Spoilers for the first season of 13 Reasons Why below.
Why did high-schooler Hannah Baker kill herself? This is the question 13 Reasons Why, the harrowing new Netflix series based on Jay Asher’s popular YA book, sets itself up to answer. “I’m about to tell you the story of my life,” Hannah (Katherine Langford) explains in voice-over in the first episode. “More specifically, why my life ended.” With that, we’re introduced to the show’s elaborate conceit: Before she killed herself, Hannah left behind cassette tapes featuring 13 recordings, each focused on one classmate whose actions — or inaction — pushed her towards her decision. Told from the perspective of resident class nice-guy and Hannah’s former crush Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette), the show jumps between present (as Clay, now the 11th person to receive the tapes, grapples with his own culpability and that of his classmates) and past (the events, large and small, that made Hannah feel her life wasn’t worth living).
But despite devoting 13 hours to the subject, 13 Reasons Why offers very little insight into the psychology of suicide. In a TV era that has been particularly good at using formally inventive storytelling to illuminate the subjective experience of mental illness — Lady Dynamite, Bojack Horseman, You’re the Worst, Fleabag, to name a few — 13 Reasons Why’s high-wire framing device works to keep Hannah at arm’s length rather than draw us into her inner world. The show dangles the interesting possibility that Hannah is an unreliable narrator, but instead of exploring the complex ethical and narrative implications of leaving a chain-letter suicide note for your classmates, we’re mostly encouraged to take Hannah’s words at face value. The only ‘reasons’ we have are the external ones that Hannah provides — as if suicide were the logical result of a tidy cause-effect relationship. Who was Hannah Baker before everything fell apart, and why did the particular cruelties of high school hit her with such irreparable force?
Which isn’t to say we don’t care about the character: Langford is a gifted actor who imbues Hannah with quirky vitality. Yet for a young woman ostensibly defined by her intellect and creativity, aside from a single poem published in a school magazine, we never really get a sense of what makes Hannah tick, or why she might be particularly vulnerable to the events that occur. We see her reacting to various horrible scenarios as they happen, but the show doesn’t explore Hannah’s suffering in the spaces between her 13 traumas.
Suicide might be the Big Issue the show sets out to address, in the grand tradition of teen shows — from My So-Called Life to Veronica Mars to Riverdale — addressing Big Issues. But the message the show really succeeds at conveying has to do with misogyny: how persistent objectification can erode a woman’s self-worth, and the many ways we fail young women by propagating a culture of silence. After Hannah is sexually assaulted at a house party, the school guidance counselor undermines her version of events and encourages her to”‘move on.” The show takes the many buzzwords currently swirling through the zeitgeist of American youth culture — toxic masculinity, rape culture, gas-lighting, cyberbullying, slut-shaming — and shows how they play out in school corridors, perpetrated by an array of complicated teenagers who transcend the usual locker-room archetypes.
In particular, the show is a remarkably layered depiction of teenaged masculinity, and the many forms of privilege that come along with it. Apart from Bryce, the beloved athlete who sexually assaults both Hannah and her friend Jessica, most of the boys are complicit in Hannah’s debasement in more subtle ways. Like Zach, the nice-guy jock who sets out to cut down Hannah’s ego when she turns him down for a date. (Hannah chides him from the grave: “You didn’t like that someone told you no, cause guys like you get anything you want, right?”). Or Justin, the sensitive screw-up from a broken home who fails to step in when Bryce — his best friend who shelters him when his mom throws him out, who gives him money when he can’t afford shoes for school — sexually assaults Justin’s sleeping girlfriend. Even Clay, our lovable audience proxy, can’t begin to understand what his female classmates go through on a daily basis. After Hannah finds herself the target of her classmates’ leering gazes after being awarded “best ass” on the school’s “hot list,” Clay does his best to comfort her. “You’re awesome,” he encourages. “I mean, you made the hot list.” We see Hannah’s face fall.
It’s also a story about the different coping mechanisms women use to bolster their self-worth in a world designed to cut it down. While Hannah withdraws after her rape, Jessica distracts herself with drinking and partying, drawing closer to Bryce instead of pulling away from him, as if trying to rewrite the story of her assault in retrospect. Meanwhile, as Clay sets out to avenge Hannah, we see him repeatedly turn a blind eye to his classmate and former friend Skye, on whom he never lavished the same amount of concern. “You changed, you used to be nice,” says Clay, by way of explaining why he started distancing himself her.
“We can’t all be nice girls like Hannah” Skye snaps. “I know she didn’t go through anything different than any of us, we all get through it.”
Clay grabs her wrist to reveal a line of razor marks. “Then what’s that?” he asks.
“It’s what you do instead of killing yourself,” she responds.
13 Reasons Why doesn’t take us inside Hannah’s mind, but it does invite us to step into her shoes and walk the halls where she walked. Throughout the series, there’s a constant low-level hum of objectification happening in the background — whispers in the hallways, graffiti on the bathroom walls, a jock pointing out a cheerleader’s breasts in the hallways — that comes to feel more and more suffocating as Hannah deteriorates. In the end, 13 Reasons Why is less about knowledge than about empathy: making us feel Hannah’s pain, even if we never fully understand her reasons.