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Thoughts After Bingewatching 13 Reasons Why (2017)

May 2, 2017

*Note: this was written at 2am*

10 hours ago and six episodes into 13 Reasons Why, I told my co-workers that it wasn’t a “good” show, it was just “addicting” and that people contributing to the hype were just confusing the two words. Here I type after a 7-hour bender with the credits of the last episode still freshly seared into the black of the television screen—Crying. Head swimming.—Utterly sad, heartbroken and yet satisfied at its ending. After the halfway point of the series, 13 Reasons Why morphed from being a trashy, guilty pleasure that I could put on in the background to something completely powerful and gut wrenching. It wasn’t just a teen drama written by hipsters with at times terrible acting and cringe-worthy dialogue. After completing all 13 episodes—hearing all 13 tapes from Hanna Baker— I am wrecked at its portrayal of being bullied, shamed and existing as a human being in this sometimes completely rotten world we live in.

I may still be riding the high associated with bingeing an entire series of a show in a span of less than 48 hours, but 13 Reasons Why was life changing. I confronted some hard truths of my own life while indulging in this series. By its end, I found it to be a truly mature, fully formed thought experiment that tells one hell of a story in complicated ways. It won’t do that for everyone who watches it. In fact, it’ll turn a hell of a lot of people off. That’s to be expected. Hannah’s cautionary advice and the circumstances that surrounded it didn’t even register long term for half of the people directly affected by her decision. Some of the characters resorted to the same negative patterns and degenerative decision making that placed them there in the first place being unable or unwilling to see the bigger picture and face the gray areas of being put in a moral dilemma.

Hannah Baker’s story of her suicide is hard to watch and can get all into the nooks of crannies of your head. At least it did for me. It’s latent with moral ambiguity— a moral quagmire if you will—that begs viewers to understand the truth in the spoken words that I initially scoffed at during the first episode: “There are 13 sides to every story.” Each person’s side is rooted in their own experiences, their own perspectives, their own truths. Understanding this reality is imperative to understanding the popularity of this show and why I found it to be so profound despite its amateur, and at times off-putting shortcomings.

My introduction to 13 Reasons Why happened on an airplane ride last month. While on the plane taking deep breaths to ease the anxiety that always seems to creep up while sober and 40,000 feet in the air, I noisily started ogling the computer screen of the preteen looking girl next to me. Tucked between myself and her mother, this girl watched back to back episodes of a show that I couldn’t take my eyes off. Like the tapes that Hannah passed around between 13 friends, lovers and enemies, this girl passively passed on this show to me as I did for my significant other who stayed on the couch for much of my bingeing a month later. I’m not gonna lie, Dylan Minnette’s face caught my eye first. There’s something adorably innocent about the actor that translates perfectly into his character Clay Jensen, the protagonist whom we experience these tapes through.

My odd cougarish attraction mixed with fascination at the soundless images of a dead girl on a gym floor in a pool of blood made me desperately curious to what the hell this show was and why this kid was watching it. Once off the plane, a gigantic billboard for the show with Minnette’s face welcomed me to L.A. on the way to my hotel. I finally remembered the show two nights ago and decided to put it on. Y’all it was bad. The first few episodes are cheesy and extremely corny at times. In fact, all of the characters were incredibly unlikable and nothing more than transparent clichés of high schoolers. It was laughable, but I couldn’t help but find it endearing and captivating. It was like Memento; although you know the ending, you’re just itching to go through the journey to see how it gets there. Patience is virtue.

Whether I was merely incepted or the progression of the show really does get stronger, following these characters and hearing their stories becomes grossly engrossing and devastating. I found myself gasping for air and trying to contain my emotions by tape 11. By this point, the show shifts in tone and style. It’s raw and painful and the full circle revelation of it all feels too much. I got to release a much-needed breath of fresh air thanks to my own desires and expectations by tape 11, but that air staled quickly and disappeared again as more revelations unravel and other character’s truths waft in. Saving someone is not always possible. Sometimes you can do more. Sometimes you’ve done all you can. Sometimes there’s nothing you can do at all. Hannah’s complications stem from all three.

It took 13+ people to push Hannah Baker to a place where she didn’t want to live anymore. Where every fragment of her life stop mattering. For a lot of people who exist in this world it takes a lot less. For others, a lot more. Hannah’s life was marred by typical teen angst and poor decision making on her part, like everyone who navigates through life. But her story escalates by each decision made by the people she surrounds herself with and the way she interacted with them or the things they said and did to her or the things she did or didn’t say to them. “Fault” is such a difficult, loaded word, one that is brilliantly explored in 13 Reasons Why. We often look for “faults” or scapegoats in any unpleasant situation. Sometimes a situation is nothing more than a chain of reactionary forces linking themselves to create a breaking point. No fault of anything, just the magnetic pull of a specific place at a specific time that leads to a specific situation.

13 Reasons Why highlights this fact while sprinkling in all the nuances of making “right” and “wrong” decisions. This show cleverly zeros in on all the gray areas and emotional turmoil that rises in any given circumstance. Above all, it’s a show that begs viewers to just take a moment to truly address how difficult life can be and how at the end of the day even if you can know what’s going on in someone else’s head, you can’t feel their breaking point or carry their weight for them. Maybe it’s because they didn’t speak up. Maybe it’s because you didn’t listen. Regardless, it’s hard to say that it’s one person or 13 people’s “fault.” Even the designated “worse” person of the show is shown to be more than a one-note bad guy. There’s more to them than we may be willing to accept.

There is a lot of backlash against 13 Reasons Why and I completely understand it. The issue of suicide and rape is polarizing, one that will jolt strong emotions from viewers and unfortunately trigger many. Criticisms of the series range and some are reasonably explained here (warning: spoilers). While the writer’s qualms are completely validated, I admit that I don’t align with these points raised as I interpreted the series much differently. I mostly disagree with the argument that the show allows Hannah to blame the 13 people for her death, thus taking the agency and responsibility away from her.

In essence it does seem that Hannah attempts to do this does this, but the show doesn’t allow that to be the entire narrative. Multiple times throughout the series, characters express how Hannah’s tapes are Hannah’s truth, not there’s. Some of her truths are complete misrepresentations of the objective facts at hand. Such is life. No one person is the reason, despite Tony’s abrupt revelation to a character’s that it is. Clay wisely admits in the end that everyone could have done more, but as Hannah even reveals to the listeners, sometimes the signs of suicidal tendencies look like nothing. Suicide can be a blameless situation despite wanting to place fault on the shoulders of someone. You can’t save everyone, but the point of 13 Reasons Why is that it’s important to try.

We should all make the effort of being a support system to others once in a while. To take the extra 10 minutes to call a friend you haven’t heard from in a while to see how they’re doing. To truly hear and respond to someone’s drama even when you don’t want to. To communicate, let your guard down occasionally and let someone in. If not, we’re just repeating all the same mistakes laid out time and time again over the ages from societies who have already been there and done that. 13 Reasons Why is a reminder to viewers, a plead actually, to take the extra step and effort to be truly present and aware of your interactions with others and to realize when you need to ask help for yourself, sometimes more than you’re willing to.

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