Netflix releasing a new show nearly always means prepping food for fandom. Last year, Sense8, Wachowski’s sci-fi series set the Internet on fire- where it may have lacked in plot and pacing, fans welcomed its positive message about diversity. This year Iron First, the latest Marvel superhero adaptation, received a somewhat stale reception, as it turned out to be a washed out lackluster procedural drama. However, one of the most talked about shows this year does not belong to any of the aforementioned genres. It is, in fact, a teen show, devoid of any supernatural elements.
13 Reasons Why is a teen mystery series about the suicide of Hannah Baker and more so about the 13 tapes, she leaves behind, which contain evidence about the reasons, which led her to take her own life. Each tape tells a story about each person responsible for her downfall and they are all on the list to hear her full story. There are 2 rules- listen to all the tapes and pass them on. If you don’t, there would be consequences, as Hannah has made sure that in death her story would be known in her own words. You break the rules, the tapes leak to the whole world and your actions will be judged by the public.
13 Reasons Why had a peculiar shot to fame, akin to an HRV- praise came first, next came criticism, followed by concerns, then a ban in Canada. This is how I knew that 6 years after I heard Hannah’s story for the first time, I will eventually cave in and sit through the TV adaptation of her death and life. I left my book-to-TV-checklist in the drawer, scared I might have become one of those people ‘who say all these things don’t happen‘ or the others Charlie laments as those who ‘forget what it’s like being 16 when they turn 17’.
However, if you know me, you certainly know I still sometimes carry the ghost of my high school like a Medieval curse, so fear not. Unlike other genuine film critics out there, I haven’t forgotten how intense life feels when you are a teenager, how being in love feels like ‘such a solemn business’ at this time in life and how disconnected from the rest of the world you can feel. Going into 13 Reasons Why felt like a personal and professional test, as it reminded me about the downfall of the rom-com teen genre, as well as the small crop of indie movies, taking a chance like Perks Of Being A Wallflower.
It was different.
It is more Veronica Mars than The Virgin Suicides:
The show doesn’t just recreate the events of the book, it bursts the self-contained vacuum of Jay Asher’s story. Years ago, when Rob Thomas made Veronica Mars he joked about how he used the detective noir element as a Trojan horse to explore a ‘heartbreaking teen show‘. True to that spirit noir of Veronica Mars, we see how Clay Jensen, a likable character with a somewhat black-and-white view of the world, pick up the tapes and pieces Hannah left behind because he is number 11 on the tapes.
But she’s not telling the truth?
She is telling her truth.
You watch him as he suffers through Hannah’s trials and tries hard to fix what has been broken and it makes you wonder: Did YOU kill Hannah Baker? How could you when you obviously cared about her so much? The mystery doesn’t end here- similarly to Veronica’s classmates from Neptune High, you often find yourself right in the gray with most characters, who appear both on and off Hannah’s tape records. You question their motives, you question Hannah’s story, as well as the community, which raised those people. A society, which seems to be more preoccupied with keeping their good name than protecting their students.
I think I’d only settle for the truth. Whether I liked it or not.
13 Reasons Why is a good mystery and a very good meta on what it means to be a teen in a Trump-era, which is why it feels weird that it was aired by one of the most mainstream networks. Netflix promotes a culture of binge-watching and culture obsession. Unlike Jessica Jones, which tackles mature topics like rape and domestic abuse very seriously, the target audience of 13 Reasons Why, teens and young adults, were not prepared for the dark nature of the show in the right way.
Sometimes you judge people. Sometimes you live to regret it.
Instead of taking the opportunity to educate teens about Mental Health Awareness, Netflix reacted too late and gave their audiences a bad example, so teens started reading Hannah’s tapes as a Gossip Girl-like instrument you can use to punish your enemies with. This is extremely paradoxical, given the nature of the show, which tackles important topics like bullying, suicide, peer pressure, rape, alcoholism. The show introduces a rich gallery of morally ambiguous and interesting characters to highlight these issues:
- It is indicated that Clay (Dylan Minette) used to take meds and go to therapy, which might suggest that he is struggling with a mental issue like anxiety
- Justin (Brandon Flynn) is struggling with his mom and her string of abusive boyfriends, which is why he starts to feel indebted to his classmate Bryce (Justine Prentice), the alpha male jock at school who is a serial rapist
- Jessica (Alisha Boe) is Justin’s girlfriend and Hannah’s former friend who struggles with her guilt and the realization that her boyfriend allowed his best friend to rape her
- Zach Dempsey (Ross Butler) and Marcus Cole (Steven Silver) are good kids, generally, who are under peer pressure as they need to prove themselves as parts of the most prestigious clique in school- the jocks
- Alex Standall (Mike Heizer) is the artsy type of student who isn’t taken seriously by his peers and constantly tries prove himself to his dad who is the town’s cop
- Tyler (Devin Duid) is the school photographer who stalks the people he is unable to talk up and is given some of his medicine
- Sherri Holland (Ajiona Allexus) is one of the sweetest people whose mistake costs a person’s life and raises important questions about responsibility and bystanders
- Courtney Crimsen (Michele Selene Ang) is the school’s most reputable student and model daughter of two gay dads who will go to great lengths to keep her sexuality a secret
- Ryan Shaver (Tommy Dorfman), meanwhile, is the school’s out-and-proud magazine editor who inspires Hannah to pursue poetry but lets her down
Some of these people wronged Hannah involuntarily- just to prove or protect themselves, others hurt her by taking advantage of her imposed bad reputation in a more realistic recreation of the Easy A plot and the passive bystanders who let this happen. Then, there is sexual predator Bryce, who is possibly the only true villain of the series. He is the most celebrated athlete at school, as well as the horrid material at the heart of the haunting documentary about rape victims- The Hunting Ground. ‘The horrid aspect’ is that the educational institutions will focus all their efforts into hiding these cases to protect their abusers who are their sports stars and business cards.
The series invites a lot of serious conversation in the troubling times of Trump’s preсidency, which are merciless on people with mental health issues and sexual assault victims, whose traumatic experience will be now treated as a pre-existing condition. These topics need to be treated with the appropriate respect and care, which both Netflix and partly the creators of the TV series did not take into consideration. It was only recently that Netflix issued the appropriate warnings for its audiences, regarding two extremely triggering scenes in the penultimate episode and the finale.
Even though the creators tried to justify their decision to go graphic with Hannah’s rape and suicide, it wasn’t necessary in order to help the message hit home. In fact, it was contra-productive, as it feels out of character for Hannah and it feels distasteful to us, the audience. 13 Reasons Why has an important message to tell- every word and action you make bears a consequence on someone else’s life. As we say in our culture when you say a word you throw a stone. Here’s the trick- once you cast it, you can’t simply take it back afterward.
One final word, if you intend to watch the show. Please make sure to understand that it is not an A-Z guide on mental health issues, nor is it the usual type of entertainment you can expect to find in your Netflix subscription. Don’t feel pressured to watch it but if you do, in spite of this warning, be careful what you will take from it and make sure to talk to someone about it after you are finished watching it. For all you and I know, it might actually end up saving someone’s life. You may save someone’s life.
Disclaimer: All rights belong to their respective companies and owners. All media is used for educational purposes only. This language isn’t even my native language.
‘Don’t walk away, in silence’, any of you. To those who struggle and those who help them get through. Day by day, sometimes an hour at a time. As Isak Valtersen says with his whole heart, bursting at the seams with love, pride and compassion- You are not alone.