You’ve likely heard the hype surrounding 13 Reasons Why, the new Netflix teen drama based on the novel of the same name that’s trending for its “gritty” and “real” depictions of assault, bullying, and suicide. Set at the fictional Liberty High School, we follow student Clay Jensen as he listens through thirteen cassette tapes that his dead friend Hannah Baker left behind. Thirteen reasons why she chose to end her own life. Thirteen people’s contributions to her death––including Clay’s own hand in the matter from Hannah’s perspective. There are graphic depictions of sexual assault and, in the final episode, of the suicide itself.
The show has been met with equal praise and disgust, and I can honestly say that overall, I’m in the middle. The acting was decent for a bunch of newcomer kids. The writing was solid (for a teen drama). The cinematography was surprisingly good, too. The biggest standout of the show to me, actually, was Kate Walsh as Hannah’s mother. Her subtle performance was the most “real” thing about the show to me––I loved every minute she was onscreen. I also related to Hannah. I related to a lot of the main characters for various reasons, and I felt for them. A good show does that effectively and effortlessly, and it uses those characters and their stories to effectively showcase the show’s main message.
13 Reasons Why almost achieved that. Until the very last episode. For me, everything the show attempted to stand for fell apart after that.
It’s not really a secret at this point that I need some daily help to get by in the form of medicine. Most people do. In fact as of last year, 1 in 6 Americans take antidepressants and other medicines for psychological disorders to get by. Life is stressful and wonderful and sad and fantastic, and if you need help being okay through all of it, that is not your fault. It’s not anyone’s fault. It’s a literal chemical imbalance in the brain. No strict talking-to or desire to “get over it” will change the science.
Clinical depression is not something to be ashamed of. It is something to try and work through as best you can, and it’s all you can do.
I had not read the book version of 13 Reasons Why before diving into this show, so I had no previous investment in the story. I was simply drawn in by the hype. But while I started the show relatively complacent, I finished it angry.
I’m not writing this to make you feel uncomfortable. I’m not even writing this as an overall review of 13 Reasons Why, which is much more on-brand for this blog.
I’m writing it because it is, as the show calls it, “my truth.”
And I refuse to let it align with the message 13 Reasons Why sends about suicide and its aftermath.
*There are major spoilers and disturbing/triggering topics discussed ahead. You’ve been warned.
You’ve probably also heard about the suicide scene in the final episode of the season. This blog post isn’t necessarily meant to criticize how the moment itself was handled. It was meant to make the audience uncomfortable, and that it did. But the scene is exactly wherein my problems with the show begin.
In the last episode, the audience watches Hannah slit her wrists. We see the blood gushing from her veins into a tub of water. All the while, Hannah––played brilliantly here by Katherine Langford––is gasping for air she can’t find. She’s a strange combination of terrified and resigned. It’s a feeling many of us know all too well.
The next time we see her, she’s dead in the tub.
As I expected it to, I think the scene will haunt me for weeks. Perhaps the showrunners wanted that. I’m almost sure they did, considering they apparently ignored the advice of therapists and psychologists by showing and therefore sensationalizing the act onscreen. The trigger warning at the beginning of the episode does not exaggerate.
To me, the scene is an attempt, while extremely triggering, to show people who perhaps can’t fathom such a thing what mental illness can drive a person to do––but here’s where it gets messy: the phrase “mental illness” is never actually spoken on the show or ever truly addressed to a point where someone who is having suicidal thoughts might know how to reach out for help. Hannah herself, while grappling with so much pain, doesn’t understand that her thoughts and actions are manifestations of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and anxiety, because how would she know?
One might argue that Hannah’s ignorance, her parents’ ignorance, and Liberty High’s ignorance to mental illness is intentional, and perhaps it was written that way to show that education on the matter is important. But a show that is meant to bring awareness to mental health issues cannot simply conveniently ignore the reasons behind suicide for the sake of a dramatic story.
Ironically enough, Hannah’s “reasons” for killing herself aren’t reasons. They’re presented instead as merely personal vendettas against other kids, whether warranted or not. The reason behind the reasons––the kind of social anxiety and depression that can make you feel life is not worth living because of something as seemingly mundane as your friend leaving you for a new crowd––are never explained. Hannah’s often irrational thinking is never called out for being a sign of depression.
To me, this means show emphasizes the act of suicide itself, not its causes. And viewers who can’t understand it are left no wiser than they were when they pressed ‘play’ on the first episode.
This casual dismissal of mental illness contributes to the overall message the show sends in the end. It’s pretty deep. Wait for it:
The show claims it wants to help teens and people who are suicidal, depressed, or have experienced bullying or sexual assault by being as frank about the issues as possible. But I would argue that the show ends on a tone of hopelessness that completely negates the showrunners’ goals.
Admittedly, a lot of good things come out of Clay’s decision to share Hannah’s tapes with Mr. Porter, the school counselor, in the end. Bryce, the student who assaulted both Hannah’s friend Jessica and Hannah herself, confesses to his crimes, and we are to assume he will be thrown in jail for the pain he caused Jessica, Hannah, and likely many other girls. Jessica herself finally tells her father about the trauma she’s experienced; Courtney comes out to her parents. And Clay, as he drives away in the last shot with Skye, Tony, and Brad, finally starts to move on.
But the show clearly sets itself up for a second season. It’s a classic silver-screen moneymaking move. And hidden behind the apparent resolutions of some characters’ arcs are foundations for the disturbing paths of others’.
Tyler is planning a mass shooting. Alex is likely dead. What message does that send to high school kids? To anyone? Co-producer Selena Gomez specifically says that “we wanted to make something that can hopefully help people because suicide should never ever be an option.” Yet, at the end of the show, history seems to have repeated itself: Nobody has learned to be kinder or more empathetic towards their peers. They ignored Alex Standall’s clearly suicidal tendencies (Remember the pool scene?) to a point where he shot himself in the head. They ignored Tyler’s cries for attention to a point where he reveals a chest full of guns in his room at the end of the final episode. Essentially, harming oneself and/or others seems to be the only way to make a statement at Liberty High School.
And as someone who has experienced it, being essentially told that nothing you do matters, that people will always treat each other terribly and you just might have to die to get the attention you deserve, is the worst thing a depressed person can hear. Providing no resolution, no semblance of hope, sends an awful message to people who feel or have felt as Hannah did.
Hannah Baker kills herself, and the show essentially sends the message that kids who feel that way have no alternative. Being nice doesn’t matter. Reaching out to those in pain doesn’t matter. People will die anyway. You may as well die anyway––if you want the proper attention from those who have wronged you, that is.
Nobody wants a completely bow-wrapped ending. But in handling subjects as delicate as depression and suicide in media, you have to provide at least some potential answers. While it is indeed crucial to depict the true horrors of suicide, bullying, and sexual assault, it’s just as important to advocate for how we, as humans, can work together to ensure we prevent these things to the best of our ability.
What if, instead of Alex’s story ending with the principal announcing he’s shot himself in the head, we saw him go to a successful therapy session? What if we saw each of the people on Hannah’s tapes actually talking to and becoming a support system for each other, instead of vaguely disappearing from each other’s lives after Clay passes on the tapes? The only semblance of this we see is Clay reaching out to Skye, who we know from the episode prior has begun self-harming. But we don’t get any details about their interactions or even an idea of what reaching out to someone in that much pain might look like.
The ending brought me back to how hopeless I have felt in the past. How hopeless I know Hannah felt, and how millions of people feel every day.
A show that is supposed to bring awareness to a serious problem should not leave anyone feeling this way. To provide awareness means to provide potential solutions, to spell out explicitly why someone like Hannah would do what she did, and to truly delve into her mind without holding back. 13 Reasons Why never once does this.
In Conclusion: 13 Reasons Tries and Fails.
I have depression. I have experienced self-harm firsthand.
And I took no comfort in the show. I reached no point of catharsis. Mostly, I was just mad. I was angry that the mental illness that lead to Hannah’s decision was brushed aside in favor of shock value and teen drama. I was angry that the whole point of the show––reaching out both to help others and help oneself––was entirely abandoned as Alex and Tyler met their own terrible fates under everyone’s noses.
And whatever message 13 Reasons Why might be sending, however unintentionally, as someone with depression I feel it leaves out the most important detail of all.
13 Reasons Why could have done so much more to bridge the gap between those who understand depression––who experience it every day––and those who do not. A graphic suicide scene does not a powerful story make. Properly handling the aftermath? That is what 13 Reasons Why should have done. The power of Hannah’s story, I believe, lies in what happens after she dies, and the show fails to deliver here.
It should have shown kids that what they do matters––how they help each other (or don’t) matters. And that reaching out is worth your while.
Hope, when I was at my lowest, was what I was missing. It was what made me feel the way I did.
Ultimately, 13 Reasons Why illustrates the horrors of suicide without providing a basis for hope, strategies for healing, or depictions of real signs to look out for in yourself and in others to keep them from making the worst mistake.
And to me, that is more dangerous than not illustrating it at all.