Explainers

’13 Reasons Why’, Explained

Updated January 7, 2019
11 min read

’13 Reasons Why’ was a massive success for Netflix. The teen drama series received overwhelming support from audiences and critics, who praised its bold depiction of teen depression, bullying, and sexual assault. Is ’13 Reason Why’ based on a true story?  No, of course not. The series is actually based on Jay Asher’s 2007  novel of the same name. The success prompted an uninspiring season two, which saw the show mold itself in the current socio-political fabric of the teen demographic and lose its identity. The story of Hannah Baker prompted many social movements against rape and teen-bullying. ’13 Reasons Why’ became like a mouthpiece for unheard and suppressed voices, making its popularity sear through the roof. The thirteen episodes long season one focused on the aftermath of a suicide committed by high-school student Hannah Baker and the subsequent sojourns into the past as she confronts the people she holds responsible for pushing her through voice tapes.

Teens across the globe supported the show and were encouraged to raise their voices against bullying. The show, in many ways, opened up public avenues for people who’ve gone through trauma to discuss their problems and state of mind. Depression is a real problem and must be dealt with the utmost sincerity and seriousness. The first season encompassed many societies oriented themes like these, successfully balancing it against the compelling storyline. The creators made sure that the content was accessible for all and didn’t compromise on delivering a ratiocinate story. Season Two, though, drew widespread criticisms from fans and critics alike. Alan French, writing for Awards Circuits, held that “As the show evolves from a mystery and teen drama into a courtroom drama, it quickly loses its footing. The result is an inessential season of TV that revels in misery”. The ratings took a big hit, with a considerable drop in the viewership.

The talks for season three are still in its nascent stages. These aren’t more than mere rumors flowing to preserve the semblance of hype the show still commands. The second season seemed unbearable at times. The story felt stretched out, with the characters failing to offer anything new. It still managed to record a brilliant viewership and while the performances were praised, on the whole, the second season was universally panned for lack of imagination and uninspired storytelling.

Plot

Season One

The first season opens with Liberty High mourning the suicide of Hannah Baker, a student in the school. The narrative quickly starts taking shape and Clay, who is revealed to be Hannah’s best friend, receives a post addressed to him by Hannah, with a bunch of recorded cassettes. When he starts listening in, the tapes are revealed to be voiced by Hannah and explain, in her own words, why she committed suicide. The thirteen tapes are sent to thirteen different people. The first season focused on seven tapes. The subjects of the tapes were as follows: Justin Foley, Jessica Davis, Alex Standall, Tyler Down, Courtney Crimsen, Marcus Cole, Zach Dempsey, Ryan Shaver, Herself and Foley, Sheri Holland, Clay Jensen, Brye Walker, and Mr. Porter.

The list of people whom the tapes are addressed to are shown in a flashback with Hannah and how the events transpired. As the end nears, the information about the tape is made public, and a hearing in the court is scheduled in the matter. A lot of elements, who were a part of the story and remained hidden, are brought out by the public exhibition of the tapes. The last episode sees the people in the tapes and held responsible by Hannah for her death comes to terms with their guilt. “Zach and Jessica admit their mistakes. Before his deposition, Tyler hides ammunition and guns in his room and then reveals the existence of the tapes during his interview. Justin leaves town out of guilt, but not before telling Bryce about the tapes. Jessica finally tells her father about her rape. At school, Clay reaches out to Skye Miller, his former friend, to avoid repeating the same mistakes he made with Hannah”.

Season Two

The second begins right where the first ended and takes us to court, where Hannah’s case against the school has reached trial. Students and teachers are brought in as witnesses from both sides. Hannah’s mother, Olivia, is separated from her husband after Hannah’s death and lives alone in an apartment. The students who were on the tapes undergo depositions and are presented as witnesses in the court. In the backdrop of the legal drama, Clay gets a polaroid which reads “Hanna wasn’t the only one”, prompting him to delve further in the issue.

His probe doesn’t find welcome suitors and take him to the same group of people who were responsible for Hannah’s death. The season ends with the conviction of Bryce and Justin for their acts and a spoiled gun-shooting, which was initiated by Tyler. The final image of the season sees an armed Clay standing outside the building as the ocean of sirens flood the screen.

Teen Suicide and Rape

One of the best things to take away from the first season was the show’s honest portrayal of depression in teenagers, which is leading to increasing suicides. Hannah’s tragic story brought to life by recorded tapes, was a slow-burning, intricate narrative, that deserves plaudits. The creators’ original style of storytelling was uncompromising in the re-playing of Hannah’s incidents with different students. Two special scenes which warrant mention and were controversial and polarizing in nature were the rape scene at Bryce’s house and the eventual suicide in Hannah’s bathtub. Both remained in the thick of public conversation, attracting controversies and admirations along the way. Hannah’s story and the ultimate crescendo in these events start with few pictures of her. The gradual alienation, portrayed with a touch of panache, is representative of the journey victims of these heinous crimes go through around the world. This is probably the reason why the show touched a chord with the audiences and, on the contrary, was taken to the sword by critics.

The show’s thematic exposition also contributes to the dialogue on gender disparity and women empowerment. Its association with movements like ‘MeToo’ and ‘TimesUp’ sparked a general outrage from the public, especially the teen demographic. The compassionate response resonated with the creators and stars of the show, who took up other contemporary issues in the second season.

School Shootings

Season two ended on a rather bizarre note. The last episode sees Tyler being targeted by Montogemery and his group for the role he played in the trial. They strip him naked and sodomize him. Tyler then proceeds to plan and effectuate a mass school shooting at the dance. But his efforts are spoiled by Clay, who intervenes and prevents the shooting. The makers hinted towards something like this happening in the last episode of season one when we see Tyler assimilating weapons and ammunition before revealing his knowledge of the presence of tapes.

“You can’t stop the future
You can’t rewind the past
The only way to learn the secret
…is to press play.”

The climax, in my opinion, was not proportionate to the general schematic structure of the show. I would even go to the lengths of calling the last moments of the second season incongruent to the vested emotion of the show. Suddenly, from being about the tribulations and agony of a bullied and isolated girl, the makers tried to initiate a shift in the tone of the show and set a foundation for season three. While that is understandable, it is certainly not welcome. The shift so made seemed very abrupt and felt really raw. A couple of episodes more were required to hone this sub-plot. School shootings have traumatized modern America, having claimed the life of many innocent children. There has been an increase in the number of shooting incidents in the last few years. Although there must be an earnest and open discussion on the issue, the way ’13 Reasons Why’ presented it in the last episode was irresponsible.

Reflection on Teen Mental Health

’13 Reasons Why’ became the most watched show on Netflix when it first released. The target demographic of teenagers repaid the faith shown by its makers. The theme of degrading mental health in contemporary school students became the central theme of the show. A direct consequence of this is suicides and bouts of depression, prompting many commentators to deem the millennials as an extremely unhappy generation. Hannah Baker, in the show, is a constant victim of bullying, body shaming, and isolation by her peers. The few friends she does have are reluctant to come to her aid and often either side with the bullies themselves or stay silent spectators. Zach Dempsey and Clay Jensen are two apropos reflections of the two kinds of friends Hannah had. The show, though, doesn’t stop at Hannah in its exploration of issues among teens.

Tyler, for instance, is often targeted for being quiet and comfortable in his own world. Although he did weird a lot of the viewers as well with his constant stalking of Hannah, Tyler is representative of the misunderstood kin in our school life, who prefer staying aloof and limit their social interactions. By the end of season two, Tyler finally has gotten over his issues and desires to begin a healthy life thereon. The nascent dreams are crushed by Montogemery and his troops, who ambush him the boy’s stall and sodomize him. An event like this can shake any person to their core and given Tyler’s vulnerable mental state, he is pushed, rather unrealistically, to be honest, to concoct a plan of shooting at the dance night.

The characters in the show are universal emblems of teens struggling with issues, which affect their mental health. Their toxic environments do not let them be the best versions of themselves, and an effort to do so attracts ridicule and laughter from peers. Parents also play an important role in determining the status of their child’s mental health. Both Tyler and Hannah had great relationships with their parents. But for some reason, they didn’t feel like opening up to them. Olivia is seen repenting the loss of Hannah and her inability to intimately involve herself in Hannah’s affairs. She achingly embodies the grieving parent, who is overcome with guilt and regret when something like this happens. ’13 Reason Why’ makes an effort to start a conversation on such issues and encourages parents and their kids around the world to create a safe and understanding space between them to share their problems.

The Ending

Season 2 finishes with Tyler’s failed attempt to carry out a mass shooting. Clay, who averted the shooting, is seen standing holding Tyler’s rifle. The last episode saw a whirlpool of storylines emerge. Jessica and Justin get back together; Chloe reveals that she is pregnant; Clay rekindles his relationship with Skye and has closure over Hannah; and finally, Tyler sets on a self-destructive path that certainly will highlight season three. Season two largely zeroed in on the ‘why’ part of the show’s title and explored the equally harrowing stories of other girls in the school. Bryce, the culprit for many girls, was convicted. While this definitely brought much joy to the audiences and Hannah’s spirit, he isn’t sentenced to serve a jail term. So he is expected to return in the next season, albeit with a stained reputation. Knowing his character, expect the same arrogance from him.

The ending also brought curtains to the character of Hannah Baker (hopefully), as she finally receives justice. Clay’s long-standing guilt over Hannah’s death, which became the central theme of season two, might have finally come to an end. At some point in our lives, we all feel repentance and self-hatred for mistakes we make. The nature of our mistakes determines the haul of our regret period. Clay finds himself at the extreme end of the spectrum, blaming himself for Hannah’s death. But when he discovers that he was also a reason for Hannah to consider living, i.e., “Reasons Why Not”, he finally forgives himself, and in spirit, Hannah, whom he loved with all his heart. That was probably the moment of the show when we see Hannah disappearing from Clay’s life with a smile on her face and love for him.

With a third season already ordered and in production, it remains to be seen how will the makers handle the stories birthed in the last episode of the second season. Langford will not make a return for season 3, after bidding her character adieu via a Twitter post. Let’s wait for the third season and the secrets it spills that might get some in trouble at Liberty High.

Final Word

’13 Reasons Why’ is the perfect example of the power of the audiences. Despite getting average to poor critical response, the show has entered its third season, riding on the wild popularity it commands from viewers. Its hard-hitting probe into relevant social and mental issues of teenagers is complimented by a thrilling plot brought to life by outstanding performances.

Read More in Explainers: Stranger Things | Sharp Objects 

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