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13 Reasons Why: An Uncensored Insight into Modern Teenage Life
TV critic Kat Smith reviews '13 Reasons Why', a heartbreak you won't regret
I’m usually good at controlling myself when it comes to TV shows; I can tell myself ‘one more episode’ and I stick to that, carrying on my day until watching the next installment a few hours or days later. That’s not the case for the latest Netflix hit 13 Reasons Why. It took me a day and a half to almost consecutively listen and watch Hannah Baker’s story unfold. And when the final credits rolled, I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
“This isn’t your usual binge-watch; instead it’s a hauntingly raw look into the unfortunately common issues that can envelop teenage life
So what’s it actually about? Well, the first picture we see is Hannah Baker’s locker. The locker that belongs to, or belonged to, a 17-year-old girl who very recently committed suicide. The series begins with the immediate aftermath of her death, focusing on the character of Clay (yes, you do get used to the name and the fact he is the mirror image of Logan Lerman in Perks of Being a Wallflower). He’s a close friend of Hannah’s who receives a box of 7 cassette tapes, numbered with electric blue nail polish and accompanied by a map.
After he presses play on the first tape, we hear Hannah’s voice vowing to tell her story, stating the shattering words: ‘If you’re listening to this tape, you’re one of the reasons why.’ In the days before her death, we learn that Hannah recorded the 13 reasons that led up to her death, created with the desire for them to be listened to by those who caused her suicide. For the majority of the season we, and Clay, are left wondering how he can possible be one of the reasons.
In each episode, we see the aftermath of those who’ve received the tapes alongside the events depicted by Hannah, showing to us both the build-up and fall-out of the teen’s death. I’ve got to say I’m thankful for Clay getting a scar on his head in the aftermath or it’d be pretty hard to keep up with the alternating story lines.
Admittedly it gets frustrating when each tape is stretched out over one episode, but in hindsight I understand why. The prolonged telling of each reason allows room to see the guilt of those who wronged her, the struggle of her parents to come to terms with their loss and allows us to soak in Hannah’s narrative. The format of the tapes may seem a little dramatic, but it’s necessary. Hannah’s first person explanation of events is vital in ensuring romanticism is avoided; we see and feel her humiliation, loneliness and pain. Her emotions aren’t belittled and her story is done justice.
There’s been speculation of a new season to tie up the extensive amount of loose ends left by episode 13. And although I am caught up in this story and in the fictional lives of those involved, I can’t help but worry that it would merely destroy the impact. Let us wonder how people go on, let us wonder what happens in the later aftermath of the tapes. We know the 13 reasons, we know Hannah’s story and I don’t want it to be diluted. Just look what happened to Pretty Little Liars.
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There are concerns over the explicit depiction of rape and suicide in the show; nothing is glossed over and very little is merely insinuated. There are two rape scenes, preceded by a statement before the title sequence warning us of the graphic depiction of these events. These scenes are obviously hard to watch but they’re important – it’s reality. The rapes don’t happen in dark alleys by strangers, but instead at parties by boys the victims know. There’s also an important lesson in how we deal with sexual assault; Hannah’s testimony is doubted because she didn’t explicitly say no, even though any sane person can see that she was raped by Bryce. No means no, but an absence of it doesn’t mean yes. The doubt she’s faced with by her confidant is another reason she notes for her eventual suicide and I hope this teaches a lesson about how we speak to those coming forward with their experiences. And then in the final episode, we see Hannah’s suicide. It isn’t depicted as tragically beautiful; it’s upsetting and it’s brutal. She’s not in a flowing white dress, she’s in old clothes. There’s no music playing, there’s silence around her. It was agonising to watch, even behind split fingers and teary eyes.
I can’t decide whether it was necessary to show it so explicitly. Yes, it needed to be a realistic scene to drive home the messages contained in the series and avoid romanticism. And yes, suicide should not be an easy thing to watch. But I’m not sure that the extent of the graphicness was necessary. Surely the impact could’ve been delivered without so much detail, because these scenes would no doubt be triggers for those struggling with the matters explored in the show. Although there were warnings at the start of certain episodes warning about depictions of rape and suicide, there should be a more explicit warning to the extent of the graphicness. I doubt these depictions have ever been matched in explicitness on TV before.
I have to commend the book’s author (Jay Asher) and the show’s creators for not shying away from the issues shown. So many films and TV shows depict teenage life in a cliché way, with the struggling teenager finding themselves and having their happy ending against all adversity. And while 13 Reasons Why has plenty of mean jocks, cheerleaders and preppy schoolgirls, there’s no happy ending for Hannah Baker. It’s a harsh realisation of the effect bullying and standing-by can have. It can teach us all something, whether we feel like Hannah or know someone like her or not.
So, watch 13 Reasons Why. It’ll be a heartbreak you won’t regret.