13 Reasons Why – A Story Tragic In Its Content But Strong In Its Message

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For the most part, people watch television for a bit of entertainment, to escape their daily lives and live vicariously through an array of characters, like badass police officers in NCIS or rulers of a kingdom in Game of Thrones, or maybe something lighter like awkwardly funny scientists in The Big Bang Theory. But this show is not among that list; it is much more than an escape into a different world. It is a powerful portrayal of a girl, Hannah Baker, played by Katherine Langford, tormented by bullies and loneliness eventually driven to suicide, and her explanation of why she did it, through a collection of mysterious tapes, each one dedicated to a person and what they did to her. 13 Reasons Why (B.Yorkey, Netflix, 2017) is a story about bullying, isolation, fear, and drunken power, presenting a widely prevalent and important social message that we must open our eyes to the destruction the halls of a high school can house and the teens that think they are above the law, both written and unwritten.

This show, based on the novel of the same name by Jay Asher, is a brutally truthful depiction of the damage that can be done by high schoolers, unto their fellow peers, because they have been conditioned to believe certain behaviour is normative or correct. You have two groups: the ones who act so because they are scared of the kings and queens of the school, and the kings and queens themselves, who believe they are immune to the rules everyone else must follow. This unwritten clique is the reason – housing the 13 reasons Hannah discusses on her tapes – why high school is such a menacing place. Asher’s novel released ten years ago, and the television adaptation just released on Netflix last week, but these issues have been circulating for years and years, and this story has been long overdue. Though, it has come at a time where bullying has taken many forms and faces, its almost as if the world is making it easier for bullies to do their dirty work, and even more so fearsome for victims to come out against it. But with the arrival of this show, all should watch and take the necessary action to make sure there is not a real-life depiction.

Asher went on record to say he wanted the graphic scenes in the novel to be truly represented in the television adaptation, thus, it is certified with an 18 rating, and may be distressing for young audiences. But a huge portion of the demographic aims itself at the parents, teachers and other school staff, older siblings/relatives of these children and/or teens. By association and word of mouth, the social message of 13 Reasons Why can enter the  of almost everyone and the issue of bullying, depression and suicide can be discussed and hopefully dealt with instead of becoming labelled with the dreaded word, ‘taboo.’ After watching all thirteen episodes in the space of a week, I was moved and disturbed by the story, characters and themes, episodes 9-13, in particular, where I actually found myself hating a few characters. It was a tough watch, every scene that conveyed an unsettling tone and displayed a character severely wrong in their action led to a reaction where I gasped or yelled, or even cried. It was a tough watch, but necessary indeed to deliver the message of the story, as Asher has recently argued himself.

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The structure the show takes is clever and artistically strong. Each episode is dedicated to one side of a tape, each side detailing the transpired events between Hannah and her perpetrator, a classmate or supposed friend. Therefore the past/present timeline of sophomore year, when Hannah started at Liberty High and junior year, the year she committed suicide is runs right through the first season, the difference noted by a slight change in filter. The past is brighter and tonally warm, while the present is dampened by a grey, blue tonal shift, symbolic of a before and after Hannah period in the lives of her classmates. I praise the cinematography of the entire season, it was well shot and transitioned, a clear-cut, simplistic justification of the two timelines, as well as including some artistically-motivated scenes, like the revert to present day, with the entry of a solemn Clay listening to Hannah’s voice, while she relays the events of a tape, in the past. The story follows one classmate in particular, Clay Jenson, played by Dylan Minnette, a shy introvert who was hopelessly in love with Hannah but never acted on it, worked with her at the local cinema and one of the rare ‘nice guys’ at the school. Next in line to listen to the collection of thirteen tapes, Clay presented himself as the only student with a heart, a conscience, to approach the contents of the tapes for what they were, dark secrets and incriminating behaviour. And from there it unfolds to reveal a year of rumours, harassment and destruction at the hands of people she thought to be her classmates or even her friends which led to suicide.

The first season ended in a number of ways, and without revealing too much, if there is a season two in the works, it would either be pretty dark or just become a different show. If events of the finale episode are picked up and developed then Hannah becomes a name in one huge investigation into Liberty High and its bleak attempt at being an establishment working to educate kids, both academically and socially. The hook that enticed audiences to the show would just disappear. And leaving that to one side, Clay’s character was left ambiguous in his connection to the tapes and their contents, but his own personal battles and persona in high school seemed to find closure, learning from Hannah’s last words, as he skipped class and just drove off to a day of hanging out with Tony, Skye and Brad. The final episode doesn’t resolve any of the issues that reveal themselves throughout the season one run, so a return for a second season is possible, but there are mixed reviews as to the point of it.

Therefore, if there is any criticism of the show it lies with the ‘too much too soon’ parallel – should the writers and producers have stretched the stories of the tapes across a number of seasons consisting of fewer episodes? Or is the show not expecting a season two at all, is it looking to enter the mini-series territory, despite bearing the bulk of thirteen, not 3 or 6, episodes. The question 13 Reasons Why leaves with its audiences is this; what is next?