My Take on “13 Reasons Why”

I originally posted this as a note on my Facebook account. I’m reposting it here for archival purposes. It certainly won’t increase the number of people who see it. 🙂

Don’t read this if you haven’t watched the whole series.

I’m on my second pass through, and since I completed it a few days ago, I’ve thought long and hard about it, and my reactions to it. I’ve also read what a lot of critics have said, both positive and negative. So here are the thoughts I’ve had about it that I think are worth your time to read. Note: I won’t go too much into how it affected me personally, because this is a public post and has to pass the “would I want to see it on a freeway billboard” test. As to my background, suffice to say that I qualify for a semicolon tattoo. Anyway…

1. Hannah is an unreliable narrator. She tells us the truth as she perceives it, which may or may not bear any resemblance to the objective truth. The show has been criticized for not addressing Hannah’s mental health issues. This is because she does not know she has them.

2. Hannah is an adolescent. She does not have a fully developed frontal lobe. Her bad judgment is natural. Catastrophizing is natural. Inability to evaluate the scope and extent of a problem is natural. Another reason that Hannah’s mental health issues are not addressed is that she can barely say anything to anyone about what she is going though, much less say that she’s suicidal and needs help. More generally, teenagers don’t talk, a lot of the time because they don’t know how to translate their abstract thoughts into English. When my 17-year-old son gives me one-syllable answers to complex questions, I recite my parental mantra: “Developmentally appropriate”.

3. The rape is what killed her. Not metaphorically, literally. We see it when she stops any pretense of resisting. Her head is resting on the edge of the hot tub. She’s facing us, eyes open and unblinking, her face slack, nothing moving. I have watched people die, and that is what it looks like. (This was brilliant acting and cinematography, BTW.)

4. Hannah never disregarded the effect her death would have on those who cared for her. Because of this, she didn’t see her death as being a tragedy to those she cared about. She saw it as unburdening them. This bears emphasizing, because so many people think suicide is just a cry for help, or an attention grab, or a permanent solution to a temporary problem (or even a permanent problem). What’s not often recognized is that the suicidal person can truly believe that the best thing they can do for the people they care about is to disappear from those people’s lives.

5. Hannah has no adult support. We know that Porter was not good at his job. He missed signs, and completely mishandled what Hannah told him in their last meeting. Her teachers are just trying to get through another day. The parents of the kids in her social circle are out of the loop, either symbolically or literally absent.

6. Hannah’s parents aren’t at fault. She knew they were having money problems, and that the store was about to go out of business. From her perspective, all she did was make the situation worse by losing the deposits; she was no help to the business. She also believed that since they were going through the most difficult times of their own lives, she shouldn’t burden them any further with her problems, so they never knew.

7. Hannah did not kill herself “at” anyone. As the show progresses, one tape per episode, it can look that way. It’s this misreading of the tapes that gave rise to the #welcometoyourtape memes going around. She may have wanted to punish each person for their contribution, but after the rape, she says, “I started with Justin. Then Jessica. Who each broke my heart. Alex, Tyler, Courtney, Marcus, who each helped to destroy my reputation. On through Zack and Ryan who broke my spirit. Through tape number twelve, Bryce Walker, who broke my soul.” That’s everything. She’s dead. The only thing left is a final system shutdown.

8. Hannah’s death was a systemic failure. Tony said, “We all let her down.” But it was not just individuals who did that. It was also the framework in which they operated, which allowed enough bad things to happen, in the right order, to end in tragedy. With the exception of the rape, there was no one thing that, had it not occurred, would definitely have saved Hannah’s life. (Side note: How would all this have played out if the school were here in New Jersey, under its strictest-in-the-country anti-bullying laws?)

9. Alcohol is bad. All of the worst events involved alcohol. There were people too drunk to stop themselves from doing bad things, and people too drunk to stop bad things from being done to them. More generally, I wish that the roles in society of alcohol and marijuana were reversed. Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign set the moral standard that [Some] Drugs Are Bad, but alcohol is OK because we who are talking down to teenagers don’t want our booze taken away. There’s no such thing as “pot goggles”. Pot does not take away your inhibitions, allowing you to do evil things you’d never do when not under the influence. Probably the top ten worst things I ever did were when I was drunk, because the all the internal controls were disabled. When I was stoned, I stared at my hand.

10. Kat is an important character. One of the questions I had a hard time answering was, why was Hannah hanging with the ultra-popular A-list jocks and cheerleaders in the first place? My hypothesis is that she did simply because Kat did, but Kat had the street sense to understand how the war-zone social dynamic of the top echelon really worked, and how not to get burned by it. Neither Kat nor Hannah knew it consciously, but Kat kept Hannah from getting hurt by getting caught up in situations she wouldn’t understand. If Kat hadn’t moved away, she would have stopped at least some of the hurtful things done to Hannah.

11. Much in the side stories was unrealistic. A working-class teenager using a classic Mustang as a daily driver. Hannah’s mother claiming that the magazine would “show their hand” when their lawyer would have already advised them that they’d have to do just that during discovery. No involvement of Child Protective Services in Justin’s household (or Bryce’s for that matter). They’ll have to clean that up if they want a successful second season.

12. No character is all good or all bad. Not even Bryce, who was the only one Justin could turn to when Justin’s home situation became intolerable. Every character has at least one tragic flaw and at least one redeeming quality. This is part of why the system was vulnerable to failure. In a complex system, problems are detected most easily when they are binary–some part of it works or it breaks and gets fixed. It gets much tougher when something sort of works, most of the time, or works just often enough to ignore it for the moment. In human systems this leads to doubt, and plausible deniability, ripe for exploit.

13. Suicide is a symptom, not a disease. The disease is that people can inflict so much pain on each other, can be so unspeakably cruel, get away with it, and even have it rewarded. Not only do adolescents lack the judgment to see how much damage their actions can cause, they’re sometimes trained to do those things. In our win-at-all-costs society, where you’re either part of the steamroller or part of the pavement, we stop considering whether anything justifies the ends, never mind whether the ends justify the means.

Thirteen. See what I did there?

Discussion is invited.

4 thoughts on “My Take on “13 Reasons Why”

  1. Wow, I really loved reading this and hearing your thoughts. The one that particularly resonated with me was when you said it was a systemic failure. I couldn’t agree more. I also LOVED your point about Hannah being an adolescent with a brain that has not yet fully developed. This is such a great point! Thanks so much for the post; I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

    1. You’re welcome! I’m a youth advisor at my church, and our district (about 50 congregations) is dealing with a recent scandal involving another (now ex-)adult leader of youth. In the investigation, they found an interesting data point: 75% of the people interviewed said they weren’t surprised to hear what happened. This is a perfect real-world example of a systemic failure: Lots of people thought something *might* be up, but there was no mechanism in place to connect those suspicions in a way that showed that something *was* up, which could have prevented the incidents (we’re working on that, obviously).

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