Netflix Review: 13 Reasons Why
By Jessica Alewine (@awkwardalewine)
On Friday, Netflix released the highly anticipated series 13 Reasons Why, based on the 2007 book of the same title by Jay Asher. The book itself gained a lot of attention upon its initial release due to the heavy subject matter of the story, and the show is no different. The series shows brutal scenes involving rape and suicide and discusses victim blaming, bullying and depression in a way that will reach teens and parents and start a discussion. While the show features heavy subject matter, it is still a binge worthy series that is impossible to stop watching. The teen drama, the amazing soundtrack and the emotive acting all suck viewers in, while the subject matter worms its way into the thoughts of viewers even when they are not watching. The over the top drama and somewhat unrealistic plot of the series also add to the addictive quality of the show, in a so bad it’s good Degrassi way, but might detract from the serious message of the series.
13 Reasons Why follows Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette), the stereotypical nice boy, as he deals with the aftermath of the suicide of his friend and crush, Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford). His life is turned on its head when a box of tapes is delivered to his house. He is startled to discover upon listening that the tapes were created by Hannah and that she is using the tapes to explain the 13 reasons why she killed herself. Hannah explains that the tapes are being sent to the twelve people she feels contributed to her suicide. Clay cannot imagine why he would be included, and he begins to listen to the tapes and ride around town, following the instructions Hannah gives throughout her narration. Over the next weeks, he listens as Hannah talks through her ruined reputation and her emotional and mental decline as she suffers through cruel bullying and the undeserved hatred she receives from her classmates. She explains how 12 different people destroyed her reputation, her friendships, and her own mental state through their cruelty, ignorance, and twisted sense of self-preservation.
While Hannah narrates the series, it is Clay who carries the plot forward. We watch as he struggles to understand how people could be so cruel to Hannah, how Justin (Brandon Flynn) could so thoughtlessly lie about the sexual nature of his relationship with Hannah and how Jessica (Alisha Boe) could abandon her friend over a silly list made by Alex (Miles Heizer). He confronts the people on the tapes throughout the season and attempts to make them right their wrongs, and his actions lead the others on the tapes to look for ways to silence him to keep their secrets from getting out. He’s trying to find the truth among Hannah’s tapes and he’s trying to bring her some justice. He keys Zack’s car for his hurtful manipulation of Hannah. He confronts Sheri for her actions that led to the death of his friend, Jeff. He is beaten bloody by Bryce in order to get his confession of raping Hannah on tape. She’s using her words beyond the grave to tell her truth, and he’s fighting to avenge her.
While the series is heavy and contains some very brutal subject matter, including suicide and rape, it still depends very heavily on teen drama and angst to capture the viewer’s attention. The messages of the series, to be kinder to people, to pay attention to the consequences of our actions and to care for the people around us, is carefully tied together with teen romance, frenemies and general drama to leave us entertained. It’s almost masterful, in a sense, because there’s no other way to make a show about teen suicide palatable. In order for the show to have the desired effect of creating a conversation, it has to be watchable, and the series creators have made a highly addictive, highly entertaining world that serves as the perfect backdrop for the unraveling of Hannah Baker’s life. The pain of the show is displayed through the blunt and brutal portrayal of Hannah’s rape, Jessica’s rape, and even Hannah’s own suicide. I found myself in tears over both rapes and could not even watch during the suicide scene. The acting of Boe and Langford during both of these scenes was stunning. While I may not agree with the inclusion of the suicide scene, as some experts have said it might lead teens to romanticize suicide, I do feel that the actors handled these highly emotional scenes impeccably, and these scenes left me feeling emotionally drained after finishing the series. Kate Walsh’s reaction, in particular, to finding Hannah in the tub after her suicide was heart-wrenching, and viewers will find it impossible to remain unmoved as they watch a mother clutch her child, unconvinced that she could really be gone. It was one of the most well-acted scenes of the series, and Walsh stole the series with her understated agony.
While Walsh had arguably the most emotionally well-played scene in the series, many of the new actors showed themselves to be more than up to the challenge of working in such an emotional role. Alisha Boe broke my heart throughout the series as we watched her own downward spiral as she fought to determine her own truth about her rape. Miles Heizer stunned as the guilt-ridden Alex, who deals with his own suicidal thoughts and depression over his own involvement in his friend’s suicide. And Dylan Minnette quietly displayed his acting skill through his slow deterioration over his own guilt and inability to change Hannah’s ending. These actors wrung out every drop of emotion from the script they were given, and the series will leave you drained as you go through the wringer of experiencing high school, loss, and pain through their acting.
Unfortunately, the overly emotional quality of the show also tends to make the series seem somewhat unrealistic. The idea that a school would have a teen die in a tragic car accident, another teen kill herself, and yet another teen attempt suicide all while a potential school shooter lurks in the background seems somewhat unrealistic. Much like other popular teen dramas, including the aforementioned Degrassi, 13 Reasons Why falls into the habit of adding drama to keep viewers interested, to the point where it almost detracts from the point of the story and the character development. The final scene, for instance, deviates from the plot of the book when viewers discover that Alex has shot himself in the head in an attempted suicide and that he’s currently in critical condition. Not only is this adding drama for the sake of drama, but it’s creating a cliff hanger that will have no answer if the show is not renewed for a second season. So, while the insane happenings at Liberty High are highly addictive, they detract from the realism of the story and might leave some viewers exasperated with the story.
13 Reasons Why is not a perfect series, but it’s definitely relevant and necessary today. The ability of this show to create a conversation on suicide, bullying and rape makes it an important piece of media for teens and adults alike. While the intense subject matter might be too much for some viewers, the lure of teen drama might be enough to entice even the most hesitant. If you can get past the tendency of the series to veer into unrealistic scenarios and the brutality of some of the scenes, it is likely that 13 Reasons Why will become your new favorite binge and the topic of many intense conversations with friends. But take this series as it is: one person’s truth. It is not an over-arching representation of everyone struggling with suicidal thoughts and it does not represent every suicide. It’s the fictional story of one girl intended to create a conversation. While this could be the very story of someone struggling with suicidal thoughts and depression, it’s not going to be the same story for every person. Keep that in mind as you enjoy this emotionally draining, yet captivating, series.