Why Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why” Missed the Mark

Disclaimer: This blog post will deal primarily with the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why and contains spoilers.

Trigger Warning(s): Mentions of depression, suicide, sexual assault, and rape.

One of the most popular series online right now is Netflix’s adaption of the 2007 novel 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher. I must admit, when I first heard that the novel was being brought to life to the small screen, I was excited. It’s been years since I read the book (I was probably 12 or 13 years old, so at least 5 years ago now), but from what I remembered, it was a book that I held deeply important. Perhaps my opinion on the book might have changed from when I was younger, but I know one thing for sure: I do not like the TV adaptation of the series. There are so many reasons for this as well. Many that I’ve had to sit on, discuss with others, and read other’s opinions and articles online to fully understand what I truly felt about this series.

For some context, 13 Reasons Why is focused on two main characters, Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette) and Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford), in which the latter has just died by suicide at the beginning of the series. Clay comes home from school to discover that a box of cassette tapes has been mailed to his front door, addressed to him. There are 7 tapes, with 13 sides recorded by the late Hannah Baker who informs Clay and the rest of us watching that each side of the tape features her encounter with different characters and how they contributed to her suicide. The series goes on to play these tapes for us and we watch both the past (as told by Hannah) and the present (as seen by Clay) unfold in front of us.

I’ll start with the issue that truly bothers me the most. 13 Reasons Why is a story about a girl who dies by suicide. Why then do we never talk about her mental health? Suicide is a huge topic in the world of mental health and wellbeing; so why does Hannah Baker’s mental state take the back burner through this whole series? Jessie Stephens says in her article for the MamaMia newsletter, “Bizarrely, throughout the entire series, 13 Reasons fails to even mention the words ‘mental illness’ or ‘depression’…It misses an enormous opportunity to open up a discussion about mental illness, which is a contributing factor in at least 90 per cent of suicides.” Somehow, we have a show that talks about suicide, but mental illness is never talked about, which as Stephens indicates is responsible for nearly all suicides. Isn’t that alarming?

13 Reasons Why misses a really important marker: it is not other people who cause someone to develop suicidal tendencies and ultimately die by suicide. In more cases than not, there is an internal, psychological problem. How can we address our teen suicide epidemic without once looking at the root of the issue? Yes, bullying is a contributor to suicide, but why? Because it influences the victim’s psyche, and there are so many more complicated issues in the human psyche that just weren’t addressed in the series. As Neha Shah articulates beautifully in her article for NewStatesman, “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.  Of course, bullying can be a contributing factor towards suicidal thoughts and behaviour, but it is wrong to portray it as a direct cause – a lazy and unforgivable simplification of the infinitely more complex nature of mental illness.” That’s not to say that bullying and the sexual abuse that happened to Hannah Baker are irrelevant, but rather, that we’re focused too much on what other people did to her, and less about how Hannah Baker actually felt because of the things that happened to her. Serena Smith writes in her article for The Tab, “We never really tap into Hannah’s psyche: she’s just a narrator. The result is that she comes off as an over-dramatic snowflake.” This becomes apparent when you watch the show. Hannah presents as a victimizer as we never truly understand her psyche. It appears like she blames people for making her life a living hell and that everything happens to her and she plays no factor in how sad, empty, and alone she feels. It’s hard to say, but many of the things that she says in her tapes (like rejection, rumors, etc.) happen to a lot of people in high school. But the fact is she was mentally unfit to handle what was happening to her. That’s not her fault.

But it’s not up to her to blame other people either. Of course, that’s not to say that what people did to her wasn’t terrible, but what’s the point in her recording these tapes and sending them to people after she’s dead? What can they do now to try and fix what’s happened? They can’t. They can’t do anything except bear the burden that they’re a reason why someone is dead. Is that fair? That’s the danger in not opening up the conversation to Hannah’s psyche. Suicide is not an issue that can be pinned on 13 specific things. We can’t plot a time line of 13 tapes that will lead us directly to why someone took their own life. There’s so many more complexities that just get completely shut down for the sake of a story. A story has a clear beginning, middle, and end. People’s minds? Their mental wellbeing? Those things can never be mapped out in a linear procession. There are so many things that contribute to suicide it’s naïve to think that maybe if these 12 people on the tapes had just been nicer to Hannah she wouldn’t have killed herself. Stephens writes, “[13 Reasons Why] sends the message that anyone who has been touched by suicide could and should have done more. As though the onus lies on the friends and families of the deceased.” And that couldn’t be farther from the truth. There’s so much more going on, especially within Hannah’s psyche, that was never spoken about. We can never be sure that if we had just been kinder to someone, they might not have taken their own life. It’s always good to think about treating each other better, but we can’t place guilt on people for the loss of others. What good does it do to blame any of the other characters for Hannah’s death? That doesn’t bring her back. That idea of feeling guilty for someone else’s suicide (as Clay does) is so problematic, and feeding into the idea that we should be doing more for others (not to be mistaken for actively trying to be kinder to each other) is extremely dangerous. As Kevin Fallon writes in his article for The Daily Beast, this blame game is a “misunderstanding of mental illness, depression, suicide, and…grief.”

Even more problematic than the silence on mental health in a show so deeply rooted in mental illness is the glorification of suicide. In the most obvious sense, Hannah’s suicide is incredibly, horrifically, graphic. We watch her slit her wrists and bleed out in a bathtub in the finale of the show. Quinn Keaney writes in her article In Praise of the Unflinching Honest Approach to Teen Suicide on 13 Reasons Why, “Anything less than showing Hannah’s death in all of its brutal, bloody reality would be a disservice to the character, the show, and its audience.” But I would disagree. There are so many ways that people die by suicide. Why did the directors decide on the most visually gruesome depiction at the climax of the entire series? In the original novel, Hannah is described to have “swallowed a handful of pills” (which Keaney herself acknowledges in her article 19 Big Differences Between the Book and TV Show Versions of 13 Reasons Why). Was that version not climatic or dramatic enough for the small screen? 13 Reasons Why takes the route I really wish it hadn’t. Hannah’s suicide, as much as they try to paint it as an ‘honest’ representation of what suicide looks like, is yet again dramatized and glamourized by Hollywood by making use of the flashiest, most visually stomach twisting way to present Hannah’s suicide out there at the most dramatic part of the series. Kayleigh Mcdonaldson writes for ScreenRant that the book is “an earnest attempt to tackle a very serious issue, but it’s plagued by the need to be dramatic in its storytelling, and thus sacrifices much of the nuance and compassion necessary to do the themes justice.” But I would say the same problem exists in the TV series, if not more for the visuals we get, and the differences seen from the book to the series in order to produce a longer story line that could potentially stretch into a second season. Because after all, this is a show produced by Hollywood that ultimately will generate revenue. Without the dramatics, it’s possible it won’t produce good results. But does that get in the way of telling the story properly? I would definitely say so.

Aside from that, I have to tell you, 13 Reasons Why is just too long. The book is less than 300 pages long, yet somehow, the series has been stretched into a mess that’s 13 hours long. Clay takes days to finish the tapes, but in the book he finishes them all in one night. Why? Because the series focuses on the characters left behind in present time, just as much, if not more, than they focus on the story Hannah is telling in the tapes. Personally, I found it unnecessary and at some points rather annoying. Lauren Chung writes for The Daily Cardinal, “…the audience [see] the duality and complexity hidden within Hannah’s stories. Viewers can now gain a more intimate understanding of the characters and their background stories beyond only what Hannah speaks of on her cassettes in the novel.” However, I don’t think that the stories behind all the other characters really matters. The whole premise of the series is that we should be nice to people because we don’t know what they’re going through, and the series attempts to show us what is going through the minds of Justin Foley, Jessica Davis, etc. etc. The problem I have is that I didn’t sympathize with the characters at all. When it all boils down to it, the show attempts to slather the characters with backstory to somehow ‘atone’ for their actions. Justin does terrible things by 1) taking non-consensual photos of Hannah and 2) letting Bryce take advantage of his girlfriend while she was drunk. But somehow, I’m supposed to feel bad for him and think “Oh it’s okay, I had no idea what he was going through!” when we find out he has a wrecked home life? I don’t think I’m heartless, and my heart truly broke for him in the exchange he has with his mother and her boyfriend, but does that really excuse him from the things he did to other people? No. Not really.

That’s not even my biggest issue. Let’s talk about who gets the tapes before Clay: Justin, Jessica, Alex, Tyler, Courtney, Marcus, Zach, Ryan and Sheri. That’s a total of nine people. That’s nine people that listened to these tapes, heard Hannah speak of not one, but two times that Bryce has sexually assaulted and raped two girls, one of which is Jessica, a majority of the teens’ friend, and Hannah, the dead girl they are literally listening to. And what do they do? They just pass the tapes on, keep their mouths shut, and do everything in their power to prevent Clay from breathing a word about the tapes to anybody. Why? To save their own asses and their own reputations? Because people will know the terrible things they did to Hannah Baker? They’re willing to sacrifice evidence on two rapes just for that? What kind of moral integrity is that? Am I supposed to just stand by and watch nine people cover for a rapist and then sympathize with them because of their backstory? I felt caught up in a soap opera every episode, where the characters whispering to each other about making sure Clay doesn’t leak the tapes for 45 minutes and then suddenly in the last 15 minutes we rush through what’s actually said on the cassette.

Alexa Curtis writes in her article for Rolling Stone, “We become captivated by the drama of the suicide rather than the actual suicide itself.” And that’s sad. 13 Reasons Why fails to really speak to the mental health/illness conversation in a healthy way. It glorifies the act of suicide in a frightening manner. Not only that, but it gets lost in the dramatics of what the teenagers do to try and prevent the tapes from being leaked to really speak to the real issue: Hannah Baker is dead. She died by suicide. And we will never get her back. Somewhere in her life she began to suffer. Her mental health took a nosedive, and none of the experiences she had in high school really helped with that at all. Not once did anyone offer any suggestion that maybe she get some help to get into a better place mentally. Her failed attempt at going to the counselor shows teens that that’s not where they can get any help, and doesn’t offer any alternatives for teens who need help. In fact, the glorified, graphic depiction of suicide basically gives teens the instructions on how to do it, should they feel like that’s their only option. And they should never feel like that’s the only option.

Most unsettling of all, when watching Beyond The Reasons, a half hour special episode where the cast and crew of 13 Reasons Why sit down for interviews to talk about the show. Executive producer, Brian Yorkey says something that I think is particularly problematic: “By the time we reach the last day of Hannah’s life she is completely depleted. It’s beyond simply being depressed; she thinks her life is worth nothing.” What does it mean to be “beyond simply being depressed”? Isn’t the most crucial, problematic part of depression that life feels meaningless? Suicidal thoughts are the byproduct of depression, how can we gloss over the ‘depression’ just to get to the suicide? How can I watch a show that is so heavily involved with suicide and mental illness when the executive producer doesn’t truly understand what it means at all?

I’m worried for youth that watch this show. I’m worried for youth that have been thinking about suicide and thinking that they too can get revenge and cause suffering for all those that hurt them by taking their own life. I’m worried for neuro-typical youth that watch this series and think that they could now tell you what it means to be depressed or suicidal. I’m worried for people that will now think they are responsible for other people’s suicides or that “being nicer” to people will cure the suicide epidemic (it will certainly help, but there’s so much more to it than that). I’m worried for how mainstream media will paint this show as a masterpiece for talking about difficult subjects like suicide, rape, and sexual assault just because they talked about it. Did they do it well? I don’t really think so.

Please please please, if you have been affected by this show, please get the proper help you need. I promise you that suicide will never ever be the answer to your suffering. And above all, remember, the story of 13 Reasons Why is fictional. As much as we analyze fiction and carry it into real life, stories can never truly capture the breadth that is the human experience. We can’t assume that the story we see is the only way that narrative can go.

Life may seem like a black hole you won’t get out of. But I promise you that you can. Never give up. I’m rooting for you. I always will be.

– Carole