A show that both embodies and defies teenage cliché, 13 Reasons Why tackles the suicide of a girl, Hannah Baker, and her reasons why she did it. It is a gripping drama that questions the accountability of each person in turn over thirteen episodes, a mystery for the viewer and protagonist.
The show, based on a novel of the same name, works exceedingly well as a television programme. The story begins by presenting the suicide of Hannah Baker and we follow seemingly innocent Clay Jensen as he discovers she has left behind thirteen cassette tapes detailing why it is she killed herself. This structure works: each episode is a new tape, and Clay and the watcher proceed at the same pace. As we decide to continue the story, so does he, making it an interestingly immersive watch. And we find out, Clay’s tape will come.
The show moves between past and present with surprising ease, blurring the distinction of time and giving us only a couple of clues each time: Clay has a plaster/scar in the ‘present’ and just before her death Hannah has a short haircut. Otherwise, past and present merge to create a narration that is both what has already past but is also ongoing. The show plays with time continuously, to achieve a presence for Hannah that is not restricted to her ‘past’ or dead status: she is a part of everything and everyone. The story within the present becomes increasingly of interest, as characters play out their reactions to Hannah’s tapes – and Clay’s increasing dismay at hearing their stories. All while we wait for Clay’s tape to emerge. The character Tony also has a strange omniscience that adds to the intrigue. He seems to be aware of Hannah’s motives, and around at all the right times, but we’re not quite sure what he’s doing there. He is someone Clay cannot decide whether to trust or reject, and as the audience we embrace his suspicion.
When characters dispute the validity of her claims, it destabilises the narration and we are left wondering what the real truth is.
In fact, everyone is pretty suspicious. As the plot thickens with each episode, the characters within become worse and worse – only Clay seems to be exempt from this, and for how long you can’t tell. Will he too become a character to dislike when we find out why her reasons include him? What is interesting about the structure of the show is that she narrates the story, and her death gives a permanence to her voice. As narrator, her story should be indisputable, and as characters deny what happened you cannot help but think it is merely to cover up their bad behaviour. When characters dispute the validity of her claims, it destabilises the narration and we are left wondering what the real truth is.
From a technical standpoint, the show is well done. The structure of moving between past and present is matched with aesthetic shots and small changes in lighting and colouring provide guidance. This is, of course, aided by a cast that is strong – important in a show that has so many central characters to tackle. Both Dylan Minnette (Clay Jensen) and Katherine Langford (Hannah Baker) are wonderful; able to bring the two most important characters to life.
It is a show that uses teenage stereotypes, but does not condescend
Perhaps the real power of the show is in the message it’s trying to get across. It deals with problems that are on the rise with the youth of today: teenage suicide rates are on the rise, and what may be partly to blame are the conditions in which we live today. What seems like an attempt to be ‘hip’, the show references selfies – with two girls snapping a picture outside of Hannah’s locker after her suicide and adding the hashtag #NeverForget. Social media and technology are used throughout, and Hannah’s decision to use cassette tapes for her suicide ‘note’ juxtaposes this. These issues play in the background as we discover what it is every person has done.
It is a show that uses teenage stereotypes, but does not condescend. It does not refrain from swearing, or graphic images. Despite it being for ‘young adults’, the show doesn’t pander to the idea of what a young adult TV programme should be. It is an important commentary on suicide, on the changing environment in which people are growing up in, and why actions matter. If one were to take issue with it, you could say the show is too dark – too morbid. But, in a world in which suicide is one of the leading causes of teenage death, shouldn’t there be something that tackles this? It’s not an educational guide, and shouldn’t be likened to one: but it is a show targeted at young adults that provides so many different facets of how a person can affect another’s life. For that at least, it should be commended.
13 Reasons Why is available on Netflix from 31 March 2017.
Image: Beth Dubber/Netflix