Netflix has come out with many different hit series. It seems like every year they release something that gains critic and public success. Orange is the New Black, House of Cards, Beasts of No Nation, Stranger Things and now, this year, 13 Reasons Why has gotten a lot of attention.
What makes 13 Reasons Why different, is the content and the way it portrays that content. This is a graphic drama involving teenagers. The ending is left open, which makes me feel more uncomfortable than wanting more. Outside of the content, this show makes an admirable job creating an engaging show.
This show gave me the feels. But not like Beauty and the Beast. It made me feel because of people whom I have known in my life. It made me feel because of what happened while I was a teen and what happened to the teens I worked with as an adult. It brought those memories back and I will not shy away about how I feel.
So this review will be structured differently than I I usually do. First, I’m going to go through what I was thinking and feeling as I was watching. After that, I will get into how the show is in more traditional sense.
13 Reasons Why does not shy what it’s about. A young woman named Hannah has killed herself. We look through the eyes of Clay, a boy who was friends with Hannah and also in love with her. From the opening scene I was uncomfortable. It starts with Hannah’s locker which is covered with cards and pictures of her. The whole school is in slow motion as we focus on Clay. Clay represented me (and the wider audience) in this sense; I was just an onlooker for those directly affected by suicide. The closer the tragedy, the more time slowed down for me.
The narration of Hannah, the roller coaster of emotions that Clay experiences and the outpouring of emotions of the parents all just reminded me of people I knew in life. There were a handful of memories that came into my mind and keep me up at night after I turned the show off.
(Out of respect for the people I know, I will be as vague as possible and I will certainly not use any names)
Even from the opening frame, my stomach automatically began churning like the Amish churning butter. I could immediately identify with Clay because I felt that I was him; I was the guy who could knew, was close to or was a part of, people experiencing trauma though I didn’t live it myself.
As the series careens through my own memories began swelling up. Seeing old friends break apart I began thinking of a close childhood friend of mine distancing himself from me and my other good friend in high school. He was depressed, though I didn’t know it at the time, until after high school. That summer he showed up on my doorstep all cut up (this later would be part of the reason I turned away during the suicide scene of the series).
I also remembered seeing the tributes which reminded me of a person I knew who died tragically in a car accident my senior year. He was a year older than me and was always nice. I remember going to his funeral. The atmosphere surrounding those scenes, especially the scene where Clay takes a girl to visit a grave, really came back.
But that’s what this show does; it brings back memories. It is so raw and shot in such a real tone, it feels real. It was the parents of the teen who died that I not only wanted to see more of but who I related to. I began thinking off all the teens I worked with over the years who experienced trauma. When I was in my first couple years as a volunteer coach I was told about an athlete who attempted suicide a year earlier. Being in education and social work I took several trainings on suicide.
As the show progressed, all of the sad and traumatic events that I was on the periphery for came rushing back. I thought of a student who was sexually assaulted and raped by a family member, I thought of a friend of mine who was pinned down by her then-boyfriend while he was drunk, I thought of a former student who was sexually harassed by a fellow classmate (and when she told me, I reported it to my supervisor immediately). I was Clay, I was an observer, I was a person with the relationship and connection to the victim.
Remembering these experiences caused me to feel sadness, anger, powerlessness and stress all mixed into a maelstrom of feelings. I would lie awake at night, not thinking of the show but thinking of my own memories. My heart would beat so fast I thought it would bust out of my chest.
This show’s ability to recount those memories says something about the strength of tone and the strength of the acting (for at least two of the cast members). I could only relate to Clay, Hannah’s parents and Hannah; the others I didn’t really care too much for but this wasn’t their story.
Overall, this was a powerful show that brings a lot to the table. I respect it for what it was trying to do. The acting of Hannah’s parents, Clay and Hannah were fantastic. Sometimes Hannah was a bit over the top but Clay was very subtle and Hannah’s parents reminded me of parents I knew whose kid went through some trauma. The scenes where Hannah is struggling really tugged at my heartstrings and all the while I was wishing for a different outcome for such a great, charismatic, though flawed, young woman.
That was something else I liked; the main characters were flawed. Hannah, we are told, is a liar over and over again. So we don’t know if she is really reliable. And yet the actual truth doesn’t matter because her perspective and her reality shaped her fate. Clay ends up being a bully drawing a drastic conclusion about another classmate. Clay does bad things but he also did a good thing in the end. We see the conflict that Clay’s mother has representing the school (the school is facing a lawsuit by Hannah’s parents in the show). Hannah’s mother wasn’t the best mother from Hannah’s point of view but we see her as a broken woman just trying to find answers. That makes this show very compelling because people are complicated and it sure does that with the main characters.
I felt this show did a good job with what they had. However, there were some major problem. For one, the purpose of the tapes. I hated them because I felt like they trivialized the whole story. In my education and from what I know of suicide, a good percentage of people who commit suicide would not do this. Most would not leave an elaborate plan. Suicide is very intrapersonal and the focus is ending the pain. The tapes really made this feel like a big episode of Degrassi which brought it down a ton. The tapes made the subject matter feel like it’s a game. It’s a mystery game in the same vein as Paper Towns. It made the whole thing feel less genuine. It takes a serious subject and treats it like a YA love mystery novel which is the best way to do it. It felt very teen drama to me to the point where I almost got angry; it uses the tapes as a plot device that undermines the message of the show.
There are many ways to show Hannah’s story to the audience and to Clay. There can be flashbacks, social media presence, text messages, blogs or even a diary. These could have been items Clay began unearthing to understand why Hannah took her life; this was the girl he was in love with, it would have been believable for him to investigate. It would have hit harder and would have been able to tell the same story but in a way that reflects what most victims of suicide leave behind.
The other supporting characters were just bad characters. They provided little to nothing for the story while at the same time not really showing much, if any, arc through the series. They were selfish and dumb teens at the beginning and they were selfish and dumb teens at the end. Not much changed. No one took responsibility, no one changed their behavior. They all stayed the same. They decided that protecting a rapist is valued more than a little embarrassment. The lack of a moral compass with all of these characters is not just realistic it is infuriating. Which is why the parents were more intriguing because I felt there was much more growth from them.
Overall, though? I liked it. I definitely binged watched it wanting to see what happens next, even if I lost sleep over it. Please watch this show if you do not feel like you would be triggered watching it.
What I felt while watching this show I will not want to feel again. It is an enjoyable show and is more designed for someone like me. People on the periphery are the audience. The point of the show is to help make people be aware that their actions can have huge ramifications. They want to show those ramifications can be malevolent or benevolent. This show is a reflection for those of us on the sidelines. The ones in the trenches know the seriousness of the situation, the rest of us need to hear Hannah’s message. For it is the message of the show that really resonates. It is the Butterfly Effects times ten. We have a lot of power not only in our own lives but the lives of others. Hopefully, we all choose a better path and be able to help our fellow woman and mankind.
Please donate to the National Association for Suicide Prevention. https://afsp.org/take-action/give-a-gift/
If you or someone you know might be suicidal, please visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/
13 Reasons Why is currently streaming on Netflix.