TV Review: 13 Reasons Why
Netflix series tend to be the strongest series on offer at the moment. And the one that they’re pushing the most is 13 Reasons Why. Based loosely on a novel of the same name, it tells the story of Hannah (Katherine Langford) who commits suicide and leaves behind 13 reasons why she did it on a set of tapes. Each person, each reason she died, has to listen to the tapes. In the process, secrets are revealed, and those people on the tapes then have to deal with the fallout.
The story is told mostly through the eyes of Clay (Dylan Minnette) and switches between present day and flashbacks, with each episode revealing the next part of the tape. It’s an intense series – dealing with teenage depression, bullying, slut-shaming, friendships and rivalries and even rape. Be prepared because this is not easy watching.
I have two opposing feelings about this series. On the one hand, it’s brilliantly done. On the other, there are a few issues with its portrayal of depression and suicide. Hannah is intensely complicated, and it’s nice to see a character so carefully nuanced. She is not the tragic hero, nor is she the enemy, but something in between and something different to everyone. Clay has a habit of idolising her, whilst the others have conflicting viewpoints.
Visually, it’s beautiful, paying tribute to iconic scenes from teen flicks and romance films over the years. The music is downright fantastic, and if only there was more of that added in, and the cast are perfect. I wish a few characters had more of a chance to grow, but overall it felt balanced between them and it worked towards telling Hannah’s story.
However, my troubles lie in the way the story is told. I will give you fair warning now that there are spoilers coming up… Hannah says Clay is partly to blame for her suicide. In fact, when it comes to his tape, it turns out that it “wasn’t his fault” but he could have saved her. There is a huge implication that romance – a relationship wherein the knight in shining armour saves the day – could have prevented her suicide. Now, I understand what is trying to be said here – that Clay missed the signs, and he was someone who could have reached out – but it comes crashing down when you consider what that does for the understanding of depression and suicide.
I could never quite align the ultimate goal here. Depression and suicide and the topics this series covers are far too complicated and momentous to attempt to compact down in to a simple story arc, so I wonder if part of the problem is that the writers were up against an impossible task, but I couldn’t help but feel frustrated by it.
This series is fantastic in many ways – the cast, the music, and even just attempting to approach these topics, are all impressive. Did it let itself down with its failure to sensitively draw it together on occasion? In my view, yes. But the love story between Hannah and Clay, and the thriller-esque mystery that holds the characters, are brilliantly done and beautiful in their execution. This series is, by no means, a work of art. Instead it feels more like a work in progress. It is the beginning of the conversation rather than the purpose of it.
There is going to be no easy way to address these topics, and everyone is going to take it personally on some level. 13 Reasons Why has attempted to do that, but its final performance felt lacking for me. The open-ended way it finished – implying opportunity for a second series – was unnecessary, and it lost its way on more than one occasion.