Silence can be a powerful act. Perhaps fear resonates through your whole body as you struggle to find the right emotion to react to a specific event, so you stay silent. Or maybe you feel powerless and overwhelmed, like the weight of the world is upon your shoulders, so you stay silent. Or worse, through your silence, you come to regret something that could have easily been prevented. You end up feeling like there’s no one else to blame besides yourself. This motif of silence is explored in Netflix’s newest original series “13 Reasons Why,” based on the book of the same name by Jay Asher.
The series follows the story of Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) who left behind 13 tapes right before her suicide, with each tape addressing a certain individual that she claims drove her to the act of killing herself. As the audience, we follow the character of Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette) who, at the start of the series, is mysteriously given the tapes at his doorstep. Through use of clever transitional flashbacks, we see through his eyes the events that unfolded leading up to her suicide, and the immediate aftermath of said event. The hook of the series, as we immediately learn from Baker’s narration, is that whoever is given the tapes is actually one of the titular 13 reasons why she killed herself.
At first glance, I immediately wrote the show off for being another one of those young adult soap operas (looking at you “Pretty Little Liars”). None of the cast particularly enticed me either. So I shunned it at the back of my mind. But you know what they say, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” I ultimately gave in and was pleasantly surprised to find a gripping and maturely presented teen drama that I would go as far to say that it might be one of the best high school shows I’ve watched.
By mature, I mean that it doesn’t sugarcoat the difficulties of high school. The show tackles bullying and the pain certain characters suffer from it, particularly, the show’s lead, Baker. But more than that, the series also tackles themes that other teen (the keyword here) shows just don’t depict, such as death, drug abuse and rape. You could say, “Jeez, why does the show have to depict these acts in such an explicit manner when it could just be implied?” but that’s where the show excels. Although hard to watch, “13 Reasons Why” deserves credit for showing these issues in such an uncompromising manner that makes you much more emotionally invested for all (err, most) of the characters involved.
The cast, moreso the supporting cast, is another aspect that the show masterfully crafts during its suitable 13-episode run. The series, for the most part, centers on the intertwined tale of Baker and Jensen and why he is one of the people on the tapes, seeing as he thinks he did nothing wrong. But the supporting cast is where it shines. Amongst the noteworthy supporting cast there is Brandon Flynn who plays the ever-so-popular arrogant jock of the school, Justin Foley. (Record scratch) Before going any further, it’s best to establish that this show has many unlikable characters, either due to the stupid decisions they make (looking at you Clay), how coincidental some events regarding the characters’ arc transpire or just how the personality of certains characters are depicted throughout their series. Foley represents one of these unlikable characters: Frankly, the dude is pretty much your stereotypical arrogant jock at first. But as the series progresses, you come to realize he is who he is because of a troubled life at home, including a drug-addicted mother and her abusive boyfriend. For all the terrible things his character does, there’s a glimmer of sympathy to be felt for a character whose school life seems great despite a personal life that is absolute hell, seemingly leading him into a life he didn’t want to have.
With the case of two main leads, there’s a part of my heart that breaks when I see Minnette as Jensen and Langford as Baker on screen together, first and foremost because of the excellent chemistry they have and because it’s already known how the story ends. Although I give Minnette credit due to his emotional, heartbreaking performance, there’s still a subtle stagnant aspect to it. When I saw the first couple of episodes, I immediately thought of another film: “Perks of Being Wallflower” (also based on a book and shockingly similar in tone and soundtrack), and how you could easily replace the film’s lead, Logan Lerman, with Minnette in “13 Reasons Why” and there would be no difference. After watching all 13 episodes, I still stand by that statement.
On the other hand, the one who’s irreplaceable is the Aussie-native Langford as Baker. Langford perfectly encapsulates the trauma, torment and hopelessness a person suffers through constant harassment and bullying. The series really starts taking an emotional toll in the latter episodes in terms of the isolation she begins feeling from the rest of the students and so-called “friends” in her life. As she slowly erodes away from her life at school and at home, we come back to that silence; a silence that could have been prevented and a silence that will forever be regretted.
Verdict: Many times heartbreaking and at times difficult to watch, “13 Reasons Why” is a solidly crafted series that, despite being filled with seemingly too coincidental events and characters that make questionable decisions, tackles the issues relevant to high school campuses such as bullying and the emotional trauma associated with it through a gripping, unfiltered lens, making for one of the most noteworthy shows set in a high school in recent times.