I hated Thirteen Reasons Why the first time I read it. So, of course, a couple of years later, I read it again. It’s just how I am. When I really have a problem with something, I tend to examine it to understand why. My hatelationship with the works of Ernest Hemingway is a great example of my tendency to do this. So when Thirteen Reasons Why was adapted by Netflix into a 13 episode series, I decided to give it a try to see if the show could rectify the issues I’d had with the book. I got through most of one episode and shut it down. But then, because I’m a glutton for punishment, I kept watching, determined to watch all the way to the end.
And now I’m going to share my thoughts, mostly because I want them out of my head, and mostly about the show. The thing is, I don’t really want to have a discussion about it. So if you disagree, that’s great. These are just my thoughts, and you’re free to do with them as you will. I understand that this is a much beloved story and that many people find great value in it, and I’m not trying to tell those people that they’re wrong or that they shouldn’t like it. We all bring our own experiences to the stories we take in, and that means that we won’t all walk away feeling the same way about something. And this is simply how I feel about this particular story. Do with that what you will.
So I’m going to spoil the events of the show. If you’re not interested in spoilers, skip this “review” until you’ve watched it (or not watched it…whatever). Also, TW for suicide, self-harm, sexual assault, and rape.
Before I get into the show, I want to briefly mention some of the things I found so troubling about the book. The first is that, to someone who is depressed or suicidal, the story of Hannah getting the opportunity to speak from beyond the grave and “teach” the people who have hurt her a lesson could read like a revenge fantasy. I have intimate knowledge of suicidal thoughts and attempted suicide. I speak from direct experience (though I will say that experiences differ, so my experience is not necessarily the same as someone else’s). When I was at my lowest, I remember distinctly thinking that everyone I thought had failed me would feel so sorry when I was gone. That they would wish they’d been there for me when I was alive. Hannah’s story is a fantasy that fulfills those dark thoughts, and I believe that in the wrong hands the book could read like a manual rather than a warning.
Additionally, I also really disliked that the story centered Clay in Hannah’s story. Everything became about him. How he felt. How he reacted. Now, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The story of someone reacting to the suicide of another can be a valuable story, but Thirteen Reasons Why was clearly about Hannah, but it still centered Clay. It was also intensely emotionally manipulative and, I felt, treated suicide like something other people could cause rather than what it truly is.
Did the show improve upon these flaws? In short? No. In fact, I believe it actually made them worse. There were some things I do believe it did well, so I’m going to break it down those first.
WHAT IT GOT RIGHT:
Hannah’s Parents — By introducing a subplot that revolved around Hannah’s parents suing the school and exposing the bullying present in the school, I believe the show did a decent job creating a fuller picture of the range of emotions those left behind after someone commits suicide would go through.
Tony — Tony’s final acceptance that he had done the wrong thing by withholding the tapes from Hannah’s parents and giving them the closure they needed was much appreciated. I don’t recall that the book delved into the moral implications of Tony keeping Hannah’s secrets, and I was glad that the show dealt with it. Also, it was nice that he was gay.
Jessica — Near the end, when Clay is trying to decide whether to release the tapes to a wider audience, I appreciated that he first asked Jessica’s permission. Her rape was detailed on the tapes, and I appreciated that the show gave what she wanted consideration. It wasn’t handled perfectly, but it was more than many shows would have done.
Other — I also believe that the show did a great job exposing the ways in which we treat each other and the effects that can have. It’s one of the reasons I believe so many people find this a powerful story. Showing how the words we say (or don’t say) and how even the smallest actions can have a ripple effect is a story worth telling, and I feel that the show did this well. Unfortunately, the overarching story of Hannah’s suicide is also what makes it an inappropriate story to tell in this instance. But we’ll get to that.
WHAT IT GOT WRONG
Almost everything else. It, in my opinion, romanticizes suicide to a disturbing degree. We’re meant to learn a very valuable lesson from Hannah’s suicide, which promotes the message that Hannah’s suicide had meaning. And that’s fucked up. It goes back to the problem I had with the book, which is that someone who is depressed or suicidal could watch this show and see, not a cautionary tale, but a roadmap. And I think that’s dangerous and irresponsible.
THE PARENTS — All of them. Seriously. Clay gets a head injury, suspended from school, beat up, he stays out all night, caught with weed, he comes home drunk and pukes on the table, all of this after a classmate commits suicide, and they do NOTHING. Seriously, fuck all of the parents on this show except for Hannah’s.
CLAY — My initial problems with the book regarding Clay become even more glaring in this show. The story becomes his story instead of Hannah’s. And let me be clear here: I think many of the issues with this story could have been resolved if Hannah’s tapes had not been part of the story. If the story had been about Clay searching for the reasons Hannah killed herself and uncovering all of the things that had happened to her, then Clay would have been centered in his own story. But the tapes make the story Hannah’s, and Clay becomes and remains the focus, which is messed up.
Furthermore, as Clay grows angry and begins to decide to take revenge for the things done to Hannah, the show loses its own moral superiority. Specifically, when Clay takes a naked picture of Tyler, Hannah’s stalker, and sends it out to the entire school and there are zero repercussions, it sends a massively fucked up message and immediately undermines whatever credibility Clay has. It makes him just as bad as the others on the tapes.
SKYE — The show really fucked up with this. There’s a specific scene in episode 11 where Clay learns that Skye has been cutting herself. We see numerous self-inflicted injuries on her wrists. When he asks her about them, she says, “It’s what you do instead of killing yourself. Suicide is for the weak.” WHAT THE FUCK? No. There are two major problems with this. 1) It’s a reductionist explanation of self-harm that disregards the very real danger of self-harm. 2) Despite believing that Hannah could have been saved if only someone had reached out to her and gotten her help, Clay NEVER seeks help for Skye. Yes, at the end of the show, he befriends her, but at that point in the show, he should have immediately ratted her out to his parents, her parents, the school counselor. Someone. Anyone. That he doesn’t shows a clear lack of understanding on the part of the show’s writers of the dangers of self-harm and suicide, and they should be fucking ashamed of not addressing it.
Alex — His attempted suicide at the end of the series was a gratuitous addition that I found disgusting. It once again centers a boy in Hannah’s story, and then it doesn’t even deal with it. It was unnecessary and wrong.
Tyler — The “hint” that he was going to shoot up his school was another show addition meant to tease a potential second season, but it was in really poor taste.
Other Adults — Seriously, all the school administrators should have been fired. Does this town not have a single therapist nearby?
Hannah — I’m not sure what the show’s writers/directors were thinking, but the graphic depiction of Hannah’s suicide was fucking sick. I don’t know if they were attempting to show the brutality and horror of it, but there is not a single teen I would ever suggest allowing to watch that. Hell, there’s not a single adult I’d ever suggest watch it. There was a grossly romanticized gaze to it that was beyond disturbing, and I’m horrified that it was allowed to be part of the show. Seriously, fuck whoever thought filming that was a good idea. And that’s not hyperbole. They literally show her slitting her wrists and dying.
Furthermore, with regards to Hannah, the show did a piss poor job of actually tracking Hannah’s descent. Yes, it gave us “13 reasons why” Hannah believed her life wasn’t worth living, but the the actual narrative did a shitty job of actually showing her depression and emotional journey. It did a far better job depicting the emotional spirals of every other character (especially Jessica), but tanked it when it came to the person the story was actually about. It’s like they read a pamphlet about suicide and figured they knew all they needed to know. It lost all nuances when it came to depicting Hannah’s emotional state.
General — Where the show majorly failed (and this is, I feel, a failure of the story the show is based on) is that it attempts to reduce the complexity of someone who’s committed suicide into reasons. It attempts to place blame on thirteen individuals. And while I understand the message is that we should all be more kind to each other, it’s a shitty representation of depression and someone who is suicidal. Hannah didn’t need Clay to love her more, she needed professional help.
The night I attempted suicide, I was living on campus at college. I went to a guy’s dorm and we fooled around and it was shitty and for a long time after, I blamed him. We barely knew each other, but I thought if he’d been into me and if things had gone better, I might not have attempted to kill myself. But the truth was that even if things had gone well, I probably still would have attempted it at some point. Maybe not that night, but eventually. It wasn’t that guy’s fault. It wasn’t my fault. It was my brain. It was a complex set of emotional and mental circumstances that no single person could have “saved” me from. And that’s what the show (and book) completely get wrong. And I think it’s dangerous. If someone is hurting and in pain and depressed and suicidal, they don’t just need you to love them more, they need professional help. And that’s a lesson everyone on the show fails to learn, as evidenced by Clay not telling anyone about Skye’s self-harm.
Tattoos — Does everyone in this town go to the same tattoo artist? Seriously, every kid has multiple huge tattoos. What the hell was up with that? And why is every show about teens allergic to hiring actual teens to play the parts? Those high school “kids” all looked 30.
There’s a good message about treating each other with kindness buried in this show. Exploring the lives of the people who intersected with Hannah allows for the opportunity to see how our actions affect each other. And if the show had focused on that and dumped Hannah’s tapes, the message would have come through stronger. But when seen through the lens of someone who has committed suicide who is forcing people to face their own ugliness, it becomes exploitative and gross. It turns a girl’s suicide into revenge porn and downplays the seriousness of the decision she made to take her own life.
We need more books and shows that deal with mental illness, but this shouldn’t be one of them. It’s grotesque and exploits suicide in a way that I feel is both callous and dangerous.
And that’s all I’ve got. Again, I understand that everyone will take their own message from this based on their personal experiences, but I can’t recommend it. And if you’re a parent of a teen who’s watching the show, I’d beg you to watch it yourself or watch it with them.