*Warning: Potential Spoilers*
This is probably the first and only time I will ever say this – this is the kind of story that should have been a movie.
There. I said it. Most novels that are adapted into films usually are unnecessary and can’t quite live up to the original, but in this case I feel that adapting a book into a television series (even a short Netflix series) was a detriment to the story it was telling. 13 Reasons Why had all of the great elements that it needed – a compelling tale, a talented cast, excellent cinematography – but even thirteen episodes was too much time to sum up the events of the tale of Hannah Barker neatly. The beginning of the season began to drag, focusing too much on the psychological thriller side of the story than on the tale of Hannah, and soon characters were starting to be introduced who could easily have been summed up in far less time. I understand the parallel they were going for – thirteen episodes for thirteen tapes – but that sacrificed a lot of time and impact, and at the end of the day, we weren’t watching this show for a psychological thriller tale of teenagers. That’s why we had Pretty Little Liars, and that got really old really quickly. We watch 13 Reasons Why for the heart and the pain and the truth of a teenager’s life, not the over-dramatization of it.
Based off of the novel by Jay Asher, 13 Reasons Why tells the story of Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford), a junior at Liberty High School who committed suicide. Not long after her death a classmate named Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette) receives a package of thirteen cassette tapes that Hannah recorded before her death, and each tape tells the story of a person in Hannah’s life who caused her to commit suicide. There are two rules – listen to all of the tapes, and then pass them on to the next person on the list. If those two rules are not followed, a third party will make a copy of the tapes available to the public. Clay is forced to reconsider everything he thought he knew about Hannah as he tries to sift through her memories and the stories he’s heard around the school for the truth of what truly killed Hannah Baker, and how he ended up on the list of reasons why. The show bounces back and forth between the memories that are evoked by Hannah’s tapes that highlight the path Hannah took to her death, and the present-day struggles of Clay and everyone else listed in the tapes as they try to get back to life as it was with the threat of the tapes being made public looming over their heads.
The idea of the show’s progression was simple – every episode would represent a tape, a story, an explanation for why Hannah did what she did, interspersed with the present day troubles of the people she left behind. That meant every episode focused on a specific person behind Hannah’s death, and that was both a good and bad idea. For some characters, an entire episode was just the right amount of time; Justin Foley (Brandon Flynn) has so much material on him he actually takes up two tapes – though his second tape was less than satisfactory – and some characters have such little material that their episode revolves mainly around the present day dealings with them, and that is less interesting to watch. An example of this is Zach Dempsey (Ross Butler), who was given his own tape for asking Hannah out (in what she assumed to be a joke) and then taking kind notes left for her in a class exercise, robbing her of comfort she needed as she was starting to spiral down her dark hole. On the one hand, Zach’s episode was interesting because it was the first time Clay (and we as an audience) were introduced to the idea that what Hannah says on her tapes is not entirely true, because she does not see everything. When Hannah discovers that Zach is stealing her notes she leaves one for him, explaining her pain and hoping he’ll help her, and she sees him crumple it up and walk away. However, in the present day when confronted by Clay, Zach pulls out that note (crumpled but still in his possession) to prove that what Hannah saw is not what really happened. This was the ending of Zach’s episode, and really the highlight, because his transgression against Hannah was a relatively mild one – not that she deserved it or that it wasn’t impactful, but it was mild compared to the stalking photographer or the best friend who ditched her or the sexual harassment you got from some other episodes. That episode is not alone either – there are two or three episodes right in the middle of the season where the past and Hannah’s memories are not nearly interesting enough to hold our attention, and the audience spends more time with Clay in the present dealing with the tape subjects trying to frighten each other into silence and not really deal with themselves. Basically, the present day in the show is a lot of talking in circles with some mild tension that doesn’t always make much sense.
Because of those episodes that seem to drag on too long, the entire show almost feels dragged out. In the novel Clay listens to all of the tapes in one night, and while it seems implausible that he would run into all the characters in that short amount of time (even though there are fewer characters with names and pasts in the novel than the show), it at least felt like the timing was working. In the show, even the characters can’t seem to believe how long this story is taking, with several asking Clay why he hasn’t just listened to all of the tapes yet. Several plot points are created to try and fill all this extra time. There is a lawsuit against the school in the wake of Hannah’s death, and Clay’s mother (Amy Hargreaves) is hired as an attorney to defend the school, which not only brings Clay’s parents more into the picture than they were in the novel but also give ample screen time to Hannah’s parents, showcasing the devastation that their daughter’s death has caused that the people who bullied her would never consider. They also expanded the tape of Sheri (Ajiona Alexus), a girl who may have caused a car accident by knocking down a stop sign, by giving the originally unnamed character involved in the accident, Jeff (Brandon Larracuente) a backstory and history that connects him to Clay. Some of this – mostly the plot involving the teenagers – feels like too much, but when you step back and focus on the effects to Hannah’s parents, or to the counselor who already is conflicted about whether or not he is to blame, then the real beauty of the show shines through.
And the show is beautiful, really. Sometime’s it’s a little overdramatic and maybe a little too long, but it tackles several powerful and important issues with the knowledge that they must be gentle but also forceful when showing the audience the reality of images that are sometimes too painful to watch. Hannah’s suicide and several scenes of sexual assault are presented graphically, requiring a warning to the audience beforehand about their content. Before the last few episodes, 13 Reasons Why is almost cookie-cutter pretty – the color tones shift from a yellow and warm tint when Hannah is alive to a blue and cold tint after she dies, which is one of the most basic film techniques (though every film novice is acting like they are revolutionary, for some reason) and the large, 180º turns to transition from past to present and vice versa are standard, even if they work well. The last three episodes, however, abandon this model of fancy filmmaking and move up close and personal, putting us right into the lives of the characters and emphasizing that what they are going through is real, it’s painful, and it should not be ignored by anyone, no matter how hard it is to watch or accept.
All thirteen episodes were released at once, and now that nearly a month has passed, people are starting to discuss whether or not the story should continue on into a second season. After all, season one has finished with several cliffhangers – what happens to Sheri now that she has confessed? How does the lawsuit against the school play out? Where did Justin go? What happens to Jessica now that she’s admitted the truth to herself? What happened to Alex? What is Tyler’s endgame? Will Bryce face justice? So many questions and so few satisfactory answers to them. So should 13 Reasons Why continue? Honestly, I don’t think so. I think it would be a great disservice to Hannah’s story to continue now that she has finished her tapes, and that’s what this really is, after all – Hannah’s story. It’s not Clay’s story, even though he’s the main character, and it’s not the story of all the other people who left us hanging at the end of this season. To continue on with any of the potential plot lines that were started (there is a very obvious nudge towards a possible school shooter situation, for one thing) is to take away from the serious lesson that the show is trying to impose. 13 Reasons Why is meant to bring the issue of teen suicide and the realities of it to the light, to present it in a way that does not romanticize it but explain how it happens and who is affected when it’s over, and trying to tie up any of the other loose ends is to start telling a different story entirely. We don’t need closure to this story, if anything the lack of it is more realistic than the story wrapping up with a definitive ending, whether it’s good or not. All that you can do is take what you are given and try to find your way to make peace with it, and with just one season, that lesson is clearer than ever.
It’s also important to consider the presentation of such a dark subject to a wide audience. Teen suicide (and really, suicide in general) is a difficult topic to address and even harder to portray in a way that truly makes a difference. There are plenty of studies that show that seeing suicide portrayed in the media almost has a romantic affect on its viewers, as if telling them that suicide is indeed an option for them, that it is almost okay, because everyone is watching this show and enjoying it. There are criticisms out there about how the show is not being careful in their portrayal of Hannah’s decision to take her life, that her tapes actually make it seem as though anyone who chooses to take their own life will be mourned and get justice for the wrong done to them after they are gone. This was not my experience watching the show, and part of that was because of the ending (which further reenforces my opinion that there should be no season 2). There is nothing resolved at the end of the final episode – sure, the lawsuit is happening, but the viewers have no idea if they won or lost, and in all honesty those cases are difficult to win under most circumstances. Bryce has confessed (unknowingly) to his role in Hannah’s death, but as Clay’s mother pointed out, it would be difficult to prosecute him for that. The show does, however, choose to show Hannah’s death in every painful second, as well as choosing a method of suicide that is difficult to watch – as it should be. There are complaints about how graphic the portrayal was but that is the point of the story, that no one should be pushed to that sort of limit where such a painful death is their only option. The show also doesn’t make everyone on the tapes the bad guy – Hannah points out that Clay doesn’t deserve to be mentioned, and both Sheri and Zach are called out not necessarily as bad people, but people who failed – and Hannah herself is not shown to be entirely correct in her accusations. This shows how any deed, no matter how large or small, no matter how significant it may have been to the person who committed it, all of the interactions you will ever have with someone matter, and so you shouldn’t take any of them lightly. And finally, the show’s real strength was showing the reactions of the people left behind after a suicide. Sure, the entire school mourned for Hannah (some people say that makes what she did seem justified to an audience), but what about Hannah’s parents, who by all rights were good ones? They tried to reach out to their daughter, get her involved in activities like supporting her interest in poetry, they even bought her a car to help her fit in better at school. Their devastation at her death is raw and real, and the impact of Hannah’s loss is great work on the show’s part to highlight how life goes on after someone is gone – those at risk for suicide can see what is truly happening when they choose to leave the world behind. And it’s not just Hannah’s parents – Tony (Christian Navarro), who Hannah left in charge of her tapes, is constantly wracked by guilt that he could not help Hannah, who he considered a friend, proving that there was a resource for Hannah that just didn’t come at the right time. His story, the story of a friend who tried too late and was faced with his failures, is not one that should be aspired to, and it’s a strong reminder to those considering that final path that not everyone is to blame, but more pain will be spread by their loss.
In the end, Clay’s words are true: “It has to get better.” The show’s focus on the drama of high school in the first few episodes distracts from the true pain and strength of the last. 13 Reasons Why may not be the best show ever made – too much drama and far too long – but its portrayal of a dark subject is a step on the road to understanding and hopefully preventing the circumstances in real life.