Morman reviews painful, powerful ‘13 Reasons Why’

"13 Reasons Why.' Courtesy Netflix

The truth is “13 Reasons Why” wasn’t a series that was on my radar even as late as last week (it premiered on Netflix on March 31). I heard nothing of the show on the internet, saw no advertisements for it on YouTube and generally had no idea about its source material.

I happened to discover the show on Netflix by chance and since all of my usual weekly TV shows were on a midseason break, I decided to watch an episode or two and see if it was something worth watching.

After 15 minutes the show had me hooked, and over the course of two days I watched all 13 episodes. Netflix usually has a great track record of promoting their best productions but in the case of “13 Reasons Why,” it seems they undersold the product. As it stands now, “13 Reasons Why” is my second favorite show of 2017.

The series is fundamentally about Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford), a junior at Liberty High School who has committed suicide. Before she took her own life, she left a series of 13 tapes that discuss the 13 reasons that lead her to commit suicide. Each tape revolves around an interaction between Hannah and another person at Liberty High School. Once a person finishes the series of tapes, they have to pass the tapes on to the next person on the list.

Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette), a friend of Hannah, receives the tapes two weeks after her death, and what emerges is a mystery that is as griping as it is entertaining throughout the entire 13 episode catalog. It is through Clay that we journey through the narrative of the show, and it seems he is as clueless about the whole situation as we the audience are. Viewers experience Hannah’s story through Clay. As a result, he becomes a sympathetic character.

Clay (Dylan Minnette) receives the tapes. Courtesy Netflix

One of the many interesting aspects of the show is the way it forces the audience to always hold Clay at arm’s length. As the show goes on, every character involved in the tapes has done something fairly harmful to Hannah, and that makes the sympathy I felt for Clay become more guarded as the narrative progressed.

“What did Clay do?” became the question that burrowed into the back of my mind as each episode passed.

While that tension was being built, an immense and interwoven narrative was being presented that felt personal and allowed the audience to at least understand Hannah’s motivations for committing suicide, even if they didn’t agree with it. Each episode tells an individual story about Hannah and another character, and each showcases the amazing storytelling abilities of the creative team behind the show.

On the note of the creative team, “13 Reasons Why” features a truly stunning group of directors, including two Academy Award winners. Tom McCarthy, director of 2015’s Best Picture, “Spotlight,” directed the first two episodes, and his direction really helps immerse the audience in the story. His artistic style is planted in the first two episodes, and resonates through every following episode.

Jessica Yu, the Academy Award winning director for “Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien,” directed episodes 11 and 12, which are two of the four most powerful episodes of the series.

Even with all of the amazing directors behind the camera, the story would have failed if the characters in front of it weren’t interesting. Hannah is the most interesting character of the show, and rightfully so as the story is her story to tell. A lot of films use the common trope of solving the death of a woman, while the woman in the story has no agency.

This common trope is flipped on its head for “13 Reasons Why” as most of the story takes places as a set of interwoven flashbacks starring and narrated by Hannah.

Katherine Langford’s performance as Hannah left me feeling that this character was full of personality and life, which is ironic as she’s a character detailing the loss of her humanity. The creators of the show really make the audience care about Hannah and at the best moments of the show, they make you forget she’s dead.

Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford). Courtesy Netflix

This provides even more tragedy to the story because at the end of the show it becomes very clear that Hannah is not alive. There was never any doubt that Hannah was dead, the show was just written in a way that constantly has you hoping that she isn’t. The show covers the reactions from many people involved in Hannah’s life, from teachers, friends, fellow students but most importantly, her parents.

Brian d’Arcy James and Kate Walsh play Hannah’s parents, Andy and Olivia Baker. Both of their performances are as brilliant as they are heartbreaking. Their journey is that of parents trying everything they can to understand why their daughter would take her own life. They grasp every piece of information, evidence and rumor to try to construct some sort of logic to the situation.

The last four episodes of the series are absolutely brutal and emotionally draining. I would recommend that if you do watch the show, you prepare for what comes in the last few episodes. Each of those episodes gets a disclaimer at the beginning of the episode, and it is not used lightly. The content in those episodes will most assuredly upset people emotionally.

It is intended to elicit a reaction from the audience, because this story pulls no punches. They don’t leave much to the imagination. They show you everything. Some people might not like the show because of that, but for me it only added to the value of the narrative. The creators had no intention of letting people minimize the actions and reactions of the characters in the story.

The only issue I had with the show is that everyone who sinned against Hannah was treated pretty equally by both Hannah and the narrative. What I mean is that some of the actions against her weren’t as severe as others, but they were all given essentially the same amount of weight, which I didn’t find too realistic. It wasn’t a big problem but I did think that even if Hannah’s character believed them all to be equal, the story should have taken a few more steps to heighten the severity of some actions and lessen others.

“13 Reasons Why” on its face comes across as another run-of-the-mill young-adult story, but viewers realize fairly quickly that it is anything but. It has valuable lessons for people of all ages, whether that is to be cognizant of how you treat others or to recognize the warning signs that a person might be suicidal. These lessons can be grasped by high schoolers, adults and parents. Although the show can be especially hard to watch in the last few hours, it is only holding up a mirror to society and asking them to care enough to take a look.

I give Netlifx’s “13 Reasons Why”  9/10


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