Like many people, I have just recently binge-watched the entire season of 13 Reasons Why on Netflix. I had read the book about eight years ago, once, but as my memory can be closely likened to that of Dory from Finding Nemo, I remembered nothing but the bare bones of the plot. So, basically, it was like I was experiencing it for the first time, and it was a fucking journey.
While I thought the acting was great and the screenplay finely written (aside from the slightly inconceivable notion that Clay would forego listening to the tapes of his dead friend in one sitting, as I assume most people would, and instead stretch it conveniently along the span of a few days), the obvious draw was the drama and novelty of the plot–a show unapologetically and graphically depicting teenage suicide. And as it did for me, I assume this is what drew in most of the viewers, and kept them captivated throughout the duration of the series. You are made aware from the beginning that Hannah’s death is slowly approaching, and like a highway car wreck, you are compelled to stare the violence right in the face.
Now, I’ve read many articles that talk about how this show has opened a discussion around suicide, the signs, how to help a friend in need, and so on. For every promotion of the series made by a cast member on Instagram, there’s a little blurb declaring “you’re not alone!”, or details on where to seek help if you’re feeling suicidal. And I agree that in order to fix a problem, there needs to be an open forum surrounding it. Problems can’t be solved under the covers. But was this show really made with the sole purpose of being a PSA on teen suicide? Absolutely not. It was made to entertain.
While I completely agree that the series has provoked necessary awareness on an otherwise neglected topic, I also am prone to think that perhaps not everything that has come from the popularity of 13 Reasons is beneficial to struggling teens. In the show, Hannah’s death is glamorized by the showmanship associated with the tapes, painting her with an alluring aura of mystery and complexity throughout. The tapes are meant to symbolize Hannah finally finding her voice, and the courage to stand up to the people who wronged her, but with a catch–she had to die to do it. So, while there are some kids who will watch the show and think “she shouldn’t have killed herself,” there are others who will watch and think “wow, she really showed them.”
As a writer, I don’t believe that forms of artistic expression should be censored or limited by “moral integrity.” The producers of this show have no responsibility in being role models for young, susceptible teenagers–that’s their parents’ job. Let entertainment entertain. But that’s just it–I feel like this show is doing its best to turn itself into something it’s not. As much as I thoroughly enjoyed it for what it was–a dramatic, captivating TV series–I fail to see it for what it’s pretending to be: a statement against suicide. If the creators of the show really wanted to dissuade people from harming themselves, why would they depict the character as gaining redemption in the end? As besting the people who hurt her? Destroying their lives as much as they destroyed hers? Why would they make it seem like Hannah got what she wanted from her death?
It is because of this that I am so conflicted about my feelings for this show. Yeah, I could barely tear my eyes from the screen for all 13 hours of Clay looking forlornly into the distance (to put this in further context, it is currently beautiful and sunny outside in Seville), but did I enjoy it for the right reasons? Moreover, what are the right reasons? Is it possible that a show that’s trying to depict the damage caused by suicide could actually be doing the opposite, and leading depressed teenagers to think that there’s a way to get revenge against the people who have caused them harm…and that way is death?