended to or told what to think. We resist the explicit, though we are shot through with implicities. We are changed not in moments of shock, but moments when we reflect further upon that shock. But, as Socrates points out, only if that shock is a “torpedo” of tension and not, as it were, a torpedo of gore and obviousness.

13 Reasons leads the viewer, nice and easy, down the path of least resistance — the path of least confusion. Yet we are less likely to grow as we walk down this path; less likely to grow, that is, if we end up in the place we thought or knew we were going to end up. This, perhaps, was the genius of Plato’s dialogues. 13 Reasons, like a Platonic dialogue that ends in Socrates just giving us all the answers, turns out to be little more than dark entertainment. Just as the dialogues would have been little more than a jolly-old story about an old chap yapping away in the marketplace about virtue or this or that form of government. Had Socrates actually given us a foundation rather than a springboard for further thought it would have cheapened the dialogues and, to be honest, would have made them less interesting. 13 Reasons gave us a cliche narrative rehearsing platitudes in a world — our world — that contains anything but cliches and platitudes. Though, to be sure, the use of cliches increases with the amount they are heard or rather offered as if they were expressions of how people really speak and act in the world.

The question 13 Reasons ought to have asked — and thus tailored a story to suit such a question — was “Did Hannah Baker get bullied?” Or, perhaps a bit deeper, “How much of Hannah’s suicide was (dare I say) her own doing versus her environment; or what combination of the two?” It’s true, had the show gone this route, the moral — the “lesson” — would have been opaque at best, visible only to those who spent the time to reflect. And it would have undoubtedly garnered the predictable backlash from those who thought that suicide is not to be toyed with by painting with such realistic shades of gray. This isn’t elitism or snobbery, asking the writers to show us their auteur side with so thick and elusive a point that it becomes frustrating, but rather a call for bit more complexity — forcing the viewer to wade through thicker brush than they in fact did. It would have required the thirteen people involved not to have been so obviously and unapologetically out to get Hannah, thus making it less obvious why Hannah decided to engage in the act to end all acts.

The value of a show or book — or “hard” conversation as they say — lies not in its self-contained utility or bluntly stated moral but in its contribution to a further reflection, another conversation, and, at times, frustrating perplexity. The latter what Keats called “negative capability” — being relatively at peace with confusion and mystery without constantly grabbing and lurching toward answers and rationalizations. We should aim to abate mystery, not rid ourselves of it in one fell swoop. Or 13 swoops, rather.

The story of Hannah’s life — and thus the message the writers wanted to convey — was that we really don’t know what’s going on in other people’s lives, so we should be careful in assuming so much or so little about someone else. This is true enough. But the message betrays itself at almost every turn. The other characters in the show were, from the very beginning, given crude, black-and-white treatments; they were neither naive nor innocent but always obviously guilty. At times, sociopathically guilty. These characters had skeletons, but predictable ones: valedictorian who had a dirty secret, conflicted jock who had a rough home life, shy boy who once masturbated to a picture of a girl he liked (He did what?!) etc. The latter being an example of a TV “shocker” that comes as no shock to anyone with a pulse.

These were two-dimensional portrayals, unlike Hannah’s multi-dimensional, and quite ambivalent, life. It would have been better to show a bit of depth — and thus perhaps cut out some of the reasons; maybe five or six — to these characters. Rather, we are simply shown the shiny side of the coin and then, alas, the dirty side of it. Hannah’s story was not a coin at all, but a fucked-up rubix cube. The viewer is inclined to say — as I did — join the club. We all relate to Hannah (or perhaps Clay) more than the bullies, but not because we especially want to kill ourselves but because the bullies were just a bit further from the truth; from reality. Not us, we say. And unlike the times in which it’s ironic that people say “not me!” in the face of people they most assuredly are similar too, this time most are actually justified in doing so.

The show’s inability to make the audience connect with the bullies on any level other than a superficial one (Who doesn’t drink when they’re stressed?) made it easy to be “against” them and “for” Hannah. Yet life is rarely a “for and against” situation. We should have felt just as much conflict and tension over these other characters — or at least some; we could have had a couple straight-up bullies who we deemed evil — than we did for Hannah; or should have felt for Hannah had the story went a little better. But the viewer is left with an easy choice, which isn’t to feel one way or another about suicide in general, but only to say we understand why she did what she did.

We understand this when we see the Bond-like villain Bryce swirling a glass of whiskey in his million-dollar lair while he sociopathically confesses to raping Hannah and, earlier, offering viewers the quintessential Bond villain line: “They can’t touch us.” But while the audience wanted this — Clay to slay the dragon — they didn’t need it. They — perhaps just I — needed something more. Perhaps a conflicted Bryce; an anxiety-riddled Bryce; a realistic Bryce. But this doesn’t make for good dragon-slaying. It does, however, make for good realism. To portray Bryce like they did makes it likelier that we in the real world slay those we simply think are dragons. Who wouldn’t have thrust the sword into his chest?

But that’s just the point, isn’t it. The whole story is more or less a Manichean search for good and evil; good actors and bad actors. Which, by extension, leads the viewer to believe the world is in fact set up in just this way: with good people and evil people. The whole point to life is, more or less, to determine who is what.

The moments we wanted or needed the show to prod, it backs off for feel-good drama more suitable for a show like Dawson’s Creek than a serious exploration of bullying, friendship, and suicide. One such moment, I think, was Clay’s guilt-motivated hangout with Skye — his old friend from the coffee shop. The question should have been asked, however subtly, “Is this the right motivation? Should we treat all human interactions as if the person we are talking to might be on the verge of killing themselves, such that conversations and relationships become purely instrumental interactions meant to prevent suicide?” It is one thing to say that we should be more attentive to the gap between what we see and what someone else’s reality actually is. It is quite another to think and act as if the only thing standing between someone else’s suicide and their continuing on in this life is our tender-loving care and attention. Which, as the show points out, may be true.

Another such moment that remained unexplored was Hannah’s constant needing to be followed out of the room or chased after. This isn’t an unrealistic emotion — we’ve all done and wanted this from someone — but, in life, it is often tempered with layers of ambivalence and frustration. It is hardly ever that explicit. But the point is that not everyone can know what’s going on, so while it’s true that it is someone else’s responsibility to acknowledge their own gaps in understanding, the frustrated person (Hannah, in this case) has just as much a responsibility to give others the same sort of sympathy. Or, taking it further, it is Hannah’s responsibility to crack a bit; to show the viewer that she is actually doing things to remedy her situation such that the whole show — her whole life — doesn’t just seem like the inevitable road to that horrible punchline. She never needed to walk into the counselor’s office, there was never one more chance. Anyone who even says “one more chance” has already given up.

The show was right to integrate the “come after me” aspect, but they didn’t make it believable. Cliche dialogue throughout the series was topped beautifully — almost as if they wanted us to laugh — when Hannah would turn and walk away only to half-turn back around, look back with drooping puppy-dog eyes in the direction of the person she wanted to follow her, notice they weren’t running after her, and say with all the force and believability of a 90s punk rock song: “I guess no one likes me.”

In this case, I suppose the trick is to write and thus act as if the camera isn’t there — I’ve felt what Hannah was supposedly feeling in these slow-turnaround scenes and I know others have too, but I have yet to actually act that way. This was just the cherry-on-top of a show that left me too often saying “no one does that” or “it really doesn’t happen like that.” It is one thing to call it a drama — a fictionalized tale of doom — and claim success. It is quite another thing to claim it was a serious and realistic prodding of subjects that need greater attention. Indeed they do, but you have to make us believe they do; and this is done by good storytelling.

So we are not left with aporia, but certainty. Bullying is bad, rape is bad, suicide is bad, you don’t know people’s private lives or what they’ve been through, communicate with others, etc. So rather than watching 13 Reasons here’s the jist: Don’t be an asshole. Don’t rape. Be unendingly sympathetic to those you haven’t taken the time to get to know, not because you don’t want them to kill themselves — that’s misplaced kindness — but because you want people to feel loved. Relationships are intrinsic goods. We ought to treat people well because it’s the right thing to do — the language of economics and instrumentalism plays little role. I am not doing this for you; I am not doing this so that…I am just doing it.

I realize the irony in saying that 13 Reasons does a poor job of sparking further conversation and reflection and then proceeding to spill this much code on it, but my points were less about bullying, relationships, or suicide and more about how the show bungled dealing with these topics. Most everything from this show will fade from view except perhaps the razor blade piercing Hannah’s arm. Anyone who says that this scene was easy to watch is lying. But everything else in the show was in fact hard to watch — however, for quite different reasons. In the end, the show was, as my dear brother put it, “entertaining, but it could have been interesting.”

Postscript: I still do not understand Tony’s edgy attitude toward Clay in the beginning. Why, if Tony already knew what was on Clay’s tape, did he act in such a way that led the viewer to believe Clay did something horrible. This is poor writing because it is incredibly unbelievable. Stories like this require no twists; they are dramatic enough.