Note: This post contains mild spoilers from the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why,” as well as some talk of suicide and sexual assault. Reader discretion is advised.
“13 Reasons Why” is the latest Original Series from Netflix. Based on the novel of the same name, the series begins after the “unexpected” suicide of high school junior Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) and follows Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette) after he receives a box of 13 tapes anonymously. The tapes outline the “13 reasons why” Hannah committed suicide, with Hannah narrating 13 distinct events, perpetrated by classmates and others, over the previous year that led to her taking her own life.
The subject person of each tape has listened to the series and passed them on to the next person, mainly because of unspoken consequences enforced by Tony (Christian Navarro), a friend of Hannah’s with promises to keep. Whereas the previous recipients of the tapes had simply listened and passed them on, Clay takes a special interest in the tapes in an effort to eliminate some of his own feelings of loss over the death of Hannah, but also in an attempt to hold the others accountable for their actions. This doesn’t make him very popular with the other folks on the tapes, who pressure him to just get through them and get to the end and put it all behind him. This culminates in a conclusion that is just, yet open-ended enough to potentially lead to future seasons of the show. The true fallout is just beginning to be felt by the end of the 13th episode, and many loose strings are left untied.
This show resonated in a way that was unexpected for me. I’m nearly 20 years removed from the lives of the students depicted, and my high school time was experienced in a world without social media and only the beginnings of what would become of the internet that we know today. I experienced some bullying when I was younger, and unless I am simply blocking out a terrible time in my life, it was nothing on the scale of what Hannah, Clay, or others experienced. I just made my way through life, hung out with my friends, probably worked a bit too much to truly experience some of the social aspects of high school, and moved on with my life. I’m sure that these things were happening around me; I was just too naive to really notice at the time.
Hannah’s story is unique, but not so unique that it is terribly different from others who may have experienced the same thing directly. I knew of kids that had committed suicide, even had classes with them, but I didn’t know them closely enough to be truly affected. When a very close friend attempted suicide and survived, it was shocking and terrible and confusing all at once, but the lasting affects faded and we managed to get back to our version of normal by ignoring it and doing other things.
The same thing can be said about the sexual harassment and assault experienced by Hannah and others during the series. In hindsight, I’m sure very similar things were happening around me in school. But the lack of smart phones and Facebook and everything else probably kept it buried beneath the surface in my large high school. Again, close friends experienced these things, but instead of talking about them and getting them out in the open to prevent them from happening again, they were brushed aside, buried and ignored for years, if not forever. “Kids being kids” or something, and just not really considered to be as big of a deal then it probably really was.
As I was watching, I identified with Clay. Not that I was on student councils or being a tutor or any of those other things that he did, but instead being that kinda nerdy guy that was awkward with girls and didn’t really know what I was doing except getting through the day to go to my menial job and plan for whatever was next. I even had a Hannah or two (or three) during high school, though none of them ended up following Hannah’s path. Being a teenager was hard back then, and I’m sure it’s even harder now.
I view shows like this and I worry about how things will be for my son when he gets to that age. Will I be able to protect him without helicoptering, give him the tools he needs to deal and cope with being a teenager in whatever world we will live in in 12 years? Will he be a good kid, treating everyone with respect? Will he be the bully or the bullied? Is he going to be like Clay, or Alex, or Tyler, or (sure hope not) Bryce? Shows like this make me want him to stay a toddler forever, though with fewer tantrums and diapers.
Whatever the author intended, this series should elicit these responses. It was hard to get through, but at the same time, I didn’t want to stop watching. The kids were well acted, even if some of them were portraying “tropes” of types of high school students (the “dumb jock”, the “creepy stalker”, the “closeted lesbian”, etc). The parents and other adults infuriated me throughout, but by the end, I realized that they were just as lost as some of the kids. There needs to be a balance of being involved and letting your child succeed and fail on their own. I was lucky growing up that my parents gave me the freedom to do what I wanted to, but I was also smart enough not to test those limits by doing dumb things that would cause them to give me restrictions.
While other shows are easy to fly through without really paying attention, this one requires some time for thought and reflection, at least in my experience. This may be the thing that I show Lincoln when he starts middle school unless something else similar and/or better comes along during the next 10 years to change that. It also allowed my wife and I to share experiences from our lives similar to the events depicted that we may have only talked about in passing. It starts a dialogue, makes you think, but it is also well done and entertaining. I encourage anyone to watch this series, but do it at your own pace. (5 out of 5 stars)
Until next time…