Every time the tape plays, “Hey it’s Hannah. Hannah Baker. Settle in because I’m about to tell you the story of my life” at the beginning of the 13 Reasons Why (2017) episode, the audience is drawn back to the story and once again becomes ready to be engrossed by the tragic, yet engaging story. The coexistence of brutality and innocence, true love and absolute animosity, friendship and betrayal allows viewers to both smile and cry in one sitting. Despite having evoked much controversy since its release, the series is running for its second season and the secret to its success can be discovered by looking at the first season of the series, 13 Reasons Why: Beyond the Reasons.
▲ Zach and Hannah in the cafeteria. PROVIDED BY TEEN VOGUE.
The series was promoted for four months before it was released on March 31 by singer-actress Selena Gomez, the former Disney star making her offscreen debut as an executive producer of the series. Gomez, with over 124 million followers on Instagram, managed to successfully gain undivided attention from the teenage and young adult age group, which resulted in high popularity among teenagers. Yet, the show has the grown-ups worried about dark and possibly consequential side effects from its murky plot and graphic images of teenage suicide, sexual assault, bullying, depression and violence.
The series, based on the Jay Asher novel Thirteen Reasons Why (2007) is a jigsaw puzzle. Its ending, Hannah Baker’s death, can be guessed from its beginning and each episode is one piece of puzzle leading up to it. The story— stitched together with various characters’ perspectives—is full of suspense and authentic, yet heartbreaking. What confuses the audience though, is how each character speaks differently of each event. While the tapes of Hannah, the main character who leaves a box of tapes that contain the reasons for her suicide, are played, accusing each person of how their actions had affected her, the people on the tapes deny it. They say that what they had done was right and what Hannah had said was wrong.
Such differences of perception lead viewers to think upon what it means to be right. Sometimes, just as it did for Hannah, when people come up with their own theory of what they think is right and act upon it, they hurt others. This does not apply just for Hannah, but for everyone who is amidst various social relationships. One’s own hasty interpretations of right and wrong can scar people in ways that are unforeseen. None of the characters within the story did what they did, thinking they would hurt, scar and even kill Hannah. Their actions stemmed from personal belief that what they were doing was going to be okay for her, too.
To successfully illustrate such complexity of the problem within 13 episodes, the producers use various on-screen tricks. To differentiate the situation before and after Hannah’s death, the overall color scheme before Hannah’s death is bright, yellow and orange. However, after Hannah’s death, the world is dim and grey. Also, Clay Jenson, Hannah’s closest friend, has a scar on his forehead that helps viewers out enormously within the intricate arrangement of the plots. It helps them differentiate Clay before Hannah’s death and after Hannah’s death.
▲ Hannah in the school corridor. PROVIDED BY REFINERY29.
Additionally, viewers can pay attention to the choice of music and the lyrics that are played, as they are perfect representations of the characters’ voices. One of the most heartbreaking scenes in the series is when the tape takes Clay Jenson back to the night Hannah discovers her feelings for him. In this scene, the audience is struck by the lyrics of the song The Night We Met (2015) by Lord Huron. The lyric goes, “Haunted by the ghost of you. Oh, take me back to the night we met”—a perfect representation of how much Clay Jenson regrets not giving Hannah the love she deserved during her lifetime and not cherishing attention on the trivial acts that signaled Hannah’s interest in him.
For some, the idea of creating a dead character that tells the story about the bullies who caused her death may seem to glorify suicidal acts to some degree. Such critics say that it could lead to justifying suicides, making it seem acceptable when used as a form of revenge. Again, the producers are unapologetic in their decision to illustrate their message on screen. Gomez, the executive producer of the film, voiced that the controversy was partly what they had intended. She said that the film had to scare and shock its audience in order to tell them what was wrong in this age where the Internet and Social Networking Services (SNS) have taken bullying and violence to the next level.
The backlash does not stop there. Although it is made unmistakably clear within the first minute of the first episode that all 13 episodes will eventually lead up to Hannah’s death, such warnings are by no means enough to prepare the audience for the controversial finale. The explicit on-screen portrayal of the way Hannah chooses to end her life and the pain that results have shocked numerous adolescent viewers and left countless parents questioning the delivery of the message. They criticize that, compared to the relatively detailed and elaborate process of teenage suicide, there is not much of a venue provided for acquiring help and preventing suicide.
The truth is, no art is perfect. It is nearly impossible to avoid controversies when dealing with sensitive subjects such as teenage suicide, rape and violence. Everyone has slightly different ideas on suicide prevention, how to ask for help and how to portray them on screen. The audience does not have to agree that 13 Reasons Why’s production te am provided the per fect representation of the torment that adolescents go through.
Nonetheless, the production team is cautious with the subjects and tries its best to depict accurately the troubles of the characters by seeking help from mental health experts. Despite it all, thinking about what the producers had done wrong, the audience can reverse the thought to think, “then what is the right way to deal with these issues and what can I do to provide help or reach out for help?”—the very question the producers have always wanted to raise since its inception.