Published in 2007, the novel “13 Reasons Why” by Jay Asher found its young adult audience quickly and viscerally. Asher told the story of Hannah Baker, a young woman who died by suicide during high school. Instead of the oh-so-advertised and Hollywood-glamorized suicide note, Hannah left 13 tapes for 13 of her classmates, describing the painful and raw decision to end her own life.
The story switches points of view between Hannah and her classmate and crush, Clay Jensen, who is the current owner of the tapes, and the kindest voice Asher could give to such an unkind story.
After 10 years, the book has been adapted to a Netflix original, produced by Selena Gomez and her mother, Mandy Teefey. Gomez has a history of speaking up about mental illness, and this show is her most actionable headline to date.
Premiering on the streaming site the last day of March, “13 Reasons Why” took over social media—it’s a show that maybe shouldn’t be binged because of its heavy nature—but definitely was.
The show is certainly triggering for people—especially those who have a history with mental illness. Scenes depict rape and sexual assault, depressive episodes, alcohol and drug abuse and suicide itself. In the 13 episodes, three feature trigger warnings prior to the opening credits, and rightfully so. However, individuals should be notified the kind of performances they’re about to see before clicking on the new title.
Criticisms are circling online that the characters in the show are not good examples of what young people should do in the event of a mental health crisis or suicide, but in its defense, the story was never meant to be a PSA. “13 Reasons” is a realistic, ugly, stick-to-your-ribs story about the effects of mental illness. It’s painfully sad, tear inducing and heart-breaking, but shown through the pretty faces of young actors.
The Baker family is where I found the greatest breakout performances; with Kate Walsh nailing the role of a mother whose new sole purpose in life is figuring out why her only child decided to end her life. Walsh as Olivia Baker is poignant and beautifully calamitous, especially in a scene where her husband brings her home a dozen roses. Walsh goes to the kitchen to fill up a vase for the bouquet, and in the middle of the menial task, freezes, as the water pours and pours, the vase overflowing in the sink. While the writing of this one moment so purely depicts grief and depression, Walsh performs with such ease and vulnerability, the audience can’t help but wonder how she will ever find relief.
Newcomer Katherine Langford as Hannah Baker also puts on a wonderful performance. The emotion she provokes in audiences and fellow cast mates is simultaneously thrilling and chilling, as she teeters on the existence of alive and dead. Her voiceovers echo long after the episodes end, and the simplicity and courage in her performance is all I could pay attention to; the perfect emblem of character development—or really, character degeneration.
The innerworkings of the high school where this story takes place is very telling of the climate in which the audience is also living. After Hannah’s death, the student council puts up memorials and informative posters all around the halls, but rather than feel safer and more accepted, students lash out against this. They find it embarrassing, weak and unnecessary, but in reality, young adults silently crying out for and are almost devoid of real, helpful resources in their high schools.
According to the Youth Suicide Prevention Program, one in six high school students has reported considering suicide, and although “13 Reasons Why” doesn’t necessarily show young people exactly how to avoid these feelings, it shows us exactly why we must teach our children in real life.
All high schools and universities differ in their counseling avenues, but the general resources across the country are undoubtedly lacking. “13 Reasons” is the first successful show on Netflix to break through in its nitty-gritty, uncomfortable, harrowing truth to hold a mirror up to parents and young adults.
The show holds potential to continue with a sequel season but would reach beyond the scope of the novel to achieve this. While I would love to spend more time in Monet’s Café, and my life would be much more fulfilled knowing a certain someone was rotting in ictional prison, what I want to see more than a part two is a change in our own society. “13 Reasons Why” shows us the stories of the stigmas we face everyday, and without fear, stands under a spotlight no one has been willing to turn on before.