TRIGGER WARNING. UPTO AND INCLUDING (BUT NOT INCLUSIVE)
Suicide, Rape, Self Harm, Mental Health, Abuse.
Please do not read further if this will affect your mental wellbeing.
If you’re an internet junkie like me, you’ll have seen several posts, write ups, statuses and more about this newest Netflix Original. 13 Reasons Why is an adaptation of a book with the same name, written by Jay Asher. I cannot say I have had the opportunity to read it yet as my first experience came from Netflix. I remember seeing a lot of people I knew writing mixed reviews about it, some praising others criticising. To the point where I felt I needed to see what the fuss was about.
For those who are unfamiliar with the program, it follows the story of Hannah Baker. Or, more specifically, the reasons why she ends her own life. Across 13 sides of tape cassettes. We see the events unfold in a mix of flashbacks and present day struggles, all whilst following our main guy, Clay. There are rules, anyone on the tapes must listen to them in full, else they are all broadcasted very publicly. The person on tape 1 gets them first, to then be passed through each person in the order they are mentioned. As time goes on we see the impact these revelations have on those held up for judgement in Hannah’s truth. Of course, we know the ending from the beginning, episode 13 contains Hannah’s awaited suicide, it goes on to loosely tie ends and almost immediately after the episode ends we are greeted with “Behind the Reasons” A short program on seeking help including the cast and crew.
My immediate reaction to this series was an uncomfortable one, I do not recommend binge watching (as I did) as you can imagine from the subject matter its an incredibly heavy watch, each episode is 50 mins long, with no real respite from the onslaught of harrowing events. I found my own state of mind slipping whilst watching, unlike other series there are no let ups, each happy moment we explore in Hannah’s life is bitter sweet, I found myself wondering how it will be ruined, or if the person showing her love at that moment, will end up being on a tape later on. Every moment makes you doubt and its damn hard getting through.
Having said that, the series tackles some strong issues and it certainly doesn’t pull any punches, seeing a series tackle rape, not only once, but twice was shocking. Not only was it shown almost completely in full, but what constitutes as rape was challenged, how some are deemed untouchable due to social status, whilst showing it can happen to anyone was a harsh reality to show a spotlight on. I personally applaud them for it. It is sickening to watch, I found myself shouting at my laptop on both accounts, crying for the victims without a care for their fictional existence. Because they are not fiction. This happens, this happens and it happens how they show it. People react the way they show it and I respect that no apologies are made for making it so tough to watch. I also note the considerate use of a warning before the two episodes in which this is depicted, specifying the warning of rape, something that was really helpful to prepare viewers for what they would be witnessing. A similar disclaimer appears at the very start of episode one, with suicide hotline numbers and encouragement to seek help if affected. Then one final time for the last episode, this time warning of scenes showing suicide. For all its faults, at least they tried to warn us.
Now to be fair, one scene I previously disagreed with, has changed my mind after viewing a second time. Showing Hannah’s suicide was heartbreaking, we knew it was coming, we even knew how she did it. But actually seeing it, watching her parents find her, seeing it all unfold is borderline torture. My initial reaction was outrage. How dare they be so irresponsible? Why create something of a How-To guide for suicide? Was this actually necessary being as we already knew it happened? Why show so much horrific detail? I was angry. I was upset and I disagreed entirely. It felt like they went too far, like it was all just for dramatic effect and viewings, but then I watched the whole series again, for the sake of this write up. I saw it differently, I realised that, in this society where Mental Health is either hidden away in a dangerous stigma or romanticised for people who think its “cute” to have anxiety or that suicide is “poetic”, seeing suicide in such a raw, messy and uncomfortable way was needed. It shows the pain of those left behind, it shows that its not easy, its not a “quick way out” and it certainly is not the “easy option” It tells people that it hurts, its unpleasant and it has no reward, that it is not the right choice. This hits home when her Mother finds her in the bath, due to running water spilling out of the room, the lighthearted questioning until she reaches her daughter. Then the panic, the shouting for help, all the time reassuring Hannah that she will be ok, the stress, the heartbreak and the realisation that it is already too late. The whole thing is incredibly acted. Its not dignified, it pulls no punches and it ensures we know just how harrowing it is. In short, it shows suicide for what it is. And I can’t see that as a bad thing right now. This is emphasised before we even see Hannah’s death, with Tony describing how he realised too late, how he saw her in the bodybag, her parents and the whole event immediately after. That he knocked on her door, whilst she was doing it-unaware of course. The whole series slowly adds snippets of information that make the scene itself so multilayered with emotion, its physically painful to watch.
As with any program, it does have its flaws, one line in particular did stand out to me. It comes from Skye, our Tarot reading slightly mean but ultimately harmless sub-character. When reading Clay’s cards he notices her self harm, reacting harshly to it she responds with “This is what you do instead of killing yourself. Suicide is for the weak.” Now self harm is a method of coping, it is not a healthy nor a correct one but unfortunately it is a form of release. It should not, however, be portrayed as what you should do instead. I feel that this line was delivered incorrectly, a subtle change of “This is what I do instead of killing myself” It makes it more of a personal choice as opposed to what is considered as the only other of two options. This could also have been neutralised by Clay offering a different choice, saying that actually whilst both actions are undeniably options, neither are the right nor best ones and that he could help her find safer ways to cope with her issues. Instead he just kinda walks off, to deal with his tape. The second part of Skye’s sentence hits me too, I don’t believe that suicide can ever be described as weak. It’s not right and perhaps using that word was supposed to act as more of a deterrent than anything, but to call the act weak when it takes so much anguish and pain to do, it just felt wrong to me, it felt like it was an unnecessary stab at those who have taken their own lives, like they weren’t feeling bad enough without being called out beyond their decision. I suppose this disagreement with wording is more of a personal thing, but it rang out to me, when watching with others I was surprised to note the sharp intake of breath they too had when the line is said, so perhaps its not just me?
One point I have seen voiced a lot in reaction to this series, is the opinion that it only shows suicide as an option. That it does not explore other methods of coping or other ways out for Hannah. This is something I respectfully disagree with. Hannah’s choice was suicide. It wasn’t the right one and there would always have been other choices for her, but as she didn’t see them her path led her to suicide. I feel that the other options are actually displayed by the other characters in the series. If we take Courtney, (Yes. I know, fuck her, right?) for example, she tells Clay how hard it was growing up with two Dad’s, how hard it still can be. If we take that, add the internal struggle of realising her own sexuality and the possible ramifications this could have on her life, plus the photo shared around school, with added guilt and panic from starting the rumour about Hannah. All ended with listening to the tapes and being held up for judgement by those sharing that truth. Feeling somehow responsible for another persons death… I’d say those altogether could easily have been converted into tapes in there own right. Instead, she busies herself with memorials and posters. She eventually tells her parents about her sexuality. She may not make all of the right decisions, but in a time of high stress, she chose a different option.
Another, perhaps stronger case of this is in Jessica. Her story is one of the most harrowing. Believing for months that you hooked up with your boyfriend whilst drunk at your party, to then find out that not only were you raped by a guy you had been hanging out with ever since, but your boyfriend knew the whole time and kept it from you. The rape alone could have been enough to cause Jessica to see suicide as an option, sadly many victims do. But when you pile on the circumstances, the people involved and the fact it was hidden from you? This is serious territory. When Jessica starts to wonder if the tapes are actually lies, we see a change. She starts drinking, smoking, skipping cheerleader practice and actively spending time with her rapist. She goes into complete denial until it is admitted to her by Justin, her boyfriend. So the drinking and drugs are not healthy methods either, certainly not ones to be encouraged and this is emphasised by the rather quick turnaround her life has, being benched from basketball games, grades failing and her general school life suffering. In the end she tells her Dad, or at least its heavily implied at the end of episode 13. This shows us another option. Its messy, and it isn’t advisable but it ends in her getting the help she needed. In a situation like that, it could have been quite easy for the writers to decide Jessica was not able to cope and decided to end her life, instead they had her self destruct for a while, to then seek help from her Father.
I do feel it is worth noting here that Hannah did actually try different options before suicide too, she tried the poetry club, she clung onto communications class. At the end of summer break she has a hair cut and tries to reinvent herself to give a more positive outlook, she reaches out three times. Once to Zach, a poor choice perhaps but she did it in the form of a letter, something he could have passed on to someone if he didn’t feel able to cope. She reaches out to Clay after the party, he misconstrues this as her creating drama out of the death of his friend. When in reality she was only thinking of not only what she witnessed, but the issues that happened between them. Lastly, she reaches out to Mr Porter. Which is dealt with in what can only be described as the worst student-teacher meeting in the history of bad meetings. I respect that he needed her to tell him more about her experiences for him to get authorities involved, but she said clearly about ending her own life. Which he decided not to act on. Now there will always have been more choices, her parents, her friend who moved away, hell, Tony would have listened. But we only see the choices we feel are available to us, the truth here is she explored the avenues she felt she had. When they all went south she went to the only one that made sense anymore.
Something that sparks my interest and pushes my admiration for this series is its unbiased coverage. By this I mean we have a mix of people, some truly hurt by Hannah’s death, some jumping on it for attention, (the two girls posing for a selfie at her memorial locker. I believe the # was Never forget?) others see it as attention seeking. That Hannah was just a silly kid who killed herself for the attention. Others feel responsible regardless of tapes. We see opinions change as spotlights are thrown on individuals. As people are held accountable for their actions we see their minds change. Some defensively whilst others start to carry more responsibility than they needed to. each different response mirrors those in reality. We see people blame those who end their lives, calling it selfish and attention seeking. We see people reach out to help those affected. We see all walks of life react to the same event and in completely different ways. 13 Reasons Why does the same thing. It is hard to over dramatise the reactions of people who would be affected by such a thing, regardless of their attachment to the deceased. Realistically I don’t think any of us know how we would react, what we would do or how we would see it until we are in that position, something I hope we never have to be.
My last point is in the form of a grateful applause, heres to you, Netflix. For doing something no one else does. I touched on this briefly earlier but have decided to praise it further, your use of warnings. We are given hotline numbers and offers of support before we even start, you give us plenty of notice on episodes 9 and 12 for rape, with the final suicide warning on 13. In the UK we have soap operas. Dramatised day-to-day productions that are on most days of the week. These like to go for dramatic storylines every now and then, they have indeed covered rape numerous times, they have covered murder, suicide, and pretty much every other harrowing event you can think of. Granted, not in as much detail but enough is implied for you to seriously get the message, sometimes less is more and we end up feeling worse due to lack of visual representation too. We get a hotline afterwards. After we are possibly affected we are told if you are we can help. Sure, its better than nothing but the heads up would be nice! Sometimes an announcer might mention an episode is not suitable for children, but there are no specifics, nothing to help us gauge what triggers may be hit, until its too late. Films are even worse! They have a certificate rating but thats it, no indication as to what will happen until you’re there, with extreme cases of upsetting material I feel this should be shown. It takes 2 seconds to whip up a slide on powerpoint saying the same as the featured image I have used. Sure you could use the argument of “so many people get upset by so much we would have to warn for everything” I get that, really I do. But if Netfix can use its judgement I don’t see why others can’t. Its something I know I was grateful for and I am sure others were too.
It is really hard for me to decide whether I like this series or not. I think it’s impossible to enjoy given the subject matter, but it pushes some serious issues in society, it deglamorizes suicide and mental health. It shows rape in the light it needs, that its not just a predator in the dark, its not just strangers, it can be friends, loved ones, it can be anyone. It shows that you can survive it, that some people do. Some people don’t. It shows the unbelievable attitude towards drunken rape, throwing a spotlight on “young men with potential” in high school and the almost untouchable power they are sometimes shown to have, something thrown to light in several court cases. It shows the impact suicide has on families and friends. It has started a conversation. From those who like the program and those who disagree with it, we have been thrown this line, to talk. To agree and disagree, to explore what mental health is to others and how we can support them. It pushes us to question society we live in, it makes us relate to situations Hannah is in, then to feel shocked that we do see ourselves there. Toilets covered in nasty graffiti? I am from the UK and this was the norm. This show has provoked people into talking about things that need to be talked about. If it took this to start that conversation then so be it. It makes us think before we speak, before we act. It encourages us to take that time to listen, to be a helping hand to someone, to be kind but to also understand that no matter how kind our actions, we are not in control of how other perceive them. That we can only do our best and to be held accountable when we have done all we can is unfair. I feel it teaches us to think. Regardless of our pasts, our experiences and our previous encounters, to see each person as a fresh page in a book, to remember our past but not live by it.
I believe I have come away with two very important questions not only for myself, but for others, those questions I will leave you all with:
Do you know a Hannah Baker?
Would you/will you save her?