(Image Source: Salon/Netflix/Beth Dubber)
Apologies for having no “Day 28”. I spent most of Saturday binging Netflix’s powerful “13 Reasons Why”. It left me… not just speechless but wordless, to the point I couldn’t post. I couldn’t post on it or anything. Instead, I read a number of articles about it. From my favorite TV reviewer, Alan Sepinwell, published on March 23rd:
The tapes arrive in a box: seven old-school audio cassettes, with 13 of their 14 sides numbered in blue nail polish. They come with simple instructions: Listen to them all, then pass them on to the next person on the list. The tapes were recorded by Hannah Baker, a teenage girl whom everyone on the list knows terribly well, because she recently killed herself. And Hannah’s voice promises two things:
“I’m about to tell you the story of my life — more specifically, why my life ended. And if you’re listening to this tape, you’re one of the reasons why.”
This is the devastatingly simple hook for 13 Reasons Why, a new Netflix drama (debuting next Friday) adapted — by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Brian Yorkey (Next to Normal) and a group of indie directors led by Spotlight‘s Tom McCarthy — from the best-selling YA novel by Jay Asher. The tapes move roughly chronologically through the brutal last year or so in the life of Hannah (Katherine Langford) as her soul gets ground down to the point where she would prefer death, each side detailing the role one individual played in either hurting her or failing to help her when she needed it most.
When the story begins, the tapes have arrived on the doorstep of Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette), a shy kid who worked with Hannah at the local movie theater, harbored a crush on her from minute one, and as far as he can recall, was never anything but nice to her. So he listens to the tapes as much to figure out why he might be on one of them as to learn all the sad details of Hannah’s tale, which we see play out even as Clay, her parents (Kate Walsh and Brian D’Arcy James), and all the other people on the tapes struggle with the aftermath of her suicide.
There are teen dramas that are excellent by the standards of the genre, and then there are excellent dramas that just happen to be about teens. 13 Reasons Why aspires to join the likes of My So-Called Life and Friday Night Lights in the latter group, and succeeds far more than it has any business doing, given some pretty big structural flaws that at times make the season an uphill climb.
He wrote a follow-up today, too, chock full of spoilers, so be forewarned. Constance Grady, writing at Voxx, views the film as being better than the book on which it is based:
The most important character development in 13 Reasons Why goes to Clay and Hannah. Book Clay is flat as paper, a self-described nice guy whose defining character trait is that parents like him because he says please and thank you. But as played by Minnette, TV Clay is a likably awkward loner who slowly frays into a single raw nerve ending over the course of the show. You believe that he’s genuinely nice; you also believe that he has more than one personality trait.
Book Hannah has some shading, but just enough to establish that she was born out of the fantasies of a thousand lonely high school boys: She’s attractively damaged but secretly pure, sarcastic but unthreatening, and only Clay really understands her because of a secret connection they have that the book does nothing to sell. (Asher notes in his afterword that his editor pushed him to make Clay and Hannah interact more than once so that readers would buy their instant connection, and the fact that their subplot was an afterthought shows.)
Langford adds some edge and wit to Hannah’s sarcasm while preserving the wide-eyed vulnerability underneath. Her damage isn’t sexy, but it is compelling: 13 Reasons Why features endless close-ups of Hannah’s eyes filling with tears and her chin just beginning to wobble as she realizes that once again, someone she thought was a friend has betrayed her, and damned if Langford doesn’t manage to sell it every time. And she and Minnette have an easy, bantering chemistry in the Clay/Hannah subplot, which is much-expanded for the better.
But the most important change the TV show makes from the book lies in the way it treats its central mystery. The book cheats in its resolution to the mystery and betrays its central premise, and it’s the TV show’s greatest strength that it finds a way to repair that story beat.
Skipping down a bit, this part right here really gets at the heart of the story:
More importantly, the show doesn’t allow Clay to duck responsibility for Hannah’s death. Hannah may think Clay is innocent, but Clay doesn’t. His sins are pretty minimal — he laughed at a dumb joke here, got jealous and defensive there — but they exist, and Clay feels their weight. He believes in his own complicity, and that belief restores the central idea of the story: Everything affects everything.
Perhaps I should have expected that. “13 Reasons Why” is basically an agnostic version of the act Catholics know as Confiteor, a prayer meant to inspire reflection on all we’ve done and all we’ve failed to do. Admittedly this is one person’s reaction watching the show under a specific version of numbness, but maybe it conveys how viscerally affecting this show can be. Not many series puncture the veil of emotional separation between viewer and screen with such unexpected precision.
In the Episcopal church, as part of Holy Eucharist, we make a Confession of Sin before taking Communion as recorded in The Book of Common Prayer. It states:
Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,
have mercy on us and forgive us;
that we may delight in your will,
and walk in your ways,
to the glory of your Name. Amen.
I don’t know all of the reasons why I did not do, why I “left things undone” and how that affected others. But I humbly repent, and pray to do better going forward, through the grace of God.