Narrated by Hannah Baker, who recently killed herself, the series follows Clay Jensen as he is left reeling when he receives tapes left by Hannah detailing 13 reasons why she took her life. Made as a long chain letter, that connects Clay, a shy and anxious boy who loved Hannah, with the other 12 reasons. Netflix aligns episodes with sides of the tapes Hannah left. This whole post is going to rely on you having seen this series.
Created for Netflix by Brian Yorkey as an adaptation of Jay Asher’s book, 13 Reasons Why is a cult classic that nods to the likes of John Hughes and forces the audience to confront what is an increasing problem for the millennial generation. With critics focussing on the differences between book and series, there are arguments for the glorification of suicide and the contribution for increased stigma around mental illness interspersed between gorgeous colour schemes and nods to teen classics.
In the third episode, Hannah speaks of the butterfly effect: the belief that if a butterfly beat its wings then a hurricane could be made thousands of miles away. A concept extended from chaos theory that somehow the most minute of actions can have huge ramifications. This is the overarching message that is present in 13 Reasons Why, is that the smallest of unkindness can result in acute and unrelenting pain.
I’m pretty exhausted from the continual pushing of the “nice guys finish last” rhetoric. Though it has its place here it is not the worst of the messages presented here.
Should there be a responsibility of the creators of the show to show an example of what to do when you start thinking of suicidal thoughts? How is it that all these kidsare completely disenfranchised with the role of the adults in their lives? There could have been a further disparity between Clay and Hannah, where Clay’s parents knew about his mental anguish and had sought help for him in the past could there have been at least an open dialogue with Clay and his father? There is not a single mention of depression in the entire 13 hours, does the absence of the word further stigmatise it because mental illness is never fully acknowledged or is the reality one of implied understanding, if Hannah was depressed could the implication from explicit diagnosis one of perversion in her suicide, a stance the kids that caused her death had taken.
It is a real depiction of the aftermath of suicide, maybe even of high school but the effort made to make these kids accountable for their actions in denying them an ascription of mental illness had worse ramifications for the audience than the fictional lives playing out on screen. Suicide is normalised as a part of the teenage existence rather than being the last and explosive action of a perpetuated disease. By episode nine, Alex’s references to suicide go from implicit to explicit without mention of PTSD, depression or diagnosis of the pain he feels in his stomach that prevents him from eating. Tony, who found Hannah, jokes about plunging to death when climbing a “beginner’s cliff,” in episode eight.
The grief that all of these people, what these spiralling kids felt as an effect of Hannah’s death is not addressed not because nobody asked but because they did so for the wrong reason. PTSD, depression, anxiety, drug and alcoholism, manic episodes all exhibit themselves publicly and the adults, even though not addressed formally (*picture Tyler being told that he’s provoking kids into bullying him*) these kids were not coping publicly, much more so than Hannah did. So, is it any surprise that Alex ends in hospital after attempted suicide or Jessica’s alcohol problem escalates from not being able to hold her drink to relying on it to function? The butterfly effect does not always come from peers, but sometimes, and more convincingly comes from counsellors who have never had the training. What was meant as a pointed dig at kids these days is more condemning of grown-ups who could not even mention the word depression in a TV show that’s premise is suicide.
It is amazing that this story is told with such force and without apology. It is thrilling to find yourself addicted to such morbid, uncomfortable, and repeated heartache and to find a show that nailed its purpose in forcing the audience to endure through moments you want to turn away. This “can’t look but want to” may classify this series as thriller, mystery and even gore when you look at the final scene of Hannah slitting her wrists and lying in the bath.
There are so many scenes, so many moments movies that are juxtaposed with such purpose: Courtney Crimson and Allison Reynolds makeover in The Breakfast Club, Tony’s car and Bryce’s in 16 Candles, the cassettes against Duckies obsession with vinyl in Pretty In Pink, the poetry confessionals shared by leading females here, and in 10 Things I Hate About You. This is all done so beautifully and so well.
While there was a happy ending in the Breakfast Club (who can forget Judd Nelson’s triumphant fist pump) there are no happy endings in 13 Reasons Why and yet the relational pairings, the character tropes, the colours are so reminiscent of a genre so familiar to our generation that we may not see the tender and subliminal conditions to the tropes. This is not the first time, we have seen the nice guy finish last, but it is the first time there is a finality to the closure in Hannah’s choice to end her life.
Ultimately, Hannah was a victim of the trope that she needed a guy to feel complete or to save her. She sought time and again for friendships in people who buckled in trust and then, most clearly in episode seven, she put hope in guys she knew were “silly,” for the idea that she could be helped by a knight holding a boombox, or tender kiss near the bleachers. Her fate was sealed because of her hope that she would find true love in high school, like she believed her parents did. There was no finality in Judd Nelson’s fist pump or in the credits that rolled up over the frozen image, or in the kiss on the dinner table between Molly Ringwald and John Cusack. But there was in Hannah’s death as a cautionary tale, not to get help or speak to adults – because there were no examples of that – but against trusting anyone in high school.