Whew. What an intense experience. I just finished binge-watching Thirteen Reasons Why on Netflix, and I’m still seeing certain scenes on repeat in my head.
Kudos to Netflix and the show’s producers for bringing the YA novel to the screen with such thoughtfulness and sensitivity.
Warning: This post will include plot spoilers for both the TV series and the book.
I read the book Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher years ago, at the urging of my then-high school-aged daughter. I remember being really moved and upset by it, but really didn’t remember a whole lot more than the basic plot outline:
Teen girl commits suicide, and leaves behind a series of cassettes on which she narrates all the reasons for her decision to end her life. Each cassette and each reason corresponds with a person who contributed to her suicide, in ways big or small — and her instructions are that each person must listen to the tapes, then pass them on to the next person mentioned, or face consequences.
I honestly didn’t remember much more than that, except some rosy-eyed, not willing to face reality portion of my brain managed to half-convince myself that at the end of the book, we’d discover it was all a ruse — that the girl was really alive and well somewhere, and that the tapes and suicide were a big con to get revenge on her tormentors. Maybe it was the mommy portion of my brain driving me to this wishful thinking — I just recoiled so instinctively from the idea of a teen girl, similar in age to my own daughter, making such a horrific choice.
Needless to say, I was very wrong. Yes, the girl is dead. She really did kill herself, and there’s no magical fix for that.
So… the TV series.
I was able to start viewing it without a whole lot of preconceptions about the plot or characters, since (as mentioned) I was quite fuzzy on the details of the books after so many years. I watched the show with my 14-year-old son, a high school freshman, and that in and of itself was a remarkable experience.
Wow. This isn’t an actual review or anything. For starters, I don’t really review TV. Beyond that, I wouldn’t really know where to start, so I’m just sharing my thoughts and reactions instead.
Let me kick this off by saying that the casting for Thirteen Reasons Why is fantastic. The show really rests on the shoulders of its young cast. Yes, there are adults — parents, school administrators, etc — and they were great too, but it’s largely the teen characters who evoke the emotions and carry the burden of the storyline’s heaviest moments.
Hannah Baker is dead, clearly and absolutely (lest any of my previous fantasies still linger). Clay Jensen is the nice boy who always liked Hannah, and wanted more, but never really made it out of the friend zone and never understood why. When Clay finds the box of tapes on his front porch about two weeks after Hannah’s death, he’s stunned by what he hears. He doesn’t know it yet, but he’s #11 on the tapes, so as he listens, he’s also in horrible suspense. He doesn’t think he ever mistreated Hannah, yet she’s included him in her list of “reasons why”. Clay listens to the recordings in enormous pain, as he learns all that Hannah suffered, and even more, comes to understand all the ways he and everybody else let her down or betrayed her trust or weren’t there at the crucial moment.
It’s truly heartbreaking to watch. As told through flashbacks, Hannah is a vivacious, lovely, bright girl when she starts at her new school at the beginning of her sophomore year. And bit by bit, moment by moment, her soul is crushed, by malicious rumors, whispers about being “easy” or a “slut”, abandonment by friends, and moments of physical and cyber bullying — and much more. Any one of those elements on their own would be difficult; as an accumulation, it becomes unbearable.
We also see Hannah’s parents in the aftermath, utterly broken and suffering horribly, searching for any sorts of explanation that might help them understand why their beautiful girl should take her own life. Watching them is almost too much. As a parent, it took my breath away.
I should mention too that there are a few moments that are brutally graphic, but I think necessary. There are two different rape scenes, which are not done in any way gratuitously, but do show unflinchingly just how horrible those assaults are. The final episode does show Hannah’s suicide, and does not pull back at all from showing her take a razor blade to her arms and bleed out in the bathtub. It’s excruciating.
That said, I applaud the producers for not softening those moments. There’s nothing glamorous here. It’s painful and real. The show does a very good job of showing us how the teen brain doesn’t function the way a fully developed adult brain does. For Hannah, there’s no seeing past her present. She can’t even begin to envision a world that’s better than where she is. She internalizes everything and sees herself as worthless, so that even when something good is happening, she can’t feel worthy — and can’t see herself as being able to ask for or get help.
Now, I did have some quibbles with certain elements of the show. In the book, as I recall (and please correct me if I’m wrong), we only see the story through Hannah’s tapes and Clay’s experience listening to them, which he does all in one night. In the show, Clay takes much longer to get through them all, and meanwhile the ten people who come earlier in the tapes all know that he’s listening. There’s a lot of whispering and plotting among these characters who are scrambling to protect themselves and their secrets, and even contemplate finding a way to stop Clay before he can expose them.
That’s all well and good, but there are varying degrees of guilt and responsibility here, and some of the reactions don’t exactly make sense, especially as each tape gets its own full hour episode to explore. Yes, there are some heinous acts described — but some of the reasons are much smaller, pettier things. While I can’t deny that they hurt Hannah, I can’t understand why some of these characters become so desperate to hide the truth, especially as they’ve all listened to all the tapes and know that they’re being lumped together with others who’ve actually committed crimes.
Again, spoilers here:
There’s a top athlete, Bryce, who rapes both Hannah and another girl. There’s Bryce’s friend who stands by while Bryce rapes his girlfriend. With less bad intention but still a terrible outcome, there’s a girl who doesn’t report when she drunkenly knocks down a stop-sign, which leads to a car accident that kills another student. These are all terrible, awful, outrageous deeds.
But then again, there’s Courtney, a popular, perfect girl who abandons her friendship with Hannah when a peeping Tom catches Courtney and Hannah sharing a drunken kiss on a dare. And there’s a boy who publishes a very personal poem of Hannah’s without her permission — and even though it’s anonymous, everyone realizes it’s Hannah’s. Another boy creates and passes around a list of who’s hot and who’s not, which leads to some gross objectification of Hannah and adds to her reputation as the class slut. On and on. Again, I’m not making light of any of this from Hannah’s perspective — but for the other characters, I had a hard time believing that some of them could be so crippled by their own shame over careless or insensitive — but not criminal — behaviors that they wouldn’t turn in the rapist or come together to share the truth with Hannah’s parents.
There’s also a moment of Hannah’s own shameful behavior that’s really hard to forgive. Hannah is IN THE ROOM when her former best friend is raped, and she’s too stunned and frightened to intervene or scream or call for help — and as a viewer, that’s hard to get past. I totally understand that this adds to Hannah’s sense of shame and failure, but it was hard to believe that this happened and that she acted that way.
After the final episode, Netflix had available another 30-minute behind-the-scenes piece that’s quite compelling as well, which aims at its teen viewers directly. Through comments and interviews with the cast, writers, and health care professionals, there’s important information shared about resources, getting help, speaking out, and the finality of suicide, as well as insights into teen psychology and the impact of abuse and bullying. It’s meant to be direct, helpful, and non-preachy, and I thought it was an important wrap-up (which I hope the show’s teen viewers stuck around for). Interestingly, this piece included advice about how to get help, but the episodes themselves didn’t. It would have been better, I think, to also include suicide hotline information at the end of each episode.
Watching the show with my son was really interesting and important. He had no patience for my clueless-parent questions (“does anyone act this way at your school?” or “do you ever feel bullied”), but he did frequently tell me to hit the pause button so he could comment or ask a question. He didn’t always have sympathy for Hannah (“God! Why does she make everything about her? She’s so dramatic!”), but this gave us a chance to talk about depression and victimization and how someone can internalize things to such a degree. We talked about how if Hannah had just had one or two of these experiences, maybe she could have gotten past it, but how it all piled on top of one another until she was drowning.
We talked about whose misdeeds were the worst. Well, clearly, the rapist, but after him, where does the culpability lie, and are there shades of gray? He initially felt really sorry for the school counselor who failed to help Hannah when she came to him on her last day. My son didn’t feel that it was fair of Hannah and Clay to blame him so much for not doing enough. This gave me a good opportunity to talk with him about adult responsibility and the role the school officials are supposed to play. Earlier, we see that this is a man with a stressful home life, but the show doesn’t let him off the hook. Maybe he was distracted, and maybe Hannah wasn’t entirely forthcoming, but this was clearly a girl in distress who communicated that she’d been the victim of a sexual assault and felt that she wanted everything to stop — and he let her walk out of his office.
There’s so much more, but I’ve really rambled on quite a lot already. Obviously, this show really affected me, and has left me with so much still to process and think about. Thirteen Reasons Why is just so well done, and so important. It’s not a sensationalized show aimed at teens. I saw one review describe it (paraphrasing here) as an adult show about teens, and I think that’s right. It’s important viewing, and I can’t stress enough how glad I am that I watched it with my son.
In terms of other pop culture moments, it would be a shame if people assumed that Thirteen Reasons Why is a teen drama (like Pretty Little Liars or many of the CW’s shows). The two TV shows that I was most reminded of, in weird ways, are Veronica Mars and Buffy the Vampire Slayer — two of my all-time favorites. Like Veronica Mars, Thirteen Reasons Why spins a complicated web of causes and effects, showing the seemingly infinite connections between the various characters, and how each decision and casual action or cruelty can lead to unexpected and even devastating effects. (Unlike Veronica Mars, there’s little to no humor to lighten the moments. While Veronica Mars dealt with life and death issues, destroyed reputations, rape, and abuse, its quippy dialogue and characters kept it floating along with a slightly sunnier tone.) I was reminded of the Buffy episode, Out of Mind, Out of Sight, in which a high school student literally becomes invisible after being unseen and unnoticed by her classmates for too long. Obviously, no supernatural elements in Thirteen Reasons Why, but there is a similar seriousness paid to high school power dynamics that resonates as true and important to note.
Clearly, I consider Thirteen Reasons Why to be important viewing! And if you have a high school student in your life, consider watching the series with him or her, and see where your conversations lead you.
So, thanks for sticking with me for my rambles! I’d love to hear other people’s reactions. Did you watch Thirteen Reasons Why? What did you think?