13 Reasons Why, the Netflix TV adaptation of Jay Asher’s 2007 YA novel, is rapidly turning into one of those divisive marmite TV shows: people are either showering it with praise (at the time of writing it holds a solid 91% on Metacritic) or condemning it as dangerous (a simple Google search will show you exactly what I mean). The big accusation is that this show is somehow dangerous for the teenage viewers it ostensibly targets, that it romanticises and encourages suicide and depression rather than communicating a more positive message about mental health.
This is a blog post about why I think that’s really, really not the case, and why if you’re still on the fence you should give it a chance. There are going to be spoilers, I will warn you now.
“13 REASONS WHY SIMPLIFIES SUICIDE”
Talking about suicide in any form of media is akin to trying to dance through a minefield: one wrong step and it’ll all go horribly, horribly wrong. More than a few commentators are of the opinion that 13 Reasons Why has put a foot out of turn in this manner, but for the sake of time I’ll use a quote from a New Statesman article to illustrate this:
“Suicide is a difficult topic to tackle without being sensationalist or reductive. But 13 Reasons Why manages to fall into both of these categories at once, depicting Hannah’s suicide as a means of exposing the actions of her peers and making them feel guilty rather than exploring the nuances of mental illness.”
This notion, that Hannah committed suicide solely to try and draw attention to the actions of those who had wronged her, underpins a number of the articles condemning the show for it’s apparent simplification of suicide. I can understand why it’s being read this way, certainly, but to my mind 13 Reasons Why depicts and explores the fact that many different and varied factors can contribute to someone’s wish to kill themselves. That’s the central tenet of the whole show (it’s in the bloody title). It’s a lesson on the impact that even small actions can have on someone’s state of mind. A spur-of-the-moment action by one person (Alex is an example here) can have lasting, devastating effects further down the line. Some commentators are condemning the show for painting a linear picture of a suicide, but what they aren’t factoring in is that it’s only linear in the eyes of Hannah (whose narrative of events, or “truth” as the show often refers to it as, is the one we’re following): everyone else following the same events at the time clearly didn’t see it the same way.
There’s another aspect to the show that pundits seem to be missing when they decry 13 Reasons Why (I’m so sorry) for simplifying suicide.
Let’s talk about Alex.
Here’s a guy we’re first introduced to as a former friend of Hannah’s, whose ill-conceived list rating the girls in his class (a means to get back at his ex Jessica) resulted in her being further subjected to harassment and objectification. A real dick move on his part, I’m sure you’d say, and Alex would agree with you. Throughout the course of the show, having learned that his actions contributed to the death of a friend, he begins to act in strange ways. He begins making jokes about his own death. He starts fights with classmates far tougher than him. He launches himself, fully-clothed, into a swimming pool and holds himself under the water for an alarming stretch of time. At one point when driving he accelerates to a dangerously high speed along an open road, despite the others in the car trying to talk him down.
If you’re paying attention, these are all warning signs of someone harbouring suicidal thoughts.
13 Reasons Why never makes it blatant. These actions are commonly in the background, or as part of a wider scene relating to the core plot. Yet they’re present, increasing as the story runs it’s course, until finally we learn that Alex has shot himself in the penultimate episode and is in intensive care: it’s not known if he survives.
This, for me, is one of the cleverest lessons 13 Reasons Why delivers on suicide.
Alex’s cries for help are obvious in hindsight: go back over the episodes with this knowledge in mind and you’ll see them clear as day. Yet the rest of the cast (and the audience by proxy) are so consumed by the aftermath of Hannah’s death and her tapes that they don’t notice until it’s much too late. Far from simplifying the topic of suicide, the show lets us witness the slow development of one without realising what it is we’re seeing until it happens.
It’s a powerful lesson, because this is the thing about suicidal people: we often don’t realise they want to kill themselves until it’s far too late. As Dr Michael Miller, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, puts it, “many people who commit suicide do so without letting on they are thinking about it or planning it”. 13 Reasons Why is trying to drive this point home; just as no-one knew what Hannah was going to do until she took her own life, both viewers and characters don’t recognise the danger signs with Alex until it’s already happened. I worry that this pretty vital lesson is being lost amidst the controversy.
“13 REASONS WHY DOES NOT SHOW KIDS TALKING ABOUT THEIR PROBLEMS”
“Okay”, says the strawman critic that I’ve made up in my head, “so the show has a clever way of depicting the realities of suicide. But it’s still irresponsible because it doesn’t show the teenage characters talking through their problems with adults”. I actually don’t need my strawman critic for that last bit, since that’s essentially what the director of the Hunter Institute, Jaelea Skehan, has said:
“13 Reasons Why does not encourage young people to involve and talk to adults or to seek help through counsellors or services. None of the young people in the show talk to an adult about what is going on – either when Hannah (or others) were experiencing issues and dealing with difficult things, and also not following her death. In fact they went to great lengths to keep information hidden from adults. When adults were displayed, they seemed too busy, uninterested or unable to help. The one time Hannah did seek help – in her words ‘one last chance at life’ the counsellor did not handle the situation well.”
Skehan’s argument is neglecting the medium that 13 Reasons Why has been created for. It’s a drama, a mystery, and like all the best stories the characters must go on a journey in order to develop and change. This is fundamental, the sort of thing Joseph Campbell was writing about with The Hero With A Thousand Faces back in 1949.
It’s not that Skehan is wrong, by any stretch of the imagination, but that she is approaching the issue from the perspective of a psychologist: she wants the solution to the character’s issues to be ready right from the get-go, but if this were to be the case the show would be far less compelling. To demonstrate this, let’s take a look at another character in the show. Jessica is Alex’s ex, the former best friend of Hannah: she’s also the girl who Hannah claims was sexually assaulted at a party. When the show begins she is in denial about what has happened to her, claiming that Hannah lied about the events of the party and that she was not raped. Yet as the story unfolds and she explores her experiences, this begins to shift. She comes to realise just what has been done to her, and in the finale she tearfully opens up to her father about her attack.
What this demonstrates is that 13 Reasons Why does actually show the teenage characters opening up to the adults in their lives, that they do eventually ask for help. This might not be their immediate reaction, but I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. Were Jessica to start off the story already having reached the stage where she was opening up to her father it would not have nearly as much impact. Instead, the show sends her (and the audience by proxy) on an arc in which she realises why she needs to talk about what happened: we are able to better relate to her, to understand what she has gone through and empathise with how difficult a decision it is for her.
Yet we also discover just why it’s so important that she makes it.
“13 REASONS WHY GLORIFIES SUICIDE”
Okay, this one is quite the can of worms.
The relationship between media and mental health/suicide is a fractious one to say the least, since there is a wealth of evidence demonstrating the link between media glorifying suicide and the increase in suicidal thoughts amongst those consuming said media. This is probably why the most common complaint I’ve seen about the show is about how it allegedly glorifies suicide. I mean shit, even guys who contributed to the soundtrack are claiming this is the case, but probably one of the most egregious examples that I’ve seen comes from Spiked Online, whose contributor Christian Butler writes:
“The series caters to the ultimate fantasy of any teen committing suicide: that they will be noticed and valued. There is something grossly optimistic in portraying a suicide not as a random, irrational act, but as something explicable, even casual, with potentially good consequences.”
Moving rapidly past the claim that suicide is “a random, irrational act” (we’re so not fighting that battle today), Butler is essentially alleging that Hannah’s death is catering to a disturbing teenage fantasy about how people will react when they’re gone. Again, I can see where he’s coming from but I have to disagree for two reasons.
The first being that I just can’t see what’s glorious about the way Hannah’s suicide affects several key members of the cast. Kate Walsh’s performance as Hannah’s mother Olivia is nothing short of heartbreaking: it’s the brutally perfect depiction of a woman coming apart at the seams from grief. Brian d’Arcy James as Hannah’s father Andy is another standout performance, as we watch a man torn between trying to be strong in the face of everything that’s happened yet unable to contain his sense of loss and confusion. There’s nothing glorious about these characters are experiencing, and claims about them just being sideline figures ring more than a little hollow when you consider just how prominent Olivia in particular is to the story. 13 Reasons Why gives viewers a visceral reminder of the impact suicide has.
Then there’s the actual suicide itself.
To put it bluntly, the scene depicting Hannah Baker’s death does not fuck around.
I’m a guy who’s sat through some of the worst that New French Extremism horror movies have to offer (film buff points, shower me in them) and yet I still found the scene really rather difficult to watch. It holds nothing back, unflinchingly depicting the final moments of Hannah’s life in a performance by Katharine Langford that really ought to garner her some sort of award if there’s any justice in the world. There’s no cheesy indie soundtrack (there’s no soundtrack at all), nothing fancy with the camerawork or editing, just a clinical and unrelenting scene that hits home with palpable force.
If my description of the whole affair doesn’t make it clear enough, I have nothing but respect for what the creative team behind 13 Reasons Why did with this scene. This was the make or break moment for the series, the set piece we all knew was coming. Not showing it would have been a cop-out, throwing in the towel out of fear of causing controversy, yet conversely a stale or contrived depiction would have been equally damning. Nothing about it is glorified or sensational, to my mind, which means I cannot agree with the people claiming it encourages suicide. If anything, the opposite is true.
IT HAS TO GET BETTER
All of this isn’t to say that the people decrying 13 Reasons Why are wrong, I’d like to stress as part of my conclusion. I don’t have final authority on these things, apart from anything else. Having dissenting opinions out there as part of the discussion is vital, so I cannot look at these articles individually as anything other than a good thing even if I wholly disagree with them.
Yet together, they represent something a little more worrying for me. The swathe of material denouncing the show is having a cooling effect on the interest displayed towards it. All too often on social media I’ve seen interactions where someone says “I’m interested in watching 13 Reasons Why” only for someone to spring from the woodwork with a link to one of these articles ready to put them off the notion. That, to my view, is far more dangerous than the show itself. Because yes, you really should watch this show.
Because we as a culture need to get better at talking about mental health and suicide.
Suicide is one of the leading causes of death in the world: it’s more likely to kill you than stomach cancer, measles and liver cancer.
We have to talk about this. Regardless of your age or gender, we have to talk about this. Mental health and suicide are subjects media has shied away from in the past for fear of the controversy it may cause, but media is one of the most potent ways to get discussion going and getting people talking about it. I support 13 Reasons Why and encourage people to watch it precisely for this reason: it’s a series bold enough to try and tackle the subject.
As Clay puts it right in the final episode?
“It has to get better. The way we treat each other and look out for each other. It has to get better somehow.”