Before I even begin this post I want to slap a big ol’ SPOILER tag right at the top. I am assuming if you are reading this that you either have seen the latest craze that is the Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why, or you absolutely just don’t care about what even happens and are reading this here for…a reason I can’t place. You were forewarned.
I had a professor in college that told me ad nauseam that the best endings should be “surprising, yet inevitable,” that every story, no matter the twists, no matter the turns, should conclude in a way that upends your expectations, but leaves you feeling as though the events of it all had found their way to the only possible conclusion. Those stories are best—arguably, I suppose—and I more often than I care to admit find myself measuring the things I read, the things I watch, the things I play with a checklist in mind, monitoring the narrative for the motivations and plot points, watching for how they tie up in the end, with an eye out for the loose strands that were left still dangling. I curse the moment that idea set in, but it’s made for a better understanding of what works and what doesn’t, why a story hits so well while another just doesn’t quite do it, and while I thoroughly enjoyed and applaud the recent hit 13 Reasons Why for the themes it sets out to accomplish, there was just something about it that didn’t set right, that was almost disappointing, despite what I think it does well.
You might ask yourself the why behind this post’s existence and here’s the reason: shortly after the Netflix adaptation of 13 Reasons Why hit, I began seeing the reactions ranging from “This is the second coming!” to “This is the worst thing to take up the pixels on my TV box!” to whatever else falls in between—most of it all landing in the middle. But there was a sort of consensus that there was something just not right about it all, that when the show ended there was an overwhelming feeling of disappointment hitting its viewers with the direction it decided to go in, and I land in that camp. But as I watched the show, I saw where it was starting to go wrong having known beforehand there was disappointment coming, and don’t get me wrong—13 Reasons Why does a whole lot right, but there’s a point of divergence between what it was trying to say and the story it ended up being that created a strange bit of dissonance in the season’s final moments.
Here’re the highlights:
13 Reasons Why is the story of Hannah Baker, a young girl, driven to suicide, who leaves thirteen recordings behind detailing the reasons why this happened. The narrative follows Clay Jensen primarily, a friend of Hannah’s, as he discovers the reasons he and a number of his classmates (and one counselor) were responsible for Hannah’s death. I set this up not because I believe you reader to be unaware of this base concept of the show, but to illustrate the beginnings of what this show is trying to express: that behind every action there’re consequences, whether they are direct or indirect, known or unknown—everything we say or do affects someone in some way. And Hannah throughout the show says as much. Not everyone is as “deserving” to be on the tapes as others, but they all contributed to this surprising, yet inevitable conclusion and are thus placed here.
But 13 Reasons Why (the show at least, I’ve never read the book) I think largely feels disappointing because it fails to make it clear exactly what it is trying to accomplish. The themes are apparent from the outset, but the entirety of it all is framed in such a way as to suggest some greater mystery. My early theories as to what was to happen upon the ending ranged from Hannah Baker still being alive to Bryce or one of the others having killed her and covered it up. I had crazier theories too, where Mr. Porter was a sort of sinister ringleader trying to…I don’t know, shut up the high school bunch or something all the way to a theory wherein Clay actually killed her, couldn’t remember, or actually didn’t exist at all.
Those theories though weren’t entirely me. Sure, I’m predisposed to trying to disprove as best I can the principle of Ockham’s Razor, but the show made several perhaps inadvertent attempts at making us assume something more. Did Hannah actually die? Did someone else kill her? Who’s Tony? Is he actually the guy he says he is and is Hannah’s narration actually trustworthy or is this whole story made up?
You see, even though 13 Reasons Why sets out to tell this tragic story of what could have happened had we all acted differently, the message gets confused behind layers of mystery that never actually pays off. Hannah does commit suicide. Bryce was the douchebag we all thought he would be. And while those moments are still powerful and effective, they feel disappointing, especially when compared to what could have been when you think of what they were leading us toward.
It doesn’t help either that the show does a poor job of adhering to the guidelines set out for suicide prevention. Death can be a sobering and reflective experience, but this story almost glorifies Hannah’s suicide, making her out to be this tragic beauty viewed more favorably and mysteriously upon her death than she ever was, or could have been, in life. I realize that wasn’t the goal, but I can’t help feeling that in trying to be painful and affecting to the viewer, the show runners perhaps accomplished something else than the goal they set out for—and did so irresponsibly.
I really enjoyed 13 Reasons Why, but I never felt as though it lived up to the expectations laid out by my college professor of being something that was surprising, yet inevitable. Because surprising, yet inevitable implies whatever surprises may or may not happen, whatever may come as the story wraps up, was bound to happen by the evidence laid out—and that wasn’t the case here. 13 Reasons Why sets up some thoroughly interesting and entertaining characters, but it presents itself very early on as wanting to be something other than what it is, striving to be something more than the themes it sets out to impart upon the viewer from the beginning, though it never actually achieves that. And while there are twists, there are surprises, they seem almost disappointing when compared to what, at least in my mind, it seemed like the show was building toward.
13 Reasons Why: not a bad show, but definitely not the show they made me think it would be.