13 Reasons Why: Reflection #1 – Why so popular?
After watching 13 Reasons Why, there is much to be said about this wildly popular and controversial show. I will attempt to share some reflections in a series of posts over the next couple of weeks. I will link to other articles as they are published. Be warned, spoilers and tragedy ahead.
Reflection #1 – Why so popular?
If you haven’t heard of it by now, you are either completely disconnected from social media, living under a rock, or have no real presence in the world of teenagers. The Netflix original series 13 Reasons Why (based on a book of the same name) is easily the most popular show online and is one of the most trending conversation pieces on social media and in the blogosphere. It is the talking point among young people. And as a pastor who works with young people, I decided to sit down and watch the show for myself so I could be part of the discussion.
First, the premise. 13 Reasons Why centres on main character Hannah Walker, who we are told up front has committed suicide. Through a series of flashbacks, the show traces Hannah’s various troubles as a high school student that eventually lead her to take her own life. Along the path, many different friends, bullies, and even school faculty are drawn into the web of events that eventually cause Hannah to feel as if life can no longer go on. To be clear, the show is directly centred on suicide. It is not a side issue, but the issue in the show.
The plot twist that makes the premise even more troublesome is that, prior to killing herself, Hannah records a series of 13 cassette tapes, each addressed to a specific individual whom she blames as part of the reason for killing herself. Through the tapes, she tells the story of how each person contributed to her misery, and how these events connected to each other. She also demands that each person included in the tapes take turns listening to all 13 of them. In this way, many people’s secrets are revealed and a web of sin is spun that entangles them all. Oh, and one more thing. Hannah has given a second set of tapes to a trusted friend. If the tapes are not passed along to each person to be listened to, this confidant will release the spare ones to the public, so that every wrong that has been done to Hannah will be blown up for the world to see.
Though Hannah is the main subject of the flashbacks, the show’s present-time storyline revolves around Hannah’s former best friend and eventual crush Clay Jensen. Clay, unlike most of the guys at the school, is quiet, unassuming, and kind. He doesn’t appear to care much for popularity and isn’t chasing after girls left and right. Clay is particularly distraught by Hannah’s death and struggles to sort out why she did it. As one of the last recipients of the tapes (after they have been listened to by several others first), Clay bounces back and forth between going to the police and feeling pressured to keep the secrets under wraps. At other points he gets revengeful towards those who have hurt Hannah, and it becomes an internal struggle to know what the right next step is. Does he honour Hannah’s wishes by keeping things hush? Does he seek justice against those who have wronged her? Is he willing to risk going down in flames with those who also are named by Hannah in the tapes?
This show is really hard to watch. I did not watch it for entertainment purposes, and I would not advise anyone else to do so. Though very well done and very engaging, the storyline is extremely disturbing, and the content even more so. Included in the 13 episodes are a constant barrage of filthy language, sex, drinking, drug use, violence, theft, bullying, self-injury, sexual assault, rape, threats of murder, and in the show’s climactic scene, a horrifically graphic depiction of Hannah slitting her wrists in the bathtub. The camera does not pan away from any of these events. I had a really hard time watching the show, and there were a number of times when I had to avert my eyes or simply fast forward through parts. It’s not at all the kind of thing I would normally watch.
Despite all of this, 13 Reasons is wildly popular, especially among young people. What is it that draws such attention? The reason I believe is that the show’s content hits close to home for many teenagers. It is not a cheesy portrayal of high school life as many movies and tv shows are. Rather, it is raw and real. No topic is off limits, and sensitive subject matter has no bounds. It is in your face—and in that sense, it resonates with many high school students. Hannah deals with a lot of things that are common in high school, and many teens can likely relate to her. If not to her, it is not hard to relate to at least one of the characters in the show. A diverse group is included in the central plot line and therefore the content of the show comes off as being very real. In short, young people emotionally connect with the show because it cuts to the heart of what they are already facing.
This is both good and bad. The producers of the show make no qualms about their goal: they intended to create a product that would force people to talk about suicide and the harshness of teen life. They wanted to make it impossible for people not to talk about it. Well, objective achieved. The show is on everyone’s radar now, but I can’t help but wonder, is that good or bad? On one hand, it creates a great opportunity to talk about a subject that is still seen as taboo in many places. On the other hand, one might argue that the show does not provide a clear enough solution to the problem. After all, Hannah does kill herself. There is no happy ending. While the show intends to move the viewer towards learning a lesson from this tragedy (ie. how we treat people really matters), it might be just as likely to entrench a person in the mindset that there is no hope out there.
At the very least, the subject matter is on the table; of that there is no denial. Some might find it too sensitive to touch, but I beg to differ. The fact that this has come to the forefront of the discussion means we have a great opportunity to talk about these issues and provide care, support, and solutions. And though the world of 13 Reasons is a really dark one without a simple, clean-cut conclusion, that actually can aid the conversation. Life doesn’t always work out smoothly. Real life is complicated and messy. But unlike what Hannah ultimately determines, there is still hope in the midst of the pain.