There’s a reason you don’t often pick up a book and read the last page before you start. It’s because if you know how it’s going to end, then why even bother? Why kid yourself into thinking, even for an hour or two, that turning that next page could bring something different, that it could maybe change what you know is coming. You might stick with it because even if we can never undo those final words or rewind those final frames, sometimes we just have to keep going to answer the question: Why?
13 Reasons Why is the exception to prove the rule that knowing how something ends should undo the impact of the story. The new Netflix drama based on Jay Asher’s novel and adapted by Brian Yorkey (Next to Normal), follows the life of Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford), whose story is closed before we even begin. Hannah is just your normal everyday high school girl but for one thing. She has hopes and dreams for her future, is anxious to fall in love and for her life to begin… and she’s dead.
13 Reasons Why is Hannah’s story, but it is equally the story of those around her whose actions led her to take her own life. Not your average high-school drama right? Unfortunately it’s probably much closer to the high school you remember than the one portrayed in the scandalous adventures of Gossip Girl or the sun-tanned beaches of The O.C. Nobody is stealing priceless Faberge eggs from a charity auction or running to kiss their crush by midnight on New Year’s Eve. Instead the series is driven by the very real and mundane actions of a bunch of teenagers who just don’t know any better until it’s too late. And it’s their inaction more than anything else that sparks the greatest source of tension and WTF moments. Because for anybody who knows the true burden of high school, it’s that hindsight is 20/20. The majority of us are just fortunate enough to have not killed anyone while we were too busy worrying about ourselves.
The series is a powerhouse of heavy-hitting and deeply disturbing insights into the true nature of bullying and the pitfalls of teenage-dom. But despite the unflinching examination of depression and the nuanced ways it can tear a happy and beautiful person down, this is a TV show and there is a very TV show hook to keep your binge on track. 13 reasons. 13 episodes. 13 cassette tapes recorded by Hannah left for the people that let her down. In her own words:
“I’m about to tell you the story of my life — more specifically, why my life ended. And if you’re listening to this tape, you’re one of the reasons why.”
Were this to happen in real life, then all sympathy for Hannah would end where it begins, because blaming someone for taking your own life in such detail is an incredibly disturbed thing to do. Indeed, for the first few hours you might still be mad at Hannah for choosing such a horrible mode of confession to be asking for justice or help. But on the other side of all 13 tapes, I would implore you to listen to the end. Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette), our proxy as the viewer, is told repeatedly the same thing. With each tape comes a new person to blame and the urge to slam the book shut, turn off your screen and call the case solved. But as Clay learns to realise, there’s no winning or happy ending for this story, just maybe the hope of absolution.
If Minnette and Langford, the two young actors driving the series, faulted even once in their commitment to bring the subject matter home then none of it could ring as true as it does. But fortunately, their performances are far and away above what you’d expect from usual teen-drama fodder. The level of respect the show’s producers have endeavored to give the weight that suicide has and its devastating and lasting effects is only more evident in the roster of talent behind the camera. Notably Tom McCarthy director of 2015’s Best Picture Spotlight and Gregg Araki, responsible for one of the most brutally honest portrayal of teens in 2004’s Mysterious Skin. Make no mistake about it, this isn’t just a series to be measured by CW standards, but by whatever you care to name coming from HBO, AMC or FX. This might be a show about kids, but it sure as hell wasn’t made just for them.
Though what’s on offer here is far better than it has any right to be, Hannah’s story would have been better told without some of the hijinks that fill in the larger episode number. While 13 might not be a lot by Network standards, for such a self-contained premise there are definitely some plodding episodes that introduce and write-off characters just for the sake of getting us to 13. For something that seemed like it was going to be a truly great miniseries as well, there’s unfortunately some misdirection and clunky set-up towards the finale that implies a second season might move forward. To this and to all involved I would just say please god no. This is a story that does absolutely not need a coda.
Sometimes life is hard, and sometimes television is harder. The message is clearer with each episode that we should strive to be better to one another and stay alert to the pain around us. The series is also steadfast in its commitment to not shy away from what does become very very hard to watch; the worry that suicide in anyway would be romanticised is completely unfounded. The final 3 or so episodes of the season become a true exercise in masochism and can make you evaluate why you even wanted to watch this show in the first place. But any guilt or sadness you might feel by enjoying the story is the real gut punch that puts you in it.
Regret is probably the most powerful part of the human experience that affects us all. It has the ability to send you back in time, to relive the things you didn’t say and the things you wish you could change. Regret is the real villain of this story, but it shouldn’t be enough to stop Hannah Baker’s life from meaning something. It did to her parents, it did to Clay and it will to you.
13 Reasons Why is currently streaming on Netflix.