It's one of the very few downsides of 13 Reasons Why, Netflix's latest and possibly best series since House Of Cards. Based on the novel by Jay Asher, 13 follows Clay Jensen's discovery of cassette tapes his friend Hannah recorded before her suicide dictating the reasons why she decided to take her own life. It is a haunting cautionary tale about teen suicide, bullying and a rightfully scathing commentary about society as a whole.
Overwrought dialogue aside, 13 is an unflinchingly powerful, beautifully written and expertly acted glimpse at the emotional rigors of high school life in the age of Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter--something executive producer Selena Gomez knows more than a little about. In these times, when compassion seems to be nearing global extinction, 13 Reasons Why is should be assigned homework for everyone, parents and kids alike.
And it starts with one unflattering photo and ends with a box of tapes.
The other day, I was complaining to a co-worker about the fact that there were no camera phones when I was in high school. I was a cheerleader and there's little footage of the badass stunts I'd learned. After watching this series and witnessing all that happens to Hannah Baker, I had never been more grateful to go through puberty in the nascent age of the Internet when every embarrassing and awkward moment didn’t never had the chance to be documented by selfies and video.
Hannah Baker is like most teenage girls: intelligent, reckless, brave, weird, lonely, insecure. Most importantly, she is not an adult. The decisions she makes often sets herself up for disappointment, failure or even tragedy, but there was nothing she could ever do that made her life worthless or worthy of what the horrors she and many of the students at Liberty High endured. 13's true feat is viscerally exploring all the ways the well-intentioned people who were sworn to protect her—from teachers to her guidance counselors to her so-called friends—failed her in impactful ways.
Watching all 13 episodes over one rainy weekend is a masochistic task but it is also designed for mass consumption (once you get past the kids' love of the word "existential”), written with an almost lyrical continuity that network television couldn’t sustain. While you might get sick of that damn cut on Clay's head, (it's a clever way of easily differentiating Present Clay from Past Clay), you never grow weary of the ever expanding and diverse cast of characters that all start out as nauseatingly cliché stereotypes and blossom into layered and incredibly flawed people who don't quite realize the impact their actions have on others.
How harmless is complimenting a girl's features on a Hot Or Not list? As Hannah says, "Clearly, you've never been a girl” because it becomes an invitation to be groped, slut-shamed and ogled in the halls and beyond.
Admittedly, as an adult with a full formed frontal lobe that enables me to analyze situations and react thoroughly express my emotions, which many teenagers cannot, it's hair-pullingly painful to watch Hannah and Clay struggle through debilitating traumas without clueing in their parents. It equally aggravating that the parents who are lawyers, pharmacists, and cops are oblivious to the torment their kids are enduring. Yet when guidance counselor, Mr. Porter wrongfully insinuated that he may have provoked an attack, we understand why the students keep their mouths shut.
And then I remembered that I did the same thing as a teenager. Three of my friends attempted suicide and I helped through it and never told my mom until one day I couldn't stop crying from the stress.
I remember liking a boy, much like Clay crushes on Hannah, for four years and I never had the courage to admit it until a few weeks before graduation.
I remembered laying into my friend for sneaking out of the house in the middle of the night to joyride and buy drugs in the city but I never told her mom when I probably should have.
I remember pretending to have it all together when I had no idea what I was doing.
I also remember wearing bell-bottom overalls with flowers embroidered on them with a rainbow tye-dyed shirt. Again, thank God for no camera phones.
13 commendably documents Hannah’s tragic and brutal last moments. For teenagers, especially, suicide can be imagined as idyllic end, a way to escape pain, find peace and yes, punish those who took your for granted or hurt you. High school students study Romeo and Juliet, and even enact the lauded scenes in which these “star-crossed lovers” take their own lives to be together in death. It's gilded with iambic pentameter and embroidered costumes. They pour over images of Ophelia’s death in a brook dappled with flowers, and it’s not called tragic but instead celebrated as poetic and artistic and beautiful.
13 decimates these harmful and distrubingly wrong notions in a single scene that packs more of a visceral punch than any of the gory violence than The Walking Dead ever could. After 13 episodes of growing to know, root for and ache for Hannah, we see the quiet violence of how her own life ends.
The show's brilliance stems from a dedicated and insanely talented cast, who by playing high school students, teach a master class in acting. As Hannah Baker, Katherine Langford imbues Hannah with this wild, colorful freedom and that she slowly wilts and grays as she is bullied, beaten down and traumatized by one tragedy after another. Dylan Minnette (Scandal) carries the weight of the world and his emotional struggles so effectively, I waffled between wanting to adopt him and ply him with cookies and comic books and wanting to drag his mother for filth for not doing the same. The flawless Kate Walsh pays homage of Viola Davis’ snot-cry in Fences as Hannah’s mother, devastated by grief and grappling for answers. You can see the different in her grief than in Hannah's. She is rightfully devastated, but working through it instead of drowning in it.
Parenthood’s Miles Heizer who steals every scene he’s in as Hannah’s former friend who’s so riddled with guilt and fear after her death that he cries out for help in every way he can.
Also, the majority of Hannah’s former friends and frenemies are so realistically well-drawn, except for Tony (Christian Navarro). He seems like he got sucked into a Netflix wormhole from The Outsiders. With his Cherry ‘60s Mustang, wise-beyond-his-years demeanor and leather jacket, he spends the majority of the series detached from the core drama for too long, and even when his connection is revealed, it’s forced and rushed, like a frazzled sophomore bluffing through an essay hours before it is due.
Tony is so mismatched from the fleshed-out characters that I invented many wild theories to explain why: is it a 21 Jump Street surprise, and he’s actually a young cop sent to investigate high school drug rings but discovers the rampant and blatantly ignored bullying? Or is he a hungry investigative journalist willing to do anything to for a killer story and gets too involved? Maybe his 50 –year-old Mustang is really a time machine and he’s really from 1966, but likes the future so much he stays? Any of these are more likely than the truth. His only real purpose to is make sure Clay listens to the tapes and passes them on. Consequently, he sadly approaches Magic Minority levels of problematic television tropes, risking everything, including a relationship, to ensure he carries out Hannah’s wishes.
It’s a pointed choice that the ending does little to alleviate the avalanche of trauma sustained to its characters and the viewers, but each person on the tapes makes a decision for the better or worse, but nothing will undo the damage that has been done or the lives that have been lost, and that matters.
I could rattle off 100 reasons why some moments in this triggering series still effected me days later, but that is the entire point of the cautionary tale--to learn a life-alteringly vital lessons, what the players did not until it was too late: people are fighting their own battles whether you know it or not, and your actions have a massive impact on whether they win or lose.
Photo Credits: variety.com; ibtimes.com