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Like many, I eagerly set out to binge-watch “Thirteen Reasons Why” on Netflix. I found myself just as frustrated with Clay for dodging watching the tapes for thirteen episodes, but ultimately found myself frusturated for other reasons. This is a short show and I really struggled to finish it and only recently came to understand why that is. *Warning there are some spoilers in this review.
It isn’t for everyone
Watching the show and struggling through a poignant storyline all too familiar to many, I came to solid realizations. This show isn’t for everyone and not necessarily for the reasons some would think. This show isn’t for those who have dealt with rape, depression, bullying, etc. Instead this is a show for those who haven’t and desperately need to see the shoe from the other foot. Odd right? A show about depression, isn’t for those who are depressed. In fact, it’s for everyone who escaped adolescence without these struggles and, in my opinion, shows these issues with raw, gratuitous scenes focused on bringing awareness, but would most likely trigger survivors.
For me, it felt like a tactless “shove your nose in it and remember,” without any sort of cathartic release. For those who have dealt with these things, this show is a cheese grater against the skin and is filled with “shocking” scenes that took me and many other viewers to a mental place they didn’t want to be. I kept waiting for a payoff in the end that would leave a feeling of hope rather than just “Hannah’s parents will win money for their daughter’s death and get answers.” I wanted an implication that there was hope through empathy and that this cycle would be stopped.
The Blame Game
While I truly believe this story is meant to shock viewers into being empathetic and more mindful of other’s struggles, I can’t stand by and let the “blame game” happen without criticism. I loathed the rhetoric of “if just one of us had been there for her, she’d still be here.”
Sure, Hannah had an onslaught of terrible events that drove her to an incredibly dark place, but I think the show oversimplifies suicide. The idea that every suicide can be traced to painful events and “reasons” is misleading, oversimplified and woefully over-generalized. It pains me to think that everyone left behind after a friend, partner or family member takes their life will wonder if they’re one of the “thirteen reasons why” and place even more blame on themselves. That’s not how we should be viewing suicide and mental illness. That’s not how we should be measuring up each other.
I think this show goes over and above on driving fear and guilt into those left behind from Hannah Baker’s suicide in a way that is insensitive to those who’s loved ones have taken their own life. Someone needs to be the one to point out that this is a fictional story meant to teach a lesson, not be applied to real life. The lesson is “be kinder to each other and help each other through their struggles in whatever way you can.” The takeaway is not, “you may have been the reason someone close to you took their life or it was your responsibility to prevent it.”
The Suicide Scene
To me, this was wrong. I don’t think there was any reason to include a real-time scene of this teenager killing herself other than to shock the audience. I understand the rape scenes, they were brutal and shocking but they led the audience to understand the two victims in their very different reactions. The suicide scene, however, did nothing to further the development of Hannah Baker. We know she slit her wrists, they tell us so very early on. We know her parents found her. The only reason they show her death is to put even more guilt on the characters and bring more shock value to the series. I don’t feel like the directors thought about what sort of triggering impact a scene like this would have on those who have contemplated suicide.
Let me put it this way, those who have been raped have already been raped. It’s something I wouldn’t wish on anyone, but something that someone who has experienced that can relate to when seeing those scenes and hopefully find some catharsis in seeing another’s similar, albeit fictional, experience. What no one living can relate to is actually committing suicide. There is no cathartic release in watching someone really kill themselves the way there could perhaps be from similarly harrowing scenes. I worry a scene like this will continue thoughts of suicide in the minds of those who contemplate it and be damaging. There wasn’t a reason for it past entertainment and that angers me greatly that something so tragic could be used for anything but prevention. I realize the directors meant it as a “flinch moment” for viewers to understand how raw suicide is. I don’t think they achieved that.
Some characters get left in the dust
Our supporting character, Clay Jensen, is someone who’s lost a mentor and love interest in the span of six months, yet his inner struggle in the ending episode is brushed off. There’s no hint to how the fact that he didn’t tell Hannah he loved her before she died effects him later on. Would a person with these experiences ever be able to have a normal relationship? Who can say. The show never gave me any reason to believe so or any reason that he wouldn’t fall into a similar fate as Hannah Baker. He certainly has the same issues with communication that she did and exhibits similar traits, yet no one seems “worried” about him.
We see he has been prescribed pills in the past by a doctor for nightmares but we never see any sign that anything is being done for his mental health later on. Tony goes as far as to tell him before hearing his own tape that he killed Hannah. Not enough time is spent on explaining to Clay, and more importantly the viewers, why this isn’t true.
Similarly, Alex’s suicide attempt is treated as an inconvenient fact as a plot point to drive up anxiety in the school board followed by very little air time in the ending episode. We don’t even see much of his moments leading up to it or why, of all the other characters, he’s the one that goes over the edge. Tyler has a gun in his camera case. We have no idea if he had it for protection, suicide or if he plans to use it on others at school. The other characters treat him pretty cruelly, which suggests to me they haven’t learned much of a lesson at all from Hannah’s life and death. Justin is left homeless and without friends and while I support the show not forgiving him, he gets no ending either. The only one who gets a glimmer of change is Jessica when she begins to tell her father her truth.
All these facts are brushed by with no hope or inclination that anyone cares enough to do anything about them. That, to me, seems to take away greatly from the idea that we need to care for each other and be empathetic. The show couldn’t even be bothered to offer any sort of hope or ending for those characters, so what does that say about the ending theme of empathy?
All in all, I think this is a flawed show that tried to take on an extremely difficult topic and fell short in some important areas. It had some really good moments, it fleshed out some characters really well and brought humanity to their “crimes.” Others were left in the cold or painted in a way that didn’t give enough credit to the types of people they represent. If you haven’t already watched it, I encourage you to keep in mind what I’ve said and chew through this series to form your own opinion. Keep in mind this portrayal doesn’t represent everyone’s truth with depression, rape, suicide and bullying. At the very least, it’s a show that will stick with you long after it’s over.