Why Alex Standall Should’ve Starred in ‘13 Reasons Why’
Clay was a terrible protagonist, and should feel terrible.
I think we can all agree that our emotional journey with 13 Reasons started with hesitant skepticism, went to gnawing anxiety, to full-blown horror. Good storytelling as it was, 13 Reasons was still flawed in feeling real. Hannah
Baker’s plan could only have worked because a) Tony was a super-convenient vengeance-zealot, and b) Clay existed.
1. Clay is a terrible protagonist
Perfect protagonists are annoying and ruin stories, and 13 Reasons didn’t bother to dodge this bullet. Clay Jensen seems to have no faults. He’s a shy, unassuming kid with pure intentions, only shaming Tyler because he had this self-righteous crusade in his head. Overshadowing that, Clay’s great, terrible, totally-killed-Hannah crime was — wait for it — not being more forward with his crush.
Clay takes a story about a tortured girl and turns it into the saga of a bitter boy who is upset that he was friend-zoned, and rages over the fact that all the girls only like the bad boys. In the ultimate friend-zoned-forever-alone manifesto, 13 Reasons has Hannah Baker, in the peak of her spotlight, confess to the world about how much she loved this unassuming and underrated boy, and how terribly sad she is that he didn’t pursue her harder. It was her ‘second greatest mistake’ to push him away. Could it be anymore obvious that this was written by a man?
Clay, like Tony, existed solely to make the story work. Hannah’s plan would’ve easily been snubbed had she not had two zealots fighting for her posthumous cause, a lawsuit, and a privileged-enough district that has enough resources to actually care about bullying issues.
What could’ve made Clay a much more compelling character was to give him actual stakes to play for, and flaws to live with. Which is why Alex would’ve made for a far better protagonist.
2. Alex’s Imperfections Make Him Real
Alex is clearly filled with inner struggles that Clay lives happily without: an overbearing father, an embattled gender identity, and a conflicted desire to feel secure but to also fit in. Alex’s spiral towards suicide is mapped out in his increasingly erratic behavior, from fighting Montgomery to his falling into a pool; but does that have to be attached to thoughts of suicide? I don’t know anyone who can look back at their adolescence and not cringe at their behavior and decisions. I connected far more to Alex’s poor decision to attack Hannah Baker with his list than I did to Clay’s squeaky-clean record.
3. Alex’s Arc is More Socially Responsible
One of the biggest valid criticisms of 13 Reasons is that it glamorizes suicide. The producers argued that their choice to depict Hannah’s slicing of her wrists in grisly detail was a way to show the gnarly reality of suicide. But the 90 seconds of gnarliness isn’t much of a deterrent, not next to 13 episodes of an individual who is not only getting a long, drawn-out, redeeming vengeance, but also the attention of a lifetime.
We see the story through Clay’s eyes: someone who is already infatuated with Hannah. But Alex, despite his gnawing conscience, feels otherwise. He reacts childishly to the tapes by trying to cover it up, fearing for his own social well-being rather than the grievances of a rape victim. The drawn-out issue takes its toll on him, and eventually pushes him to the end of his story: his own suicide attempt.
Behind his eyes, we’ll be clamoring for him to turn back. We can see that while emotionally understandable, the suicide will make nothing better, and leave nothing but pain in its wake. It will do what Clay’s version does not; taking a suicide story and telling it for what it is: a tragedy.