Review: 13 Reasons Why

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Image courtesy of Forbes.com

“It has to get better. The way we treat each other, and look out for each other. It has to get better somehow”

Before I get around to reviewing ’13 Reasons Why’, can I just take a moment to applaud the show for bringing taboo subjects such as suicide and rape into the mainstream? It’s not before time. I get it, people don’t want heavy subjects mixed in with their entertainment, and there are certainly some questions to be asked about the morality of making money from a story about suicide. But if it makes people more aware of issues that have gone under the radar for way too long, I’m all for it.

It’s interesting, and telling, to see the variety of criticisms the show has received since its release in March. Some think the depictions of suicide and rape are too graphic; others think the show shies away from these issues, even glamorises them. I don’t agree with either position, but I’m pleased that the series is making people talk about these subjects. The worst thing that could have happened is for the show to be uncontroversial and quickly forgotten – instead, it’s made people think more about vitally important subjects, and highlighted the lack of consensus about them. So, say what you like about ’13 Reasons Why’, but it’s done more for suicide awareness than any number of leaflets and public information films ever have.

And now, the actual review.

Based on the Jay Asher novel of the same name, 13 Reasons Why tells the story of Hannah Baker, a 17-year old girl who takes her own life and leaves a set of audio tapes detailing thirteen reasons why she did it. In each one she lays the blame at a different person’s door, telling the story of those who started her downfall, and those who couldn’t stop it. Some of their crimes seem petty; others are beyond reprehensible. All contributed to Hannah’s tragic end. And now they must face the consequences.

The series switches between the perspectives of Hannah, retelling the stories on the tapes, and Clay Jensen, a classmate and co-worker who was in love with Hannah. Each person mentioned on the tapes listens to them, before passing them on to the next person. This means that Clay’s name will be coming up at some point – he is one of the thirteen reasons. It is just a matter of when, and with each episode there is a surge of tension – will it be Clay? – and then a touch of respite when it turns out not to be.

The first few episodes are quite routine – Hannah tells a story, and Clay reacts to it. Simple, but I can dig it. Then things start to get complicated. Hannah’s parents open a lawsuit against the school, which they believe cultivated a culture of bullying. Clay’s mother is called as the school’s attorney. Clay’s classmates try to shut him down as he seeks to avenge Hannah’s death. And all the while we watch, with equal parts anticipation and dread, waiting to see who will come under the microscope next.

Clay starts off as a bit of a blank slate, simply acting as the eyes through which we experience the story. But as the plot becomes more complex, as Clay starts to take a more active role in avenging Hannah’s death, he comes into his own, and forces the other culprits to confront the demons of their past. But you wonder if he will be forced to eat a massive slice of humble pie when his own turn comes, particularly as his classmates imply that his crime is among the worst of all.

Spoiler: it isn’t. The story does shirk a bit in this respect. It wants to have its cake and eat it, naming Clay among the culprits without actually having much of a reason to blame him for Hannah’s death. If the others’ crimes are equivalent to murder, Clay’s is closer to an unpaid parking ticket. Still, the wait to hear his name is a greater draw than the eventual revelation ever could be. I compared it to a good jump-scare in a horror movie – it’s the build-up that makes it, and no sucker-punch could possibly live up to the anticipation.

Clay suffers a little bit from what I like to call ‘false introvert syndrome’, a common trope in high school movies and shows. We are told that he’s a rule-abiding, socially-awkward loner yet he skips school, goes to parties and has at least two beautiful girls with their eye on him. The choice to make him an introvert was presumably an effort to make him relatable, but they needn’t have worried. He’s instantly relatable because we learn the truth at the same speed he does. His reactions reflect our own; he’s relatable by default.

The cast of actors is almost entirely unknown, yet there are some excellent performances. To tell this story right, they needed an actress who could convey Hannah’s torment effectively, and Katherine Langford is superb. She and Dylan Minnette, who plays Clay, switch from moments of sadness to ones of levity with skilful dexterity which belies their limited experience. The standout performance comes from Kate Walsh as Hannah’s heartbroken but fierce mother. The show rarely pauses to engage in moments of poignancy but most come from Walsh and Brian d’arcy James as Hannah’s father. Their quest for justice in the face of terrible tragedy is as admirable as it is gut-wrenching.

I can’t speak to the rewatchability of 13 Reasons Why. The tension and the mystery is what keeps you coming back, and I think the show would lose a significant amount of appeal without all that. But for a one-time watch, it’s a must-see – both for the intensity of the drama and the importance of the subject matter. And it all culminates in an unflinchingly real finale which leaves plenty of things open to interpretation. Until the recently-announced season 2, when presumably they’ll find a second set of tapes and Hannah saying: “whoops I forgot, turns out there’s actually twenty-six reasons. What a scatterbrain I am!”