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13 Reasons Why this Netflix show, despite all flaws, is a must watch

Durga M Sengupta | Updated on: 27 April 2017, 0:09 IST
Hannah Baker in a still from the show

A teenage high-school story, at least what looks like one on the surface, is the most talked about TV series this month. Netflix's 13 Reasons Why has everyone on the internet debating.

Is it right to glorify suicide? Almost aestheticise it? Would this encourage those who are impressionable to kill themselves? Does the show carry too many triggers, and no warnings? The answer to all of these questions is possibly yes.

But that doesn't mean Brian Yorkey's TV series should be rejected, for it explores way too many relevant subjects that other shows turn a blind eye to. The show employs a unique narrative device of having a dead girl talk to its characters through tapes. Tapes that directly address 13 people from her school. 13 people she blames for her death.

But after having binged on the show, one can safely say that more than the 13 people, as the show's name suggests, there are 13 reasons for her death. It's for the viewer to identify them, realise their relevance in our current global environment, and, just maybe, not look away the next time.

Clay Jensen with the first tape

Reason 1: Suicide

Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) is a new kid at a not very welcoming high-school. Which is basically every high-school. The first few minutes of the show establish that she's dead and talking to us, the audience, through the tapes a certain Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette) possesses.

The show may have crossed a dangerous line in almost suggesting that suicide is a viable alternative to failing to get help. However, throughout the show, it isn't Hannah's suicide that's as troubling as the mental breakdowns each of the other kids suffer. The system failed Hannah, and the audience is acutely aware that if her tapes go unchecked, the system would also fail the other kids too.

That suicide can be committed by anyone at any point, with no one around them noticing the signs, is an important message that this show brings out. Hannah Baker's parents Olivia (Kate Walsh) and Andy (Brian d'Arcy James) are left looking for signs, clues, anything that could explain the loss they're suddenly expected to deal with.

They constantly worry if perhaps they didn't listen enough, that maybe they were too self-consumed, never realising what might have been going through her mind. The show explores how suicide affects family, while also daring to suggest how family could contribute to suicide, even without doing any wrong.

Reason 2: Mental health/getting help

Many films and shows have tried to rid therapy of taboo. But 13 Reasons succeeds in positively reaffirming the need for therapy by showing what happens when it goes wrong.

Without getting into the details, there is a running background theme of psychological help provided to students in the school, help that quite evidently isn't resulting in change. By establishing mental health as an integral part of school structure, and arguably even curriculum, the show quite subtly presents it as something everyone must have access to.

Unfortunately, accessible mental health services are either not a viable service, or they're not accessible at all.

Reason 3: Bullying

The most obvious high-school problem the show presents is that of bullying. While most kinds of bullying are alarmingly normalised in society, 13 Reasons Why shows the worst possible outcome of this – suicide.

Boys are told not to cry. Girls are told to not love their bodies. And if they cross these violently gendered distinctions, daring instead to be themselves, high-school can be a very cruel place. This is especially true in America, where uniforms aren't the norm.

While Hannah's bullying is central to the narrative, the story veers into the different kinds of bullies and bullied children that exist around us. From Bryce Walker's (Justin Prentice) benevolent bully, to Alex Standall's (Miles Heizer) pushed-around-and-bullied character, this school isn't kind to anyone. And the kids are only part of the problem.

Reason 4: Social media trolling

There's a reason why Hannah chooses to tell her story through old-school tapes. As she says in one of the tapes, she wants to make it hard. She wants the information to be hard to access and share – a direct reference to how technology is shaping our lives.

Technology doesn't let us extricate ourselves from our realities, no matter how much we'd like to believe so. We may physically disconnect from our surroundings while going through our Facebook feeds, but it doesn't allow us to leave a space behind, as the physical often spills into the virtual. As is the case with Hannah and her bullying.

13 Reasons explores that desperate need we feel to protect our virtual identities, look perfect, never have a hair out of place... even if we're going through hell in our lives. For Hannah, the escape social media provides is lost when a compromising picture of hers gets circulated all over school.

Reason 5: Verbal abuse

The constant slut shaming that young women often endure, or the typically harmful language that is used to “show women their place” is another problem this show highlights.

Perhaps most of us brush it aside, but Hannah's suicide, the TV show suggests, shows that words can do real harm. And they can do even more harm if a person is already being singled out, where even the most innocent remark can seem like an attack.

Reason 6: Campus rape

A pertinent subject and one that we don't like to acknowledge as a rampant issue, 13 Reasons delves deep into the sexual violence that is deemed acceptable in prominent schools.

Close on the heels of the Brock Turner case, the show, without making a direct reference, shows the brazen attitude a rapist has towards his crime. Only because he's a star athlete, and as Turner's case shows, a star athlete can't be touched.

Hannah and Jessica

Reason 7: Lack of sex-ed

Male-female interactions in schools (and even workplaces, to be honest) are completely unequal. The man is the initiator in every space, the woman the recipient. He's active, she's passive. And thanks to how we understand sex, that's what society carries out of the bedrooms and into the boardrooms.

In the show, diverse sexualities, orientations, and active sexual relationships are shown. And with each new relationship, one learns how harmful ignorance of sexual space and mutual respect can be. And how quickly it can all spiral into harassment or rape.

Reason 8: Alcoholism

Another interesting strand the show picks up on is the numbing quality of alcohol, an indulgence that can quickly become a problem if not checked.

A son watches his abused and alcohol-dependent mother being struck repeatedly by her boyfriend, a father misses the bottles of different sizes under his daughter's bed as he wishes her good night, a girlfriend chooses to spend time and drink with her abuser in place of her boyfriend as she spirals into addiction and self-loathing.

Bryce Walker

Reason 9: Privilege

Possibly the most blatant aspect to many social issues (and the most overlooked), the problem of privilege, especially white male privilege, is addressed in 13 Reasons Why.

Justin Foley (Brandon Flynn) comes from a broken family. His only source of happiness is his best friend, and arguably the richest kid in town, Bryce. Bryce's exertion of power and control over Justin comes from privilege, a privilege he lets Justin enjoy in controlled doses.

Enough control for Justin's girlfriend Jessica Davis (Alisha Boe) to say that Bryce “owns” him.

Reason 10: Domestic violence

In one scene, Justin's mother's boyfriend chokes him, banging Justin's head against the wall. And all his mother does is watch in terrified silence. When the abuser finally lets go of him, he whimpers and calls out to his mother who looks down before turning away.

13 Reasons, without villainising the mother, shows how the cycle of domestic violence is perhaps more psychologically than physically damaging. And what's alarming is the number of people who get away with it.

Zach Dempsy

Reason 11: Bad parenting

Zach Dempsey (Ross Butler) is a rich, lonely kid who cannot show his sensitive side to his friends in the fear of being rejected. Zach's parents smother him with riches, fight every battle for him tooth and nail, with expensive lawyers in tow, possibly even buy his love, but they never see their son for who he is.

13 Reasons shows that bad parenting isn't limited to poor families with drug problems (as in Justin's case), but that a child can suffer from within when parents stop listening. And no amount of money can fix that.

Reason 12: Closeted homosexuality

A very interesting strand in the story is that of Courtney Crimsen (Michele Selene Ang). Courtney is an adopted kid, supposedly from Asia, and she has two dads.

But growing up in a diverse family has only made her more closeted with time. She cannot explore her own sexuality as it will always be seen through the prism of her fathers'. The show shows her increasing apathy towards Hannah as she believes in protecting her secret above any girl's death. Never mind that this was a girl she may have indeed liked.

Courtney Crimsen

Reason 13: Stalking

Tyler Down (Devin Druid) is an awkward high-school photographer. He systematically captures the more natural, intimate, private moments of his peers. And in this endeavor to document for the school magazine, he finds himself rather attracted to Hannah.

So he does what he does best. Documents, but for himself.

Tyler's story ends with a terrifying angle of violence that the cast of the series thinks could point to a Season 2. Regardless of that possibility, it is commendable for the show to actually attempt to understand why a stalker stalks. Or why a murderer shoots.

First published: 26 April 2017, 21:06 IST
Durga M Sengupta @the_bongrel

Feminist and culturally displaced, Durga tries her best to live up to her overpowering name. She speaks four languages, by default, and has an unhealthy love for cheesy foods. Assistant Editor at Catch, Durga hopes to bring in a focus on gender politics and the role in plays in all our interactions.