This article most definitely contains spoilers.
Despite all the political drama, it seems the only other thing people are talking about right now is Netflix’s latest teen drama, Thirteen Reasons Why. It was released for streaming almost a month ago, and I decided not to write about it straightaway for two reasons: first, I wanted the dust to settle a bit as there have been so many conflicting reviews, and I didn’t want to get swept up and lost in every other person’s opinion; second, watching the series was a hard slog. With the rate at which Clay listens to the tapes and the way each tape is dragged out into almost an hour-long episode, it was no wonder that by the end of the series I was in desperate need of a break from anything remotely serious for a while.
The nature of the series is by no means gentle or cheerful: in short, it’s about a teenage girl, Hannah Baker, who kills herself and leaves tapes, each with a different reason why she felt compelled to end her life. Each of these reasons is addressed to a certain person within her life. The show has been praised for bringing issues such as depression, suicide, sexual violence, and grief into the mainstream media in the way it has, especially given how prevalent these issues are within the teen and young adult community. However, the way in which they tackle these issues has left a sour taste in a lot of people’s mouths, and I am in no way surprised as to why.
For starters, the depiction of the events that lead up to Hannah’s suicide are graphic and highly explicit – later episodes of the show come with a trigger warning message attached at their beginning. The scenes in which Hannah’s friend Jessica is raped, and later scenes in which Hannah is raped herself, do not show the full extent of the traumatic event but show enough that not much is left to the imagination. For viewers who may be affected, they are seemingly very true-to-life depictions, and I can understand why many would feel uncomfortable watching. However, whether we agree or not, it is clear the intentions of the production and studio teams were that it was necessary to hammer home the issue of rape in this way.
For many, the part of the series that has polarised critics and viewers alike is the scene depicting Hannah’s suicide. In the final episode, we are shown how Hannah prepares for her suicide, recording the tapes and tidying her room, before being shown her taking her own life. For me, while this was clearly chosen to demonstrate the dark nature of suicide and could be seen to tackle the taboo, it was perhaps a step too far. Being a show about a girl who has committed suicide, I am not surprised it is included, but to be shown someone slitting their wrists in a bath tub in what is essentially marketed as a teen drama is a misjudgement and could perhaps have the opposite effect desired. The scene is explicit, affecting, poignant but also extremely triggering. The worry is people who are watching the show with mental health issues and suicidal tendencies may see this and take inspiration from it, almost like ‘suicide by numbers’.
This is not the only problem with the show, but it is the most profound – and it begs the question as to whether something so delicate should have been expressed in such a graphic way. The problem lies fundamentally with the show’s heart: while it tries its best to portray suicide as something that affects everyone around the person who commits it and essentially promotes wellbeing and seeking out help as fundamental for anyone going through the problems raised, its romanticisation of Hannah’s suicide and supposed mental health issues are what I have the biggest problem with.
We hear about the series of events that lead to her suicide through these tapes. I know that the original book by Jay Asher was written ten years ago, but even then, the choice of cassette tapes in this instance is a classic example of romanticising the entire issue, giving it an ‘misunderstood indie teenager’ tone that doesn’t need to be there. Suicide isn’t a fad, it’s a serious topic that isn’t talked about enough, so this seems a tad insulting to both those who have lost people to suicide, as well as those who have committed suicide themselves.
Furthermore, considering the adult topics that are fundamental to the show’s progress, Hannah’s spiral towards suicide isn’t particularly believable. For one, whilst she has had a lot of traumatic things happen to her, we are not shown any real signs of mental health or depression. This is not me saying that she was not suffering from mental illness in any way, but more that we are not given any concrete evidence that she is having a hard time other than her crying. If anything, we notice symptoms more in characters surrounding her following their listening to the tapes, and it is frustrating that we see this development within the rest of the cast but we are not privy to Hannah dealing with trauma and grief in the way that we would perhaps expect – for many viewers, the way the show seems to demonstrate that ‘bad things result in bad consequences’ for others in the way it does has made the character of Hannah hard to relate to, and subsequently the internet has been awash with ‘welcome to your tape’ memes of this nature.
As well as that, many viewers were angered by the way in which she left the tapes, going to such lengths to record tapes for her ex-friends, boys she liked, her guidance counsellor, but left no tape or note for her parents. The show doesn’t need to try too hard to make Hannah harder and harder to like the further we delve into the series, which is a total shame.
It is frustrating for me to watch a show whose fundamental core is mental health and issues related and miss the mark. A notable show to compare it to would be The CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. While the show is a musical comedy, far from the dramatic teen world of Thirteen Reasons Why, the show tackles the issue of mental health in a completely different way. It follows a fairly unlikeable character, Rachel Bloom, as she quits her job and moves across the States to follow Josh Chan, her summer fling boyfriend she was in love with as a teenager, and all the while her mental health manifests itself in honest, frank and explicit musical numbers. The show tells its viewers that mental health can affect anyone, it can disrupt your life and make you feel like nothing will ever be right again, but does so in a way that is not darkly overdramatic in the same vein as Hannah’s downfall; it is relatable and ultimately, removes the stigma of mental illness by making the show funny as hell.
While Thirteen Reasons Why tries its best to educate, it comes off as a series of poor choices that ultimately flaw an otherwise very good idea. The news of a second series will surely be met with the same polarised opinions as the conclusion of the first, and I’m still trying to work out how to feel about it myself.
Volume #18 is here – order your copy now.
Words by Kirstie Sutherland