Why ‘13 Reasons Why’ gets it right and wrong.
Suicide. It’s a sad tale of tragedy. To many, though, it’s a story of strength and courage from a journey of depression to a life free of pain. The irony is in the fact there is no more life — at least not on this planet.
Netflix’s new drama series, 13 Reasons Why, explores the life of teenager Hannah Baker and 13 dramatic reasons for taking her life in a bathtub at the family home. What’s incredibly interesting about the show is the two facets of teenage life it explores, namely bullying and suicide.
I’ll attempt not to give too much away as I explore the ultimate premise of the show but since it’s first episode, not only has it become an overnight sensation; it’s also found many critics — either in those who’ve lost loved ones to suicide or those who fear they still may.
The show’s content kings have it spot on when it comes to the trivial life of teenage pupils. Reality check — there’s at least one child in every school suffering some form of bully-tactics; and if you’re reading this and thinking I’m talking nonsense, you’re either the bully or contributing to it.
What the show does do explicitly well is the manner in which it identifies the different types of bully-tactics. Many probably think to bully means simply to make fun of or mock. But that’s not entirely true and the show takes us through both emotional and physical bullying showing the effect it has not just on the main character, Hannah Baker, but also the ripple effect on her so-called friends.
But whilst the show has its gossip girl style moments in which you just sit there and wonder what the script writers were thinking, it also has many downfalls.
Firstly, there’s an incredible overuse of the bully-tactics in the thirteen-part series and not enough character exploration to understand precisely why each character is the person they are. Now you may think that after episode five there’s not much more than can go ‘wrong’ for Hannah Baker, but just when you think you’re about to delve into another characters backstory, you’re hit with another subtle reminder of how bullies come in different shapes, sizes and forms.
Then there’s the ultimate emotional strain the death of Hannah Baker has on her peers. First spoiler alert — Hannah’s story is told through her 13 tapes she recorded prior to taking her life so in essence, she’s already dead from the moment you hear her voice in the first second of Episode One.
You’d think that after the death of a fellow student, a suicide, the school would stage emphasis on the fact that one needs to speak out and seek help. I suppose the episodes touch on this when one of the characters mention the school’s ridiculous attempt to fight suicide and bullying with a few posters, but what would have been somewhat fascinating is a psychological look into how each child portrayed their feelings in some type of comforting environment.
The other thing I couldn’t understand is the lack of interest from the parents in their kids’ journey through Hannah’s death. So I can accept that the show portrays them as young and naiive prior to her death — and really, what teenager will want to open up to mom and dad? But in the real world, surely at least one of those kids’ parental figures insists on some kind of therapy for their child?
Spoiler alert. There’s another death. Just when you thought things couldn’t get any sadder, another main character (Clay Jensen) has one of his closest friends (possibly even his only true friend aside from Hannah Baker) killed in a car accident; and who was involved in the route cause of the accident you may ask? Hannah Ba….
So let us accept the premise (setup by the show) that Clay told his parents he never knew Hannah Baker. Yet on the other hand, the show paints a picture of an extremely close-knit family who share orange juice at the breakfast table every morning before school and who are home every night for dinner. It’s a rather warped world the show plays out in if even this family don’t seek help for their son after Clay’s tutor-student is killed in a car accident — and even more warped that Clay does not feel the ability to open up to his family about his true feelings and relationship with Hannah Baker.
Then, of course, there’s Clay’s mom who gets appointed as the lead attorney in the case against the school where the Baker’s look to hold the school responsible for their lack-of-actions in dealing with bullying which led to Hannah’s suicide. Now in any normal world, that would instantly be considered a conflict of interest — but in Hollywood, it’s spicy enough to keep you interested in the show and make you wonder how that will play out; it also adds an excuse for Clay not to confide in his family.
As the episodes go on, we slowly start to understand each of those named in the 13 tapes Hannah Baker recorded. Some are just the typical high-school jocks but we soon come to learn of at least three characters in close contact to firearms — either they’re holding it in their hands, packing it in their overnight bag, or hiding it from their parents. What exactly is this achieving besides pure Hollywood dramatization of potentially broken adolescents? Are we showing our bullies that it’s OK to hide firearms from their parents? That it’s acceptable or cool to even be able to hold a gun at the age of 17?
Let’s fast forward to the final episode, the tapes have all been heard and Clay makes a decision that will define the next season of the show and beyond. But where does this leave the main character, Hannah Baker? I feel many will see her as a hero. That’s a dangerous precedent to set for a show like this. All we’ve seen is the faults of others — and we’re led to believe she’s completely free of any wrong doing, which I can accept because in most (if not all) cases those who are bullied are entirely innocent.
But we feel an incredible sense of achievement. As though Hannah Baker was a cause for which Clay Jensen fought. His love for her made him consider decisions only he could live with. In the end, he reaches his self fulfillment and compromises integrity among his peers for what he deems is the right choice — even if that means turning his first true love, Hannah Baker, into some kind of poster child for those wanting to gain attention with their suicidal tendencies.
The final scenes, Hannah Baker’s suicide, was graphic. Spoiler alert — she’s actually dead — and no, she won’t rock up in Season 2 to surprise you in some kind of sick social experiment. But the bathtub scene has all the elements for portrayal of the series hero. It’s almost as though she’s finally found peace and she’s finally being recognised for the strong personality she truly always was. Her decision is not sudden — she’s planned it and that’s why she has 13 tapes on hand to explain herself; but the easy at which she takes her life in a matter of seconds — with absolutely no hesitation or concern for those who she loves — is nothing less than breathtaking.
As a reader, you’re probably wondering where this comes from. Probably thinking the review (or criticism depending how you read it) comes from some form of uneducated opinion on suicide and bullying and wondering how someone so out of the proverbial loop is able to even so much as form any type of opinion.
I had a sister who loved her life. For years she dreamed of becoming a professional ballerina — and once she discovered the Disney channel, her dreams shifted as she wanted to replicate her favorite characters.
But it wasn’t her dreams that would ultimately define her happiness in our world. She fell victim to the same bully tactics Hannah Baker killed herself over; in the end she never died from suicide, but at the age of 15 — after many years of fighting bully's and having to move schools — she eventually succumbed to an 11-month long fight with cancer and passed away.
The day she came home and said she never wants to live the life of a bullied girl will forever sit in my mind. The convincing it took to keep her going and remaining positive was sure not an easy task — I was selfish, so selfish, possibly even to her own detriment. There was no way I was going to allow her to go out that way; but who was I to know she’d not be allowed to go out on her own terms?
I’ll always look back and wonder how different it could have been had she watched the Netflix story of Hannah Baker, and I’ll always ask myself: what if she had the same courage and determination, would she have? Would anyone? Was it courage and determination or cowardliness and selfishness?
I can’t help but wonder how many teenagers (and adults alike) seeking attention will use this series as inspiration for their potential future decisions. At the same time, I wonder if this show will force the adult population (teens too maybe) to see the signs before their eyes and act before it’s too late.
I can only hope that we watch this show and take it for what it is — a truly real look at selfish teen suicide with an overly dramatic twist from characters we barely even get to explore.
This post is dedicated to my sister, Kim, and my friend, Bevan, who took his own life in what can only be described as the most courageous, but pathetic, decision of his life. Bev, you called out for ages and we never heard you — though we’ll never blame ourselves for a decision only you controlled, we’ll forever look back and long for the day we last shared a memory together only to be able to let you know that everything will be OK.