Two things before we get started: 1. This review is going to feature spoilers for Netflix’s 2017 miniseries 13 Reasons Why. I’ll put the main review and rating at the top and include a cut for spoilers, and I’ll keep those spoilers as general as I can, but I will be talking about specific characters, plot points, and scenes; you have been warned. 2. This review (like the show) will discuss heavy topics, including rape and suicide among teenagers. Honestly, if you can’t handle reading about it in a review, you probably shouldn’t watch the show. That being said, I feel it would be irresponsible of me to not include a few resources:
If you’re thinking about suicide, you can call the TAMU counseling helpline at 979-845-2700 (this number is also on the back of your student ID).
You can also call the national suicide helpline at 1-800-273-8255.
If you have been raped or sexually assaulted, the national sexual assault helpline is 1-800-656-4673.
Got it? Good.
13 Reasons Why is the newest drama from Netflix studios, and their third foray into using young adult literature as fodder for a highly produced television series. Based on the 2007 novel of the same name by Jay Asher, the show follows a young man, Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette), as he listens to the audio tapes a classmate made just prior to, and explaining, her suicide. The tapes, stylized as “reasons”, follows one person in the year long epic of Hannah Baker’s (Katherine Langford) life and death. Other principal actors include Christian Navarro as Tony, Amy Hargreaves as Mrs Jensen, and Steven Weber (known for being in every television show ever) as Principal Bolan. The acting was actually pretty phenomenal and I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw all of the young actors in more prominent Hollywood roles in coming years, but I won’t discuss them in detail here. If you care to learn more about the actors, click here.
13 Reasons Why is incredibly well crafted. The transitions between past and present are slick and easy to follow. In terms of the technical aspects of the show (editing, sound design, lighting, etc) the words ‘highly competent’ immediately come to mind. I don’t think that the technical aspects were necessarily attempting to push boundaries, but they were so good that it would feel disingenuous to not mention them when reviewing the show. I was especially fond of the way the lighting and editing worked together to create a solid mesh of flashback and current-day narrative.
Overall, I was somewhat nervous before I started 13 Reasons Why because of the massive failure of Iron Fist and the backlash we’re already seeing from upcoming Netflix Studio’s live action feature film adaptation of Death Note. Netflix really needs this show to be a slam dunk to change the media narrative right now, and I’m not entirely sure it got there.
This is especially important because the show is clearly meant to be the beginning of a franchise. There will undoubtedly be a second season, maybe even a third. One of the strengths of the book was that it ended where it did: Hannah Baker is dead, but the characters learned to be kinder to people who might need it. The show added a whole lot of extra dimensions to give its characters fuller arcs. This seems to be an effort to leverage those arcs into the show’s self perpetuation. So it goes, I guess.
My other big nitpick is that several of the actors were 25 and looked 30, thus not at all like high school juniors. Everyone had really good skin, too. I remember high school; I remember how poorly lit and oily that place was, so why is everyone’s face so matte? Also: high school juniors don’t have multiple tattoos all over their body. Or own vintage Mustangs. Or tape recorders, for that matter. The old-looking children and vintage sensibilities kind of broke the immersion, especially because the show went to such lengths for verisimilitude in other respects.
On the note of 13 Reasons Why being about tapes, though, the conceit didn’t feel overly-contrived and actually made the show more realistic in some places. There’s definitely an anti-internet/technology aspect and while I don’t like that from a philosophical standpoint it worked as a character beat.
Before we get into the spoiler-y bits, the full recommendation: I would give this show an 8/10. The acting is solid, the technical aspects are stellar and work with the narrative well. The soundtrack was a bit overdone at times, but I thought it enhanced the show rather than distracting from it in a significant way. 13 Reasons Why is an intense show, and I think Netflix was a good place for its release because streaming allows the viewer to pause and come back when the show becomes overwhelming. The show gets intense in a few places. Overall I would say give it a watch if you have a weekend; it’s well made and, if not always enjoyable, it will certainly make you feel something.
Now, onto the spoiler-y bits.
This show covers a wide range of life’s intense realities, but the two that I’m going to focus on are how the show handles rape and suicide. As for the others, it’s suffice to say that the show also discusses the difficulties LGBT youth face, plagiarism, stalking, and domestic abuse.
Netflix is no newcomer to addressing rape in their shows. There is sexual abuse in several storylines in Orange Is the New Black; Hemlock Grove features familial sexual abuse; Jessica Jones is a literal and figurative allegory for how devastating rape can be to a person. Because of that, 13 Reasons Why definitely handles rape better than it does suicide–which is not to say that it necessarily handles it well. Towards the end of the season, there are two very graphic scenes of sixteen year old girls being raped by a slightly older man, both at parties, both while the man is (presumably) drunk. When I watched those scenes, I felt the way I normally do when someone is getting raped on camera: voyeuristic, and like my skin was too tight for my body. One of the things about the rape scenes in the show that bothered me is that they actually changed how the book went so that they could have a more vivid scene. Who made this decision and when can I punch them in the face?
That being said, the reaction both girls had to their trauma was very realistic. Jessica starts acting out when she realizes what might have happened to her, and Hannah counts the day she was raped as the worst of her life. While certain characters blame the girls for their assault, including the rapist, the show takes a very clear stance: the fault lies with the rapist, and the people who let it happen. I cannot begin to express how important this consideration is: no one is to blame when a person gets raped except the rapist. This oft forgotten but extremely vital fact is what makes the rape scenes palatable to me. They have a point.
The point is to paint a person who in reality, if not in most fiction, would be the protagonist of the show as the unredeemable reprobate that he is. You know this guy. This guy goes to this school. You’ve met this guy, and he was probably nice to you. He’s generous, and amicable, he uses the fact that he’s generous, amicable, good at sports, and privileged to take advantage of people who have no way to fight back, either in the moment or after he’s destroyed their entire lives.
There’s a reason for these rape scenes, so I’ll allow them.
There is not a reason for the scene where Hannah Baker kills herself in full technicolor and stereo surround sound.
From the very first episode, there is one thing that the audience knows: Hannah Baker killed herself. In the front half of the season, the audience learns that she slit her wrists. Tony, the voice of reason and/or God and/or Hannah, describes what it was like to see her, still wet from the bathtub, taken from her house to an ambulance, sirens off, in a body bag. Then, in the last episode, Clay narrates what Hannah is doing in the last hour and half of her life, ending with a very perfunctory statement about how she did it. There’s a non-diegetic callback to the first episode in the form of Ultravox’s “Vienna” scoring the scene, “It means nothing to me” echoing Hannah’s internal struggle and bookending Clay’s struggle about what to do with the tapes. All in all, very, very good television making. And then the show takes a minute and a half out of its hour long runtime to display Hannah actively killing herself, no soundtrack behind it, a close up of her in the tub, of the pinkening water, of her panting while she bleeds out; it’s an effective scene.
There’s this thought process, particularly among teenagers/young adults and people with an artistic bent (which is to say, the readership of the Eckleblog), that suicide and depression and suffering will make your art better and therefore is something to reach for, a kind of romantic ideal. That’s not true. There is nothing romantic or aspirational about wanting to kill yourself. Your art will not improve because you are sad. Suicide is not a foregone conclusion. It’s sometimes planned as carefully as Hannah plans hers, but often it’s a spur of the moment action. In cases where people fail, they often regret attempting as soon as they’ve started. There has also been a shift recently, in how people think about suicide, that sometimes it’s okay. That it’s the best option. It’s not. It never is.
Hannah Baker thinks her death is an inevitability. The show does not seem to disagree. Because of that, I think it was a mistake to show Hannah’s death as explicitly as they did. While I am generally of the opinion that pretty much anyone can write a story about pretty much anything, just because you can doesn’t mean that you should, or that don’t need to be ethical about how you go about it. (Sometimes being ethical means not telling that story in that way, but I digress). I can almost guarantee that there are going to be a lot of sad teenagers and young adults who try to kill themselves after they watch this show–copycat suicides are real, suicide clusters are real.
This aspect ties in nicely with what bothers me about the changes made from show to book. In the book, we don’t see Hannah’s death, and Hannah is only “on-screen” as it were in the form of her narrating her own life and death story. There’s no cut away to a vivid description of how the water sounded on the tile when it spilled over, faucet still on. That’s a strength. We only see the effects. And that’s all we need. We only need the close up of Mr Porter crying because he feels responsible, of Clay looking heartbroken, of the pull away as the scene becomes more about the other characters.
I’m going to go back to what I said about the rape scenes: Hannah’s suicide in the bathtub made me feel voyeuristic and icky, and unlike those scenes it didn’t have any reason to exist other than to be seen.
(Side note: all of this is before we even begin to tackle the fact that Hannah is not the only character who attempts suicide in the show; they added another one for the sake of franchisement, and that suicide isn’t framed as being particularly tragic either.)
The way the show handled Hannah’s rape and subsequent suicide is not enough to actually change my opinion of it; I did actually enjoy 13 Reasons Why. I thought it would have worked better if it hadn’t clearly been going for franchisement, as the cutaways to the narrative arcs that are going to be expanded upon kicked the teeth out of the emotional impact of the story, particularly in the last episode. But whatever, I’m still gonna watch season two, and I’ll probably even cry again.