13 Reasons Why Review - A powerful, moving and tragic look at suicide and why in the end... everything matters
It seems wrong to begin a review by calling a series about suicide addictive. But it’s hard to find a better word to fit Netflix’s new show 13 Reasons Why (2017). One of the most binge-worthy instalments released by the streaming service in recent years, the series follows the critically acclaimed book of the same name by Jay Asher, and it pulls no punches in dealing with its main topic. Perhaps that’s why it’s hard to look away. Because rarely do we see a show brave enough to look beyond the romanticised notion of death and instead underline the grief of those left behind. Rarely are we delivered a production so honest, open and unpretentious that we’re left wondering how dark it must become for some that they believe life is no longer an option. So, I use the word addictive, not because you’ll become enraptured by how the story is presented, or because you’ll keep watching just to see whether it might end differently. But because you’ll be left wondering whether the phrase ‘it was her choice,’ really means quite what you think it does.
We begin with a community reeling in the wake of high-school student Hannah Baker’s death. One morning, Clay Jensen receives a mysterious box on his doorstep. Inside are 13 cassette tapes, detailing the reasons why his workmate, classmate and almost lover, chose to take her life. Delivered to each person who played a part in Hannah’s death, like a brutal chain mail letter, the tapes are designed not only to haunt those who hear them, but to ensure their secrets don’t die with her. From former friends and flames, to stalkers and rapists. The more Clay listens, the more he discovers the hurtful, unkind, and sometimes illegal actions his classmates have been involved in. The deeper he gets the more the others try to silence him, as Hannah’s truth starts to become his. But as he edges closer and closer to his own tape, and the final few weeks of her life, Clay comes to understand that every action has a consequence, and some things are just not destined to stay hidden.
Despite its modern setting, there are echoes of the classic teen ‘coming of age’ stereotypes hidden behind every door and lurking in every corner. From the jocks and cheerleaders right down to the school dances and hot-or-not lists. Like it’s predecessor Stranger Things (2016), there is also a heavy influence on everything old-fashioned. Cassette players, poetry readings, paper journals, Joy Division posters and pedal-powered bikes are just a few of the ways the nostalgia play out. Even the soundtrack is brimming with references to the past, with music from The Chromatics, The Cure and The Call. So heavy is it on eighties, nineties and noughties nods, just a few episodes in you’ll be left wondering whether we’ll see someone stand outside Hannah’s house with a boom box, or catch the main characters meeting up in detention. And while an homage to both those moments does arise, it’s doesn’t happen in quite the way you’d expect. This is, after all, a show about suicide.
At its core, the only other word that best arises to describe 13 Reasons Why, would be heartbreaking. Heartbreaking for Hannah that she believes she is alone. Heartbreaking for her mother who winds up nothing more than the shell of a woman looking for answers. Heartbreaking for Clay that he will always carry the weight of what happened with him. And heartbreaking for us as an audience. Because although we the know the ending already, we are always left wondering whether it could have been changed. And that’s the point. Heartbreak heals, but it never goes away. The theme is something that is backed up on a more intricate level too, in the care and craftsmanship that has been taken with the cinematography. Hannah and Clay’s world has been painted in a series of melancholic, metallic and sombre hues. And it’s done deliberately. Because it’s like watching their feelings be blown to life. Seeing, somewhat tangibly at times, the sadness of a soul hanging in the air. It’s not without it’s romantic, comedic or happy scenes too. A series about suicide alone could easily get so dark it turns the viewer off. Life is not just a series of depressing moments. But sadly, sometimes the best ones of all are what can tip a person over the edge.
A lot of critics have raved that 13 Reasons Why is not for the feint-hearted. But to me, that is inaccurate. It’s simply not a show for someone who isn’t ready to know how their actions impact others. Because even the best among us have done something we regret. What really concerns me though about such reviews are the calls for people not to watch. Their main reason is that the show details Hannah’s death in intricate, graphic detail. As a journalist, I work by a code of ethics that claims care must be taken when reporting on suicide. It means that while it is okay to mention it as the type of death, it is not okay to mention how it was the person died. The strange thing is though, this always seems to be the point most people are curious about. And in this instance, I think it was an entirely valid choice. Because as a journalist you are always directed by what in the public’s best interest. Hannah’s story is. Compare it to accounts about Anorexic people who have overcome their problems, or tales from those that have lost loved ones in horrific circumstances. Both go into graphic detail, and both have the potential for copycats to arise. But most of the time they help more than they hurt. It’s simply a risk we judge when putting pen to paper. So, do I think it’s ‘right’ that the show portrayed Hannah’s violent and horrific final moments? Probably not. Because I don’t think it was right that it happened at all. And I damn well think it’s important her voice was heard.
To me, the greatest lesson to learn from 13 Reasons Why is that everyone has a different truth, and everyone’s truth demands to be heard. That doesn’t make one better than the other. It simply makes us less lonely. And despite coming full circle, I like that there are so many stories left unresolved that a second season could be commissioned. Because people slip away in front of us all the time. Sometimes we see it happen, most of the time we don’t. And on rare occasions, we can all miss the calls for help. In Hannah’s case, it happened thirteen times. And in Hannah’s, there was no coming back. And although her story may be fictitious, deep down, the reason the show is so addictive is because we know it isn’t all that far from the truth. So, it is important to know that even if you’re friends, family, teachers, bosses, workmates, schoolmates, coaches or so on miss the signs, there are always people who will listen. Reach out to Lifeline on 13 11 14. Google a local suicide prevention website. Be there for a friend. Just listen. Before it’s too late.
Rating: 5 Cassette Tapes out of 5
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