I went to my psychiatrist
To be psychoanalyzed
To find out why I killed the cat
And blacked my husband’s eyes.
He laid me on a downy couch
To see what he could find,
So this is what he dredged up
From my subconscious mind
When I was one, my mommy hid
My dolly in a trunk,
And so it follows naturally
That I am always drunk
When I was two, I saw my father
Kiss the maid one day,
And that is why I suffer now
At three, I had the feeling of
Ambivalence towards my brothers,
And so it follows naturally
I poisoned all my lovers.
But I am happy; now I’ve learned
The lesson this has taught;
That everything I do that’s wrong –
Is someone else’s fault!
– Anna Russell
In one of his more dispirited quips, American philosopher, Henry David Thoreau, once stated, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” It is left – perhaps intentionally – unclear as to what the impetus for this desperation is – whether they are leading such lives intentionally of their own volition or under pressure from some crippling tragedy of either a circumstantial or pathological sort. Is it at root internal or external? One could easily find several examples of both, though one could just as easily find many examples that act as counterexamples to such a morose generalization. The human experience tends to offer just as much opportunity for joy as well as sorrow. In fact, without such joy (or some or dream of it), the sorrow would have no sting.
In retrospect, I was usually unkind to “YA” stories of chronically disillusioned teens deadlocked in a self-perpetuating miasma of existential dread. There is some weight of truth to the tendency of these ostensibly average but still somehow model-perfect adolescent nobodies wading through their own lives of “quiet desperation” with wistful expressions of funerial catatonia. At the same time, there is something to be said of painting such gloom in a romanticized aura of maturation and wisdom. One could be forgiven in thinking that with misery and sorrow, regardless of its incentive, inherently comes forth the values of understanding and clarity.
Enter: 13 Reasons Why–one of the latest series to hit the Netflix servers–which boasts a “diverse” cast of characters who are not very diverse where it counts. All seem to be in league with Thoreau’s denizens of “quiet desperation” without a shred of irony or self-awareness about that matter: constantly in crises about their own misfortunes, while also taking every opportunity to tell others to “get over it.” The tale begins when one Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette) finds a box containing seven audio cassette tapes (I’m rather surprised he even knows what those are at his age). The tapes comprise the recordings of Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford), a fellow classmate and the object of Clay’s unrequited love, who committed suicide two weeks earlier. Each side of the tapes details, in audio diary form, an emotionally gripping reason as to what compelled her to take her own life, with each reason specifically tied to a person who Hannah holds responsible for having influenced her decision.
The people that Hannah has marked for guilt in her recordings surreptitiously arrange themselves into an impromptu “Hannah Guilt Group,” since Hannah’s dying wish is that the tapes be passed among the people she calls out within the recordings. If her demands are not obliged, then the incriminating evidence she notes in her recordings will go public, condemning her alleged oppressors to public shame, humiliation, and even criminal charges. While 13 Reasons Why never presents itself as a horror story, it can certainly pass off as one under certain slants of observation.
A tale of perfect strangers banding together under unfamiliar circumstances to fearfully obey the mandates of a disembodied voice left by a rancorous dead girl in order to save their own skin would feel right at home in the latest issue of Shadows & Tall Trees. The other parallel that can be drawn between this story and standard horror is that so much of what drives it is woefully bad decision-making on the part of the largely unlikeable characters. With each episode, Clay is given a play-by-play of how the people in Hannah’s life brought her to such a state of self-destruction and misery. The earlier episodes mainly detail unfortunate events that amount to treachery from those she considered her friends. Later ones simply involve public humiliation. A few are sins committed by others that had no direct effect on Hannah but to which she merely bore witness.
As one who went through a very lengthy bout of suicidal ideations himself, I can certainly attest to the fact that the states and conditions that drive people to the point of considering the taking of their own lives are an incredibly complicated, subjective, and personal nightmare that is largely only accessible to the victim of that nightmare. It is about as personal a hell as one can experience or imagine. How it manifests and maintains itself is oftentimes a complete mystery to all, even to the victim. In at least an ancillary manner, 13 Reasons Why illustrates this principle well. It is only during the flashbacks that play out as Clay listens to Hannah’s recordings that we are able to catch anything of a semblance of what brings her to her downtrodden point. Unfortunately, it is also through such visitation into Hannah’s past that we are met with baffling questions as to how no one saw a way to avoid the outcome.
It might be more accurate to say that a few did recognize how such troubles could have been avoided, but were either too scared, proud, or lazy (or some combination of the three) to do anything about it. Over and over again, Hannah gives a diatribe about how a contributing reason to her taking her own life is due to the moral failings of those around her. In the first episode, Hannah tells of her first kiss and how a salacious rumor about her was being spread by the boy with whom she shared this encounter. In the second episode, Hannah speaks of two students–one male, one female–with whom she was close friends. Because the two friends began dating one another, Hannah became less and less involved. Once the relationship came to an end, Hannah was blamed for the breakup. It becomes a solid pattern in the program that conflicts and issues are never confronted and resolved. Even between close friends, the only response to disputation is an act of severing the relationship with no attempts at reconciliation being made from either side. As one could imagine, the problems don’t get any better with time. In fact, they only get worse.
Sadly, the program as a whole seems to take the same approach to Hannah’s increasingly horrible life in the same subjective and self-indulgent manner in which Hannah does. Whereas Hannah and her posthumous character witness, Clay, are written as at least ostensibly being deep, profound, and insightful souls, most of the supporting characters are given little more than a personality that could be written on a nametag. In one of the later episodes, one of the supporting characters calls attention to this in an incendiary diatribe as if it were some weighty insight. Those who fall to the point of suicidal ideations tend to view those who they believe to have contributed to their morose state in similarly one-dimensional terms. All that matters to the suicidal with regard to others around them is how the others have afflicted them or made their lives seemingly no longer livable. Any other aspects that their alleged oppressors could possibly have, positive or negative, are treated as mere irrelevances. Such thoughts are unhealthy to entertain, even in the context of fiction, and also make for weak drama.
While Hannah is certainly not seen having any sense of fulfillment from viewing her circle of acquaintances with such scornful simplicity, both she and the program as a whole do seem to have the intention of validating her in both her views and her actions. The closest that the story ever gets to acknowledging that Hannah was actually in the wrong and actively contributed to her despair is in the eleventh episode, wherein she declines Clay’s affections and help due to her subjectively ascribing all of her pain and bullying to him in a moment of intimacy. Even then, the program’s focus is largely directed to how everyone else is the villain in her life, whereas she stands as someone who has ushered in a new state of “awareness” for her peers (and her superiors for that matter).
It is here where 13 Reasons Why commits arguably its most heinous crime in dealing with the difficult and sensitive subject of suicide. In every therapy session with one dealing with considerations of suicide, one of the top priorities is to discourage the idea as a beneficial option. This is typically done by discrediting any rationale the client may have for dealing such an irreparable blow to themselves. In Hannah’s case, her rationale is to “wake everyone up” to just how wrong they were for pushing her to this point; to show them how much they need to “repent,” as it were. Sadly, the entire narrative is set to justify Hannah for this action. In a way, Hannah, in her act of suicide, becomes something of a martyred hero. In fact, her position in the tale can be seen as quasi-messianic. By her stripes and the shedding of her blood are her peers (and superiors) “redeemed.”
None of this is to belittle some of the trauma experienced or suffered by Hannah. Among the most heinous of the crimes against her are bearing witness to and being a victim of an act of rape. Both acts are committed by the same culprit, who largely becomes little more than a one-dimensional entity of empty depravity. I fear that such a depiction does little in the way of deepening anyone’s understanding of the psyche or behavior patterns of sexual predators. Had the narrative taken the opportunity to show some interest in this character’s predatory characteristics outside of the immediate acts of assault themselves, it might have added a helpful layer of dramatic tension and development to the plot, as well as presented opportunity for thoughtful consideration on the warning signs of sexual predation. Instead, like a bad horror story, both instances are not so much the result of the rapist taking pains to arrange for such an opportunity, but rather a result of the victims making bad decisions and being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
It is a real shame that in the areas of the story where we are expected to hold the most reverence, the program fails most heavily in delivering what it ought. In both situations in which an act of sexual violation is depicted, we are asked to resonate with the utter shock and horror of the situation–and not much else. I had a similar issue with Steve McQueen’s 2013 Best Picture winner, 12 Years a Slave, in which virtually all instances of physical abuse depiction have little more than mere revulsion as their raison d’etre. Rather than asking us to reflect upon the context of how and why certain people commit such heinous atrocities, we are simply asked to be repulsed by the reality of them. This really asks nothing of us as viewers, except to simply be an empathetic witness to a crime. It requires no effort to bleed when one has been cut, and it requires no effort to be appalled when one bears witness to an act of monstrous sexual assault.
Even more tragically, the specific act of suicidal violence that Hannah commits is also extended and depicted in such a way to ensure that we are as sickened by it as we can muster. It’s the one point upon which this entire drama hangs, and not only is it reduced to a circus geek act, but it also carries the character who commits it into the role of an idealized martyr. Hannah leaves the world convinced that her act of suicide is everyone else’s fault. Oddly enough, her final “attempt” at avoiding such a decision involves her going to a student counselor and not being as upfront as she should in order for him to give her the aid and advice she needs. As a result, she marks the counselor as one more guilty culprit in her demise. This would have been a useful opportunity, dramatically, to give another angle to Hannah’s character as someone other than a tragic victim who has been set upon by the evils of the world. Perhaps we could get full disclosure on the missteps on her part that led to her suicide. Instead, we see an agonizing session of her speaking in pained, cryptic tones to her counselor and leaving as though it is his fault for not understanding her plight. Again, the program vindicates Hannah’s perspective on the matter, with the counselor ending his arc in a state of contrition for simply doing his job by the book–a state largely imposed upon him by Clay.
My reaction to 13 Reasons Why is rare to say the least. The topics on-hand are big and important, and the characters had the potential to be a great ensemble contributing to the drama. But, as hinted before, while they are certainly diverse in the ways that the political Left tends to advocate (race, gender, sexual orientation), they are not so diverse with regard to content of character or in how they handle conflict or disagreement. Everyone is disillusioned with the community and environment in which they find themselves, and everyone responds to perceived offense, conflict, or oppression with an act of flight or abandonment. Relationships are severed, friendships are ended, people throw each other under the bus to save their own skins, and no one, victim or victimizer, ever makes an attempt to reconcile. This is certainly not an unwelcome narrative, since it is rather emblematic of modern American youth culture, as I know all too well from personal experience. The issue is that such acts of avoiding reconciliation or facing those who have done wrong are ubiquitously validated by the narrative. The situation is constantly spun as though the characters simply had no choice in the matter–that to stay virtuous and work with others would only perpetuate the oppression, whereas any act of abandonment (including suicide) is the only right thing to do.
For all the virtue-signaling that 13 Reasons Why avows to support, it turns out largely to be a tale “told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.) The performances are stellar, especially those of Langford and Minnette. Some of the supporting actors, such as Kate Walsh as Hannah’s mother, Olivia, give performances that could be argued as career-defining. There is no denying that the crew involved in this show’s production has their methods of execution down to a science. Where the whole project falters is in its overarching perspective, understanding of, and intentions with the subject matter. Far from discouraging suicide and chastising those who might contribute to it, the large takeaway from 13 Reasons Why is that oppression and strife are inescapable, there is no way to resolve it, and a glorious exhibition of self-destruction is the only method for having any hope at liberation or improvement. It is one of the most consistently and unblinkingly engaging dramas I’ve sat down to watch through all the way, and I was appalled by almost all of it.
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