Spoilers for season one of 13 Reasons Why lie ahead…
It’s been about a month since I first watched the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why and I can’t shake it. From Hannah’s mounting desperation and depression, to Jessica’s flayed sense of safety to Clay’s increasing mental fatigue, these characters and their individual tragedies have lingered heavily on my mind. It’s a heavy show and while there’s hope to be found in the ending moments, there are no happy endings, but new beginnings. Hannah is going to die, we know this within the first moments of the series, and we know she’s going to take her own life. It’s a credit to the show that by the end of the last episode we’re desperately waiting for some “ah-ha” moment or, in my case, forgetting that she hasn’t been alive this entire time.
It’s not a show for people who are triggered by sexual assault or suicide.
This show was transfixing, making for one of the oddest and most illuminating binge watching series I’ve ever sat down for. I didn’t want to rush through the episodes because then it would be over and Hannah would be gone for good but also I couldn’t tear my eyes from the screen. The direction was beautiful and haunting in its compositions as Hannah fades in and out of places that Clay visits and while there are certain plot points that are dropped along the way the script manages to flesh out each character, even if like some (fucking Bryce) is for the absolute worse.
What helps is that the series is a vast improvement over the book which glorified suicide and painted Hannah as little more than the “mysterious dead girl”, failing the character in a manner than many series about young women who have tragically perished do. Similarly, Clay was written to be more little more than the “nice-guy” whose investment in the tapes came too much from the “I didn’t do anything wrong” camp than the “what did I do wrong” one that the series version of Clay plays in. It makes for a much more interesting character to see Clay as he actively crumbles under his potential guilt. Giving Hannah and Clay a backstory is also a significant change as it allows for Hannah’s death and it’s impact on Clay to land much harder and more heartbreaking than it ever did in the book. Here, while we don’t make own assessment that Clay had a hand in her suicide, we understand how she might’ve looked to him as a last beacon of something good and simple that she couldn’t wrap her head around due to her past trauma.
One of the biggest and most heinously vocal complaints about the series has been that Hannah was selfish for leaving the tapes and blaming others for her suicide, that she was just being “over-dramatic”.
This isn’t just a sign of a lack of compassion but also a gross misunderstanding of what it’s like to be a teenager, specifically a teenage girl. As someone who was one and thankfully isn’t any longer, it sucks. It sucks a lot. There’s a constant sense of judgement laid out before you and if you conform to it too much you’re giving it and if you don’t you’re standing out and not in a good way. If you wear something with cleavage or a skirt that’s above the knee you’re a slut, if you don’t put out you’re a prude. There is no winning and Hannah (and, to an extent, Jessica) is an example of this. She’s reveling in her fun and flirty girlhood when she goes on a date with Justin only to have that naive trust ripped out from under her, her first real blow and the set off of the sequence of events that follow.
Everything is heightened when you’re a teenager which people tend to discount in stories such as these and that plus her lack of trust in her guidance counselor, her sexual assault, parents who are on shaky financial ground and a forced isolation from anyone she once knew or trusted, every wrong word, every ill intention rumor is amplified. How dare people say she was selfish when her emotions were such a whirling mess that despite how painful her suicide was, she was so tired of the life she was living that she made that terrible choice anyway?
People like to discount women and their emotions and this is doubled as a teenager when emotions are already naturally heightened. Embarrassments ring truer and harsher and friendships and the loss of them sting worse. The loss of a friendship can feel like the end of the world since friends are your constant, your everything in high school.
People want to trivialize her pain and by doing that it’s allowing this narrative of what justifies depression and that’s harmful. You can feel bad for Jessica not only having been raped but also being (in my mind) unfairly put on Hannah’s tapes while also understanding (in not agreeing) why she made that decision. You can believe that Clay deserved to be nowhere near those tapes while also seeing the little moments of judgement or carelessness that he engaged in over the course of the series.
The greatest assets of course was the ensemble which was for the most apart, uniformly story. However it was Katherine Langford and Dylan Minnette in the leading roles that managed to completely elevate the material, both becoming heartbreaking figures as Hannah and Clay. For Langford the role was nearly impossible, giving such gravitas to a character in a series of snapshot memories. She felt whole and human and her pain throughout is visceral, able to convey the exact moment where the light left her eyes.
Minnette meanwhile had as challenging a role where, such as the character is in the book, he could’ve become the “nice guy” but instead his sensitivities feel real and Minnette does a lot to convey the shaky ground his character starts on. We watch as his loosely drawn facade crumbles piece by piece with each tape he listens to, falling away from his face like a cracked mask. Minnette and Langford shared a tremendous amount of chemistry and they should be remembered come Emmy season.
There are imperfections in the series but little can diminish the absolute power that courses through every episode. It’s a series that highlights the idea that no one knows what someone else is going through, that kindness and compassion is key, that rape culture exists and can kill and that the human spirit can be broken down piece by piece rather than in one foul blow. It’s an achingly raw series and it’s one that will continue to remain in the back of my mind in the weeks to come.
If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.