Let me start with the positives...
I want to seriously commend the team behind 13 Reasons Why for taking on such serious issues today and doing so unapologetically. I was a fan of the book in high school, and in watching the show, it still resonated with me today as an adult woman. Overall, I think the show should be considered a success, and I think it’s important for people to watch it. However, there are a few things we should keep in mind, I think, in talking about the show and how it affects us.
The show illustrated an impactful sample of the rape culture in which we live. Hannah was slowly chipped away throughout the series, though she wasn’t a victim of rape herself until the finale when Bryce assaulted her in the hot tub. Before that moment, Hannah was simply hurt again and again by rumors, judgments, boys who assumed she was interested in them and entitled to touch her as they saw fit, and, of course, there was the moment when she helplessly watched Jessica’s rape. These moments isolated her and allowed her to sit in guilt that she didn’t need to carry with her. I think it’s important that we see how these moments profoundly influenced Hannah. While bullying is something we often see on screen, I think it’s rare that we see the impact of these “minor” offenses. Hannah didn’t commit suicide because she was raped; she committed suicide because of all these things that happened, things that helped make it possible for her to be raped.
To me, this is one of the biggest lessons within the show. Someone doesn’t have to be a rape victim to be affected by rape culture. The way our society instills fear in women and entitlement in men is something we need to acknowledge and help fix.
See how the rape culture play out in real time, essentially:
But, then again...
I don’t think rape culture is the foremost subject in the series. While the show tackles a multitude of issues (rape culture, victim blaming, gun ownership, etc.), it’s clear the number one spotlight is on teen suicide and depression, certainly a noble cause. However, this is the issue that concerns me the most. I know that Hannah was mentally ill. I don’t think a person (I know she’s a character, but she feels so real) could slit their wrists without having clinical depression or something with similar lows. I don’t mean to minimize this in my analysis of the show.
That being said, the simple fact that she leaves behind tapes that call out specific people and specific instances that caused her to kill herself makes her suicide a preventable act. That’s a dangerous lesson to weave into the narrative. The show highlights the mysteries of Hannah’s blame instead of what was going on in her head.
There were also a few other characters that could have been explored further. Clay’s mom offered him a new prescription of some medication, and Clay talks about anxiety in relation to the tapes, but that’s never taken further. He never approaches a breaking point or talks to someone about it. He never even connects to Hannah on that level, even in her memory. This is a huge missed opportunity to explore how young people successfully handle anxiety and depression, a nice foil to Hannah’s character and a possibly helpful lesson for young people with similar struggles.
Like Clay, Alex struggled as well. Alex ended the show with his life hanging in the balance. We’re told that he shot himself in the head (though some conspiracies suggest someone else targeted Alex, but I don’t quite believe those). I think the show missed an opportunity here to educate the audience not only on teen depression but also on the repercussions of Hannah’s suicide. What she did, what she left behind, it all had consequences. Other people were left to deal with her decision, and people need to be aware of that (young people especially).
Alex’s suicide attempt felt more genuine to me than Hannah’s. I know that’s a crazy thing to say, but stay with me here. Again, the fact that Hannah blames people makes this a preventable act. She’s saying that if these other people didn’t treat her this way, she would still be alive today, but she can’t make that promise. If she truly had a mental illness, there’s no way to say that she would be a happy, well-adjusted woman today.
I don’t like when people say someone only committed suicide for attention. Like I said, I don’t think any person can slit their wrists without some kind of imbalance. It’s so graphic and difficult and messy. I’m worried that Hannah is set up as exactly that – a cry for attention. I’m not blaming the victim here. Of course I think Bryce deserves to be punished, and I stand by the many of the others needing to be punished as well. That being said, sometimes the punishment outweighed the crime, in my opinion. Take the case of Alex. I don’t think that’s what Hannah would have wanted for him. Clay, also, was put through hell listening to those tapes, only to hear that she doesn’t blame him for anything.
What worries me is that Hannah’s suicide was largely driven by revenge. “Look what you made me do,” so to speak. I’m worried that angsty teens, also driven by anger and hurt and revenge, may see that and glamorize it. The show does a great job in the last episode to show the consequences of her suicide. They show her graphic suicide attempt, her parents finding her, and of course, Alex’s suicide attempt. The team behind 13 Reasons Why, I think, wants young people to see Kate Walsh crying over the overflowing red bathtub and will decide that they never want their parents to go through that. If that works, the show can definitely make a dent in teen suicide. It certainly broke my heart.
My question is: can that final episode make up for the thrilling mystery that we just spent the first twelve episodes in which we were all just so invested? I’m not sure. I wish the two were given equal attention – the cause and the effect.