It is hard to know where to start with 13 Reasons Why as the story unconventionally begins with it’s end. In this case, it is the end of Hannah Baker’s life, her suicide.
Based on Jay Asher’s novel of the same name, 13 Reasons Why explores the unravelling of a high school tapestry after text book nerd Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette) receives 13 cassette tapes from Hannah (Katherine Langford) recounting the reasons for her suicide and denouncing those responsible. Each tape exposes a new name and delves further into a reality that was hidden and even ignored, before the tapes. In this way the story is haunted by Hannah’s narration and her recordings, even sounding like an old cassette tape that hasn’t been rewound for it’s next listener.
While the premise is unflinchingly disturbing with Hannah’s suicide being at the centre of the narrative, the taboo topics that it uncovers about depression, bullying and friendship are incredibly well depicted. They resonate truthfully to a digital generation and also to a wider audience as the series avoids the temptation to get lost in teen jargon and the latest hashtag. Instead the series moves away from its young adult genre and develops tonally as a crime fiction with Clay taking an almost detective like role as the accidental protagonist. Although in saying that the way the series has engaged with its social savvy audience is by embracing multi platform storytelling by creating a unique IRL Instagram presence (@13reasonswhy) which highlights clues and incidents in this mystery.
While the series is very much structured around the predictable reveal of the 13 tapes, the slower episodic pacing allows us to spend time with the characters. We are shown the light and dark side of the classmates involved in this tragedy which creates a duality and a depth to the “reasons why” they are involved. These moments with the characters are the most suspenseful and Clay’s unclear relationship with Hannah becomes a gripping mystery. Hannah’s instructions to listen to both sides of the tape, resonate.
This “two sidedness” is so prevalent within the series that it almost functions as an all encompassing character; a mask, a wall, a selfie, a post, a profile, a projection. This fake bravado performs to the institutionalised expectations of a high school, to the suffocation of small town dynamics and to the consequences of social media. These are all environments with invisible rules and in this way 13 Reasons Why feels like navigating a familiar room with the lights off. You know exactly the parameters of the room and where everything “appears” to be but that doesn’t stop you from stubbing your toe.
This underlying tension is continued through subtle clues in 13 Reasons Why through it’s production design and choice of direction which reminds us that depression and suicide is not unique to this generation.The first song we hear blare from Clay’s best friend’s speakers is from Joy Division, whose lead singer took his life at the age of 23. As well as this, a mural at Hannah’s work is reminiscent of “Starry Night” by Van Gogh who also committed suicide. These “easter eggs” might be missed by the majority of the teen audience but these pop culture and historical allusions create depth and open up the world out of high school, echoing a larger scale problem in society.
Overall, from what I’ve seen so far, 13 Reasons Why is a clever, important and relatable series. I bet that we all have at least one shared experience with the Hannah or her classmates, I definitely have. It is time that these experiences were exposed discussed and had a dialogue. With youth suicide and depression on the rise it couldn’t be a better time to explore the consequences of seemingly small actions. As Hannah warns in a tape about chaos theory, “chaos theory isn’t about chaos… It’s about how a tiny change in a big system can affect everything… Maybe you think I’m silly, I’m some stupid girl who gets worked up over a little thing. But little things matter.”
13 Reasons Why is now streaming on Netflix.