I though up a couple cutesy titles for this post, but in the end I went with clarity. I’m also not using our standard reviewing format, as this is less of an official review and more of a response to the criticism I’ve been seeing online lately for the Netflix series based on Jay Asher’s 2007 novel. There’s a lot of it, and I found much of it to be either shallow or overly-positive. 13 Reasons Why is a great series. It’s not perfect. Besides the difficulties of translating a novel with such a unique structure to a narrative television show, the creators were also hit and miss with their narrative editions and their portrayal of the various topical issues.
First, I want to say that I really liked the shift in structure from one night to several weeks. Spacing it out was great because it let the focus widen to show us more context. And that context played into the themes I most enjoyed in the story.
The first such theme is often done, but rarely done well. The unreliable narrator. It’s powerful because it’s true to life and creates tension. The places the narrator is unreliable can do a great deal of indirect characterization. Many critiques mentioned Hannah as an unreliable narrator. Even some specific examples were given, such as when she “lied” about Zach throwing away the note she sent him. But with the hope that I haven’t read too much into things, I think that’s a mistaken criticism. After all, Zach “showed” Clay the note, but Clay himself had never seen the note, and even declined to take and read it. There’s actually no proof one way or the other that Hannah lied.
Technically speaking, only Hannah and Clay are actually narrators. But many of the other characters lied about what really happened. Some were clearly in denial, while others had more rational motivations. Jessica, for example, was possibly in denial or honestly didn’t remember what happened to her at the party. Justin straight up lied about it for mostly self-serving reasons. Courtney insisted almost to the bitter end that what Hannah said about her was a lie. And in the beginning of the show, through Clay’s restricted point of view, many of these lies seemed quite plausible. The counterpoint to an unreliable narrator is an ignorant one.
Given my real-life experience, both in middle and high school and the similar grounds of college, the show’s portrayal of this ambiguity is achingly true. I’ve had quite similar experiences. And that’s not limited to just the truth issue. There’s also the excuses the characters give for their behavior, to others and to themselves.
There’s a very unsubtle scene near the end of the show where Justin explains why he lied to Jessica. He makes a long speech about how much he owes Bryce. While the execution was maybe a tad ham-fisted, the premise is absolutely brutally accurate. Justin’s home-life and his need for both assistance and intimacy solidly ground his character and explain the majority of his actions without having to blame the idiot-ball or breaking character to serve the plot. While it’s hard to sympathize with Justin due to his actions, I think the show left a lot of room for empathy.
The show also does a good job of showing various shades of peer pressure. There’s a line that goes something like: “All the popular kids are mean. That’s how they became popular.” It sounds good, but I think there’s an unstated message in the show that more realistically captures how popularity works in younger social circles. Alex’s plot-line for why he and Jessica broke up and for his place on Hannah’s list is a cliche. It’s been done and done again: the guy lies about his “success” in getting laid to feel like part of the group, and in the process ruins the girl’s reputation. There wasn’t anything particularly new and exciting about the portrayal of this arc in the show. But we also saw several other similar situations involving the more popular male characters. And it’s the combination of these various examples that I feel adds value to the show, as opposed to the one-note single instance portrayals that many other books and TV shows emphasize.
This contrast between the melodramatic, stereotypical examples of various social topics with the more understated versions is one of the general strengths of the show. And though they are melodramatic, the examples at the high end of the scale aren’t false. Bryce functions as the high end example of the sexually predatory untouchable jock archetype. But while some of his actions may seem like he’s being used as a caricature, I’ve experienced or witnessed almost all of them multiple times in my own life. He has a line from his confrontation with Clay where he talks about how girls play games and they all secretly want it, etc. Then he asks if Clay is a virgin and tells him to go get laid a few times (or try) and then they can have a real talk about sex like adults. A friend of mine once sent me a screencap of a guy on Facebook saying to him that he couldn’t talk about whether fucking drunk girls involved consent or not because he didn’t “know what it’s like to be an attractive white man and constantly have girls throwing themselves at you.”
In many ways, 13 Reasons Why is a very accurate portrayal of life in high school and by stretching a bit, in college. It’s depressingly accurate, in fact. And while everyone is going to have a different reaction to scenes of graphic violence such as the rape scenes and the suicide scene, I personally felt they added a great deal to the show and were not gratuitous. The rapes were not titillating or fetishized as such scenes often can be. They were violent and disturbing, and far less graphic than many articles criticizing them have suggested. I would not be averse to having a sort of content warning at the beginning of the relevant episodes. Some basic text warning of the scenes and their general location in time, even. But I think they deserve to be in the show.
Although there are some definite places where the show could have been better, mostly in regards to whacking the reader over the head with the message, overall I think I’d give it 85/100.
~ Marisa Greene