For over a month now, there is only one show that people keep talking and moaning about. Since its debut on the subscription website Netflix on 31st March, everyone who is anyone has been discussing the teen drama Thirteen Reasons Why.
Based on the Jay Asher novel from 2007, Thirteen Reasons Why follows the story of students in a regular high school; specifically focusing on Hannah Baker, a student who had recently committed suicide.
Hannah, prior to her suicide, recorded and released a set of seven tapes, using them to record thirteen points in her high school life that led to her depression and eventual suicide. The story tells of how Clay Jensen, one of Hannah’s classmates, listens to each tape once they arrive at his door and he acts to answer the questions and fill the holes for every person involved in Hannah’s life – and her death.
Having had interest in reading the novel years back (I was a curious teenager with an interest in dramatic stories), I was partially excited to start watching Thirteen Reasons Why when I first saw it appear on Netflix, but I hesitated. Quickly, we all heard the controversy around the show, about its subject matters and how they are dealt with by the show creators; I was put off watching it by those who had completed the show.
After a few weeks, however, I gave in and decided to give it a watch. Over two weeks, I would complete the show myself and I have now given myself the time to comprehend everything I witnessed in that thirteen-episode series.
The show took a slower pace than the original story, with Clay taking more time to listen to each tape in the show, compared to him going through all thirteen in one night in the novel.
Slowing down the pace though was an advantage, as it gave the show a chance to highlight every character that played a role in Hannah’s lead-up to suicide and gave insight on themselves, outside of their interactions with Hannah. Other storylines were delved into during the show, such as Hannah’s ex-friend Jessica’s romantic and sexual relationships, and the interaction of the male characters with contrasting personalities (the contrast between Clay and Bryce, for example). Considering the lives of the other main characters made the show feel more realistic and lifelike, as it was considering this school with these groups of students, where every single one of them is going to differ from the last.
Now let’s get to the tricky subjects: sexual assault, rape, violence and suicide.
Netlfix, fortunately, showed warnings before a few select episodes of Thirteen Reasons Why, because of the subject matter portrayed in certain scenes of these episodes.
Scenes of sexual violence and rape, personally, are tough for me to watch in full. I always look away or skip through a few seconds, because it’s so extreme and disturbing that it brings tears to my eyes. I had to with these scenes. In two specific episodes of the series, are there extended and realistic scenes that portray rape – with two different characters – that will break the hearts of the weaker viewers. I advise skipping over these scenes when you see them coming, if you choose to watch the show. I understand some people can watch them – not because they don’t feel the emotion behind them, but because they are stronger – and it’s for those people that the show creators’ intent is clear: broadcast what happens in high school, to vulnerable young people who are cornered alone and held against their will. Watching rape scenes will never be easy for me, or many others, and it might trigger some traumatic memories for those who have been through these events in their lives, but credit due for wanting to open the eyes of the viewers who would always say this or that about sexual assault and rape.
Moving on to suicide, the number-one theme of the entire show. This is where viewers and mental health experts go against the creators of the show, for how it was approached and represented.
The main issue with it is that Hannah’s suicide is portrayed as a revenge fantasy; this means that by committing suicide, it can come across as being her own way of simply saying to every person on every tape, “You were mean to me, so in return, take the guilt of my suicide”. This would compromise the serious nature of depression and suicide, and make the character of Hannah Baker seem petty and over-dramatic over the actions of her classmates.
To close the talk of the suicidal content, let’s discuss the suicide itself. In the thirteenth and final episode, a flashback shows Hannah’s final moments as she records her story on all seven tapes and then pours herself a bath, grabbing razor blades before sinking into the water fully dressed. She then proceeds to slicing her skin with the blades, the blood spewing out as she screams and pants in shock and pain. This is the scene which cemented the controversy surrounding the entire show, as it was opposed by those who have worked with depressed and suicidal people – some of which contacted by the team behind Thirteen Reasons Why themselves – who had one request for this show: do not show the suicide scene itself. Do not broadcast Hannah taking her life on screen, in front of the viewers’ eyes. But unfortunately, that was advice they chose to ignore and filmed a scene anyway.
I would say showing the suicide, which was changed to a more graphic and upsetting way of taking life from the novel – Hannah in the novel overdosed on pills, instead of bleeding out from slitting her wrists – was the main mistake of the whole show. The effect was there, but the effect could have still been there without outright showing us Hannah slipping from life to death in an uncomfortable moment.
Altogether, this show has gained attention, positive and negative, and it seems to have worked as it was renewed for a second season, but I would give a word of warning to those working on the show: be careful. Plan out every episode wisely. Do not repeat your mistakes.
Personally, I think there shouldn’t be a second season of this show. But that’s what popularity leads to, when it comes to television.
We’ll have to sit back and see what 2018 will bring to this franchise.
But this time round, I might give it all a skip.