Review: 13 Reasons Why
One of the weird things about TV watching now is its asynchronous nature. There are few places now where catching a new series is a collective experience any more, though thankfully there’s still a sense of that every time a new run Doctor Who turns up, for example (yeah, come on. Hurry up, Christmas!). No, now you tend to hit new series or things you may like almost by accident when they’ve been sitting somewhere for a little while. So it was with this, a Netflix series I knew very little about, based on a novel about which I also knew little(1). As it turns out, I’m glad I found it, though perhaps glad is not quite the right word, because it’s not an easy watch. Then again, I think that is the point.
I put the first episode on almost by accident, having a passing memory of the title. And then I spent the whole night awake, watching it all in one go. It really is a powerful piece of work, and it certainly bears more than one watch. It affected me more than I expected, for several reasons, not least because I have a teenage daughter.
13 Reasons Why (whch I’ll now refer to as 13RW for convenience) is the story of a suicide. Or, more exactly, it’s the story of how one girl, Hannah Baker, ends up being caught in a chain of events that concludes with her feeling that she has no option but to take her own life, and then doing so. The narrative device for revealing this is a beautifully crafted one: there are a series of cassettes she records, laying out in detail the reasons, and most importantly, the people she feels are responsible for these events. At the heart of the story is Clay Jensen, and his friend Tony. We get to see the stories in the tapes told in flashback, intertwined with the present. Clay listens to the tapes when a box containing the them is delivered to his home after Hannah’s death. Many of these events are seen through the eyes of Hannah, some through Clay.
In many ways, 13RW is almost like the dark mirror image of smiling, sunny depictions of US high school life, like High School Musical, with the pep squads, cheeleaders, jocks and nerds. But there were suggestions even in earlier films like The Breakfast Club (and perhaps even in Stephen King’s Carrie), that the image of American high school life is a construction that pushes much darker feelings and behaviour below the surface, where they simmer away. And sometimes they explode.
Every episode covers a side of each of the cassettes Hannah creates. Each is devoted to a single person or event, which Hannah identifies as one of reasons why she thought she couldn’t live any longer. It isn’t much of a spoiler to say that Clay is on this list of people; he’s listening to the tapes, so he knows he’s on them. At points earlier in the series there’s even some tension wrung out of him wondering where he appears in the list. It also intertwines with the aftermath for Hannah’s parents, and Clay’s path does cross with them, several times.
As he listens to each side, Clay becomes more and more affected by what he hears. It starts to have effects on his home life, and this is further complicated by the professional role his lawyer mother takes in proceedings during the series. Unlike the others on the list, who want to cover these events up, and bury them, Clay becomes determined to know and understand why this happened; his increasing anger is directed at trying to do something about the toxicity and the lies that led to his friend’s death, if only to try and control his increasingly overpowering feelings of guilt and loss.
As we go through the series, the thin veneer of glamour that generally surrounds depictions of American high school life are peeled away to reveal something altogether seedier, and much more ugly about its culture, about how the weak and the “different” can be targeted and attacked, and about how complicit all of us can be in such events. And even though my own schooldays were longer ago than I care to remember, there are even faint and uncomfortable memories here for me. There are moments that are truly heart-breaking; you want things to move in a particular direction, but you know that they can’t, because we know how this ends.
The irony of the TV show is that seemingly, the one person on the list who carries the biggest weight of guilt, feels the most pain, is the one who is maybe the least “responsible” of all, and indeed may even have been a way out of her pain if she could have held on to it, or he could have expressed it. There is a specific event that effectively becomes a rubicon for Hannah, but that is something that waits in Chapter 11. It is also interesting that the only time Hannah’s narration mentions Clay by name is at the start of that tape.
Wrestling with the idea of truth runs through this series too. Clay’s friend Tony constantly reminds him that the events he’s listening to are told through Hannah’s eyes, and that others may see exactly the same events in very different ways. She is almost the textbook Unreliable Narrator. Everyone has secrets; everyone has problems to deal with; everyone has a point of view, and we don’t necessarily know the eyes through which they see the world. Life is messy, and no punches are pulled. Some of the most violent and upsetting events are not glossed over. They are shown in graphic detail, and that makes it all the more heartbreaking, because even though you know how Hannah’s story finishes, you hope that it doesn’t, even to the moment where you see it happen. That depiction is not sugar-coated. It’s gut-wrenching, in fact.
The series has come in for criticism in some quarters for being almost a form of “suicide porn”, glamorising suicide, and buying into the myth of the victim being able to call back to the living in some weirdly romanticised way. I never felt this at all. She’s dead, gone, and knowing the reasons doesn’t help. It doesn’t help at all. It may even make things worse. It can’t bring her back. For Hannah’s parents the grief is worst of all: a daughter lost, and no way of knowing why; no answers, just the pain, and the isolation because no one knows what to say, or can even look them in the eye.
Unlike the novel, we also have threads set up for series 2. How did Alex get shot? What is Tyler up to? What effects will Tony’s decision have, and what more did Hannah say to him when she was alive? There are hints he knows more than he says, and that there are still some secrets he is keeping. What pressures will this put on Clay’s mother? Continuing a series like this is a challenge, but it may actually be possible to do this and not indulge in shark-jumping. I do hope they can manage it.
(1) I’ve also read the novel. They differ in a number of respsects, most notably in that Clay listens to the tapes in a single night, and as result is more of a bystander, more passive in the narrative. The TV series gives time and characters more time to unfold.