by Rita Aresta
“Why would a dead girl lie?” Well, they won’t actually tell you why, but they’ll make sure as hell the first episode starts off with Joy Division‘s “Love Will Tear Us Apart”. There’s some The Cure later on too. Of course there is.
Based on a novel by American author Jay Asher, 13 Reasons Why, one of Netflix’s latest productions and the show everyone’s talking about, attempts to bring to the small screen a realistic account of the troubled period also know as adolescence. Having suffered physical, sexual and psychological abuse, 17-year-old Hannah (Katherine Langford) finds herself crushed to the point she can only fathom one solution to her problems: killing herself.
Two weeks later, classmate/crush Clay (Dylan Minnette) finds a mysterious box with several cassette tapes on his doorstep. As he listens to them, tape after tape – a total of thirteen, flashbacks reveal a dark and cruel side to the small American town teen world: “Maybe I’ll never know why you did what you did. But I can make you understand how it felt”, says Hannah before narrating in great detail her destructive process.
Produced by Selena Gomez and Academy Award-winner Tom McCarthy (Spotlight), 13 Reasons Why has some merit in broadening the book’s narrative, allowing for discussions that go beyond Hannah’s problems; it isn’t told through a Manichaeistic lens featuring entirely good or evil individuals. As a viewer, you can (almost) empathise with the characters’ inner troubles, despite being told they’re responsible for the actions that drove Hannah to suicide.
Featuring predominantly new actors, the cast delivers a solid performance – even though some of the actors are clearly too old for their roles, a la Hollywood 101 manual. It’s also quite moving to see Kate Walsh (Gray’s Anatomy) genuinely express the pain and outrage of a mother who lost her daughter so tragically when she wasn’t even aware of the problem.
So after all the hype…where do the problems start?
After the first couple of episodes, I was actually pretty excited as this show had a lot of potential. However, having watched it through, read about it and discussed it with others, I had to come to the conclusion that no one deserves to have to watch 13 Reasons Why. Spoilers ahead!
Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, 13 Reasons Why goes against every single World Health Organization recommendation for the media portrayal of suicide. Three key ideas are totally disregarded: 1) avoid romanticising the act of suicide; 2) avoid portraying suicide as an acceptable response to difficulties; and 3) avoid including the method, location or details of the person who died. This is meant not only to respect those who died and their close ones, but also to portray the subject in an objective manner that focuses on prevention and raising awareness. Anyone who has seen the final episodes of 13 Reasons Why knows that, perhaps in an attempt to be “edgy” and “outrageous”, they’re practically a morbid and desperate tutorial on how to commit suicide…which brings us to the second point.
13 Reasons Why completely ignores how much the portrayal of suicide can affect people enduring some level of emotional fragility. Given the manner in which Hannah kills herself, it provides the perfect ingredients to affect – negatively, of course – other vulnerable young people. I agree that for the mentally healthy, this may be a way to make the viewer think in greater depth; for others, it’s nothing short of a nightmare. The first trigger warning appears only in the ninth episode – but way before that, the heavy undertones and the way in which the plot develops can already send someone vulnerable into crisis mode.
I’m not sure something as complex as suicide should be portrayed so lightly as a “way out” as 13 Reasons Why does. It doesn’t actually address the issue of mental illness in adolescence; while you can see the progression of Hannah’s state of mind, by no means does it attempt to elicit how someone’s mental state can lead to suicide. Instead, it choses to point fingers and try to find a scapegoat, as if Hannah had been murdered. Sure, external actions can worsen an internal situation that’s already suboptimal. However, 13 Reasons Why doesn’t actually show a successful attempt at seeking help, much less an alternative way out; it fails to give a single example of how a problem can resolved or reversed. When Hannah decides to take a “last chance at life” and see a counsellor, she states that asking for help simply won’t work. “You know what happens when girls ask for help”, sulks one of the rape victims. For someone who already feels lonely and confused, seeing this can make them believe there’s no way out of this loop. It’s appalling how they couldn’t even include a helpline indication such as the Samaritans as a footnote to the UK audience; this is at best a disservice and at worst pure neglect.
Having said that…forget Hannah’s death. This isn’t a series about suicide, but about revenge. Hannah’s tapes are nothing but a way of blaming others and getting some kind of retribution for everything that happened to her. While crimes have been committed, that doesn’t excuse Hannah’s thirst for vengeance, while playing only the victim part.
Talking about suicide, one of the leading causes of death among young people, especially LGBT+ youth, is certainly important. Also commendable is the idea of making the viewer think about their own actions and how they behave in front of others. However, while bullying may lead to suicide, that doesn’t mean every bullying case ends up that way. Simplifying such a serious subject with the pathetic excuse of a “let’s shock the viewer” technique won’t work.
Albeit correcting serious structural faults present in the literary version, showrunners Brian Yorke and Diana Son bring us a failed attempt at portraying suicide, bullying and rape. The show flails with rhythm inconsistencies from one chapter to the next, which, paired up with the poorly thought out production, may not inspire Netflix’s usual serial-marathon audience. With good intentions that don’t go beyond being exactly that, 13 Reasons Why is shocking and scary, but ultimately unauthentic and unnecessary.
PS: To state the obvious, I encourage anyone who needs help to contact someone such as the Samaritans. Here’s their website and their number is 116 123 (free, confidential help 24/7, 365 days a year).
Producer Selena Gomez stated this story “isn’t over yet”, and for what it’s worth, 13 Reason Why’s popularity has prompted Netflix to renew the series for a second season, with a premiere date yet to be confirmed.
Pictures and trailer courtesy of Netflix.