Article by: Anthony Florez
Let’s get the PSA out of the way first: suicide is not an option and if it is something that’s being considered, please seek help in some form. This is the centerpiece and the primary flaw of 13 Reasons Why, a show that strays dangerously close to fetishizing the act that plays out like something of a revenge-fantasy for the depressed. While it aggressively and thoroughly explores topics like slut-shaming, bullying, and stalking, among other more disturbing subjects, it presents these things without presenting any of the healthier ways of dealing with these issues and instead uses them as an excuse to hate a whole cavalcade of characters. This is fine, it’s in no way setting itself up to be an Afterschool Special, and drama without conflict isn’t drama. However. Hannah Baker is as much the victim of that drama as she is the perpetrator of tons more. And while that strays dangerously close to victim-blaming it is difficult to continue sympathizing with her once she starts instigating the bullying and stalking herself. To be clear, 13 Reasons Why as a story is a thoughtful and stark examination of some of the pain and torment adolescents experience on a regular basis usually inspired by fear or ignorance or insecurity and, almost always, by each other. It’s a powerful look at a time in someone’s life when it seems like every problem is a permanent one, every obstacle insurmountable, and it’s a tragic and beautiful recounting of how one soul loses her way as experienced by the one soul who might have saved her. But it is, ultimately, so dour that at a certain point it becomes an exercise in endurance.
Six tapes, two sides each, thirteen reasons why in a shoebox end up on the doorstep of Clay Jensen a short time after Hannah Baker’s suicide. Each side describes the downward trajectory of her life as she is, time after time, betrayed by her friends and classmates for one reason or another. It’s a clever narrative device to show Clay retracing her steps, watching as things unfold like some kind of ghost from the future, and it is at times very difficult to watch, particularly as things escalate from episode to episode. In truth while Katherine Langford as Hannah does a wonderful job as an average teen slowly unraveling, much of the heavy lifting is on Dylan Minette’s shoulders as Clay as he struggles with his own guilt and growing outrage at the behavior of the people around him. It’s what could be described as a breakout role and as one of the few sympathetic and seemingly decent characters it’s easy to begin experiencing his dread, his growing fear as to why his name is on this list of people and reasons that led to Hannah’s ultimate despair.
To risk controversy, there is an element of 13 Reasons Why that smacks of the recent Social Justice Warrior phenomenon on the internet. Although by and large the issues that this community and its ilk tackle, such as class division, passive racism, sexism, et al are good ones with respect to improving our national consciousness and our awareness, oftentimes the act of finger pointing and shaming perpetrators of these injustices becomes the point rather than the beginning of creating a dialogue. To wit, the bullied become the bullies. And this is what starts to happen pretty early on in 13 Reasons, at a certain point it’s apparent that Hannah is not so much mourning her last days and illuminating anyone she cares for about her choices, she is targeting people and holding them culpable with their own guilt. In fact, she leaves her (good and decent) family completely in the dark with regard to her decision, and her mother’s agony and confusion is one of the only unambiguous subplots.
13 Reasons Why also does some things very well. To start with, the soundtrack is wonderful and it has a fantastically diverse cast both with regard to race, gender, and sexual orientation. It’s also very well cast, there isn’t a weak link in what is a relatively large ensemble and each character is usually well-rounded with rare exception. Tony, portrayed by Christian Navarro, serves as a kind of spirit guide or moral center for Clay and deserves his own television show for how infinitely watchable the guy is. Beyond these two there are very few characters that are easy to like at all, and this is good writing, everyone has pretty clear pathos. Although it borders soap opera in terms of how disproportionately tragic everyone is, when the whole picture comes into perspective it’s almost gratifying in its complexity. Almost.
Although this is not a story that is meant to be fun or purely entertaining it’s in desperate need of levity, of so much more of the charm and tenderness that Clay is occasionally able to bring to the table. And perhaps it isn’t the purpose behind the narrative to like Hannah at all but it would have been nice to, just a little bit more. She is just as real and three dimensional as the rest of the cast but one wonders that if someone has such a capability and focus to create this puzzle box of intimate narration and observation she could have maybe turned some of that effort into a solution as opposed to a meditation on the problem. Again, if that sounds like victim-blaming it isn’t intentional. However, a scene stuck with me around the middle mark that I couldn’t get out of my head and it was a female friend who clarified what I was feeling. One of the more vile male characters encounters Hannah in a convenience store and, being an awful excuse for a human being, he grabs her ass with one hand and makes a rude comment before leaving. Hannah stands there, mouth agape, rightfully offended and hurt. And that’s it. That’s the end of that scene. I will out myself as ignorant to sexual harassment however I also don’t know of a single woman in my life who wouldn’t slap the living shit out of that man, push his hand away, or even just tell someone what had happened to her. But Hannah throughout has a habit of internalizing everything that happens to her which is really the final word on 13 Reasons Why. Although she does on occasion reach out and it is true that many people in her life failed her, she never really asks for help. Which is the only reason that really matters.