(Photo credit: Variety)
13 Reasons Why debuted on Netflix only a few weeks ago, but has already generated massive buzz, both about its content and execution. A harrowing, sad story of a young woman named Hannah who takes her life and leaves behind thirteen tapes with reasons as to why, this series was an addicting ride from start to finish. Because we had a lot of feelings about the content, characters, and resolution, some of the writers formed a roundtable to discuss 13 Reasons Why. So join Jenn, Marilyn, Jen K., and Rae as they talk about this show!
Warning: Massive spoilers ahead for the series. Read at your own risk.
Let’s start off with this question: Did you read the book that the series is based on? If so, how does it compare overall?
Marilyn: I have not read the book but I have seen articles that discuss the differences and I leafed through the book this last weekend. The series seems to have fleshed out the characters more, added more nuance to the story, and basically beefed everything up. Which I think is a good thing.
Jenn: I actually never read the book! But now I want to.
Jen K.: Same! Never read the book.
Rae: I... also never read the book.
We’ll dive into the characters first. Who was the most complex or compelling character for you? Who was the least interesting?
Marilyn: So many of these characters were compelling. The really layered characters like Justin and Jessica were perhaps the most interesting. They were not immediately “good” or “bad” — there was a lot to their stories and watching them evolve over the course of the present day (as well as through flashbacks) was one of my favorite things. I also found Alex to be very interesting, especially when I rewatched the episodes. He was played with a lot more nuance than I originally noticed.
As for least interesting, I would say Courtney. Mostly because I didn’t feel she had a very solid reason for her decisions and they seem fairly selfishly motivated without any redeeming reasoning. Marcus too.
Jenn: I really loved Justin’s characterization because we’re meant to believe, at the beginning, that morality is black and white and that people are too — Justin is bad, and Hannah is good. But the most interesting thing to me is that Hannah wasn’t totally good and Justin wasn’t totally bad. He made bad decisions, but he didn’t make them selfishly. And, in the end, the realization that Justin tried to keep Jessica safe was heartbreaking. He did what he thought was best, and it was painful for him (that scene at the party when he realizes what he let happen to Jessica was so sad). I also really love Alex. He’s really one of the only characters who, by the end of the season, feels remorse for the way he treated Hannah. He tries to get other people to own up to what they did wrong and recognize that because of it, they deserve whatever punishment comes their way. And that’s exactly why I loved Sheri so much too. She was a good-hearted person who made a mistake, but felt guilt over it and tried to make amends the best way she knew how.
I agree with both of you who found Courtney to be the least interesting. Her stakes were so low and convoluted that I found myself rolling my eyes at her more often than not. I also really didn’t like Marcus as a character at all. I found his motivations to be better than Courtney’s, but his personality was just grating.
Jen K.: Justin was one of the more complex characters, which believe me was a shocking discovery. After watching the first episode, I was not expecting to sympathize with Justin in any way, but by the end I did. I thought 13 Reasons Why did an excellent job of showing Justin’s reasoning behind the decisions he made, particularly with Jessica and his “friendship” with Bryce. Justin’s decisions were still horrible and spectacularly wrong, but I think it’s important to show characters who do the wrong thing believing those choices are for the right reasons. We as humans can rationalize just about everything. Sometimes we believe that if we have a “good reason” for doing something then it’s okay — especially kids. Some choices are just wrong, no matter the reasoning, no matter the situation, and it’s important for children and adults alike to see that.
Least interesting I would agree with Marilyn and Jenn and say Courtney because I cringed almost every time she opened her mouth. Marcus too because he seemed the least impacted by the tapes. He took narcissism to a whole new level.
Rae: Agree with everyone about Justin, who I found very interesting, and Courtney, who I did not. I also feel like Bryce was not a very good villain. I get that the show may not want to give humanity to a rapist, but part of what the show was exploring was that a rapist could be a random guy at a party who seems like a fun guy, or is someone who you thought was a friend, and Bryce didn’t seem to me like a fully fleshed-out person. I also didn’t love Tony. I feel like the show could have just... skipped him? I kept getting annoyed with his mysterious statements and any resolutions he brought were not satisfying enough to be worth the irritation.
Jenn: I agree with you about Tony, partially, Rae. I think I liked him as a person and a character. He was a fun mentor-figure to Clay and helped him become a better, bolder individual. But in terms of his role in the mysteries Hannah created, I feel like the show hyped his involvement up too much and the resolution was just kind of meh.
13 Reasons Why digs deep into some really difficult and, at times, uncomfortable topics like mental health, suicide, and rape. What are your thoughts on how these subjects were handled?
Marilyn: I’ve seen some are concerned that these heavy issues are handled lightly or that these issues are glorified. I didn’t see it that way at all. I felt that the creators went to great lengths to try to portray all this in as realistic a fashion as possible. The nuances of mental health and even rape were explored. Suicide was portrayed as hard and painful and permanent. It’s not easy to watch and it isn’t supposed to be.
Jenn: There’s no doubt that this series was hard for me to watch, especially the final two episodes. But I agree with Marilyn, and don’t think they were sensationalized or glorified. The message of this series, overall, is that we never know what’s going on in someone else’s life and that’s why we need to be there for people. It was not glamorous and 13 Reasons Why showed us that — not only how painful it was for the person suffering, but for those closest to them too. The rape scenes in particular were so hard to watch because Bryce sounds like people in real life. He’s not some off-the-wall, fabricated villain. He’s scary because he’s so realistic. I don’t know that mental health was tackled with the tact that it deserves (Hannah’s depression is really only hinted at, as is Clay’s mental state), and I would have liked to see more of a focus on that part of Hannah’s life. But honestly, the whole series was spent discussing difficult topics and I’m grateful that the show was bold enough to go to places that made us unsettled, as viewers. I felt something while watching the show, and that’s the most you can hope for when it comes to television.
Jen K.: I didn’t feel any of the topics were glorified. As a parent, I was particularly pleased with how they filmed Hannah’s suicide. It was horrific and brutal, but not sensationalized. It wasn’t warm and fuzzy, with candles and Sarah McLachlan music playing in the background either. They didn’t shy away from showing that suicide — no matter what form — is a particularly awful way to die. I appreciate they didn’t shy away from the parents finding her body. Their pain and horror was palpable and as difficult to watch as the act itself. Hannah couldn’t feel it, but her life mattered. She was deeply loved. All the characters needed to be more cognizant of the impact they have on others — even Hannah herself. I thought the parents finding her body drove home that message in a really profound way.
The rapes were very difficult to watch, which to me, says they were handled the right way. Rape should be difficult to watch. If a show is going to explore a sexual assault storyline, it should done with a survivor’s perspective being the focal point in hopes of promoting understanding, education and prevention. Although Jessica’s perspective is a little lost because the truth is withheld from her, which is its own brutalization, she knows deep down something happened. We slowly watch her try to avoid and forget until she begins to unravel. It was like watching someone drown episode after episode. The moment Jessica finally broke down in front of her father was the first time I felt like she came up for air. 13 Reasons Why also tackled the issue of consent and the “boys will be boys” attitude that’s so pervasive in our society, which makes women objects and not people. Bryce was a monster, a serial rapist, and it doesn’t matter he can hit a baseball. Maybe shows like 13 Reasons Why can help show the havoc and horror people like Bryce wreak.
As for mental health, this was one area I thought 13 Reasons Why was a little weak on. Hannah’s mental health, particularly depression, is a complex issue. Obviously, the focus is on the tapes and the constant harassment and brutalization this girl endured until it became unbearable. However, there were other things going on inside Hannah than what is discussed on the tapes and I wish the show had spent more time focusing on that as well.
Rae: I agree that the show didn’t delve into Hannah’s mental health and how mental health in general could contribute to suicide. That is a huge blind spot that people cannot leave out when they talk about suicide. However, one thing I liked was that Hannah didn’t “look” or “act” depressed, even though I thought the show should have talked about mental health more on the whole. Mental health issues look different for everyone, and I think part of the point was to show how you can’t assume that someone is okay just because they keep showing up for school or going to parties. And I think if people feel like they need help, they should know that those feelings are valid, even if they don’t outwardly portray signs of depression.
Consent was something I thought the series handled well. I noticed that whenever Clay kissed anyone, he stopped and asked “Is this okay?,” which showed clear consent. I think people have this idea that asking for consent ruins romance in some way, but Clay showed that it didn’t have to.
Let’s talk about Hannah, since she was the subject of the series. Did you feel like she was an unreliable narrator? What about her were you drawn to? Was there anything that you disliked about her?
Marilyn: I think at times she was unreliable and I felt that was important to show. She did have a bias, as any person would. She did get some details wrong, such as who stopped going to Monet’s first and Zach not throwing away her letter. I found that to make her more relatable and realistic. Ultimately, I was drawn to her vulnerability. She wanted to be liked and make connections with people. Sometimes I grew frustrated with her dependence on other people’s opinions, but given she’s a young woman in an environment like that, I think it’s understandable that those opinions mattered quite a bit to her.
Jenn: I really liked Hannah. She was smart and witty, but not in an unbelievable way (she wasn’t your typical manic pixie dream girl, for the most part, even though in some instances I felt like she was a little like that). I felt what she felt and I understood her reasoning for a lot of the decisions she made. And at times, I did feel like she was an unreliable narrator, which I loved. It wasn’t that the students were trying to disparage her memory (even though they were in a way, because she called them out and they wanted to ruin everyone else’s lives and her memory because of it), but they remembered the past differently than she did. What was so cool about Hannah was that she was so observant and felt things so deeply. When she was in, she was all in. In a world where she constantly felt vulnerable and judged, Hannah still dared to put herself out there — with relationships and poetry and dreaming. That was what was most admirable about her, and it was all the more difficult to see her life end because of all of the potential she had. Because Hannah felt deeply, she made the audience feel deeply invested in her journey. So when we got to the end of her life, it was painful to watch on so many levels, but definitely because of the fact that we felt Hannah’s pain so tangibly, as if it was our own.
Jen K.: There wasn’t anything I disliked about Hannah. I thought she was wildly intelligent, with a sharp wit and deep empathy for others. She was a beautiful writer and poet. All the things that made Hannah feel like an outsider are the things I loved most about her. It’s why her death was so tragic... oh the things she could have done. Even though there were moments where Hannah felt wise beyond her years, she also felt like a typical teenage girl. Incredibly vulnerable and confused. Yes, I think she was biased, but she was sharing her truth. In some ways, Hannah was oblivious to her impact on others as much as others were oblivious to their impact on her. But that’s what makes Hannah so wonderfully human. Absolutely, I was frustrated with some of her choices and behavior, but I think that’s what made her all the more real.
Rae: I agree! I think Hannah was so great, and Katherine Langford was so compelling to watch. That she was an unreliable narrator was key because it showed that how you perceive things or what you remember isn’t always an accurate way to judge yourself by. Feelings are real, but they aren’t always true — sometimes your anxiety or your doubts can paint the wrong picture and it’s important to take a step back. I loved watching Hannah’s story, and I was glad to get to know her and devastated when she took her life.
Our protagonist is arguably Clay. How did you feel about his character arc throughout the series?
Marilyn: I adored Clay. How can you not? I enjoyed taking the journey with him, learning as he learned and growing as he grew. When the story began, he was confused and sad and unsure. By the end, he’d grown more sure and he’d also become a hero. He was Hannah’s hero. Arguably, it was too late, but it was better than never at all. He was the only one who listened to those tapes and took actions to fix things — to right wrongs and bring the truth to light. And to help the others heal, however he could. Did he stumble, like with what he did to Tyler? Sure. But I felt that was relatable.
Jenn: Clay was great. He really wanted to believe in the good in people, and I think it’s that optimism and — again — the fact that he felt deeply that led him to make decisions he did in the end. He believes in a world that’s fair and just, and that’s admirable because it’s so much easier to be cynical like all of the other characters. He constantly challenged the status quo. It was so awesome to see him go from this sort of timid outcast to someone challenging authority at the end of the series and realizing the weight of his actions. He changed, no doubt about it, but it was a believable one — slow and with missteps and stumbles. But ultimately, our protagonist (because I think both he and Hannah could be considered the protagonists of the series) learned how to become a better, more confident version of himself as a result.
Jen K.: I love Clay. He was so deeply good, earnest and loving, but so unsure of himself. He felt like a teenager, maybe more than any other character. There were times where I felt Clay was in over his head with Hannah — that there were things going on with her that a 17-year old boy just isn’t equipped to help with. But what I love about Clay is he didn’t stop trying to help Hannah even though it wasn’t going to bring her back. He, more than any other character, understood the point Hannah was making with those tapes. Clay wanted to make it right. He wanted justice for Hannah and Jessica. As Marilyn said, he went on this remarkable hero’s journey and allowed Hannah’s life to change him, even after he lost her.
Rae: I feel like everyone pretty much covered what was great about Clay. I liked him a lot as a character, and Dylan Minnette was great to watch.
What made this series so compelling and special to you?
Marilyn: This show forced us to immerse in the core of the human condition, confront harsh truths about ourselves as people and how we interact with others, and showed us ways we could help make it better. The message of “treat each other with kindness because they might be going through something you don’t know about” is a good one. And one we can stand to be reminded of.
Jenn: The writing was so addicting. Each episode was its own story, which fit into an overarching narrative. I loved putting the puzzle pieces together throughout the series. It is the kind of show that just makes you crave more of it. These characters draw you in and compel you with their personalities. I think that watching tragedy unfold can be kind of masochistic, but 13 Reasons Why — though painful — doesn’t feel like its intent was to hurt us. Its intent was to make us feel something deeply so we can heal ourselves and people around us, and I love that message.
Jen K.: I think the show is addressing some really important issues that are not being addressed many other places. In this social media, technological explosion, I think we’ve lost sight of the fact that these are real people being discussed online or in a text or photo. We never know what’s going on in someone’s life, so it’s important to treat others with common decency and respect. We all fail to recognize the impact we have on others. A single choice can change the course of your life, for better or for worse, and we need to make choices considering the consequences and impact to other people. Not just ourselves. I think the show calls every person to be more humble, compassionate, less selfish and to take responsibility. In the end, is it really that hard to be nice? No. It’s not.
Rae: I found it to be really compelling, and I couldn’t stop watching. I found parts of it to be very realistic, specifically some of what Hannah went through and how she reacted. I saw myself in her, and it hit me in the gut.
Why do you think it’s important that other people watch 13 Reasons Why?
Marilyn: Related to my answer about why I find the show compelling and special, I think it’s important that other people learn the lesson this show has to share. Especially if you’re working or living with teenagers. But the message goes for all people and if there’s anything we can use more of right now, it’s compassion for each other.
Jenn: Jen said it above, but this is such an important show right now. The topics being covered are relevant to high-schoolers and aren’t sugar-coated. It might be dark and difficult to watch at times because of the subject matter, but the only way we’re going to start figuring out solutions to the issues students (and others) face is if we realize what’s happening in front of us. Acknowledging there is a problem is the first step to fixing it, and that’s why I think people need to be watching this show. 13 Reasons Why isn’t flawless, and it’s not squeaky clean but neither is life. Recognizing patterns of behavior or problems can help save lives. Learning how to become more compassionate people is essential. And what this show does is not promise answers to problems, but start the conversation.
Jen K.: Honestly, I think if you are a parent it should be required viewing. If you are in junior high or high school, it should be required viewing. 13 Reasons Why drives home some messages that need be seen, not just heard.
Rae: I think it’s important to talk about the issues the show brings up, and I’m glad that is has a part in airing those issues. But I think there is a flaw with the show’s idea that to save Hannah people only had to be nicer. Having compassion is only a starting point. There were so many things contributing to Hannah’s suicide: mental health, rape culture, sexism, and stigma, and the parts of our culture that contribute to people’s deaths need to be addressed as well.
The show’s ending is a bit divisive in the way it was constructed. Was it a fitting end to the show (or its first season, if it’s renewed for another), in your opinion? Why or why not?
Marilyn: If there are no more seasons, I feel satisfied. I think enough can be supposed from what we saw to draw logical conclusions. That said, I wouldn’t mind seeing certain storylines play out (*cough* BRYCE). I do like that the genie is out of the bottle, so to speak, so you know that sooner or later everyone will know about the tapes and what’s on them.
Jenn: I don’t want a second season! I know they left Tyler’s story dangling for that reason as a cliffhanger, but I think that having a second season would remove the sort of unique magic that Hannah’s tapes brought. I think the show is well-equipped and staffed with writers who could do justice to other topics and — as Rae pointed out — figure out solutions to problems that weren’t addressed in the first season (like sexism and mental health). But the fact that the show was so contained in a neat thirteen episodes leant itself to the tight writing that I loved. I think if we went another season, that could be lost. Though I want to know if Alex lives, and what happens when Tony and Clay drive away, and whether or not Bryce is ever brought to justice, I think I would be okay knowing the story ended in an open-ended manner rather than risk ruining the show in the second season. Plus, logistically, unless we went backward in time, Hannah would be lost and she was the core of the series.
Jen K.: I don’t think there should be another season. I fully expect there will be, but I am more in favor of letting the singular season stand by itself. I think the message makes a stronger impact that way. I know they left some unanswered questions with the characters, but that can be very true to life.
Rae: I feel like I’m the only one who wouldn’t mind more seasons! I think if it was meant to be a standalone season, they should have ended it more definitively — the really left it open to continue. But I really liked watching all of the other characters and would keep watching them to see how they continue to put their lives back together. The show would have to change obviously, and I’m not sure how it would work without the scenes with Hannah — and she added so much to the show and was such a great character to watch — but I would give it a chance.
What did you all think of 13 Reasons Why? Sound off in the comments below!