Trigger warning: discussion of suicide.
13 Reasons Why is Netflix’s latest hit TV series and there’s a reason why it’s being talked about. Because it needs to be talked about. This isn’t your typical high school drama. This is real life.
Youth suicide is a delicate topic, one that must be treated with the utmost care and represented in way that doesn’t invalidate the choice. There have been films such as The Virgin Suicides and Wristcutters: A Love Story that romanticise the issue, making it seem okay. But it’s not okay.
The show, based off Jay Asher’s 2007 bestselling novel of the same name, tells the heartbreaking story of Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford), a high school girl who takes her own life and leaves behind a series of tapes documenting thirteen reasons why she made this choice. Essentially, each tape blames a person, explains their actions and why it led her to feel so broken. While this method may seem problematic and almost trivial, it was Hannah’s version was a suicide note – it’s what she’ll leave behind to tell her story.
13 Reasons Why commences with the knowledge of Hannah’s death – we just don’t know why. A box arrives at the house of Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette), an all-round nice guy who had a major crush on Hannah despite denying it. The box contains the tapes that Hannah had left behind and suddenly we’re thrown into a mystery, caught between flashbacks and memories merging into real life. The question hangs in the air: what did Clay do to Hannah that was so bad?
It’s a hard-hitting show, caught between flashbacks and the present as we jump back and forth to where Clay slowly unravels the mystery behind Hannah’s death. What makes the show so worth watching is its exploration of guilt and grief, especially through Clay as he comes to terms with loss. It also pinpoints the small actions of others – Courtney, Justin, Jessica, the lot of them – and how the moments gradually crushed Hannah’s spirit. It goes to show how such small things can build up to a tragedy that not everyone can comprehend.
That’s the thing about suicide – it’s hard to understand. There are contrasting opinions about such a choice and these are found in the thoughts of Hannah’s classmates, further showcasing that suicide is something beyond our comprehension.
“We had a number of people ask us along the way why we had Hannah kill herself in the way we did and why we showed it,” executive producer Brian Yorkey said.
“We worked very hard not to be gratuitous, but we did want it to be painful to watch because we wanted to be very clear that there is nothing, in any way, worthwhile about suicide.”
As we watch through the cool-toned lens of Clay’s present, we step back into the past tinged with warmth as Hannah Baker tells her story through her tapes. Through these emerged story lines of the past and present, the weight of her choice is one that will tear viewers apart as the ugly truth of losing Hannah Baker is depicted throughout each episode.
Newcomer Katherine Langford shines as Hannah Baker, witty and naive. The telltale signs of depression are subtle in Hannah’s downward spiral, and it’s these small signs that tell her story so well to those who struggle with the same issue. It’s also invisible, just as the person feels.
Dylan Minnette is brilliant as Clay Jensen, who is reserved and struggles to express his emotions most of the time, and this trait is emphasised in the present as he internally stews in his thoughts and pain until he lashes out. That’s the thing about grief – people react differently. It’s also what’s great about 13 Reasons Why: it shows the various ways in which people grieve and handle guilt and pain. However, the chemistry between the two characters prior to Hannah’s death shows a warm and awkward kind of love story that never fully manifested. It’s disheartening to watch them interact and know that one of them is dead.
13 Reasons Why tackles heavy topics ranging from rape, drink driving, sexual assault, domestic violence and bullying – and they’re all portrayed in an authentic manner. It’s painful to watch, but that’s the point of it. The consequences of everyone’s actions play out in the show, manifesting into realistic depictions of characters who are struggling. That’s what makes the show brilliant – scenes appear so real that you don’t feel like you’re being given a pious “life lesson”. This isn’t a show to watch through rose-tinted glasses or with romantic inclination.
“Being depressed is not a beautiful tragedy,” Langford reminds viewers in an interview with People. “It’s hell, and it’s agony.”
For a show as graphic and powerful as 13 Reasons Why, it has opened conversations about mental health and other topics that aren’t given as much attention, focusing on the importance of seeking help.
There are a few messages that need to be heard: life is fragile thing so be kind to others because no one can measure how long they’ll live for. Sometimes our choices leave a permanent hole that can’t be filled. And remember to pick each other up when someone is feeling down; having good mental health is from a support system – friends, family, loved ones – and consistent help, something that Hannah never felt like she had.