13 Reasons Why (Spoilers)

After Two Episodes

I have seen a number of people on Twitter talking positively about the new Netflix show 13 Reasons Why, so I watched the first two episodes last night. I expected it to be a touching drama about a teen suicide, but it appears to be more of a tense psychological thriller, somewhat in the vein of I Know What You Did Last Summer (except that we, the audience, don’t know).

I’m going to start writing down my thoughts about this show. I’m a white guy, and this is a show that seems to be meant for a female audience, so I’m stumbling headlong into a minefield here.

Again, I’ve only seen the first two episodes as of this writing. I will likely watch the rest of it, because the show is getting such good reviews, but I’ll be honest, I’m not super into it. I probably wouldn’t have even watched the second episode if it hadn’t been for the rave reviews. (I had a similar reaction to The Expanse, actually.)

So the basic premise is that there’s a high school girl who committed suicide, but before she died, she recorded a bunch of cassette tapes (yes, actual magnetic cassette tapes, for reasons that so far are not given) and sent them to the people she felt were responsible for her death. That’s not a spoiler because you get that in like the first 5 minutes. (Don’t let the cassette tapes fool you–the story is not set in the 1980s.)

I’ll grant that it’s an interesting idea. There’s a lot of mystery and intrigue and what-the-heck-is-going-on here. (This is why I label it a psychological thriller.)

But I’m really not feeling much of a connection with these characters.

I mean, granted, this is a story about teenagers, and I barely remember what being a teenager was like. And my teenaged years were not even remotely similar to what is happening in this show. So I’m way behind the curve already.

And here’s where I really think I’m going to get into trouble. I feel like I’m supposed to think that suicide girl (aka. Hannah) is a victim and I should feel bad for her. But … I don’t. I mean, I’m sorry she’s dead. But in the first two episodes, she is not shown to be a terribly sympathetic character in my eyes. She’s mostly shown as super manipulative. I kind of … don’t like her. And it’s hard to think of a more sinister, manipulative, passive aggressive move than sending out cassettes to blame people after you’ve committed suicide.

So… help me out here, readers. Am I supposed to sympathize with her? Maybe things will change in future episodes.

So that’s the dead girl. Let’s move on to some others.

I saw that this show is based on a book. I’ve not seen anything about this book, but I’m just going to go out on a limb and guess that it’s a young adult novel. I say that because one of the defining characteristics of the young adult genre is that adults (particularly parents) act like complete morons. (Seriously. It’s a real thing. In middle-grade books, adults are trustworthy, but in young adult books, adults are supposed to be the enemy.)

The adults in this show so far are acting like idiots. “It’s okay honey, I don’t mind you walking around with a huge infected pus-filled gash on your head, I’m sure you’ll let us know if there’s a real problem.” “It’s okay honey, I see that you’re obviously–so, so, so obviously–acting weird and defensive and hiding stuff but we’ll be here if you need us.” Really? Who’s buying this?

(I won’t even go into how young these parents look to me. The teenagers look like they’re about 12 to me, and the parents look like they’re barely out of their 20s. Also, the teenagers appear to have been manufactured in some sort of beautiful person clone factory.)

Now about this kid “Helmet,” who I assume is the protagonist of our story. (I can’t remember his real name. Cory? Chase? Something with a ‘C’ I think.) I have never seen a person stare stupidly at so many things for so long before. I know this is supposed to be serious subject matter, but it’s sooo comical to see this actor staring blankly, consumed by his inner thoughts, when other people are talking. And then he tries to act like nothing is wrong, thereby drawing so much attention to the fact that something is seriously wrong.

I mean, maybe there’s a story reason for this that will become apparent later, but they are selling this kid’s bumbling ineptitude really hard.

After Five Episodes

I’m still watching the show. I’m now interested enough in the central mystery to continue watching even without the urging of the Internet. I would characterize the show as good, but not great. There is still a lot of teenager, teenager, teenager, blah, blah, blah to wade through.

After the first two episodes, they finally started to make Hannah (aka. suicide girl) a more sympathetic character. They started to downplay the super angry voiceover of her cassette tapes and focused more on the behavior of the kids she singled out for “revenge.” The reasons that I didn’t like her at first seem to be because of a “tough guy” facade she created. There’s no doubt Hannah’s been treated badly by her peers.

But. Here’s some dangerous words for a white guy to write: I feel like I could make a case, though, that she was the one who chose to put herself into the situations that could turn out badly for her. A recurring theme in the show is that taking and sharing compromising pictures can ruin a person’s life. Again, I don’t know anything about kids today, but I feel like this is a lesson that everyone should know by now. Certainly if I had kids I would be drilling that lesson every day. It seems like the “taking candy from strangers” lesson of the modern world. I mean, how does Hannah not know to close her frickin’ blinds in her room at night? (I know it’s probably dramatized for effect, but when I’m inside my house, I do think about what people can see from outside the house through the windows, and I don’t even live in a dense neighborhood.)

So I’m not cheering for Hannah quite yet. Yes, she’s had some bad luck. But does it justify her actions? I’m not a big supporter of suicide as a weapon. Maybe she isn’t dead, and it’s a big scam. She’s clearly a smart enough person to pull that off. I feel like I even heard there was some ambiguity about that before I started watching. (I know there is a “season 2” coming.) If she completes her vengeance and then pops up in another city or something (New York, probably), then I might think, “Okay, that was a nifty scheme.” But I might also think, “Wow she put a lot of loved ones through pure hell for her personal revenge fantasy power trip.”

Clay, our protagonist, the bumbling nerd who looks like a teen fashion model, continues to stare blankly at everyone and everything. I swear if he crashes his bike into something or walks out into traffic one more time I’m going to start rooting for a bus to hit him. The gash on his head still looks horribly infected to me. What in god’s name is he putting on it?

There are times when I think, aw this is a tragic re-telling of Romeo and Juliet. (As in that dance, and the “dollar valentine incident.”) Then there are other times when I think, oh man I just want to slap these kids until they stop acting dumb (as in any part where they try to pretend nothing is wrong, or when they feel the need to hide these tapes from the adults who would actually know how to handle it). This is the big problem of watching a show about teenagers when you’re forty-cough-cough.

By the way, nothing like a “dollar valentine” ever occurred at my high school, to my knowledge. I don’t remember any fundraisers of any kind, to be honest. But then I doubt I would have participated anyway. I was not much into “school spirit.”

Speaking of adults, the side-plot about the bullying lawsuit is a pretty interesting subject for me (as an adult viewer), but it’s not getting much attention in the show, other than setting up a big conflict between Clay (who believes bullying occurred) and his mom (who was hired to defend the school and therefore will be trying to prove that bullying did not occur).

I’m a bit too old to weigh in on the whole subject of “bullying” and whether it should or shouldn’t be legally actionable. I have literally no idea what it is like for kids in schools these days. The drama I’m seeing in this show looks completely foreign to me. I can’t say that I ever experienced any inordinate level of bullying. I experienced plenty of embarrassing or humiliating situations, but I never experienced any kind of concentrated persecution, and I never heard of it happening in my school. I don’t remember hearing about anyone committing suicide.

One interesting aspect of the show is that I feel like it is going out of its way to portray events in a multi-sided way–that is, ways that could lead viewers to make differing conclusions about who’s “guilty.” What I mean is, I could easily imagine women watching this show and identifying strongly with the female characters as victims of the male characters’ hostility. But when I watch, I see plenty of things the female characters are doing that are pretty aggressive and hostile and provocative toward the male characters. Which view is right? Probably both.

By the way, I would like to reiterate that there has been no story reason given for the use of cassette tapes. One just has to assume that it’s a quirky weird teenager thing. Or that it’s easier for viewers to see them.

After Thirteen Episodes

Before getting into the meat of this, did anyone else get the feeling like they had seen most of those actors before somewhere? But every time I looked them up on IMDB they were never in anything I would have seen. I’m now completely convinced that actors are stamped out of a factory somewhere, or they digitally alter everyone’s face to look familiar. Either that or maybe all the actors now are children of the actors we used to know in the 80s and 90s. For example, I would swear on a stack of Bibles that Hannah’s mom played by Kate Walsh is the spitting image of Wendie Malick.

Okay back to serious thoughts. Reading back over my notes at earlier points in the show, I’m tempted to delete them, but in the interests of “telling my truth” I’ll leave them.

Because I feel like the show deliberately tried to elicit the exact responses that I wrote about: Initially, I didn’t like Hannah that much. But over time, I started to understand her better. And by the end, my heart just ached for her (and her parents). By the final episode, I was really, really hoping for some kind of magical deus ex machina to swoop in and rescue her, even though there were plenty of instances during the show when they confirmed that yes, she’s really dead, she’s not in hiding somewhere.

I still can’t condone her choice, but I certainly understand how she got there. I’m simultaneously angry at her and sad at her loss.

Again I have to reiterate that I have no idea what high school is like for kids today. What is portrayed in this show is nothing like the high school that I went through. There are similarities of course. The cheerleaders, the jocks, the cool kids, the weirdos, etc. But this show portrays a kind of sinister cabal of puppet masters, including both students and school officials, deliberately covering up major crimes. If anything like that happened in my high school, it was well concealed, because me and my circles were completely oblivious to it. (But to be fair, I was oblivious to a lot of things in my younger days.)

The point I’m trying to make is that I sure hope this fictional Liberty High School is an exaggeration or a statistical anomaly. Because man, what a nightmare.

I’m not sure how I feel about this show continuing into a second season. I could understand one final epilogue episode to deal with the trial and the parents’ reactions to the tapes (and of course Bryce getting arrested and gang-raped in prison), but an entire season? I don’t see that many loose ends to deal with, and starting new story threads seems gratuitous.

I can’t leave without talking a bit more about Clay and his relationship with Hannah and what happened at that party.

To reiterate, I’m a guy, so I obviously can relate more to Clay’s point of view than Hannah’s. I’ve been in situations like that party before where it seems like everything is fine and then suddenly everything is not fine and you’re left reeling and completely unable to process what just happened. Where the other person appears to be giving one kind of signal but they’re saying something completely different, and you just have no clue what to do. So I can completely relate to Clay’s response.

What I loved about the telling of that scene was that they showed two different versions of it. The original version of what actually happened, where everyone went away confused and upset, and then they showed a second version that (I assume) Clay and Tony worked out later that showed what would have been the “right” way to handle the same situation. Or at least, maybe a better way. I think it was important to show that second version to the audience, because it was a really good “teachable moment” in human relationships.

Of course, there’s no guarantee things would have played out any different in the end.

I still think Clay was kind of a goofball. And I swear to God, he did crash his bike again. I mean, seriously. Revoke his license.

There really was an element of Romeo and Juliet in this story, by the way. It played out very differently, but the tragic romance was there, and it’s still just as compelling of a story element as it ever was.

Now I want to talk about that scene between Hannah and the guidance counselor in the last episode, whose name I can’t remember.

I’m not really sure what to say, though.

It’s easy to sit back and think, “What a dick. That guy could have saved Hannah but he blew it.”

But the way the scene played out… it didn’t appear so black and white to me. I felt his side of the conversation was clearly distracted, somewhat insensitive, but … believable. I never felt at any point in this series that the counselor was a “bad guy” trying to harm Hannah by action or inaction. I can imagine that anyone in his position would be forced to say the same thing. Maybe not because they wanted to, but because it’s the unvarnished, ugly truth of the matter.

Again I reiterate what I said somewhere up above, which is that the show seemed to be intentionally portraying events in a way that could be interpreted in multiple ways from multiple viewpoints.

If there was a “bad guy” on the school side, it could only be the principle, played by Steven Weber of Wings fame. (I also remember him perfectly playing Jack Torrance in the television miniseries version of The Shining, which is one of the best Stephen King novel adaptations ever made, incidentally. The Jack Nicholson movie was a great movie but bore little resemblance to the book.) But again, “bad” is a relative term here. It’s literally his job to look after the interests of the school.

In a nutshell, it’s a really good series, but it’s heavy. It very much did turn into a touching drama about a teen suicide, but it took some time to get there. In the first couple of episodes, I actually laughed quite a bit. I feel like the story could have been told in fewer episodes. There were long stretches of time where I was pretty bored and I wished they would get on with the plot.

One more thing, about the music. I don’t know anything about pop music these days. I just sort of assume kids listen to Katy Perry and … you know, ahem, all those other famous names in pop music that I totally know off the top of my head.

But a lot of the music I heard in this show didn’t sound like modern pop music at all. It sounded … well, good. Sort of more like 90s alternative music in a way. It made me wonder if that’s the kind of music kids listen to these days. If so, then good job, kids! You have some musical taste after all.

Okay, one more thing: I don’t remember anything like a Communications class in high school, where you passed notes to each other through paper bags. Is that really a thing? It’s probably a good idea, I guess. The only Communications-like class I ever remember was something like an English Communication, about writing, and I think that might have been a college class.

Okay now I’ll stop rambling. Tough subject matter, but a great, deeply affecting series.

4 thoughts on “13 Reasons Why (Spoilers)”

  1. Thanks for posting that. It was a great read. Thanls especially for posting the whole thing including the early sections as they were when you wrote them, rather than revising them to give your final take only.

    I haven’t seen the series although I already knew of it. It always irks me slightly when I hear about it because it seems to have borrowed the title of almost my favorite song from the 1990s, “12 Reasons Why” by My Life Story and I can’t figure why they went with 13 instead…

    I’ll be sixty in a year and a half but I have no difficulty whatsoever in recalling my teenage years. It always puzzles me when people say they can’t remember what it was like to be a teenager. I’d say it’s the time that many – possibly most – people are at their most fully “alive” – that’s almost a trope of adolescence – so it makes it even stranger that people don’t recall how that felt.

    I read a lot of YA novels, partly “professionally”, since I’m a bookseller, but mostly because the quality of writing for that age group is head and shoulders above most adult fiction. I would dispute that “one of the defining characteristics of the young adult genre is that adults (particularly parents) act like complete morons”. They are frequently depicted as not being able to understand, empathize with or sometimes even know about their children’s emotional state and/or life issues but it is often the case that by the conclusion of the novel very good reasons for that have been revealed and/or it transpires, and the teenage protagonist acknowledges, that the parent(s) were (partially) right in their assessment of a situation the teenager wasn’t fully able to understand.

    Actually, I would also dispute the idea that parents in what we over here call the 9-12 range are trustworthy. It’s usually a necessity of that genre for the parents to be absent to a large degree or the child protagonists can’t have freedom to act, so parents are often missing, busy, distracted or plain oblivious.

    As for “modern pop music”, it’s as good, probably better, than it ever has been. Like any other period of popular music, and genre by genre too, you need to attune your ear to hear the quality, so listen to as much as you can. I’ve been a major consumer of a wide variety of popular music for the whole of my life and I can honestly say there has never been more good stuff to discover than there is right now.

    Anyway, thanks again and I’ll try and watch the actual series sometime!

    1. Admittedly I haven’t read many YA books and no middle-grade books, I had heard that thing about how adults are viewed from some writing advice blog or podcast or something.

      It’s weird but I have the hardest time figuring out how to listen to music these days, so I’m woefully out of touch. In the “old days” you just pushed the “on” button on your boom box or walkman or whatever and presto, you heard whatever the latest, greatest thing was. Now it seems impossibly complex to figure out how to do the modern equivalent. Spotify? YouTube? Amazon Music? Google Play Music? I’ve tried most things over the years but I find them terribly unintuitive, and they don’t always work in the places I want them to work (ie. when I’m sitting in my cubicle at work with only a cell phone, a poor signal, and a limited data plan).

  2. Interesting post. I had a similar trajectory through the show, though I always felt more sympathy for Hannah. For the first couple episodes it just seemed like basic teenager drama, which I felt too old for. However, as it went on I because much more engaged in the show even as it got harder to watch. I didn’t find Hannah manipulative at all, and the victim blaming is kinda gross. There were some facepalm moments, like setting out to trap someone taking pictures of you in your bedroom and then making out with someone in said bedroom instead. And I was downright angry with her when she stayed in that closet as her friend was being raped. Those last episodes were very difficult to watch though and when her mother found her… ugh. Heartbreaking. The last scene with Clay and Hannah was also really well done. Neither one was in the wrong with their reactions, it just came down to a failure to communicate.

    As for Clay, they made him a klutz so viewers would have an obvious visual cue to differentiate past Clay from present Clay.

Leave a Reply