Name a teen movie that left you absolutely devastated. Mine was My Girl. Nothing is more tragic than pure-love-meets-sudden-death. It’s made me wary of heartwarming movies. You know, those that begin with conflict, transition into a feel-good resolution, and then end with someone getting hit by a bus or succumbing to an illness (Cc: Stepmom). Those movies suck. They’re the anti-fairytales that work exactly like fairytales, etching big ideas in our brains that never go away, like “never take food from strangers,” “nice guys get the girl,” or “if things get too good, someone’s going to die.” That movie really ruined me. I was 10.
Not since then have I seen anything as devastating until this week, when I watched the entire season of 13 Reasons Why in one day. Pure love. Sudden death. Although in this case, it wasn’t that simple. I can’t imagine a TV show like it being created in the ‘90s. Minus the social media aspect, all the issues it tackles are, unfortunately, timeless. Bullying, isolation, depression, betrayal, rape. Sadly, these are all tales as old as time. Although maybe nothing like it was ever created for TV because we were simply not ready. Heck, we weren’t even ready for My Girl (although no one could’ve been prepared for that).
Pretty Little Liars, Gossip Girl, Veronica Mars, The OC, even good old My So-Called Life — all these TV shows centered on teenage issues all toyed with the idea of darkness. They tiptoed around it, sometimes dipped their toes into it, but always maintained a fictional feel to them. Characters spoke only in fluent sarcasm. Music tastes were too good to be true. Hairs were always in place and all the kids had abs. These shows make it clear that they aren’t that kind of show, the kind that really goes there. Shit never got real. But maybe they weren’t ready to show a 17-year-old slitting her wrists in a bathtub — and really showing the blade slicing into her skin, twice — because we were simply not ready to see it. Parents would have freaked. Librarians scandalized. Churches revolted. Back then, a show like 13 Reasons Why would have never seen the light of day. It would’ve gone straight to VHS or Betamax or whatever it was that we were using that time.
The beauty of Netflix — and this is coming from a Netflix (ab)user — is that it is, relatively, uncensored. I say “relatively” because, as the company expands its viewership globally, it also begins to reach more conservative markets that have certain requirements (also, “airplane cuts” are a thing). So a TV show that tackles sensitive content is free to be in this realm, and teens as well as adults are free to view them.
One might think all this freedom, this range of subjects, would have already desensitized the binge-watcher in me, but 13 Reasons Why still came as a sort of unanticipated left hook. My bad, I hadn’t read the book. But even if I had, I’ve been told it wouldn’t have made a difference. From a logical standpoint, I am certain of it. Reading about depression, for example, is not the same as seeing it unfold, whether on TV or in real life. The show’s visual treatment, characterized by familiar ‘90s and ‘80s pop culture references, nurtures in the viewer a sense of comfort. The way it jumps timelines (with Clay Jensen’s (Dylan Minnette) band-aid as a tell) dictates its pace, which is fast. When the camera closes in on Hannah Baker’s (Katherine Langford) trembling lips, watery eyes, tense chin, rare smile… you see it. You see her conflict. Everything, especially Hannah’s narration through the tapes she recorded before killing herself, sets you up for immersion and you empathize with every character even if you haven’t yourself felt depressed, oppressed, bullied, or violated.
Here’s where the so-called shit gets real: it is extremely emotional. The gore is limited to Hannah’s suicide scene, which you’ll only see after you get through everything else. And everything else is worse. There are rape scenes, and while they are subtle, they aren’t less painful to watch. 13 Reasons Why depicts rape not just as a violation of the body, but a horrible breaking down of the soul. It shows this most vile act of objectification of a human being by portraying the women, Hannah and Jessica Davis (Alisha Boe), otherwise strong, smart and feisty, as lifeless, powerless and defeated. Like dolls. Hannah’s parents, who are left only with questions, are visibly distraught. Her mom looks like she’s physically falling apart. This absence of sheen, of fictional world veneer, runs across every character. They all look troubled and torn up over something, and not in a cool, Luke Perry all-circas kind of way.
13 Reasons Why will break your heart so many times over. Clay will be responsible for it 60 percent of the time. The rest of the heartbreaks will be courtesy of the rest of the characters – Justin and his terrible home life (and A+ acting); Zach, when you realize he’s actually an alright person; Tony and Jeff for their sheer goodness; and Alex for, well, you’ll see. Courtney and Marcus, I have no sympathy for. Maybe Netflix should work on making them more likable as they have with the rest.
Critics say the show’s final episodes were “bloated.” I don’t know what that means. But it was in these final episodes that the My Girl moment came. That one line that killed me: “You can’t love someone back to life,” Mr. Porter tells Clay. Coming from an unsympathetic character like Porter, those words seem empty. Cheesy. But given who he was talking to, Clay, a 17-year-old kid who’s only friend was dead, they cut almost as deep as Hannah’s razors.
Depression is a topic often misrepresented on television by stereotyping those who suffer from it as alcholics who don’t have the energy to shower. FXX show You’re the Worst has made a pretty realistic episode around it once. And now, we have 13 Reasons Why, which seems to get it. “Here’s the scary thing: It looks like nothing,” Hannah says on the tapes. We’re not just ready for a show like this, we’ve been waiting for it. It seems like the kind of show that will make people understand how the other half lives.
When Clay says, “It has to get better. The way we treat each other and look out for each other, it has to get better somehow,” there’s no preachiness, no judgement. And then you think of your own friends, your colleagues, your family and you wonder if they’re okay. In the words of The OC’s ever-wise Luke Ward, I haven’t cried like this “since Macaulay Culkin died in My Girl.”