Must-watch: '13 Reasons Why' is an extraordinary series about young adult life, consequences and tragedy
The Netflix adaptation of Jay Asher's novel captures the reality of young lives with incredible honesty and beautiful storytelling
The new miniseries 13 Reasons Why, adapted from Jay Asher's 2007 novel, follows the cassette tape diary of Hannah Baker's last days, on which she narrates the thirteen reasons that she killed herself. That she is dead is open information from episode one. But her story—of her life at Liberty High School and of the people who drove her to suicide—is a descent into the darkest parts of young adulthood, high school anxiety, decisions and consequences. This is not a mystery series as some of its advertising implies; this is an exploration of the reality of young lives and of all of the ways in which they help and hurt each other.
Hannah Baker doesn't leave a note for her parents. Instead, she records her last words on cassette tapes. This is all part of the show's plot, so no spoilers yet—but there will be below, so don't read on if you haven't finished the series. Each side of a tape tells the story of one person who hurt her. Her last wish is that the tapes be passed from person #1 to person #13, each listening to all of them before passing them onto the next. Hannah calls this a game, at first, and the characters featured on the tapes start to create strategies to protect themselves. This might sound like a superficial plot device, but the game disappears quickly as the tapes reveal more and more horrific stories of bullying, harassment and abuse—abuse that is not aimed solely at Hannah.
No one is safe in this story: not the victims, not the bullies, not the teachers or faculty, not the parents. 13 Reasons Why exposes in its barest terms the reality of adolescence. Hannah has friends, she has loving parents, a college fund, a job and a crush. She has intelligence and dreams and fun. But the show ruthlessly undermines every one of these positives in Hannah's life: the counselor insists she has friends, though she tells him she doesn't; her parents support her but cannot support themselves; her college fund exists at the expense of her parents' financial security; her job alienates her from her friends during the summer; her crush remains a crush.
Zach, Bryce and Justin. (Facebook)
Hannah's life is the center of the show's drama and tragedy but hers is not the only struggle. The targets of her tapes—her abusers and all of those who failed her—are crushed by their own decisions and demons. The show's thirteen hours allow each character's life to expand well beyond whatever hurtful action contributes to the plot. Hannah's ex, Justin, goes home to a drug-addicted mother with a violent boyfriend. Hannah's friend, Jessica, distances herself because she won't believe the truth about an instance of assault. The stalker, Tyler, stocks his bedroom with guns to silence his own bullies. The plot of the show sets up each character on the tapes as a reason why Hannah killed herself. But during thirteen episodes, it complicates every main and supporting character with their own sympathetic moments.
Far from lessening their hurtful decisions—or, in some cases, crimes—these complications help the story to build a horrifyingly honest picture of high school that indicts judgement and exposes the depth of teenage suffering. Has any show in recent memory taken adolescence so seriously? 13 Reasons Why is partly a high school romance. But its stakes, for all of the characters, are vastly higher than lost love. "This tape," says Tony, "This tape blows up the world."
Alex and Clay. (Twitter)
The adults are not spared, either. This is not a show where the parents are simply background characters to a teenage world. Their involvement is heightened by the community crisis that Hannah's suicide sparks: see the school's suicide prevention presentation for parents or the counselor's struggle to talk about what happened with the students. Clay constantly reminds his parents that they can't control him, despite the tragic circumstances. His mother's panic peaks when an ambulance wakes her up at night and she realizes, terrified, that he hasn't come home. When the counselor, Mr. Porter, asks Clay if he has ever considered hurting himself, Clay tells him that he had almost thrown himself off of a cliff the other night. Porter struggles to respond.
Porter demonstrates the same adult failure when Hannah comes to him to ask for help. This climactic scene, where Hannah confesses her suicidal thoughts, begins with the phone ringing. Though Porter refuses to answer, the phone continues to interrupt Hannah's last chance at help. The audience expects a kind of reverse deus ex machina, where the phone prevents Porter from helping. But when he finally answers as Hannah leaves, the call is brief. Hesitating outside his office, she hopes he'll come after her. He doesn't. It is human failure, as it is in every instance of hurt in this show. He fails to realize the severity of what she's telling him. The scary thing is, Hannah says on Tape 7, Side A, "it looks like nothing."
The story forces each character to reckon with the reasons for his or her decisions, and the consequences of them. The Bakers' lawsuit and depositions parallel the story's objective: to illustrate the high school environment and all of its joy and sadness in the twenty-first century; to explain the series of events that could lead to a young girl's suicide; to condemn the abuse, the spread of rumors, the unsympathetic judgement of others' lives; to initiate an honest conversation about these problems with the hope that talking about them can help to solve them and to open better opportunities for aid to prevent future suicides.
13 Reasons Why is a triumph of young adult life, high school drama, choices and consequences and honest storytelling. The show is unafraid and true to language. Full of swear words and the creatively vulgar insults of a high school mouth, it captures the very real soundtrack of the school environment, away from teachers' ears. The technology in the show—phones, cameras, computers—and its use is realistic, modern and naturally shot.
The acting supports the difficult story well and the camera work is surprisingly thoughtful. The half-flashback format differentiates visibly between past and present with subtle color changes: warm during the flashbacks and cool during the present. This method has its best moment when the cooly colored Clay sits next to Hannah in Porter's warm, flashback office.
Pultizer Prize-winning playwright Brian Yorkey adapted Asher's novel into this Netflix miniseries. Yorkey wrote the Tony-winning musical Next to Normal in 2009 and his skillful writing about difficult topics, such as suicide and drug abuse, continues to impress. This incredible novel adaptation shows exactly how to create a successful miniseries. The show makes worthy use of all thirteen hours and leaves its audience with the sense of thoroughness that is best achieved in novels. It's a complex, patient series, tragic and difficult to watch, yet impossible to stop watching, dense with conflict and tension and soaring in its ambition. "It has to get better," Clay says, "The way we treat each other and look out for each other. It has to get better somehow."
13 Reasons Why is streaming now on Netflix.
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