Everyone loves a good mystery. The kind that entices you to figure out the reason or motive behind why someone did what they did. But what if the mystery revolves around a girl who’s already dead, committed suicide a few weeks before, and the only way to understand her reasons for taking her own life is by listening to a series of recorded cassette tapes she left behind? This is the basic premise of Netflix’s latest original series 13 Reasons Why.
13 Reasons Why is based on the 2007 YA novel written by Jay Asher. It tells the story of new girl Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford), whose new life in her small town and high school becomes a living hell when she’s subjected to a series of bullying, harassment, and other nasty behavior from her peers which eventually leads to her tragic decision to end her own life. Everyone is affected by Hannah’s death in different ways, including Hannah’s friend and classmate Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette), who harbored a crush on her. When Clay comes home from school one afternoon, he finds a mysterious package left on his doorstep. He rips into the package to uncover an unmarked shoe box filled with 13 cassette tapes. When Clay plays the first tape, he’s instantly taken aback to hear Hannah’s voice “live and in stereo” coming from the recording. As Clay continues to listen to the tape, shock quickly changes to dread and confusion when she declares that if you’re listening to her recording right now that means you’re one of the reasons why she killed herself.
The Netflix series is broken down into 13 hour-long episodes, one episode or cassette dedicated to one person in Hannah’s life who wronged her or let her down in some way. Clay acts as a guide into Hannah’s life before she killed herself, reliving the traumatic moments she went through using a clearly marked map of the town she included in the shoe box. Each marker represents significant places or moments in time of how her life gradually fell apart. 13 Reasons Why switches between the past and present to show how each word and action (or inaction) from the accused individuals in Hannah’s life have led to the dire consequences that everyone is still reeling from on some level in the present day. The series is by no means your typical, cliched teen drama show. It may contain the usual tropes you come to expect from any story about high school teens, the popular obnoxious jocks or the pretty mean girls, but the show tackles serious topics that feel much more real and unsettling to dismiss it as empty-headed, light popcorn entertainment. Aside from examining bullying, depression, mental health, and sexual harassment, the show goes to dark places most other shows barely feel comfortable going. The show also includes graphic depictions of not one but two rapes of two key characters and suicide. 13 Reasons Why is not for the faint of heart. Anyone who decides to binge watch the show will come out of the experience feeling emotionally drained and uneasy. Despite how difficult this show can be to digest at times, 13 Reasons Why succeeds in capturing your attention from the first episode.
The mystery of this series isn’t so much how Hannah dies, we already know from the beginning that the character commits suicide, it’s a question of why Hannah did it and what these people on her list did to her that she felt driven to choose death over life. Maybe the more perplexing question that will keep audiences watching, like it did for me, after episode one is what is Clay’s offense against Hannah? It becomes immediately obvious from the first episode and the ones after it, leading viewers to Clay’s tape and episode of the show, that Clay doesn’t seem like the kind of person who would viciously hurt and torment Hannah Baker. Or is he? One of the overarching themes of 13 Reasons Why are people aren’t who they seem to be, especially when it comes to high school teens. They project and carefully craft certain images of themselves that they want their peers to see in an attempt to fit in. As some of the characters prove on this show, they’ll fight to protect that image even if it means ruining someone’s reputation or doing things that are potentially harmful to ensure they keep certain guarded secrets locked away. As Clay vehemently says in one scene from Episode 7, ‘Tape 4, Side A,’ “Everyone is just so nice until they drive you to kill yourself. And sooner or later, the truth will come out.” I don’t think there’s any other moment from the show that sums up this theme more acutely than Episode 7. Another reason I found the show surprisingly compelling to watch are the actors themselves, most notably Katherine Langford and Dylan Minnette.
I’m not so sure the show would have worked quite as well as it does if Selena Gomez had stepped into the role of Hannah Baker, as it was originally intended. I think Gomez’s celebrity would have been too distracting to the story the show was trying to tell. It was a smart move on Gomez’s part to slip into the role of the show’s executive producer instead, and cast a group of relatively unknown actors in the teen roles, especially casting newcomer Aussie actress Langford in the Hannah Baker role. Together with Minnette, whose previous acting credits include Goosebumps and Don’t Breathe, the two young actors have an on-screen chemistry that is electrifying and natural. They have the overwhelming responsibility to shoulder the entire series and to make people invest and truly care about Hannah and Clay, as most of the story is seen through their perspectives, and they succeed on all fronts. Both are strong when acting separately in their own scenes, but are particularly affecting and mesmerizing when Langford and Minnette share scenes together. They make Hannah and Clay accessible and likable, even with their characters’ obvious flaws and shortcomings. It’s incredibly difficult not to get too attached to Hannah and Clay and feel protective of them. The characters feel real, as if they’re people you know personally, and I think those portrayals can be credited to how Langford and Minnette bring them to life. They aren’t caricatures of teens going through a painful high school experience. They’re complicated, messy, and vulnerable kids who are overwhelmed by the toxic environment they’re forced to deal with on a daily basis. It’s even more heartbreaking when you relive the moments Clay and Hannah have together in the past and what could have been between the two.
Another prevailing question the show examines is could there have been something in the past you could have done differently, especially if it could have saved someone’s life? No one goes over that question more, and maybe a bit obsessively, like Clay does. As the story progresses, you start seeing how Clay gradually becomes undone by the content of the tapes the more he keeps listening to Hannah’s confessions and his own unprocessed feelings of Hannah’s death. One of the things I really liked about 13 Reasons Why is how deeply you delve into Clay’s own psyche. Not only is he reconstructing personal moments Hannah lived through based on her version of the events, but he also recalls his own interactions with Hannah. There are times Clay winces at how he handled certain situations with Hannah, how he might have been unintentionally insensitive in his responses to the girl he secretly loved from afar, and then proceeds to reimagine a different, alternate version of the past and what he could have done instead. Most of these reimaginings and what ifs reveal a lot of missed opportunities and lost moments between the would-be lovers, if both of them had been upfront about their feelings. If both had communicated what they wanted to say or opened up to each other more than they actually did. The doomed from the start love story between Hannah and Clay are one of the smaller tragedies scattered throughout the show.
While 13 Reasons Why isn’t afraid of showing the darker side of growing up and what some kids may be facing these days, it isn’t entirely a perfect show either. The show suffers some problems with pacing and implausibility in the plot that at times may not always make sense. For instance, Clay takes several days to listen to all 13 cassettes of Hannah’s audio recorded suicide note, while in the book Clay listens to all the tapes in the span of a single night. Clearly, the show needed to have Clay take his time listening to all of Hannah’s tapes to create a 13-episode series, but I think the show would have done better if they tightened the pacing with less episodes. The show does drag a bit with unnecessary scenes, like Clay starting arguments with his classmates, who have already listened to the tapes before they landed on Clay’s doorstep. He comes in demanding answers, while those on the list he confronts would respond in irritation to keep listening. As the viewer, you also get annoyed with Clay for stopping mid-listen to jump down the throats of each classmate. It’s also highly unlikely that Clay is the only teen in this group who would take so long to get through all the tapes, while the rest of his classmates were able to finish it in a single sitting. The excuse they come up with for Clay is that it’s too difficult for him to listen to the tapes all at once. That excuse hardly works when the answers Clay keeps seeking are in the tapes. It just starts making Clay look far stupider than he actually is in these moments. Another glaring issue with the story is trying to believe any of these kids, including Clay himself, would take so long to relinquish the tapes to the proper authorities or to Hannah’s grieving parents (played by Kate Walsh and Brian D’Arcy James), who never got a suicide note from their daughter. Logically, if anyone was in possession of tapes from a girl whose suicide remained a mystery, the first instinct would be to take these tapes to the local authorities. Or if someone was told they’re on a tape that reveals potentially incriminating accusations about what you did to cause a girl to kill herself, it’s highly unlikely the wishes of a dead girl would have been honored by some of these kids to pass them along to whoever was next on her list who needed to hear their numbered tape. There’s a pretty good chance the tapes may have been destroyed, even with the threat of backup copies being safely tucked away with a trusted individual. There are other plot issues that plague 13 Reasons Why, but it still doesn’t quite detract from the overall viewing experience of this show.
13 Reasons Why will not be an easy show to watch, but it’s an important one. It’s committed in showing a brutal and horrific portrayal of how people treat each other, the consequences of other people’s actions, and recognizing when someone is crying out for help. The show depicts how suicide should never be a solution to whatever problems a person may be going through in their personal lives, and what victims of sexual assault go through and how important it is to teach kids what consent looks like and what it doesn’t look like. Despite the show’s good intentions to shine a light on serious topics that are often hard to discuss, the show has also raised concerns of doing more harm than good with the graphically shot rape and suicide scenes. I’ve read just about every article that has both praised and criticized the show for what it does and doesn’t do. Both camps make valid points on the positives and negatives of watching 13 Reasons Why, but even now I’m still grappling with my own feelings of the show as a whole. I can’t really say I would immediately recommend this show to just anyone because of how different this is from most other teen shows currently airing and the delicate subject matters they cover. If you decide to take the plunge and watch 13 Reasons Why, it’s certainly an imperfect show but one that will linger in your thoughts the way Hannah Baker still haunts the people she left behind.
Reviewer Rating: 8.5/10