13 REASONS WHY is a beautiful ordeal of a series that deals with teenage suicide, bullying and rape.
After Hannah’s suicide, she leaves behind a series of cassette tapes explaining why she killed herself. These are delivered to her friend Clay, one of a group of people who listen to the tapes and all, in some way, contributed to her decision to end her life. What follows is a story told in two expertly meshed timelines, the past in which we see Hannah alive and struggling to make it through high school, and the present in which Clay slowly comes to understand what was going on inside her mind and what led to her death.
The other kids want Clay to keep the tapes secret, worried what he’ll do after he finishes them. As Clay listens, he becomes increasingly motivated to seek justice for Hannah. All of this occurs while the school girds itself for a lawsuit from Hannah’s grief-stricken parents.
The show really sucked me in. This is an emotionally exhausting, powerful, crushing, heartbreaking story. The intrigue and central plot questions–notably, what did Clay do to contribute to her decision–beg for a binge watch, though I found it too harrowing for that.
What made it all come together for me was its realism. The show has been criticized for trivializing and even glamorizing suicide. There may be something to these criticisms, but I was drawn to the themes and how they are dropped on us. For a show about kids, it treats its viewers as adults by introducing moral ambiguity everywhere. Right and wrong are not spoon fed to us. What we’re given is two sides of an event and challenged to evaluate the intended and unintended consequences of actions both large and small. There is no systematic bullying, no sustained malice. Just high school–high school culture and young people struggling to find themselves, fit in and avoid social embarrassment. Just kids acting out to protect themselves in some way, hurting Hannah in the process until she becomes road kill and loses hope. Even the show’s real villain callously regards women as objects but treats his buddies with love and support. Most of the parents, while clueless what’s going on in their kids’ lives, are portrayed as trying their best. How the school responds is by the book but unfit to the task, unable to address small things that create a hostile climate for some, and big things as experienced by victims unable to speak up for themselves. Hannah herself is not perfect and makes mistakes, and neither is Clay, though his pursuit of justice for her takes on an Old Testament feel after a while. And while we sympathize with Hannah, we can’t help at times being angry at her.
I did have some problems with the storytelling. One episode involves a character hallucinating out of despair or guilt, a device that never works for me. And the last episode fails to tie up many loose ends, which I found disappointing. There are plenty of seeds planted for a second season, but I don’t really want to see it. For me, 13 REASONS WHY is a complete story and doesn’t need it. In any case, the show’s creators could have wrapped everything up more neatly while still drawing people to watch a season 2. That last episode could have been a 2-hour episode.
In the end, 13 REASONS WHY is a grueling watch that tells a powerful story, doesn’t instruct us where to put our sympathies, and puts all moral judgment on us as the viewer based on presented facts. For me, that makes it great television.