“Hi, this is Hannah. Hannah Baker.”
Thus begins Hannah’s first tape, and our decent into 13 episodes of gut-wrenching heartbreak. Hannah is dead. There are no surprise twists or magical resuscitations. She is dead, she is not coming back, and she knows exactly who is at fault.
We’ve all seen the teaser trailers for Netflix’s adaptation of Jay Asher’s hit YA novel 13 Reasons Why. Since the highly anticipated release on March 31st, it has managed to stew quite a bit of controversy. In a much more blunt and graphic manner than usual, the show handles issues including teen suicide, bullying, depression, and rape. Insofar as I can tell, Selena Gomez (the producer and champion of the series) and the team had one goal in mind: to get people talking. No one can deny that they did so. In fact, it is the most socially discussed show in Netflix history. This buzz is undoubtedly what led to the recent announcement that there WILL be a second season released in 2018.
The show tells the story of 17 year old Hannah Baker’s suicide, and the aftermath her death has on those she leaves behind. Before taking her life, Hannah recorded 13 tapes highlighting each of the reasons she was driven to it. Each “reason” is a different person, and she makes sure they all hear her side of the story and know the role they played.
It did seem a bit of a stretch that someone as emotionally devastated as a suicidal Hannah would have the presence of mind to achieve such an extreme hindsight and ability to self-analyze, AND to record the tapes and hatch this elaborate plan. That being said, Hannah’s “reasons” highlight an often overlooked fact: there isn’t always one simple reason people commit suicide. It can start with the smallest thing, and over time twist and turn into a complicated mess that nobody involved intended or even considered a possibility. You never know how someone internalizes their surroundings. Person A may be able to compartmentalize and process what Person B is incapable of coping with.
The show has been blasted for romanticizing suicide, and giving the perception that such an act makes you a martyr and/or is a surefire way to be remembered forever. To that end, let’s discuss that suicide scene. It was one of the most horrific scenes of television or film I’ve ever watched. There was no melodramatic score in the background. No artsy camera movements or different angles filmed. No crescendo to a big moment. Just a silent and deadpan three minute shot of Hannah filling her bathtub, slicing into her wrists, and bleeding out. Hence the biggest controversy of all. Did this harsh and unforgiving scene display that there is nothing glamorous or romantic about suicide, or was it unnecessarily gratuitous and potentially dangerous to the young and impressionable? The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. It does seem a bit of a cop out for a show all about suicide not to show the suicide, and I don’t believe they could have made it any more painful and uncomfortable to watch than they did. Still, I can understand why a parent wouldn’t want their young teenager seeing something so violent. Many schools have even banned students from discussing 13 Reasons Why on campus, which has most certainly guaranteed that every single student went home and watched it. Except now they have nowhere to ask questions or gain perspective. A smarter approach would be to provide a safe setting to have the important conversations, filled with guidance counselors and experts to guide them in healthy way.
Many people have brought up the perfectly valid point that not all suicides could be prevented by people “being kinder to each other”, a point heavily emphasized through our protagonist, Clay. Someone can have a loving family, close friendships, and a full future ahead of them – but still struggle with inner demons that cause them to take his or her own life. However, as this show has a strong theme of bullying, I believe it is specifically pointing to the cases where the suicide could have been prevented if the endless in-school and online bullying had ceased. Of which there are many.
A show about teen suicide will never be free of criticism, and one could definitely argue that some of the more graphic scenes (the suicide, and rape scenes, etc) were more upsetting than they were artistically necessary. Regardless of what you think, you are now engaging in discussions you weren’t before. Looking at perspectives you may have not even previously considered. To that end, the show is a complete success. Even if the only outcome is that dissenting viewers strive for improvements on the education of suicide prevention and awareness, that’s not insignificant.
We heard Hannah’s tapes, we understood her reasons through Clay’s eyes, we watched her commit the final act… where does that leave us for season 2?
The first season finale (very intentionally) left many doors open for another season. For instance, Tyler’s storyline wrapped up with him purchasing a gun and hanging photos of the people he feels have wronged him. There was a strong implication that he was considering a type of school shooting. And, most prominently, the cliffhanger of Alex’s suicide attempt. This may be an unpopular opinion, but I think Alex’s character arc was genius. We spent the show being hammered with messages of “don’t ignore the pain of those in front of you” and “you never know what someone is going through”, all in reference to Hannah. This caused us to completely miss Alex’s pain and the downward spiral he was in. In hindsight, it was right under our nose. Talk about meta. Alex’s fate and the impending trial of Baker vs. Liberty high, along with Clay’s continued healing, leave ample room for continued storytelling.
I’d love to hear from others what they thought of 13 Reasons Why and how it handled such sensitive material. Do you think we need a season 2?
UPDATE 5.9.2017 – 13 Reasons Why showrunner Bryan Yorkey has finally spoken out about details of the second season.
If you thought the first season was the complete story of Hannah Baker’s suicide, think again. Apparently season two will continue to examine Hannah’s death and who may be responsible for it.
“One way we’ll explore that question is through the trial and also through all of these kids reflecting on where they are a few months down the road and what other secrets are being uncovered. That’s going to take us into the past, into Hannah’s story. We’re going to get some new context for events we already know about and we’re going to see a lot of things we hadn’t even heard about yet that fill in some really interesting gaps in our understanding of who Hannah Baker was and what her life was.”
This trial will undoubtedly be Mr. and Mrs. Baker’s suit against Liberty High School for negligence that led to their daughter’s suicide. The good news is that those season one cliffhangers (Alex’s suicide attempt, Tyler’s plans, if Bryce will face justice) will be addressed. While I’m happy that Hannah will be prominent, as I love both the character and actress Katherine Langford, I did feel that her story (or at least the story of her suicide) was complete. I have no problem exploring different (hopefully happier) parts of her life, but I can’t imagine what other sordid details are left to be discovered about her suicide. At this point I’m really hoping there are no major ret-cons, created just for the sake of having more story to tell. We shall see!