Maybe this is a character flaw, but the fastest way to get me to watch or read anything is to threaten to ban it. When I heard that Netflix’s series “13 Reasons Why” was sparking widespread condemnation, I immediately investigated (despite previously having written off the show as probably worthless).
Well, for once, I’m actually not surprised this show has led to intense backlash. It’s too bad so many social conservatives burned their cultural capital on trashing Harry Potter, because now would be a good time to speak up. This story is a work of terrible ugliness veiled behind a bubblegum aesthetic, and anyone involved with its production who describes it as “sobering” or “important” is being fundamentally disingenuous.
“13 Reasons Why” picks up just after the suicide of Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford), as her parents and fellow students try to sort out the reasons behind her death. Abruptly, a mysterious package of tapes turns on her friend Clay’s (Dylan Minnette) doorstep. The tapes—recorded by Hannah just before her suicide—outline the “thirteen reasons” for her death: the thirteen people she blames for leading her to the fatal decision.
I’ll pull no punches: “13 Reasons Why” is a chick-flick version of “Saw,” draped in Anthropologie and set to pop music. The “Saw” horror film series centers on Jigsaw, a cunning villain who places his prey into Rube Goldberg-esque situations where they must suffer physically in order to preserve their lives. His goal? Convincing them to repent of their wicked, self-serving lives. Despite killing off Jigsaw in the third installment, the series kept on going via flashbacks and Jigsaw’s increasingly convoluted scheme of postmortem plans. That’s exactly how “13 Reasons Why” works: Hannah executes a crafty series of mind games designed to inflict excruciating pain on those she sees as her tormentors.
And what makes “13 Reasons Why” so insidious is the fact that it’s compulsively watchable, a devilishly tangled mystery that unspools bit by bit. I didn’t want to keep watching, but I could hardly help myself. That said, compulsively watchable doesn’t mean good: the series turns on endless, increasingly ludicrous plot contrivances that defy all credulity. A pitiless depiction of rape—the series’ second such scene—is rendered even uglier by the sheer outrageous implausibility of the circumstances leading up to it. But it’s just one of many moments of unearned darkness in a show that tries very hard to be Serious and Relevant.
Upon reflection, it’s very hard to see Hannah’s story as anything other than an exercise in cold, calculating malice. Early on, the series introduces an assortment peripheral characters who only recur briefly and who seem to have very little culpability in Hannah’s death. Full episodes are devoted to Ryan, a quirky gay poet whose only sin is a mild literary indiscretion, and Zach, an essentially good-hearted basketball star who awkwardly attempts to ask Hannah out. Even more unconscionably, Hannah makes Clay suffer through eleven tapes before finally revealing that no, he wasn’t to blame at all, and she just wanted to make sure he had all the information about her death. (Let’s not pretend that the exercise of awaiting your own evisceration by Hannah, wholly apart from whether or not it happened, could be anything other than psychological torture.) And hours before committing suicide, she sneaks a hidden microphone into the clueless school counselor’s office to ensure there’s a complete audio record of his ineptitude. Despite claiming to care about nothing, to feel depressed, and so on, Hannah’s clearly obsessed with one thing: making absolutely sure everyone around her will suffer as much as possible. The show isn’t depicting depression; it’s depicting something closer to sociopathy.
But let’s set that aside: perhaps I’m being too uncharitable. Hannah does face hostility at school, and she is victimized—brutally—whether or not that sequence feels nastily contrived from a plot standpoint. The worst thing about “13 Reasons Why” is that it absolutely, unquestionably, glorifies suicide as a necessary and proper resolution of problems.
By situating Hannah’s suicide as the climactic event of the series, the linchpin of the final episode, the writers depict it not as an avoidable sorrow. Instead, it’s plainly cast as a final, triumphant act through which Hannah reclaims her dignity and exacts her revenge. As she resigns herself to the task at hand, a razor blade poised above her flesh, the mood is positively expectant, not tragic. Do it, Hannah, something whispers in the background of the show. Be strong enough. And her end itself—floating away into darkness while blood fills the bathtub around her—is portrayed as positively serene. No hangings, pills, or bullets for Hannah: only that which stirs up maximal pathos, a vision of beauty lost too soon. These images are juxtaposed against the “pieces falling into place” scenes that come at the end of every whodunit thriller, making it quite clear that through her suicide, she “wins.” Her enemies are laid waste, secrets and lies are exposed, and the world can be made right again. Blood atonement, if you will.
At base, the toxicity of the series isn’t found in its subject matter, but rather its presentation. This is a slickly produced, eminently accessible, Disney Channel-styled teen show that demands nothing of its viewer save total absorption. That should concern anyone who cares about the healthiness of our popular art. In lieu of moments of silent sadness, reflection, and alienation—moments that might’ve driven home the seriousness of the stakes involved—viewers are treated to endlessly crescendoing energy, suspense, and high melodrama. I don’t like the fact that I didn’t want to stop watching the morbid scenes unspooling on my screen. Something here is poisonous and rotten.
Make no mistake: “13 Reasons Why” is none other than a grotesque apologia for a culture of death. Don’t waste your emotional capital.