Netflix original series 13 Reasons Why pulls no punches in a painful story about rape, suicide, and bullying. It’s subject matter that might already turn some people away. But sometimes art and reality crash in a spectacular way that exposes a deep wound, an ugly wound, but a wound that we must admit is there. 13 Reasons Why reveals that injury, and there’s only one reason to watch it: the show is fantastic.
13 Reasons Why begins with Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette) who finds a box of cassette tapes left anonymously at his front door. Using his dad’s old boombox, Clay listens to the first tape and realizes it’s Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford), his friend and classmate who recently passed away. The tapes begin a journey for Clay and the viewer into the reasons someone would end their life.
As the story unfolds, we listen with Clay to the tapes while living in two time periods. 13 Reasons Why slips back and forth between the past and the present. In the present, each tape focuses on a different character and their connection to Hannah’s suffering. The reality presented by Hannah in the tapes is further explored through her eyes in scenes from the past.
The juxtaposition of the two timelines is an effortless dance that sets up the story’s real mystery. What made Hannah, a smart, bright-eyed young woman, want to end her life?
“Sleep, those little slices of death — how I loathe them.” – Edgar Allan Poe
In many stories like this, the focus often becomes about some revenge plan that’s hatched by the deceased. Or it’s the drama between self-centered characters. Here, the story focuses on all the tiny cuts, the little slices, that killed Hannah. Each episode punches one of the self-centered characters in the gut. And in death, Hannah spares no one.
So often, an abundance of expository dialogue floods these shows. But throughout 13 Reasons Why, a handful of directors and writers combine forces to create a subtle narrative through sight and sound. The quality put forth by Netflix’s show is akin to the same level paid to ABC’s American Crime.
13 Reasons frames shots and matches them with songs that create textured moments of storytelling. One such moment, when Alex (Miles Heizer), Hannah’s one-time friend who moved on, falls into a pool. In part, he’s killing himself, but only mentally. As he sinks into the water, the Chromatics play “Into the Black”, and the lyrics let us know everything we need “Out of the blue, into the black.” Alex comes to the surface of the water, alive, out of the blue, but into the black, the dark, where his guilt exists. Alex knows his torment is only about to begin.
The manner in which 13 Reasons Why approaches its subject matter will turn off many viewers. 13 Reasons takes a hard look at the micro and macro factors that cause people to take their lives. It’s an honest look, unlike few shows on TV, and it might not be the escapism people are looking for, but I argue it’s the dose of reality we all need to see.