I read the novel 13 Reasons Why back in college for a Reading and Teaching Adolescent Literature class I took when I was still considering becoming an English teacher.
The discussion in that class consisted of a room full of aspiring teachers talking about the pros and cons of teaching a book like 13 Reasons Why. Did it accurately depict the effects of suicide on the victim’s loved ones? Was it a useful tool for opening a dialogue about sensitive issues? Are there any problems with the way the book depicts suicide, mainly—does it glorify it in any way?
Now that I’ve seen the show, I’ve had to consider those questions all over again.
If we’re going to talk about the show, I should probably give credit where it is due. The show follows the original story from Jay Asher’s book very closely and most of the liberties it takes give depth to the characters while enhancing the story. That being said, the show tows the line of pain caused by suicide in almost an obligatory way while using Hannah’s suicide as a plot point for a revenge narrative.
By boosting the revenge aspect of the story (intentionally or accidentally) the show messes up in some major ways. Even with the mess ups, these can be overlooked if season one is simply allowed to stand alone as a mini-series. However, since it seems incredibly likely that the show will now run for multiple seasons, here are a few reasons why I believe that extending the episode count is a horrible idea.
First up: What do you do with the villain?
Let’s look at Bryce for a second. He is unquestionably the villain of the drama. He arguably has no redeeming qualities, is unashamedly self-centered, and is disgustingly entitled. We’re coming up on some spoilers here, but the character is so two dimensional that I promise I’m not giving anything away when I tell you that he’s unapologetically a rapist.
He brags about his sexual assaults and when confronted about his actions, he brushes them off. And while this is a representation of an incredibly toxic mentality that does exist in the world, the show writers really wrote themselves into a corner with this one.
Yes, shining a sudden light on the cockroaches who act on sexual entitlement is an important part of the societal pest control process, but I honestly don’t know how you spin Bryce’s fate into something meaningful.
Bryce’s actions only come to light after Hannah’s suicide. Actually they come to light because of Hannah’s suicide. So what do you do with this? If you end up having Bryce answer for his crimes, Hannah becomes a sacrificial lamb of sorts whose death ultimately punishes a criminal and potentially saves future victims.
Then there’s the realistic route. Do you use the show to illustrate the sad reality that if you are a rich, white, male you can brag about your sexual assaults, have the entire country hear you bragging about those assaults, and still go on to become president? Do you rob your audience of its sense of justice to demonstrate that even if you are convicted of a sex crime, rich, white, males will serve disgustingly short sentences like Brock Turner?
Either Hannah’s suicide will become a heroic act that brought down a sexual predator, a notion that is exceedingly dangerous for a show that is meant to be a suicide prevention tool. Or you can go the realistic route and run the risk of empowering would-be sexual predators by demonstrating the lack of punishment in the real world.
In this instance, it might be best to leave Bryce’s fate up in the air where it currently is at the end of season 1. If 13 Reasons is granted a second season (and let’s be honest, it’s totally getting one) the entire production team will have to walk a very thin line when they consider the fate of their villain.
Hopefully, they will opt to demonstrate the problem America has with giving leniency on these issues and try to guide their audience’s outrage to outlets for positive change.
Second: How much shock is too much?
The sister to the old adage “Sex sells” is simple, “Shock sells.”
One of the show’s producers offers a defense of the most shocking scenes in Beyond the Reasons by saying, “We did want it to be painful to watch because we wanted to be very clear that there is nothing in anyway worthwhile about suicide.” This makes sense and I can see the validity in arguing that the scene does accomplish this. But under that, it cannot be denied that the scene is incredibly gripping. It captures the audience’s attention and because of this, it’s very marketable.
While the above quote applies directly to the suicide scene, it can also be applied to the vividly depicted rape scenes that are meant to evoke pain and discomfort from the audience. True, people should feel disgust and horror at the idea of rape. But personally, I believe that there are much better ways to use narrative devices to evoke disgust and horror instead of opting for a prolonged visual demonstration of sexual violence.
This is doubly true when we consider the suicide scene. I cannot for the life of me figure out why they opted to show, in such vivid detail, a 17 year old girl slitting her wrists.
For the record, Hannah didn’t slit her wrists in the book. She overdosed on sleeping pills. There’s even a line in the book where Hannah asks the person listening to her tapes that if people are saying that her death was accidental, could they please keep that rumor going for the sake of her parents.
The only discernible reason that I can think of for changing her method of suicide is that wrist slitting is more dramatic. Why would you show a deeply depressed girl with a blank expression swallowing a handful of pills and then sitting down in her pajamas to die when you could show a girl climb into a tub with her hands shaking as the camera (and I’m not making this up) zooms in on her skin so the audience can see the razor open her vein.
The argument of whether or not scenes like this are too much wouldn’t matter as much if the show were going to be confined to a single season. It would be much easier to take the producers’ at their word that there’s value in this sort of depiction. But with a second season on the way, how do you follow the wrist slitting scene?
With so many of the jumping off points for the second season revolving around gun violence, what sort of shocking scenes will the show opt for to demonstrate that there’s “nothing worthwhile” about it? And how many vivid scenes can an audience endure before they lose their sense of horror and sympathy?
Three: Hannah can’t be in it
With a stellar performance by an emerging actress (Katherine Langford) it would be incredibly tempting to find ways to include the character of Hannah Baker in additional flashbacks or as an imagined phantom by one or more of the characters.
This would deeply undercut the suicide awareness intention of the show and ultimately inflate the problem that the show is so committed to addressing. Death is death. It is final. The deceased disappears and the world does keep on spinning.
Any decision to include the character of Hannah in a second season would send the dangerous underlying message that when you kill yourself, you don’t really die. You continue to exist, at least to the extent that your sustained lack of presence will influence the lives of others.
If 13 Reasons receives a second season, Hannah cannot be in it. Her parents? Of course. The lawsuit? Most definitely. Other characters changing (for better or worse) as a result of Hannah’s death? Perfectly acceptable. But if Hannah continues to be a character speaking from beyond the grave, the show will lose all credibility as a suicide prevention tool.
Four: When do you stop?
If 13 Reasons receives a second season, when will it stop? The show has already exhausted its source material. And it deviated drastically from that original source by using the suicide (or attempted suicide) of a main character as a jumping off point in the finale of season 1.
If the show runs for multiple seasons, will they all begin with a character’s suicide? How long can that last before the entire idea of it stops shocking the audience and becomes a simple framing devise?
What is the end game?
Even the harshest critics of 13 Reasons Why must admit that the show is, at the very least, well-intentioned. Those who praise it have good reason to claim that it treats the sensitive material it is portraying with the appropriate gravity. But if the show is allowed to continue to run, it may be harder to see it as anything but “that one show with all the trauma.”
Since a second season is inevitably on the horizon for 13 Reasons Why the show’s writers, producers, and actors must be aware of the fine line the show is currently walking. They will have to weigh the benefits of being an advocate of honorable causes against the temptation to cash in on the audience they’ve succeeded in captivating.