Sometimes the stars align, and the perfect binge-watching scenario comes together— a Friday off, a rainy day and a new Netflix release. Oh, and the appropriate attire in the form of an unexpected gift. That was me last Friday with the release of 13 Reasons Why. The Selena Gomez-executive produced series was already on my radar, but this was the perfect opportunity for a binge.
The series is based on a book of the same name by Jay Asher, published nearly 10 years ago. Hannah Baker is a high schooler who commits suicide, but not before recording a series of cassette tapes identifying the 13 reasons she’s chosen to take her life. The reasons are essentially several of her classmates (and one other individual) whose series of actions in her sophomore and junior years combine lead her to this. Hannah has entrusted a set of tapes to Tony, a mysterious high schooler with seeming maturity (both physical and mental) beyond his years, and another set mailed to the first individual mentioned on the tapes who is instructed to pass it on to the next individual.
In the first episode we get scenes of high school students in class discussing suicide, as well as scenes from the past of the chemistry between affable and awkward Clay and Hannah. After school he finds a box of the tapes on his porch. Smartly, the series deals with the obsolescent of cassettes, by Clay asking his father for the thing that plays tapes and struggling to get it to play on the dusty boombox he finds stashed in the garage. Although Clay rushes to listen to the first tape, the structure of the series requires him to ease his urgency so that Netflix can drag the 13 Reasons Why out over 13 episodes (how convenient!).
As Clay slowly listens to the tapes (over days, weeks? Time is a strange thing in this show) he also discovers that others have already listened and are not keen on him listening. Clay is an outsider in this group. Even he wonders what he could have possibly done to be mentioned on the tapes— this “good guy” who liked Hannah as a friend and more, especially compared to the others on the tapes, some who have committed actual crimes.
Suicide is not the only serious issue the show tackles. Sexual assault, bullying, stalking, alcohol abuser— it’s all there, and in most cases, handled deftly. The 13 reasons vary in whether they affected Hannah directly or led to another action that did. But regardless, nearly every character involved is fleshed out so we can understand why they might have committed their action or how they have been impacted by the series of events.
Although some of the middle episodes do seem more like filler that could be combined into fewer episodes, and there are story lines that could have been left out (still confused about the character of Jeff), for the most part the series remains intriguing and keeps you guessing. The show really builds up the mystery of Clay’s inclusion on the tapes, and while the reason is underwhelming, it does show how seemingly inconsequential moments can mean more than you might realize, particularly for teenagers.
My main issue with the series is unfortunately the finale, which was a little bit of a mess. After dragging out for 12 episodes, the 13th tried to cram so much in, while ultimately leaving much unresolved for a potential season two (don’t do it, Netflix— this is not A Series of Unfortunate Events that I’d like to see more of!). Episode 12 leaves us with a cliffhanger indicating that someone has suffered a gunshot wound to the head. Rather than pick up here in the final episode, we begin with a few depositions from some of the students. This allows them to keep the suspense of who was in the ambulance, while gradually eliminating several possibilities as they appear.
Interspersed with the depositions we get Clay listening to the final tape, which leads him to the guidance counselor, Mr. Porter, who has appeared throughout the show but without being fully developed as a character (one scene at home that does little to give us much insight into who he is). We discover that Hannah visited Mr. Porter the day of her suicide in her final attempt to find an alternative outcome. Unfortunately, Mr. Porter is a little bit worthless. I had mixed feelings about this scene, but after having some time to think about it, I think it was handled well. Mr. Porter’s conversation with Hannah was uncomfortable and exasperating, but perhaps in a realistic way. How many of us remember guidance counselors who were inept at helping with any real issues students face? Clay confronts Mr. Porter about his conversation with Hannah (she had somehow managed to record their conversation). You do feel his pain as he realizes he could have done something, but chose to ignore the signs she was giving him.
My feelings are also mixed about the suicide scene. Ultimately, I think the show handled it well, if it went on a little longer than I would have liked. But this uncomfortable feeling I experience as I watched, is exactly how the series wanted me to feel. Suicide isn’t pretty or glamorous and in this case it wasn’t quick.
We also pack into this episode Clay getting a confession on tape from Bryce (which he puts on the final tape and gives to Mr. Porter), Tony giving a USB of the tapes to Hannah’s parents, brief scenes of other characters and possible set-up for season two to address a school shooting perhaps and fallout as the tapes are likely to be made public in the midst of the trial. It turns out that Alex is the student in the ambulance— although still alive. I didn’t expect all the story lines to be gift-wrapped and tied up with a bow, but setting up for another season is not what I wanted.
And that’s why I also have an issue with the final scene. Clay has asked gothic barista Skye (played by the daughter of Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick, Sosie Bacon) to hang out, and we see them driving away with Tony as an upbeat song plays. His attempts to suddenly want to befriend Skye are a little too on-the-nose attempt at trying to make another student feel they have a friend.
Overall, the finale and a few weak episodes don’t detract too much from the quality of the series. The cast is talented from newcomer Katherine Langford as Hannah, Dylan Minnette as Clay, and other strong, young actors in the roles of the teens. Kate Walsh as Mrs. Baker is the standout as far as the adults go (although most aren’t given as much to do as she has).
All 13 episodes of 13 Reasons Why are streaming now on Netflix.