If you were so inclined to do so, a survey that you’d undertake for today’s pre-teens and teens that’d include the question What do your parents tell you when you don’t live up to their expectations?, would yield the answer In my days, I didn’t have it as good as you do now, or a variation on this theme, as the statistical frontrunner.
Netflix’s first season of 13 Reasons Why pretty much puts that answer in the twilight zone of sensible parenting. But, before you rise in indignation, it also throws a frightening limelight on the schooling system, the accompanying social structures, and the online life that all of us have mostly succumbed to. (If you haven’t, the WhatsApp group for the Parent-Teacher group will most likely be the death-knell for your proud stand.) Based on the Jay Asher-penned 2007 novel by the same name, Brian Yorkey developed this series for Netflix that will impolitely open your eyes to the potential horrors that children face even as they struggle with their own raging, fiery hormonal changes, nothing of which they can seem to make sense of in the yet not-completely-developed executive part of their brains.
Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette), as the series begins, doesn’t seem to belong to this category of teenagers, though. His repartees to his parents – a hyper-worrying mother (a terrific Amy Hargreaves) and an almost equanimous and a very practical father (Josh Hamilton, equally good) – are gold stuff, setting the pace for crackling dialogues ahead. A mysterious package at his doorstep reveals a tragedy that’s haunting him and others at school – two weeks earlier, his classmate Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) committed suicide, and that’s all that you know, and the rest of the serial removes the duct tape off the package and its contents. You’re stunned as you learn that the box contains seven double-sided cassette tapes, recorded by Hannah, as she dedicates and identifies the thirteen people responsible for her death, on each side of the tapes. (I know what you’re thinking – Ha! There’s one empty side at the end. But that gets recorded too, in a subsequent hammer of an episode.) Hannah’s wish and instructions are clear – each person must listen to all the thirteen sides, and then pass the set to the next person identified in the tapes, and so on, until the chain is complete. Anyone breaks the chain, Hannah’s set up a mechanism for the tapes to be made public.
As Clay begins listening to the tapes, the story unspools into a house of grotesque horrors, each perpetrator and willing or unwitting contributor and their actions dilated in a non-linear format. The unpeeling gets progressively painful with every passing episode, and you’re aghast, the serial forcing you to look right into the cauterized face of school gang politics, slut-shaming, online bullying, peer pressure to do all the wrong things, drugs, dysnfunctional families, rape and the burden of guilt on the victims. If that seems like a to-do list and an attempt to check off all items, it isn’t. And if you think stuff like this doesn’t happen and it’s all a bit too much of dramatic guff, it does and it isn’t.
You’re shocked at the viciousness of people at people who don’t ‘belong’ in their group. You’re mortified as you see Hannah reach out to help, though not ostensibly so, and at folks who just brush her aside – because they don’t care, or are too busy fighting their own battles – and you ask yourself, how many times did you not read the signs? You’re pushed into cringe-mode as you see hurt, yearn, and hurt fester in a vicious cycle of perpetuating isolation and eventual numbness. And you wonder, hurting, what a wasting away of a life it was that was Hannah’s. Was there no way she could have avoided this? Was this the only way out?
It’s not as though Hannah’s is a character perfect. As a matter of fact, she’s as flawed as the rest of her group, as are the rest of us in this perfectly flawed world. But it’s one crushing blow after another that she faces – mentally and physically, that eventually breaks her. 13 Reasons Why traverses this journey, even as it metes out an education that’s as harrowing as they come. And every episode gets darker, more disturbing, and ultimately an unbearably shocking watch. But watch you must – even as the makers ensure they don’t hide any sickening and gut-churning detail and stay away from gratuitousness – for looking away would mean allowing another Hannah to happen. That might sound like high drama, but hindsight is never a useful tool when dealing with something as traumatic as suicide.
In that too, the serial doesn’t flinch as it also unwaveringly plunges you into the grief-stricken world of Hannah’s parents – Olivia Baker (Kate Walsh breaking your heart into a million pieces, and then crushing each one of them) and Andy Baker (the simply brilliant Brian d’Arcy James, all calm and collected one second, and angrily breaking down the next, his act so soft and yet so fragile, you’re almost afraid to look at him.) It also brings into relief the darker, brighter, and grayer side of Hannah’s classmates, all played astonishingly well by the cast – Alisha Boe’s Jessica Davis – her eyes looking for, and seemingly within touching distance of fulfillment and yet hauntingly empty; Brandon Flynn as Justin Foley, seemingly cool and roguish, and yet carrying a cross that’s much too heavy for his age to bear; Miles Heizer playing Alex Standall, also carrying a cross that gets heavier with his rising conscience; Ross Butler’s Zach Dempsey, college star, surrounded by an admiring crowd, but almost as lonely as Hannah; Devin Druid carrying a camera and being a voyeur, and yet scared to look at his own feelings as Tyler Down; Michele Selene Ang’s Courtney playing the poker-faced helpful yet bitchy classmate, but actually struggling to conform; Ajiona Alexus as the so-sweet and seemingly faultless girl who has a crush on Clay, and yet is featured in the tapes, having a stunning secret of her own; Justin Prentice plays, nay embodies the despicable school brat and team hero Bryce Walker, while Derek Luke does a superb turn as Kevin Porter, the school’s well-meaning but inept counsellor. And there’s Clay’s best friend, Tony Padilla, played with a spirit that’s sparkling and courage that’s comforting by Christian Navarro, his character not on the tapes, and yet who knows more than anybody else does.
Adding to the suspense and tragedy is the soundtrack, and also that title music track that’s so brief, and yet carries a punch, beginning with a note of rising hope, and then ends on a note that’s as moving as Hannah’s life. And then there’s the lead actors – Dylan Minnette, playing the POV for you, as he discovers each tape and relives life in a brown-tinted flashback and in the darker, bluesy post-Hannah present, enunciating complex and struggling emotions with a stunning virtuoso of a veteran. And debutante Katherine Langford, on whose poetic performance hinges the entire plot – she’s simply breathtaking. And in her sad, beautiful, and deep, deep eyes do you find the helpless repartee to the survey’s answer: Nor did you have it as bad as I do now.
13 Reasons Why is rated R for disturbing material. This is not an easy watch, and viewer discretion is advised.
13 Reasons Why
Directors Gregg Araki, Kyle Patrick Alvarez, Carl Franklin, Tom McCarthy, Helen Shaver, Jessica Yu Running Time 49-61 minutes per episode
Writers Brian Yorkey , Nic Sheff, Thomas Higgins, Elizabeth Benjamin, Diana Son, Nathan Jackson, Kirk A. Moore, Hayley Tyler
Stars Dylan Minnette, Katherine Langford, Christian Navarro, Alisha Boe, Brandon Flynn, Justin Prentice, Kate Walsh, Brian d’Arcy James
Genres Mystery, Drama
Watch the trailer of 13 Reasons Why here: