Every day we lose the best and brightest of us to suicide. Yesterday was another such day. Someone important to many of us could seemingly no longer bear to live among us. Yet suicide remains one of society’s greatest taboos. An act some still refer to as committing suicide long
13 Reasons Why narrates, via thirteen cassette tapes and thirteen episodes, the cumulative pain which causes one girl – Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) – to take her life. And leads one boy – Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette) – to engage his heart and risk his carefully inoffensive reputation to understand and avenge her. Yes, the soundtrack is achingly retro and the aesthetic carefully cool but who doesn’t curate their life nowadays?! If you haven’t watched, or haven’t completed the series, you should read no further. In the wake of the show’s second season renewal there are things we need to explore.
Popular shows inevitably incur a backlash. But the bluster towards and uninformed fear of 13 Reasons Why is indicative of something far more insidious. And none of us are exempt from its grasp. Rule number one on Hannah’s tapes is that we listen. And I honestly thought I did. But I didn’t really hear. I asked to write this feature as a knee jerk reaction of my own. I was horrified that, once again, the abuse women suffer at the hands of men was being overlooked in favour of the splashier issues the show depicted. I couldn’t understand why so few people were talking about rape. Graffiti on a bathroom stall in episode 1 declared NO MEANS NO but this has been glossed over as fast as the walls.
I can’t remember the last time a television series preoccupied me in the way 13 Reason Why has. It got under my skin and stole my attention, I’ve returned to it again and again trying to unpick its appeal. Contrary to superficial comparisons with My So-Called Life or Freaks and Geeks, it dares to venture closer in tone to the tribal teen conspiracy of Alpha Dog, Pump Up the Volume and Brick. It resonates because it tells unflinching truths about being a teenage girl. Something which the traditional glut of series with teenage stars stubbornly refuse to do. The main stick used to beat the show cites Hannah as an unreliable narrator. News flash: you can always rely upon teenagers to be unreliable…
Hannah herself challenges her listeners from the grave with the declaration: You’ve never been a teenage girl. She uses it to justify her extreme reaction to Alex (Miles Heizer) citing her as Best Ass on the list which changed everything. And, if we look deeper, this is the first time she is revealed as a self-interested if not unreliable narrator. Skye (Sosie Bacon) – who we meet in later episodes – is proclaimed Butterface on the same list. Arguably a more hurtful citation. Yet Hannah’s changing room-invading fury is reserved solely for her own inclusion and her own pain. I would echo her and say you’ve never seen a teenage girl. Because it is so rare to see a real one expose her flaws and fatal hurt onscreen.
The series has been attacked for its protagonist’s apparent anger and appetite for revenge. What the nitpickers are overlooking is that the character of Hannah is at the end of her tether by the time we meet her. The flashbacks we are seeing are of a girl with an increasingly narrowing POV (albeit softened by Clay’s loving gaze) trying to retrace her steps to the place her life first fractured. Her life, her death, her pain and her perspective are what preoccupies her. And that’s okay. Culturally we portray female selfishness as a vanity and a flaw. Yet prioritising yourself is a defence mechanism which can protect against the very despair which leads to self harm, destructive behaviour and suicide.
Hannah is wounded by being declared Best Ass because the butterfly effect of the nomination steals a precious friend away and opens her up to further abuse. Physical and emotional. To live as a teenage girl is to withstand a thousand such wounds. Some are paper cuts – seemingly trivial – and some are stiletto stabs – hitting deep, and haemorrhaging long term insecurity and self-loathing. Never truly healing. The scars left behind unite to become a mandala of damage. A mandala is meant to be temporary but some women bear a design for life. And some, like Hannah, can’t bear it.
Hannah’s first tape centres on Justin (Brandon Flynn), the participant in her first kiss. And the razor sharp perception of 13 Reasons Why is first revealed through the dreamy aftermath of this innocuous encounter as it is destroyed by gossip and innuendo. Every girl understands that beneath each romantic daydream the potential for a nightmare lies. We live that all too familiar moment with Hannah as the gossamer thin bubble holding her sleepless night of what ifs bursts on the sharp reality of crude anatomical truths. Every girl has lived that rude awakening. Mine was during a maths lesson. I never hooked up with a boy from school again. Lesson learned.
However I learned another, perception-altering lesson, when I watched the season again. That the girls depicted in this show ultimately stand alone. Beyond the carelessness with which their hearts and bodies are treated, they are callous towards each other. They view their friendships as transitory things, easily upgraded or set aside. Whereas the boys – with the exception of the irredeemably evil Bryce (Justin Prentice) – for all their undeniable flaws, share an unshakeable bond. A bond which transcends (almost) every ugly position they put or find themselves in. I’d love to ascribe this to a flaw in the writing – evidence of misogyny – but to be brutally honest it was my teen experience too. And that of many of my peers.
Hannah’s tapes aren’t about revenge. They are about her trying to make sense of her unravelling psyche in the wake of a series of ugly experiences. In the context of her downward trajectory everyone is to blame. In reality everyone is just as lost as Hannah. No one intervenes to safeguard Justin from his unstable home life, though Mr Porter (Derek Luke) acknowledges there has been abuse. No one sees that Alex is at risk of meeting the same fate as Hannah despite his vocalisation of a wish to die. Him putting his affairs in order.
Alex lives with chronic pain. Aspiring marine biologist Zach (Ross Butler) with the burden of his ‘stupidity’: misspelling muff being a bittersweet clue. Skye cuts and tattoos her flesh rather than succumb to her own despair and die. Courtney (Michele Selene Ang) is living a lie. Hannah appears oblivious to the struggles of them all. Even Tony (Christian Navarro) – with his mix tapes, ’68 Mustang and audacious pompadour – straddles two worlds when he crosses from the wrong side of the tracks to be the “Unhelpful Yoda” to Clay’s broken-hearted boy on a quest. Beneath the rah rah rah bravado of school sports and style statements many of these kids despair.
I hope the hive mind of the World Wide Web will be proven wrong in their distastefully gleeful prediction that season two will see Tyler (Devin Druid) shoot up the school. I desperately want that to be a misdirect. Showrunner Brian Yorkey, who will helm the second season too, has alluded to another analogue medium narrating the next series. Tyler spoke of having photos to corroborate Hannah’s tapes and my wish is that revealing the telling images he captured will be the sole part he plays in exposing the bigger picture. And that the bigger picture will instead address Liberty’s rape culture and the way the school evolves. Finally forcing coverage of the show to do the same.
Until episode 13 we had only seen Liberty High refracted through the misperceptions of Hannah’s tear-filled eyes – beautiful people living charmed lives – with Hannah always on the outside. During Clay’s final walk through the halls reality finally bites. Chubby kids, girls with acne, boys with bum fluff moustaches, greasy hair and problems of their own all shuffle by. Clay singles Skye out from the crowd but he could have walked up to any of those kids and found hurt quite equal to Hannah’s own. Or loss equal to his. And this might be the most important reason why this show deserves to return.
The reason we need to see Hannah cry out in pain. The reason I* believe we should not look away as she gouges a razor blade deep into her arm and severs her last link to life. The reason to bear witness to a young girl bloodletting her grief and regret into an overflowing bath. The reason we have to speak out against letters home from school objecting to the subject matter and Daily Fail ‘think’ pieces knocking it. The reason we cannot allow shows like 13 Reasons Why to be picked to pieces and censored into contrition is simple…
We must shine a light into the darkest corners of our lives. Towards those other kids in the hall and the burdens they bear. To the adults they sometimes manage to grow up to be before they take the decision to die. To Alex, last seen tidying his room, last heard of as the victim of a gunshot wound to the head. We have to illuminate and elucidate the things that are left unspoken. The reasons why. We must talk and we must listen. Life can be painful, lonely and hard. Continuing to live, for some, can feel like an impossible feat.
Telling stories like 13 Reasons Why, on the page and on the screen, helps inspire us to share (or quietly acknowledge) our own truths. Helps us to feel less alone. Yes it is just a show – a revenue steam for Netflix and a profit machine for its creators – but these shows do touch our lives. We talk about them, we criticise them, we download their soundtracks and create elaborate conspiracy theories about their subtexts. Their characters become acquaintances we refer to in conversation. Those faces become memories we file away alongside old friends.
I lost a parent to suicide when I was too young to understand the powerful undertow of despair. I became a Samaritan in his memory when I could finally say his name aloud. It took two decades for me to get there. I know the damage silence can do. I believe in the power of speaking of unspeakable things. I believe that the things which entertain us can have the power to change our lives.
When 13 Reasons Why returns for its second season it will bear the weight of all our expectations. Of those who want it to speak our truths and those who want it to reignite their tabloid firestorms. My hope is only this: that it will continue. And that it will inspire a hundred new shows to tell new truths until it is allowed to be what it was all along. A single selfish voice in a crowd. Just like Hannah’s.
Anyone experiencing feelings of distress or despair may phone Samaritans any time of the day or night on 116 123 or by email to firstname.lastname@example.org
Mind offer support and advice for mental health issues on 0300 123 3393, 9am – 6pm, Mon – Fri (except Bank Holidays).
*Samaritans advise against onscreen portrayals of suicide methods. Media guidelines are provided here.