On March 31, Netflix began streaming (conveniently, 13 episodes of) “13 Reasons Why,” a chilling portrayal of high school as told through the recordings of Hannah Baker, a high school junior who has taken her own life.
Hannah, who was apparently of sane enough mind and body to record 13 sides of cassette tape for people she felt led her to this fateful decision, puts the tapes rotation order in the hands of the Fonzy-esque “Tony,” and each person who wronged Hannah gets to hear “their side of tape” as to how they did so, along with the stories about the others. The story’s living main character, played incredibly well by Dylan Minnette (Scandal, Goosebumps), is Clay Jensen. Clay is that middle of the pack kid who doesn’t seem to have much direction but performs well in school anyway. Not popular. Not unpopular. He and Hannah work together at the local movie theater, and it’s clear that Clay loved Hannah, to the degree that his maturity level could allow at his age, … and she to some degree had great affection for him as well. But even Clay learns, as the tapes near their end, how he didn’t come through for Hannah.
To discuss “13 Reasons Why,” I naturally had to ask my very wonderful old friend made new again, the lovely Krisd Mauga (who you last remember discussing Netflix’s “The OA” with me here at Todd Flora’s America), if she had been watching. Alas – she had. What follows is our WARNING – SPOILER FILLED – discussion.
TODD: Krisd, thanks again for digging in with me. So – wow. “13 Reasons Why” was quite haunting for me. Not ONLY because I worked at the movies, or would have fallen hard for a girl like Hannah just as Clay did, but because of how her story affected so many. Not only the “friends” she left behind, but also and especially the fantastic side story about her parents and their struggling neighborhood Pharmacy…and of course, the dynamics with the school administrators. The overall casting for the show was impressive, and I think Kate Walsh was probably at her vulnerable best here as Hannah’s mother, Olivia. Where I felt the most “played with” was with Derek Luke’s character, Mr. Porter, the guidance counselor. We see him as a sympathetic character for most of the story and then BAM! … the “move on” advice. Ouch.
There were other family dynamics as well. A series of parental dynamic affected all of the chief characters. Let’s take a look – most of these being almost overly stereotypical:
- Clay’s parents. Seem normal, goal oriented. But clearly they make sure the audience is aware that Clay’s father (the always under-utilized Josh Hamilton) is an aloof college professor not entirely involved in his son’s high school experience
- The uber-wealthy no-show parents whose son is a rapist who hosts a lot of parties
- The really bad mom who dates a white supremacist and always takes his side over that of her promising but very lost son
- The working class Latino father / gearhead who loves fixing up old cars
- The military family whose dad is often gone and whose daughter suffers not only rape, but responds in quite an unexpected fashion by trying to grow a CLOSER connection to her attacker (and to booze)
- The law enforcement dad with the very polar-opposite son, who has a somewhat weaker, non-athletic, emo/punk rock thing going (an almost unrecognizable Miles Heizer from Parenthood)
- Stereotypical Asian parent who keeps her kids in achievement overdrive (By the way, was Zach the only one who WASN’T an only child?! Think about it)
I’ll end my opener with this. If the show had a flaw, in my view it would be that it lacked any sincere examination of suicide itself, in favor of showcasing very typical high school slights (AND Rape). But why did we not get a true examination of the mental agony or “red line” one crosses from just being depressed to actually taking one’s own life. I mean, to take such a dire step, one must overcome some very strong survival instincts innate to human beings. I’m eager to hear some of your thoughts and questions for me.
KRISD: Wow…WOW! This show brought up so many emotions revisiting the memories of my own high school bubble of “Breakfast Club” drama. There were so many moments where we know each typical teenager has experienced or felt at some point during the trials of growing up: peer pressure, teenage angst, the desire to fit in, popularity vs invisibility, discomfort in our own bodies and minds. I remember feeling like I never belonged anywhere… and a life’s search of where do I fit in? “13 Reasons Why” kind of brought so much of that back to me… and possibly to others as well. But what it also really brought me is the realization we shouldn’t feel the need to belong. We should embrace others needs of belonging to complete the circle.
The casting was infallible; each actor brought their character to life. As you said the stereotypes were quite typecast of a throwback to the John Hughes days of Pretty in Pink, Sixteen Candles, and Breakfast Club – all favorites of mine so I didn’t really mind. I do feel the characters could have been developed a bit more but maybe that was the purpose of it to create more mystery to draw from and possibly their way leaving an open to another season.
A few things I feel they missed was the deep-rooted depression she must have been experiencing; it truly starts off quite nonchalant and somewhat a vindictive maneuver and to the utmost extreme. That part worries me for teenagers who truly are experiencing depression and thoughts of suicide.
How do you feel about the circle of ties of how it started with one person (Justin Foley) being the root of the cause? Did the evolution of the story intrigue you or kill the design of the characters?
TODD: First, you mention the possibility of a second season. Oy. And while I was very disappointed that the ending didn’t give us several payoffs I was hoping for, including: 1) Consequences for the high school administrators/staff, and ESPECIALLY 2) prison (and plenty of prison yard beatings) for Bryce the rapist … I can’t fully endorse a Season Two. They are also talking about a second season of Big Little Lies. The common theme for these two ideas? There is no additional literature to draw from! Both were novels with a definitive ending, or, admittedly, a requirement to use our imagination about the future. I REALLY think America is suffering from an inability to let things end and create something new and original. I can imagine it is difficult being in motion picture or TV development, and having to constantly come up with new ideas when you have proven winners from which you could more cheaply and easily just draw additional material. But what about us as viewers? I somewhat feel like there is a “Pressure to Keep Up” (Wow – PTKU – sounds like a real condition!), where now, despite being satisfied with what a mini-series provided (e.g. Big Little Lies, 13 Reasons), I will feel compelled to watch the subsequent, totally made up on the fly subsequent seasons almost as if to “validate” my viewing of the first season – the one actually based on a piece of literature! Can you understand my frustration?
Anyway – as to your questions, I do think it is interesting AND makes sense for Justin to have been the first offender to betray Hannah’s trust and dignity. Justin is a guy who is successful in high school, but doesn’t ever totally feel equal to his richer, smarter friends with whom he may share a soccer field or basketball court. When his day ends, he has to return home to that nightmare of a mother and the boyfriend with the Nazi tattoos. So he tries to impress his friends with some prankish (in his mind) behavior like he pulled with Hannah. From there, the offenses and crushes and friendships and betrayals seemed to weave around like a classic high school fabric.
As for the evolution of the story, it didn’t “kill the design of the characters” for me, with the exception I mentioned earlier of ruining my view of Mr. Porter, the counselor. If anything, we got to know the characters in ways we could truly understand what made them tick. Jessica is a military brat who never stays anywhere very long. So, what does she do? She holds on even tighter to the people in front of her, even the one that raped her. Zach is a good kid, but he’s been told he’s so excellent all his life he can’t understand Hannah’s rejection, and takes it out on her. Bryce is so entitled he convinces himself he’s God’s gift and that “no means yes,” literally!
I will say there is one character that I REALLY wish they had developed more, and who could have really been an appropriate landing pad for Clay and his deep sense of loss – Skye, the server at the coffee shop (played by Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick’s real life daughter Sosie Bacon!). The show establishes that they had been friends earlier, perhaps elementary and middle school, and let’s face it – Skye would have been the natural person to have dated Clay, and he Skye, if Hannah never entered the picture. Would you agree? So, that was a real disappointment. I’m not saying I expected Skye to “save” Clay at the end, but perhaps it could have ended with his re-engaging his friendship with her and being more attentive and appreciative of her? Any additional thoughts?
KRISD: To me, yes it was left with questions to possibly build off the characters, Bryce’s possible fate, the aftermath of the exposed truths and how their lives change. Maybe this sparks a new a novel beforehand? It just seems as though they can take this in so many directions if they or the fans choose.
I definitely appreciate the story has ‘Hannah’ (who looks like a dead ringer for Ione Skye, actress from my favorite movie “Dream for an Insomniac”) out Justin as the fire starter of her demise. It starts with him and ultimately beyond ‘Bryce’, it ends with him; that was a very interesting tour of the 13 reasons why.
Counselor Porter was a complete disappointment, not as the character but as the possibility of reality. Can you imagine the weight this would play on anyone to realize they missed it? They actually had every sign they needed to instigate a deeper conversation with the parents and/or a specialist. Can you imagine being a parent and then learning this as well? Learning all of it? Holy shit I would lose all composure and reason!
As for Skye and Clay, I feel they bring it all together in the end when he realizes this is an opportunity to make sure that she, too, doesn’t end up as a statistic. It’s a lesson learned to recognize the signs, don’t avoid difference and embrace people’s uniqueness with kindness.
I truly hope this show brought awareness to live life as yourself while accepting others as they are despite opinion and to be compassionate to everyone. … I also hope [the show] educates everyone the impact of words, rumors, lies and boundaries. Our bodies are our own and without a firm yes, then it always means no.
TODD: If middle school and high school-age kids do watch this show (Netflix and other streaming services don’t share demographics or even ratings), I do hope this helps them – including those with otherwise happy lives – see how their words and actions affect others around them. … I guess if we DO see a made-up Season Two, we’ll know enough people were certainly watching (because Netflix ONLY renews if a series IS getting ratings) and maybe the characters in the show will help one another heal and mature in ways that improve each other instead of tear one another down. And, of course, that Bryce goes to jail!
“13 Reasons Why” is streaming now on Netflix. Check it out.
I watched this with my girls and while frustrated and disappointed with some aspects, I appreciate that some of the flaws in character and writing opened up opportunities for discussions. I feel like the ending was left open ended and maybe inadvertently keeps the discussion going. Just as in the story, personal perspectives give insight as to which direction it goes. I spoke to a school counselor yesterday about this and listening to what stands out individually encourages more dialogue. I’m torn on how I feel about another season. Answering all the unknowns and giving closure simply tells one perspective, leaving it open to interpretation offers many.