13 Reasons Why, Good Guys, And the Question I Never Thought to Ask Myself
- Let’s be serious: you might as well slap a content warning on just about everything when it comes to this show and any discussion of it, but especially for sexual assault and suicide. I am not one to use these lightly or often, but I mean it here.
- I didn’t read the original book, so this piece is strictly on the merits of the series.
- Also, because this can literally never be posted enough: The National Suicide Prevention Hotline can be reached at 1–800–273–8255.
Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why, adapted from the YA novel of the same (albeit stylized) name, is a difficult series to recommend. That’s not a statement on its objective quality; though it has some glaring flaws that mostly stem from its length, it’s a good show overall. It’s just intensely uncomfortable, in terms of both its visuals and its narrative. Though I’m sympathetic to the concept, I’m generally the type to shrug off content warnings or the ominous “Viewer Discretion is Advised” disclaimer that preempts so many shows anywhere north of an TV-14 rating, and I’m very rarely the type to use them myself.
Not here. Not this time.
This show, especially the final two episodes, shook me more than just about anything else I can remember seeing in the past decade. And it’s as much for what it showed on screen as for what it forced me to confront about myself after the last episode ended. I’m oscillating between saying that the show should be mandatory viewing, that it’s better avoided by some, and that the very things that make it so uncomfortable are the reasons why it should be seen.
Spoilers for the first (only?) season follow.
The show centers on Hannah Baker, a high school junior who recently committed suicide, and Clay Jensen, her grieving classmate, coworker, and friend. Given that this was based on a bestselling YA novel, you get three guesses as to what Clay’s true feelings towards Hannah were, and the first two don’t count. As the rest of their school and community begins to move on from her passing after a few token displays of grief (including a painfully tacky scene in which a couple of girls take an Instagram selfie in front of her locker memorial), Clay struggles to make sense of why Hannah would end her own life, having never suspected that she was suicidal.
One night, the answers literally arrive on his doorstep courtesy of what amounts to Hannah’s suicide note: seven cassette tapes she recorded before her death. The eponymous ‘13 Reasons Why,’ one for each episode of the season, correspond with a side of each tape detailing a person’s actions that helped drive Hannah to kill herself (the seventh tape is necessarily blank on one side). And courtesy of a mysterious agent Hannah recruited to work on her behalf after her death, the numbered tapes are passed in turn to the people Hannah named responsible for her death, with the threat that if they didn’t listen to all of them and pass them along to the next person in the sequence, her agent would make them public and expose their sins to the world. From there, the story splits into two intertwining threads: an extended flashback anchored by Hannah bringing her tapes to life, leading all the way up to the moment she kills herself, and a present-day narrative anchored by Clay as he slowly makes his way through the tapes and slowly reacts to what he hears.
(That’s honestly the biggest criticism I have of the series, especially as I’m led to understand it was handled differently in the book. It’s hard to imagine Clay taking so long to listen to 13 cassette tapes in his possession when the subject matter, an explanation for why the girl he loved killed herself, is so important to him. If I can binge through a Netflix show faster than the main character of that same show can get through the same length of material, there’s something wrong. Just take a weekend off and power through, dude.)
(EDIT: A reader brought to my attention that the preceding paragraph invalidates Clay’s anxiety, something that’s made pretty explicit in the series, and how listening to Hannah’s tapes more slowly than others is pretty understandable in light of that and in light of his feelings for her. Out-of-story, I maintain that it’s a narrative decision that invites a lot of the ancillary cruft bogging the series down by stretching out the timeline and inviting too many outside perspectives and conflicts. But it isn’t without a strong in-story justification, as the show does portray Clay’s struggles to the point that he has multiple hallucinations of Hannah after her death. In snarkily criticizing the creative effects the pacing has on the show as a self-appointed critic, I inadvertently pissed on the serious real-life issue inspiring it, and I apologize for that. I’m going to leave the paragraph up as I originally wrote it, because I think the mistake ties into some of what follows in this piece, but I wanted to clarify my initial intentions and openly acknowledge my misstep.)
But I digress.
As the series progresses, Clay uncovers more of the thirteen reasons that led to Hannah’s death, and begins to confront the other people named on them for their actions in slowly tearing Hannah down. With each episode and each tape, a timeline of Hannah’s last year alive is constructed, and the audience gets to see in vivid detail the micro- and macro-aggressions that lead to its tragic conclusion. The Reasons themselves range from the seemingly mundane (being blamed for a breakup between two former friends and having positive-reinforcement notes stolen from her in a class activity), the malicious (being stalked, objectified, and having rumors about her promiscuity and sexuality spread en masse) and the openly heinous (being repeatedly molested by classmates, witnessing the rape of one of her friends and being raped by the same boy later, and having a school administrator suggest in so many words that she do her best to get over the ordeal).
And far from a roller coaster of inevitability towards a preordained outcome, the buildup to Hannah’s death burns like a classic theatrical tragedy with multiple exit ramps. Each episode suggests that if one, just one of these things hadn’t happened, she’d still be alive. It’s the combination of all thirteen in succession, and her disbelief that there’s anyone left who can or will help her, that destroys her will to keep going. And where many other shows would shy away from open depictions of rape or suicide, 13 Reasons Why pulls few punches in depicting three of what are far and away the most unsettling scenes I have ever seen in fiction; Hannah’s death, in particular, triggered the most visceral physical reaction I have ever had to a piece of media.
Though the show boasts a surprisingly large cast between the tapes’ culprits and many other ancillary characters, not all of whom are really up to snuff, it ultimately rests on the strength of Katherine Langford and Dylan Minnette’s respective performances as Hannah and Clay. And they crush it. Langford injects Hannah with so much creative gregariousness and witty likability, even in the midst of some truly horrifying scenes, that though the show’s very premise establishes that she killed herself you find yourself hoping against hope that it doesn’t happen, and feel the sting when it ultimately does at the end. Minnette’s role as the social outcast Clay calls for a lot of simmering stoicism as he hides his feelings about Hannah’s death from almost everyone and learns of his classmates’ role in pushing over the edge. But when the floodgates open, Clay’s confusion and pain spill over in particularly poignant breakdowns, exacerbated by his ever-escalating panic at what his role in Hannah’s suicide could have been (his revelatory tape comes near the end of the series).
It’s the show’s depiction of Clay that inspired this piece, because Clay, by any account, is a good guy. By his own admission, he can act like an asshole, which stems from a combination of his social awkwardness, the general tone-deaf nature of most teenage boys when it comes to girls, and his jealousy that Hannah would be interested in dating a letterman jacket-toting jock over him. And when he begins to identify the other people on the tapes, his methods of retaliation against them range from justifiable vengeance to petty acts of cruelty. But he’s shown to be a funny, attentive, self-aware, and fundamentally decent person overall, especially where Hannah is concerned. And when the show finally gets to his tape (he’s #11 of the 13), Hannah reveals that he’s the only person on the tapes who doesn’t deserve to be there, that she doesn’t hold him responsible for her suicide, and that the feelings he had for her were reciprocated in full.
Instead we see that Clay’s Reason, such as it is, was a botched (consensual) sexual encounter with Hannah that ended when she flashes back to other awful experiences with boys and furiously tells him to get away from her, a command he heeds with little question. Hannah reveals that while she secretly wanted Clay to stay and keep digging for the roots of her reaction, she can’t blame him for doing exactly what she told him to do, nor does she blame him for distancing himself from her afterwards. In the end, the only reason she named him on the tapes was because he was one of the only people she fully trusted to know the truth of what happened to her. This segues into a dream sequence where Clay stays with Hannah and comforts her by revealing the depths of his affection for her, but as another character rightly notes, Clay had no way of knowing that was what she wanted in the moment and could hardly be faulted for leaving as she commanded. After ten hours’ worth of seeing Clay work his way through the tapes and agonize over what he could possibly have done to “kill” someone he loved, Hannah’s posthumous absolution is presented as a relief for both the viewer and the character, reaffirming that one of our main characters ultimately bears no responsibility for the death of the other.
Except… that isn’t really true.
In almost all of Hannah’s recollections, we see how Clay is hovering in the periphery. And while he never actively engages in or endorses any of the 13 Reasons, the flashbacks show that his obliviousness or inattentiveness stick out as much to her as does the active malice from other people, specifically because she thought so highly of him in comparison to them.
When one classmate lists Hannah as having the “best ass” in their class, Clay fails to acknowledge why she wouldn’t consider that a compliment. When one of her poems is anonymously leaked in a school paper, he obliviously praises her work but suggests that her prose hints at a person he wouldn’t want to be friends with. When rumors swirl about her apocryphal promiscuity, his jealousy over not being the initial subject of her affections boils over in a blowup rather than a show of solidarity. When his male classmates make crude gestures towards her in the hallway, she catches him laughing a second too long at her expense instead of coming to her defense. When she tries to confess her accidental role in the death of one of his friends, his own pain over his loss and the lingering angst from their sexual misadventure lead him to angrily accuse her of going out of her way to inject herself in other people’s drama. These moments all add up, and they all stick out. That Hannah thinks well of Clay at all by the time of her passing is an extension of her own grace, but the show doesn’t shy away from depicting the slow erosion of trust that has taken place between them.
By the time her rape and subsequent rebuffing by a school counselor is revealed, even in her affirmation that Clay is a good person, Hannah still doesn’t have enough faith in him to tell him what happened or turn to him for solace. In the face of the ever-escalating monstrosities that she faced over the course of a single year, Clay’s overall goodness was still not good enough for her to let him try to save her, made starkly clear in their last scene together when Hannah walks away wordlessly to kill herself and Clay doesn’t think to pursue her.
Which brings me to the Question I mentioned in my title.
I think the first time a woman trusted me enough to tell me she’d been raped was during my freshman year of college. Since then, I’ve lost track of the number times a woman I knew has told me about their own sexual assault or abuse, either in confidence or as public declaration; it’s somewhere between Umpteen and Too Goddamn Many. Friends and acquaintances, classmates and coworkers, even erstwhile Tinder matches — with every year, more and more women in my life, be they in the heart of my inner circle or on the rim of the outer edges, have made their stories known. Maybe that’s a function of a country steadily becoming more feminist-friendly and attuned to sexual assault awareness. Maybe that’s a function of my painstaking evolution as a person that I’ve been entrusted with the knowledge. But every time it’s happened, privately or publicly, and every time the matter arises in American culture en masse, I’ve always wondered the same thing: “how many of my female friends have had this happen to them?”
I’m going to repeat that, and note the specificity of my words, because it’s important.
“How many of my female friends have had this happen to them?”
“Happen to them,” I would say. As though sexual assault is like cancer, or a lightning strike. Something awful that just happens to people by a stroke of incredibly bad luck, and not something that is done to them by others. Because every time, that was the question I asked.
Never, not once, had I ever asked myself how many of my male friends had raped or otherwise assaulted a woman. And the fact that it took me randomly binging a Netflix series on a whim to ask myself that question, after nearly six years of supposed “wokeness” in this sector of feminism and baseline human decency, rocked me to my core.
I rag on myself a lot, much to the consternation of friends and family who think that my penchant for jocular self-deprecation hints at something darker and deeper. But as I’d imagine most people do, I’d like to think of myself as a fundamentally decent person at my core. A witheringly acerbic and crassly profane pessimist, perhaps, with assholish tendencies and venomous incidental thoughts that make me eternally grateful telepathy doesn’t exist. But overall, a decent person, for a given value of decency.
A “good guy,” if you will.
And as a “good guy,” a nerd, and a socially awkward high-schooler (and collegian, let’s be honest) with a great many romantic missteps under my belt that still stick out years later, I inevitably found myself relating to Clay throughout the show. His reticence, his passion, his distance, his timidity, his jealousy, his hesitance, his confusion, and his pain. But by the end of the series, I began to fear that it was his inattentiveness that echoed the most strongly within me. While Clay simply couldn’t have been privy to some of the 13 Reasons, and notably wasn’t friends with Hannah’s rapist or present when it happened, there’s a reason that he didn’t know it happened to her, and a reason that he was blindsided by the revelation that such a thing could’ve happened in his school to someone he cared about.
Because one of the prohibitive characteristics of “goodness” is that it’s a blanket you tend to extend to the people and world around you. If you’re a “good guy,” it stands to reason that your male friends are as well — they wouldn’t be your friends if they weren’t. You blind yourself to the capacity of other people in your life, no matter how deep or casual your relationship, to inflict evil on the lives of others. In your assurance of your own moral code, you tend to project that to the people you decide to let into your social circles. On more than one occasion, I’ve run interference on a man who was a complete stranger that I thought was harassing a woman — but I’ve never done it to a male friend. And I honestly don’t know if it’s because I’ve successfully ensured all of my friends aren’t the kind of people who would do it, or if it’s because my blinders were up towards any improprieties in their behavior that would’ve been otherwise evident.
Statistically speaking, it’s probably been the latter at least once.
It’s the reason the popular male conception of a rapist is still the creep who breaks into a house or leaps out of the bushes, and not the acquaintance who aggressively pushes the boundaries of an encounter in the absence of affirmative consent. It’s the reason why the unbidden snap judgment towards a rape accusation hurled at a beloved actor or a hometown hero is incredulity. It’s the reason why too many people, men and women, could hear a man brag about committing sexual assault and believe him when he waves it away as “locker room talk” — and it’s the reason why too many others severely underestimated the number of people who’d be prepared to overlook it until it was too late. And apart from that, in your assurance of your own “goodness,” you fail to see the impact that your own seemingly innocuous behavior can have on those closest to you, that you don’t have to actively set out to hurt someone for your actions or inaction to cause them pain, and that your other positive qualities can’t erase that pain once inflicted.
That’s not good enough. Just being a “good guy” isn’t good enough; it can’t be good enough anymore. As has been said many times by many wiser people, neutrality in a conflict between the oppressed and the oppressor tends to favor the latter, and believing that evil can happen to people necessitates the subsequent belief that it’s something that others can inflict on them. And recognizing that evil can touch the people in your life also necessitates that it’s an evil that other people in your life are fully capable of inflicting in turn.
All in all, I’m not sure what it says about me that it took so long for me to realize that.
As I said, even in the face of widespread critical acclaim, this show is not without its problems. At some points, it perfectly captures the casual cruelty of high school teenagers, while at others it inflates them to almost cartoonishly villainous levels. The length of the series (thirteen one-hour episodes), and the ancillary subplots needed to pad it out, bloat what could have been a surgically concise season into something that’s needlessly sprawling. And the series oscillates between positioning the tapes’ culprits as having inadvertently contributed to the death of one of their classmates, to outwardly condemning them as responsible for it — a patently unfair charge for at least a few. Slap on the graphic imagery I mentioned above, and it all adds up why I’d hesitate to openly recommend 13 Reasons to someone, especially someone with a more personal relation to sexual assault or suicidal ideation than I do.
But it affected me, deeply. And while it’s possible that I’m just closer to the shittier end of the masculine spectrum than I ever realized, the questions it forced me ask myself and about my perception of the world around me are questions I think more men and boys could stand to ask themselves, especially in a world where some of the most powerful and influential men in the world steadfastly refuse to do so.
I’m honestly not sure why I’m writing this, and as such, I also have no idea how to properly end it. I don’t think it exposes anything especially good about myself or my past, it certainly falls flat as a missive of a male feminist #awokening, and I don’t know how to adjust my behavior to account for it; I’m not about to dress up like Batman and start interrogating the hundreds of guys in my life as to their past or present behavior towards women. And I imagine to a female reader, the rapid response would be much the same I would have reading a white person’s navel-gazing discovery of modern manifestations of racism as a black dude; rolling my eyes so hard they popped out of their sockets. Reaching the conclusion that the number of women I know who’ve been assaulted would necessarily suggest that some of the men I know have committed assault isn’t something that should’ve been jumped to, as it is something that was only ever a tiptoe away.
All I can do is crank up the Say Anything and affirm that I’m gonna try to do better.
And If there’s a dude reading this and who can relate to any of it, all I’m gonna say is this: however good we may or may not be, let’s be better together, man.
The women in our lives deserve nothing less.
You know what? Fuck it, let’s post it again: The National Suicide Prevention Hotline can be reached at 1–800–273–8255. If you or anyone you know is struggling with suicidal ideation, please call them.
And if we’re even marginally acquainted, you can call me.
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