In Netflix’s new teen-suicide drama series 13 Reasons Why, pretty-boy Marcus (Steven Silver) tells good-guy Clay (Dylan Minnette) that whatever the kids did to Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) to make her kill herself was no different than what happens to any other girl in any other high school everywhere. And he’s right.
What do you see in every movie or show about high school? Cliques and gossip, girls called sluts, defamatory Sharpie art all over the bathroom stalls, jocks pummeling freaks and a house party that changes everything — it’s all so normal! But 13 asks the question: Should all of this casual cruelty and hormonal hazing really be normal? What allows these high school rituals to continue? The answers are: A) no, and B) cultural apathy.
Before 17-year-old Hannah takes her own life, she records onto cassette tapes an epic suicide note in which she names names and unearths the travesties that led to her fatal decision. The tapes don’t end up with the cops or with her parents; they’re delivered to one student in her high school with explicit instructions to listen to them all the way through before passing them on to the next classmate incriminated by the stories she tells. We pick up with the story when it reaches Clay.
When he first hears Hannah’s first words, Clay doesn’t want to get involved, but his old buddy Tony (Christian Navarro), cruising by in an old red Mustang, elects to act as his friend's guide through every cassette. But what’s Tony’s role in all this? Clay doesn’t know how many people have heard what’s recorded already, but he knows he’s one of 13 who will. And as he hesitantly makes his way through all 13 sides, piecing together the secrets of Hannah’s last year, we see Hannah’s tales from both her POV and his. The series plays out as a mystery as little details are revealed and circled back to, while the guilty teens in the present are willing to do anything to keep their own secrets hidden.
You might wonder why a show set in the present makes cassette tapes such a huge part of the story, but it’s all part of the art of 13; Americans are quick to blame social media and technology for teen bullying, but by nearly removing those elements, this series (and Jay Asher’s 2007 Y.A. novel) suggests that it’s always been this bad. We just didn’t talk about it.
When Hannah’s parents visit the school for the lawsuit they’re filing — they claim the administration is negligent in punishing bullies — mom (Kate Walsh) steps into the bathroom and sees the regular old taunts of “slut” and “cumdumpster” scrawled on the walls. That sight’s not shocking for the audience — if you went to a public high school in recent decades, you’ve seen it all. But for mom, it’s a revelation, and through her awe and disappointment, we too see that graffiti with fresh eyes. In hindsight, after a tragedy, everything has meaning, and as a viewer, I felt my own shame for not immediately apprehending the gravity of those insults. How many kids all across this country look at the same things every day? Such toxic misogyny isn’t even disqualifying for a president.
The show’s handling of high-school dynamics suggests a realist Veronica Mars, and it shares characteristics with another book-to-screen adaptation, Ry Russo-Young’s Before I Fall, in which no character is black-and-white evil or good and the ultimate enemy is apathy — not stepping up to do what’s right when it’s easier to just go with the flow. It’s fascinating how much these two young-adult properties assail that indifference, so much so that I have to worry that teens might develop guilt complexes: What’s it like to be told that you alone are responsible for solving all the world’s problems? But still, there are worthy lessons to glean from 13.
The show’s creator, Brian Yorkey, seems to understand, for instance, how the horny, everyday sexism Americans have long accepted as innocuous can slide into sexual assault. (Note: Half of the writers are women.) When Hannah’s put on a list for her “Best Ass,” her classmates all think it’s a compliment, especially the boys. But Hannah’s not flattered; she’s afraid. Clay, our resident Good Guy, asks her what the big deal is, but true to life, it’s impossible for her to explain what it does to sexualize a girl like that without taking the time also to explain the basics of the patriarchy. In that moment, Hannah can’t articulate why she’s afraid. But when Clay listens on the tape to how being on that list made it open season for every guy in school to stare at — or grab — her butt, he’s appropriately mortified, coming to terms with the fact that he, too, is complicit.
Later, one of Hannah’s old friends, Jessica (Alisha Boe), is raped, and we see even more realistic depictions of teens’ inabilities to process or cope with their many conflicting emotions: Jessica pals around with her rapist, even flirting with him and denying that he raped her, as she becomes more and more self-destructive with booze and drugs. In real life, girls are socialized to “be cool,” and Jessica’s coping mechanism is to pretend that everything is fine. The one girl who refused to pretend was Hannah, and her suicide becomes the boys’ cautionary tale to keep the other girls in line.
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Adults are under the microscope too. Take all the parents and teachers who talk about “bullying” as though it’s a monolithic and easily parsed concept. 13 shows their talk for the clinical non-action that it is, where school policies are just ill-conceived stop-gaps, when what’s really needed are honest, in-depth discussions about empathy — not just throwaway courses on “communication.”
But the show’s also sympathetic to its adults: The school’s lone counselor (Derek Luke) is shown juggling his career with his wife and two young sons; while he fails to help Hannah, we can see exactly how she could fall through the cracks. In that way, however, Clay being the show’s conscience doesn’t always work, because he’s often unsympathetic to others’ mistakes on his crusade for justice. So while we can see the counselor’s woes, Clay’s still lacking the maturity to grasp the bigger picture — it’s worth asking if younger audiences will be able to pick up on Clay as another flawed character, or if they’ll take him hook, line and sinker as the hero.
13’s biggest fault, however, is that it’s not quite successful at not glorifying suicide — though it certainly tries not to inspire real-world teens to copycat deaths. Hannah’s reasons for making the tapes are to expose the wrongs that were done to her, and by Clay seeking and eventually getting justice for her, the story at times comes close to justifying her suicide — it’s what ensures that much turns out right in the end. Suicide is tricky territory to explore; American media has had a long romance with pretty dead girls, especially those who have slit their own wrists, and there’s a fine line between representation and perpetuation.
But every time 13 nearly crosses that line, the story adds yet another thoughtful complication to the moral quandaries, and that’s how this engrossing and provocative series ultimately succeeds — by asking as many questions as it answers. 13 is worth a binge watch, but the best part of this show will be the discussions its inspires.