I’ve held off writing about 13 Reasons Why for some time. Why? Well, you might be pleased to know there aren’t 13 reasons.
I was impressed with it immediately. My partner and I watched several episodes each time we turned it on, and we got so caught up in the characters and their story that we knocked over the whole series in a matter of a few bleary-eyed days.
At the end, when I was ready to sing the series’ praises from the rooftops, a friend posted an article criticising it for the way it portrayed its prime protagonist. That protagonist (there are two) is dead as the series begins, having committed suicide and left thirteen cassettes for her schoolmates, who she collectively blames for her decision to take her own life. My friend’s post was quickly joined by a cacophony of condemnation for this series that had seemed to me remarkable in terms of its quality of dialogue, characterisation and cinematography. These criticisms, all of which were centred on its sociological context rather than its dramatic qualities, seemed well formed to me at the time, and left me feeling disappointed—maybe even guilty—that I enjoyed the series so much. Some felt that Hannah (the deceased character) should have demonstrated an average of journeys to suicide, rather than presenting just one experience. Others felt that her portrayal of the act of slitting her wrists, and the very explicit nature of her suicide, was a bridge too far, and that the act of killing herself should have been omitted. And some were deeply concerned with the fact that Clay (the other protagonist) accepts her laying the blame on her schoolmates.
Having thought about it for quite a few weeks, I now believe these criticisms almost entirely unfounded. I regret being swayed by them. This is truly a masterpiece of modern television, one that deserves every accolade. Indeed, I think the criticisms themselves a testament to the quality of writing, directing and performance on display (there would be no criticism if the show didn’t make an impact).
I think one of the reasons I may disagree with the show’s detractors is that I am principally concerned with the dramatic art form, whereas they seem more concerned with the sociological effects of the work. While that is a noble concern, and one I share, a critique of an artwork must remain couched in the terms of the art form. We don’t assess psychologists’ performance based on the dramatic tension in the room as they work, or their ability to convince us that they care, so why would we assess a dramatists’ work based on the psychological health of the audience? The fact is, dramaticised stories don’t deal in generalities. Hannah could never portray the full gamut of life experiences that may lead a person to take their own life. Likewise, Clay could never portray the full gamut of responses to suicide. These are two specific characters, living in a specific context, and they tell a specific story. Generalities are tolerable in literature or the visual arts, but they have no place in the dramatic arts.
In the course of telling their story, they should prompt more general discussion, but it is not the role of a dramatic work to lock down our response to suicide (or any other social concern); rather, it is our role to open it up. And on this front, 13 Reasons Why performs brilliantly. The characters present a broad range of positions and opinions. Their reactions and responses are diverse. Some of them are positive and helpful, others are less so, and some are downright dangerous. And in presenting this range in an engaging and forthright manner, 13 Reasons Why has opened conversations, allowed us to make judgements and form opinions that we might not otherwise address.
Clay, the protagonist we follow throughout the series, is a brilliant composition. He responds from the gut, sometimes with emotional intelligence, other times without, but he is genuine and relatable throughout. This is a remarkable achievement. We can be frustrated by the foolishness of his response, or by the slowness of his response, but we can’t criticise him for being an automaton or a mouthpiece for a psychologist. He’s an adolescent character that rings true with our emotions and reflects our values.
Perhaps it is because Clay is the narrative voice throughout the series that some of the series’ detractors feel that he must be an omniscient presence. As if he not only knows everything that happened, but also knows how to resolve it in the best way possible. Clay, though, is an adolescent dealing with a deeply troubling event. His narration must be read as his thoughts, and nothing more.
And because Hannah also bears the hallmarks of narrator, through her tapes, she, too, can be mistaken for an omniscient presence. This is an equally errant reading: Hannah is even more compromised in her ability to assess the actions of others. her narration, too, is just her reading of the situation.
Perhaps what annoys me most about the criticisms of this series is that too many people seem to be caught up on the notion that what the protagonists say is the whole truth. A protagonist can only ever speak their own truth. And most of the time, the truth is actually in between the lines; in the subtext. And the truth in this case is deeply complex, opening up challenges and dilemmas, and expecting the viewer to resolve them. Just like all good dramatic works do.
Ultimately, that is why I am so impressed by 13 Reasons Why. There is no apology. There is no hiding from the complexity. They don’t even hide from the blood. And as the player in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead says when he sums up the essential truth of all dramatic works:
“We’re more of the blood, love and rhetoric school. Well, we can do you blood and love without the rhetoric, or we can do you blood and rhetoric without the love, and we can do you all three, concurrent or consecutive. But we can’t give you love and rhetoric without the blood. Blood is compulsory — they’re all blood, you see.”