Ben Watches Television : 13 Reasons Why, Season One (2017)
I'm old enough to remember the Judas Priest trial. My terrified mother convinced herself that her seven year old son played Judas Priest records backwards and receiving subliminal orders to kill myself while she wasn't looking, so her excessive reaction left a profound impression on me. I've began taking interest in heavy metal and misguided parental hysteria around that period of my life. And these are things I still take interest in today.
It's how I became interested with 13 Reasons Why, a television show about suicide primarily aimed at teenagers. Schoolboard and psychologists came out of the woodwork like they'd just seen Jason Vorhees and implored unsuspecting parents not to let their children watch this evil series that glamorizes suicide. That it would lead their children to perceive suicide as a solution and off themselves. Sweeping problems under the rug is apparently still a thing in high schools. I did not need this much cowardice and paranoia to be intrigued. So, I sat through the first season of 13 Reasons Why * to make my own opinion.
I was not prepared for that. Don't get me wrong, it's a great show. It's been a while since I got pulled under emotionally like this by a television series. But whew! That shit was DARK.
So, in case you're unfamiliar 13 Reasons Why is the story of Hannah Baker (the absurdly talented Katherine Langford), who commits suicide right before episode one. Everyone at school is shell shocked, can't believe their classmate did that to herself and that they'll never see her again, blah blah. Typical stuff. The first episode becomes interesting when mysterious cassette tapes land on young protagonist Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette)'s porch. These tapes are Hannah's suicide letter. There are thirteen reasons why she did what she did, which involve thirteen different people.
13 Reasons Why got many things right. The show portrays adolescence and the high school experience without the rose-colored glasses usually worn by Hollywood and adults in general. It's not the fun, carefree time people remember it to be. Sure, you didn't have to worry about paying bills, but it was a traumatic time. Everything happened to you for the first time and you can't possibly keep the future in perspective because you've never experience anything else. And this problem reflects in the downward spiral of Hannah Baker.
Over the first half of the series, Hannah goes through heartbreaking adolescent problems, but they're problems several teenage girls go through and live to tell about it. They all stem from one incident, where Justin Foley (Brandon Flynn) publicly shares a suggestive photo of her from the night he gave Hannah her first kiss. She loses friendships, suffers the harassment of both jocks and weirdos and whoever she turns to, her actions are always given a sexual context because of her reputation. Heartbreaking an unfair, right? Still think it's not a reason to kill yourself? What makes 13 Reasons Why special is that it agrees with that statement.
Hannah Baker didn't see her own, unfair slut-shaming ** as a reason to kill herself. She wasn't a drama queen who took her own life to "get back at the jocks" or whatever. This is where 13 Reasons Why becomes psychologically complex and emotionally gripping. Hannah's problems take a turn for the worse in the second half, but since she was already having problems with several classmates and feeling depressed, she didn't know who to turn to and, most important, how to talk about them. There is this crushing scene where Hannah is trying to talk to a counselor on the day she dies and the words just don't come out right. She cannot muster the strength to explain the horrible things that happened to her because they all trickle down from a cruel, but seemingly unimportant incident. The psychological accuracy of the last three episodes left me absolutely crushed.
That leads us to the suicide scene. Holy. Fucking. Shit. See, I thought I had scene the worst possible wrist-slashing scene in a movie called Scum, so I went into episode thirteen thinking it couldn't possibly shock me. I was wrong. This was in the same ballpark. Perhaps it was even worse. Hearing Hannah cry and whimper as she cuts into her first wrist *** and turning to the other with a shaking hand while her life is literally pouring into the bathtub crushed me. I've thought of that scene for several days afterwards. At that moment, it didn't matter that Hannah Baker is fictional character. The show transcended into an alternate reality where everyone existed. Whoever says 13 Reasons Why is glamorizing suicide is either out of his goddamn mind or hasn't watched up to that scene.
Another thing I liked about the show was Clay Jensen's character arc. This was straight up good writing. There was a lot more of myself in this kid that I wouldn't admitted. The confused teenager with beautiful, romantic feelings trapped inside of him, who cannot get a fucking clue from girls. Clay feels guilty of "letting" Hannah Baker die. He says it himself: "I cost a girl her life because I was afraid to love her."
This is heartbreaking because Clay didn't do anything wrong. I mean, he acted normal, ordinary when the situation called extraordinary measures. So, when Clay listens to Hannah's tapes, he understands and feels compelled to become extraordinary. Seeing this change operate in him was both heartbreaking and extremely satisfying. He doesn't want to move forward with his life, because part of it died with Hannah. A world of possibility that could have been his, had he been extraordinary, was robbed from by just everyone. That is why Clay wants to do right by Hannah. I loved how the show positioned Tony as that guy early and passed the torch to Clay in the last couple episodes. There is more to say about these characters and I'm glad there's another season to close the loop. Whether it's Jay Asher or Brian Yorkey that came up with that arc, it was brilliant writing.
That said, 13 Reasons Why did a lot of small things wrong. It tried to do too much and truncated some storytelling points that would've needed more context. The rapist has the charisma of Emperor Palpatine from Star Wars, for example. I could not fathom why girls would want to get within a hundred yards of him without a can of bear mace. The stop sign subplot was rushed through and poorly explained. It made it come off as unnecessary additional drama. It might be better explained in the novel, but it would've required an actual collision scene. It doesn't even have a real resolution by the end.
School boards can shove their heads up their asses all they want, 13 Reasons Why is a show that deserves to be talked about. If you have kids. Watch it with them. It's good. I had this Veronica Mars-ish mystery vibe to it and it illustrate accurately how lost and confused a teenager can become given the right circumstances. I might be old enough to remember the Judas Priest trial, but I'm young enough to remember what being a high school kid felt like.
** I hate that expression, but since it's a thing now I'm going to use it.
*** And she goes down the road, in case you wondered, it is NASTY.