I was 15 when I read Thirteen Reasons Why — an age in which misplaced angst and self-involvement were at an all-time high; where there was a lot of introspection but hardly any self-awareness. The premise was intriguing: a teenager receives a set of tapes which turn out to be from a troubled girl who recently killed herself and is confronted with the possibility that he and his classmates may have had a hand in her demise. At the time, suicide and crushing personal tragedies were as good as fictional from where I stood. (Mostly.) Things like that didn’t happen to people like me, or people around me.
This was before I had struggles of my own against mental illness, and before a friend I’d grown up with, the friend I’d known longest, ended her own life when we were 18.
Everyone I knew had read it — the book somehow became the voice of a generation for a time. This distinction, however, was short-lived, and it wasn’t long after I’d read it that I’d written it off and forgotten all about it. So, it seemed, had everyone else.
When the Netflix adaptation was announced, all the way up to its premiere on March 31, I was dismissive. Too much time had passed. I thought I’d watch anyway, out of curiosity. (And because Miles Heizer is in the cast, and I adore him.)
Fast-forward to April 1 at 5 a.m., and there I was, hours into a binge session and crying for the umpteenth time.
The book came out in 2007, the year “emo” culture peaked. However, we were far from being blunt about feelings of sadness, loneliness, and despair online for fear of being judged. I wanted to see how the 2017 iteration of 13 Reasons Why (the show makes use of the numeric form for purposes of distinction) would figure into more open discussions of mental health and suicide, and they were able to clearly reflect this by having a tell-it-like-it-is approach to such sensitive topics. They aren’t glossed over or cryptically depicted, and they aren’t played for drama.
In the book, Clay listens to Hannah Baker’s tapes in one night. But the miniseries expands on this, not only because it spans 13 hour-long episodes, but also perhaps because the producers felt there was more of the story to tell. Instead, Clay takes his time, and this enables the series to build on the characters and their inner lives the way the novel, or a film that would’ve been adapted from it, never could. Clay and Hannah remain at the center, but instead of being surrounded by minor characters, they’re supported by an ensemble cast. (Although maybe “support” isn’t the right word.)
Thus, the stakes are even higher, the conflict more nuanced. Clay wants to make things right and his peers will do anything to stop him from exposing their worst secrets. You feel the ache and frustration from very different perspectives, even from the ones you don’t consider worthy of sympathy. And the thing is, every one of these teens is going through some tough sh*t ― but it never feels like an after-school special or like they’re trying to turn the show into the ultimate guidance counselor pamphlet by cramming in every possible social issue. Because it’s true. We all deal with terrible things, and sometimes not in the way we’re supposed to. And maybe this show exists to show us how we can do better.
It’s the kind of thing that makes you want to look away, but you can’t. (Of course, tread carefully and take a breath, because some of the imagery can be triggering, and it can get very heavy.)
And if you’re uncomfortable, good — you should be.
At first, I thought the show would feel like a pleasant, if brief and forgettable, catch-up session with a friend I’ve lost touch with. But becoming reacquainted with it, knowing what I know now and having experienced what I’ve experienced in the seven years since I read the novel, it felt more like a reunion. We wallowed together. We, to borrow a word from Brooklyn Nine-Nine, “catharted” together. We faced reality and found a tiny bit of hope together.
We’ve done a lot of growing up, Thirteen Reasons Why. And it turns out we have quite a lot in common, after all.