REVIEW: ’13 Reasons Why’ is unflinching look at complex relationships (SPOILERS)

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“13 Reasons Why” (2017)

Michael Nied

(The following recap contains spoilers for season one of Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why.”)

What would you do if you received a message from beyond the grave? What if that message implied you were somehow responsible for the person’s death? What if that person was someone you loved?

This is a reality shy high school student Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette) is faced with when he receives a set of cassette tapes from his high school crush Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) after she committed suicide in the latest Netflix binge “13 Reasons Why.”

Based on Jay Asher’s 2007 young adult best-seller, Netflix’s show follows Jensen as he listens to Baker’s recordings that explain her state of mind.

Overflowing with vivid storylines and dynamic characters, “13 Reasons Why” tells the harrowing story of missed opportunities, the heartache of losing a loved one and learning to live with the guilt of letting someone down.

Ten years later

In 2011, Universal Studios procured film rights to Asher’s source material and planned an adaptation of the novel with Selena Gomez in the lead role; however, in 2015, Netflix announced that it planned on moving forward with an episodic adaptation of the novel with Gomez as executive producer.

Two years later and 10 years after the book’s release, the streaming service released the 13-episode series in its entirety on March 31.

The series stays relatively true to the premise of Asher’s novel: A little more than a week after Baker’s death, Clay comes home to find a box of cassettes on his front porch. The tapes were recorded by Hannah as a suicide letter and are addressed to the people who shaped some of the darkest moments of her life.

These people must listen to the tapes and pass them on to the next person. If they refuse, an unnamed third party (classmate Tony, played by Christian Navarro) loomed with the threat of releasing a second copy of the tapes to the public, making their involvement in Hannah’s death known to the world.

Clay is the 11th person to receive the tapes, and he listens with progressive horror as Hannah’s state of mind deteriorates with every story.

Fallout

Each episode of the show is driven by one of the 13 recordings and the person who played a central role in the experiences. The first episode is dedicated to Justin (Brandon Flynn), Hannah’s first kiss and crush after moving to a new town. The day after they kissed, Justin and his friends circulate a revealing photo of Hannah and imply she had sex with him, effectively damaging her reputation in a new school.

“FML forever,” Hannah and her two new friends Jessica (Alisha Boe) and Alex (Miles Heizer) say as they laugh off the rumors. As the three new kids in school, they develop a quick relationship over hot cocoa in a local coffee shop, but jealousy tears them apart and drives another wedge between Hannah and the rest of her high school.

With each new story, Hannah’s stories paint the picture of a girl struggling as her classmates look on. Every potential new friend turns on her, leaving her feeling more and more alone. Through it all, Clay, who developed a crush on Hannah after meeting her, remains on the fringe, watching as things break down.

Past and present become a confusing blur as Clay loses himself in the story.

It’s clear that Clay’s grasp on the present is fragile. While the rest of the cast is trying to move forward from the death, Clay can’t let go of Hannah’s memory. In the first episode, he’s haunted by visions of Hannah around school, and the moment he hears her voice on the tape, the flashbacks come more rapidly and the divide between past and present becomes more tenuous.

Grief, guilt and vengeance

Listening to the tapes is hard for Clay. He grieves for Hannah and is terrified to reach the tape dedicated to him.

As he struggles to come to grips with everything, the tapes’ other subjects do their best to ensure that their stories never see the light of day. Justin and his friends Zach (Ross Butler) and Marcus (Steven Silver) attempt to befriend Clay, and when their attempts are unsuccessful, a desperate Justin uses fear tactics to silence him.

In the fourth episode, Clay turns the table and exacts revenge on Tyler (Devin Druid), the school photographer who stalked Hannah and shared a second scandalous photo with the school. The tape brings Clay to Tyler’s window, turning the stalker into prey. Furious with Tyler, Clay takes a nude photo of him and shares it with the school to show him what it feels like to have private moments exposed to the world.

Interconnected

Hannah’s stories are all deeply interwoven and it’s shocking to see how each character is drawn into the drama.

Clay is blindsided to learn that Sheri (Ajiona Alexus), a cheerleader who has been kind to him, has a place on the tapes. Her story also has a larger impact than just upon Hannah. Driving home from a party, Sheri strikes a stop sign and abandons Hannah at the scene of the crime.

While Hannah looks for a phone to call the police, the fallen stop sign causes another accident that results in the death of a character close to Clay. It’s a scene that puts two deaths in Sheri’s hands and forces her to come to grips with the reality of one of the worst nights of her life.

Missed connections

At its heart, “13 Reasons Why” is a story about missed opportunities and the struggles of survivor’s guilt, especially the regret Clay feels for never telling Hannah that he loved her.

When he finally makes it to his chapter of Hannah’s tapes, Clay feels his actions are among the most unforgivable. Although Hannah says she doesn’t blame him, Clay regrets never actually telling her how he felt or providing her with the support she clearly needed.

“She needed me, and I walked away,” Clay cries out forlornly.

Standing at the edge of a steep cliff, Clay contemplates ending his life. The future seems unbearable when he is weighed down by his inaction. He steps back from the ledge and accepts the burden of his mistakes.

It’s then that he realizes he can pay tribute to Hannah by bringing her some justice. He is no longer focused on revenge but on righting wrongs and bringing peace and closure to other characters.

Irredeemable characters

Characters like Alex, Sheri and Zach are clearly guilty about their actions and apologetic for the role they played in Hannah’s life. Others like Jessica and Justin are tortured by the truth but can’t come to grips with it.

Some of the characters, though, remain unapologetic and refuse to accept responsibility for their actions. They’re irredeemably flawed and entirely unlikable as a result.

A student athlete with a position on student council, Marcus is more worried about damaging his reputation than about admitting his own flaws. His episode comes in the middle of the series and is less impactful. His character is so one-dimensional and his misdeed so minor in comparison to others that it drags the series out.

Several episodes in the middle feel this way. While the showrunners clearly delineated 13 episodes in homage to the show’s title and Hannah’s 13 stories, the middle lags as a result.

Courtney (Michele Selene Ang) is another character that behaves unforgivably and becomes insufferable as the series progresses. It seems Hannah has found a new friend in Courtney when they team up to catch Tyler in the act of stalking, but Courtney betrays her after Tyler captures and releases a photo of the two girls kissing.

“You don’t have to f*** with my life because you don’t know who you are,” Hannah shouts at Courtney for spreading a rumor about Hannah to hide her own struggles with sexuality.

‘Frat Boy Darth Vader’

Bryce (Justin Prentice), dubbed “Frat Boy Darth Vader” after his initial appearance in the series, is easily the slimiest character of the show. A senior and captain of the football and baseball teams, Bryce is present on the fringe in many of Hannah’s stories.

He took Justin’s phone in the first episode and sent out the photo of Hannah. In another episode, he grabs Hannah’s butt and makes lewd comments toward her. He’s always there on the side, and few of the other characters seem to trust him.

“I’m not friends with Bryce,” Alex says disdainfully in one episode, and in another episode Sheri warns Hannah away from the school’s star jock after they are matched for a Valentine’s Day date. It’s clear that Bryce has a reputation of treating girls poorly, but as the series progresses it’s clear just how awful he is.

Bryce provides his younger friends with drugs and alcohol. He welcomes them to stay at his house to escape from the reality of the world, but he expects things in return. Viewers learn just what he expects in return when he rapes an unconscious Jessica. Although she cannot clearly remember things, Jessica is haunted by the moment and avoids the trauma by hiding behind alcohol and drugs.

At another party he rapes Hannah, an act she claims broke her soul. In one of the most graphic scenes of the series, a struggling Hannah looks dead in the eyes as Bryce forces himself upon her. When Clay approaches him about it later, Bryce claims Hannah asked for it and that he did her a favor.

He is remorseless for his actions and doesn’t care what role he may have played in Hannah’s suicide or Jessica’s breakdown.

His character raises some question throughout the series. If everyone knows that he’s so awful, how does he continue to get away with it, and why do characters like Justin continue to enable his nightmarish actions?

Dark truths, hard questions

“13 Reasons Why” tackles a variety of difficult topics, including sexual assault, alcohol abuse and suicide, not shying away from the dark reality of these topics.

Hannah’s rape at the hands of Bryce and her suicide are two particularly graphic scenes. They’re so dark and triggering that they were preceded by warnings to the audience at the beginning of each episode.

The darkness in Hannah’s eyes after Bryce forces himself on her and her sobbing in her bathtub after slitting her wrists are haunting moments depicted in the most gruesome manner.

Although it would be easy to shy away from the reality of these atrocities, there’s no denying the stark reality or the moments. Both scenes emphasize the finality of the actions, and the unflinching depictions make it impossible to avoid.

Although there has been some complaints that the finale scene glorifies suicide, screenwriter Brian Yorkey explained why the series didn’t shy away from the scenes.

“We worked very hard not to be gratuitous, but we did want it to be painful to watch because we wanted it to be very clear that there is nothing, in any way, worthwhile about suicide,” he said in a behind-the-scenes interview.

Depiction of mental illness

Hannah isn’t the only character in the series to struggle with depression or abuse, and “13 Reasons Why” emphasizes the struggles and stigma of mental illness.

While alive, Hannah is viewed as a drama queen, and her depression is written off as overreacting by her friends and family. Her one attempt to reach out for help goes unheard. She dies feeling alone and let down by the world.

Jessica, Bryce’s other victim, battles with the implications of her rape and her boyfriend’s efforts to cover up the violence. She turns to alcohol and drugs to numb the pain, finally finding some redemption when Justin admits Bryce raped her. It is then that she throws away the alcohol that became her crutch, reaching out to her father to begin healing.

A larger impact

The series shows how Hannah’s suicide and the underlying fallout of her stories affect the town at large.

As a whole, “13 Reasons Why” sparks so many conversations and delivers subject matter that is essential viewing for adults and teens alike. The series stresses the importance of caring for one another and reveals the hardships that exist behind even the brightest smiles.

It’s a project that forces viewers to consider the hard reality of mental illness, loss, sexual assault and suicide, proving there’s no such thing as simple angst. Every moment in the series carries weight, and every action gives birth to an equally powerful reaction. It’s a reality that makes viewers face hard topics and stresses the importance of taking nothing for granted.

What’s next?

The series delivered an open-ended conclusion that could leave room for a sequel in the future, but Netflix hasn’t commented on whether it plans to move forward with a second season. If the team does, they’ll be moving into uncharted territory without any source material from Asher.

There isn’t really a happy ending to “13 Reasons Why.” The final moments provide Clay and Hannah with a sense of closure and justice, but so many other characters are still hurting, their paths unclear.

There are certainly stories that could be explored in a sequel, but in a way “13 Reasons Why” works much better as a stand-alone. Life is full of mysteries, and the unclear ending provides so many unknowns.

Maybe it’s better and more realistic that way.

Michael Nied is the entertainment reviewer, contact him at [email protected]du