Suicide is a particularly tough subject matter to tackle in any art form. There’s several implications that goes into portraying its characters in situations that feel justified while grounded in the realism really required to make a point – an example of almost unspeakable themes bordering on the controversial, it seems. With 2017’s Netflix original series, 13 Reasons Why, it seems that the gloves were removed and the subject matters of suicide, rape, and bullying were all addressed in the kind of glorified spotlight put on shows like Stranger Things in the past. However, with the show garnering plenty of attention, be it in a positive light or not, it’s eye-opening to note exactly how the show managed to shine some light on its dark subject matter within the mainstream. The result is as emotionally resonant as its absolutely gripping social commentary.
13 Reasons Why begins in a suburban town struck by the grief of a students suicide, Hannah Baker. Clay Jensen, a classmate and close friend of Hannah, receives a strange box full of recorded numbered tapes narrated by her that seem to allude to a broader understanding of exactly why she committed suicide, with each tape focusing on a specific individual in her life that drove her to that point. As Clay dives deeper into Hannah’s “hit-list” of people that affected her choices, we also peel back the layers surrounding Hannah and each individual’s plight in the inevitable events leading to her tragic death. Or rather, thirteen reasons why Hannah Baker did what she did.
The one aspect 13 Reasons Why immediately gets right and terrifyingly on-the-nose to reality is its unreliable narrative and multi-layered characters. What Clay experiences through Hannah’s eyes doesn’t always necessary correlate with the “true” events from the perspective of others. This adds a very dark complexity to the subject matter, constantly bouncing between what is within reason and what is misconstrued from the truth. The more Clay attempts to understand Hannah’s motivations, the more muddled the truth ultimately becomes, putting all of its characters in grim positions of moral ambiguity. Thanks to stellar writing and pacing, the show wisely chooses to unfold events within its own narrative frame, even when the direction isn’t occasionally as confident and bold as its script.
A lot of credit falls on the actors who all collectively do an astounding job, matching the emotional heights and depths really required to craft convincing performances. Due to the story branching into melodramatic territory quite a bit, the cast remains consistently grounded and confident in their acting, especially from Dylan Minnette and Katherine Langford as Clay and Hannah, respectively. Minnette, who recently broke into the mainstream spotlight alongside Jack Black in Goosebumps, flexes his acting ability quite a bit here, given the very demanding performance as the shows’ central protagonist and meaty emotional crux of the story. His performance especially shines in episode 11, which admittedly brought me (and I imagine many others) to tears and distraught emotion, incredibly encapsulating the horrendous, devastating effects suicide has on others.
13 Reasons Why manages to tread into its controversial subject matters with an astonishing amount of unrestrained realism. This is where I fear more sensitive viewers may feel divisive in how it decides to approach depicting acts of suicide and rape, opting to elicit more direct and confrontational shock factor than glossing it up. However, this sometimes threatens to work against the coming-of-age tones that the show attempts to set up with its reliance on indie-soundtracks, bittersweet metaphors and overall adolescent mystery-detective premise that wouldn’t feel out of place in a John Hughes film. The moments do come few and far between, but leave a remarkably outstanding and potent impact in contrast, be it intentional or not.
Where 13 Reasons Why both succeeds and falters is when it decides to justify the shaky morality of its entire cast of characters. Each episode is dedicated to focusing on a specific character, leaving a lot of room to flesh them out and mark their personality quirks and shortcomings. It’s a great narrative device that works in conjunction with the premise, making even the most inconsequential people at first appear to have great depth and significance for later plot twists and advancements. Where this becomes a bit muddled is when the show, mostly in its third quarter, decides to introduce a few surprising revelations with specific characters that seemingly goes nowhere or teases at the potential of another season. 13 Reasons Why, given its premise, should’ve remained a more contained story that welcomingly spanned just a single season, but as I’m unfamiliar with the source material of the book, I’m conflicted about how it chooses to build upon its controversial subject matter by teasing even more shocking events to come. Sure, it builds anticipation for a continuation and raises many debates but it does ultimately cheapen the impact of the ending and standalone nature of its narrative.
Verdict: 13 Reasons Why is a series of many great emotional highs and few narrative lows. It’s bold decisions to depict the tricky subject matters in its most raw, nerve-wrecking form is what makes it stand out among a sea of mostly tamed or desensitized shows tackling similar themes. However, as much praise as I can give its unapologetic storytelling, extremely well-rounded ensemble, and confident writing, it doesn’t manage to obtain the climactic emotional catharsis it so desperately deserved, feeling like a product of a continual string of seasons to build upon rather than stand on its own two feet and deliver an impactful resolution – a comparison I’d unfairly say Stranger Things managed to execute better. However, 13 Reasons Why is still one of the year’s most intriguing and gripping shows, and definitely deserves a binge.