Warning: Spoiler Alerts
Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why takes an unflinching look at teen bullying, sexual assault and suicide.
It’s thought-provoking, unsettling and often hard to watch. The 13-episode series follows two storylines: Hannah Baker’s descent into depression and the reactions of her family and those she blames for her death. As someone very passionate about mental health awareness, I was afraid the series would either romanticize or stigmatize teen depression and suicide. Thankfully, 13 Reasons Why was made with incredible thought and compassion. It’s intelligent, compelling and disturbing. It sits with you for a while afterwards, as it should. These are not casual issues. 13 Reasons Why treats its subject matter with the gravity and insight that it deserves.
When 17-year-old Hannah kills herself, she leaves behind a set of 13 tapes, each one about a person who contributed to her despair. The tapes are to be passed down privately and in order or else they will all go public. When Clay Jensen gets the tapes, he’s shocked. He doesn’t know what he did to hurt Hannah and becomes consumed by guilt and anger as he tries to figure out why Hannah, someone he cared deeply about and even loved, killed herself.
It’s a dark premise. I was unsettled by Hannah’s vindictive choice to record and distribute the tapes. However, considering the trauma she went through at the hands of her peers and the severity of her depression, I can understand her desire for revenge. Her choice to blame her suicide on her peers has consequences that play out as the series progresses.
The show portrays Hannah’s evolution from a new and hopeful student to a numb, desperate shell of her former self so realistically that it’s often difficult to watch. Actress Katherine Langford is brilliant as Hannah, channelling her passionate and electrifying personality with impressive skill and nuance. Dylan Minnette is also excellent as Clay Jensen, a shy, quietly tumultuous kid whose crush on Hannah turns into rigid despair and understated anger after her death. Alisha Boe portrays the volatile and despairing Jessica quite effectively. As Hannah’s former best frenemy, Jessica begins to spiral as she realizes that something incomprehensibly awful may have happened to her. I found this to be the most heartbreaking and striking subplot. Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice veteran Kate Walsh gives a standout performance as Hannah’s mom, a grief-consumed mother on the verge of breakdown and desperate for answers.
With an impressive cast and crew, including the Pulitzer-prize-winning writer Brian Yorkey and Spotlight (2015) director Tom McCarthy, 13 Reasons Why is well done and works on a storytelling level as well as an artistic one.
The show ultimately focuses on these substantial questions: What impact do we have on others? What do we do when we know we have hurt someone and cannot change the outcome? How do we live with the guilt and shame of knowing that we could have done something differently? How do we come to terms with the darkest parts of ourselves and of those around us? It’s a heavy show. It deals with issues such as bullying, slut-shaming, sexual assault, consent, alcohol abuse and suicide and depicts rape and suicide graphically. It must be watched with caution and discretion. It will probably leave you with a funny taste in your mouth like it did to me. But it’s also vitally important and exposes what we often want to stay hidden. It urges us to consider our own role in the lives of others. 13 Reasons Why is a harrowing look at the teenage experience and at teenage mental illness that disturbs and convicts.