Samuel Brace on whether there are any reasons to watch Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why…
Yes. Yes, there are. There’s a few in fact.
In the latest of Netflix’s original series, 13 Reasons Why tells the story, based on a novel, of a young girl who takes her life, but not before making tapes of the reasons why she decided to do so. As you can probably tell from the title, there are 13 of these reasons, 13 people responsible, or that at least contributed to the action that this young girl took.
Hannah Baker, the girl in question, recorded these tapes, and then had someone distribute them to the kids involved once she had died. We experience her stories, her account of what happened to her, via the latest individual to receive said tapes — a young man named Clay, one of the kids Hannah deemed responsible for her own death. We follow Clay around his small town, around his school, as he listens to the tapes, and the awful actions — some much worse than others — that are found there.
It’s an emotionally powerful story, and 13 Reasons Why is a very well made television show. If you go into this thinking it will be some fluffy, young adult, light-hearted affair, then you will be sorely mistaken. This is a very uncomfortable watch, but also one that is immensely enjoyable; well… until it suddenly isn’t. More on that later.
13 Reasons Why does many things very well. It’s visually pleasant; that quality we’ve come to expect from Netflix original series is well and truly present here. As the show plays with time, showing the present day world as Clay sees it, and then drifting in and out of flashbacks as Hannah narrates her story, is handled well and never really feels overdone. There is often times when we see Clay’s past and present self in the same scene, always distinguished to the viewer however by a nasty cut he receives on his forehead. Its little tricks like this that help the viewing experience of this show along, an experience that looks as good as the subject matter deserves.
Perhaps Netflix’s premium product is their Marvel programming, shows that are all weakened by their notable pacing issues as result of their barebones plot. Thankfully, 13 Reasons Why does not suffer from this issue. The show moves along nicely, helped by the fact that each episode – while touching on all of the characters – focuses on one individual incident/person responsible for Hannah’s death. Each episode equates to one side of a tape, this gives the show a sense of variety, and urgency that is very much appreciated. With every instalment of this 13 episode season, the viewer finds themselves keen to know just what this person did, and how honest Hannah is being about what happened.
This sense of urgency is no more apparent, and no more affective, than by the very premise of the show. We know right from the start that this young girl killed herself, and the process of finding out why, and who is, or might be, to blame, is one that propels the show forward with every piece of the puzzle adding further clarity to the final picture of Hannah’s death. As a result, you’ll find this show as one that races along, touching on all the points you would want, without ever dallying somewhere that it should be leaving quicker. It’s a great experience, and the fact that the show has enough plot to see its season through is a lesson many –including Netflix themselves – could learn from.
However, what is perhaps the biggest success story of 13 Reasons Why, is the wonderful cast assembled, and the thoroughly enjoyable performances they give. With a show about kids, you are playing with fire in terms of acting ability and the skills of each individual to pull off the more serious subjects at play. The cast of this show however have zero problems with any of this. One wouldn’t be surprised to see this mostly unknown group all go on to have successful careers, especially the talented young actress that plays Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) — she is really the glue that holds the show together, though the actor behind Clay is no doubt the show’s heart. 13 Reasons Why is always at its best when Langford is on-screen, not only because her character is of course systemic to the show’s storyline, but because of the undoubted charisma she exhibits. Screen presence is a rare thing, especially for actors of a certain age, but Langford certainly has it. One suspects she will do quite well going forward.
And though the cast is truly excellent, the main reason to tune in to this series – a series that will no doubt remind gamers a little of Life is Strange – is just how well the most important moment of the show is handled, and the awesome effectiveness of it. We know from the start that Hannah Baker killed herself, but we don’t see the scene in question until the show’s finale. We build up throughout the episodes to this very moment, knowing that each tape played and ejected by Clay will bring us closer to the dreaded moment that this girl departed the earth.
One even starts to feel that we won’t actually be witness to the moment itself, but as the music stops, and Hannah sits up in the bathtub, razor blade in hand, we most certainly see it, and it’s awful. Perhaps one of the most unpleasant scenes you are likely to see on screens this year, the moment of Hannah’s death is painstaking and is making me squirm in my seat as I write these very words.
It’s not the blood, it’s not even the violence of the action — though that does play a part and is handled superbly — but the fact that we knew this was coming is what makes it so difficult to watch. Because we were witness to every incident that led Hannah to her death, because we were right there with Clay, a spectator to the cruel and even at times vile behaviour directed towards her, the stakes are incredibly high — even though we knew this was going to happen, that it had already happened, and that there was nothing any of us could do. Suicide is of course always a difficult subject, but 13 Reasons Why handles it as well as I’ve ever seen.
The effectiveness of this harrowing event — the climax of all that had come before it, the moment we’d been dreading and hoped could somehow be avoided — is massive, and it permeates everything around it.
Visceral might be the right word to use.
The show could have perhaps wrapped up a little quicker after this moment, once a few ends had been tidied, though it is understandable why the show would want to provide the audience with a selection of scenes that could lead to a second season. The show certainly deserves one, though I hope sincerely that it does not happen. This was Hannah’s story, her tapes have been played, and there really isn’t anything left to say. This was a fantastic set of episodes, a story that will resonate more with others depending on your life experiences, but one that regardless is just very good television, and one that is indeed worthy of your time. Don’t be put off by the teen drama label, its must much more than that, and is as pertinent as any adult drama you can find on screens right now.