13 Reasons Why: Reflection #5 – Not escape, but revenge
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 #5 – Not escape, but revenge
Hannah Baker thought she just couldn’t take it anymore. She had suffered enough disgrace from her fellow high school students and was ignored enough by the adults in her life that she decided to end her own life.
Hannah’s suicide is troubling enough. Any time suicide is portrayed in entertainment media it is a dicey thing. There are always concerns that those who are struggling with suicidal thoughts in real life might accidentally be encouraged to take their own life because of the example of another, even if that person isn’t real. 13 Reasons Why has surfaced such concerns. Hannah is a very likeable character, and some of her experiences are not all that uncommon from that of real life teens. It is conceivable that some 15 year old girl out there somewhere will watch the show and relate to Hannah so much that she decides to follow the same course of action.
This, however, is not a concern unique to 13 Reasons Why. Copycat behaviour of any kind can surface from a number of places and for a number of reasons. What is even more concerning to me is not only that Hannah Baker killed herself, but how she did it. I’m not talking about the stomach-churning razor blade scene in the bathroom though. I’m talking about the tapes.
As I covered in the first article in this series, Hannah records on 7 cassette tapes the 13 reasons why she has decided to end her life. Each side of a tape is devoted to a specific person who was a domino in the line that led to her fateful choice. These tapes, where she reveals these people’s sins against her, are intended to be passed around to each guilty party so that they can all listen to how they are collectively responsible for her death.
Copying a suicide is one thing—and unimaginably tragic at that. But to copy something like the tape scenario would be even more sick and twisted. In the show, Hannah claims not to have evil intentions with the tapes. And, to be sure, she is exposing evil that was done against her. But make no mistake about it, Hannah’s suicide is not just an act of escape—it is an act of revenge.
Hannah knows what the tapes will do to her classmates. She instructs the listeners to keep the content of the tapes private. Why? The only reason can be to inflict personal torment on her former friends. She desires for them to feel the full weight of their guilt and have no way out. She doesn’t really call them to change or to redeem themselves. She simply wants them to know that their actions made her want to die…and they are stuck to live with that forever.
There’s no doubt that many of the characters in the show should feel guilty. They wronged Hannah, and in some cases in horrific ways. But Hannah is not interested in their redemption. She is not really interested even in justice. Rather, she wants them to suffer like she did.
I seriously fear that some people who watch 13 Reasons Why might be influenced to copy Hannah’s actions. It is not uncommon to leave a suicide note, but Hannah does more than that. Her tapes are more than a record of why she did what she did. They are not even meant to explain things to her family. They are for no other purpose than getting even with those who hurt her. Her suicide is tragic enough, but the tapes make the whole situation an unimaginable monstrosity. Heaven help the family and community that ever has to endure in real life what this show portrays in fiction.
Not only did Hannah not have to kill herself, she also didn’t have to live in bitterness towards those who wronged her. There was another option. Hannah could have chosen forgiveness. This does not mean that she should not have sought justice for the things that happened. Bryce should have had rape charges pressed against him. Sheri should have had legal consequences for causing the car accident that killed Jeff. Many students should have faced serious penalties from the school and parents for their bullying and hurtful behaviour. But even still, Hannah did not have to hold a grudge against them. In fact, doing so is one of the reasons she did what she did. In her mind, with forgiveness not an option, she had no other way to live in her world of pain other than to leave it.
Though the show is intended to help those who are struggling with suicide, I fear that it might do the opposite. A better solution to Hannah’s suffering is never offered in the show. There is no alternative route that is suggested. A discerning viewer might recognize that Hannah’s actions are not helpful, but younger, more influential viewers (who are the shows primary audience) might not have the maturity to see it that way. They might look at Hannah as a hero. After all, she took control of her own life, she refused to keep allowing others to define her, she found a way to end the pain, and even a way to get even with those who deserved it. It’s as if Hannah’s ghostly hand reaches out from the grave and clutches those who wronged her and refuses to let go. Even in death she has great power over them.I worry that some hurting young person out there will see that and want it for themselves.
Yet Hannah’s post-life influence on others does not bring life, but more death. All of those who contributed to her problems are crushed under the weight of personal guilt and turn on each other. In the concluding episode, Alex shoots himself in the head and Kevin is seen stocking up on guns as if for a school shooting. Netflix has recently announced that there will be a second season coming out, so it seems we are in for another twisted round of death and destruction at every turn.
There is a better way. If we all insist on getting revenge with those who wrong us, the cycle of abuse and pain will just keep going around and around. No one will really get the help and love they need. We will all be trapped in a net of our own making. But it need not be that way. Hannah didn’t have to keep suffering in silence, and neither did her friends. There is hope for all of them, and it comes in the form of forgiveness. If Hannah had forgiven her enemies, even if she still sought out justice, she would have been able to live with herself. Some of the bitterness and pain would have washed away, and she could have found a means by which to carry on. If Hannah’s friends received forgiveness, they might have found freedom instead of enslavement to their dirty secrets.
Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. (Ephesians 4:32)
The healing balm of forgiveness is not a magic cure-all for personal pain, but it can afford freedom to those who are otherwise trapped in bitterness or regret. But 13 Reasons Why does not hold out forgiveness as a viable option. It’s a shame, because it is the very thing that everyone in the show needed. We all need forgiveness first from God—even those among us who are the butt-end of bullying are sinners in need of forgiveness. And, as those who have been forgiven by God, we can in turn forgive those who have wronged us. The chain of forgiveness is the only thing that can sufficiently replace the chain of anger that binds each and every one of us.
If you are someone who can relate to Hannah, I am asking you to consider seeing her end as a tragedy to avoid and not a victory to emulate. There is nothing victorious about it. Hannah cut off her own future and any hope that resided there died with her. Hannah’s parents are left traumatized and scarred for life. The classmates are buried in their own guilt with no hope of escape. All that happened is Hannah’s pain was passed on, and even magnified, in everyone around her. That is not a good outcome for anyone. She may have sought to make things right, but everything went disastrously wrong.
Suicide is not the answer. Revenge is not the answer. Hope and forgiveness is the starting place to a life of healing and happiness. It might not come immediately, but better days lie ahead. Hannah’s story shows us that she was a hurting girl who was sorely mistaken about how to handle it. I pray that would not be the same for you or anyone else.