To get the basics out of the way (and if you are reading this, you know the basics, so this isn’t really a spoiler), 13 Reasons Why tells the story of Hannah Baker, a high-school student and recent suicide who left behind a box of cassette tapes that she recorded just before she killed herself. Each side consists of Hannah singling out someone who is in some way one of the 13 reasons. There are seven tapes ... the B-side of the seventh tape is blank, because she only needs 13 sides to tell the story. The subject of the first tape gets the box of tapes and listens to them all, after which they give the box to the subject of the second tape, who etc etc until all thirteen subjects have heard all of the tapes. The person who has the box throughout the series is Clay Jensen, and as he listens to the tapes (one per episode ... yes, there are 13 episodes to the series), we get flashbacks to the events on the tapes.
The performances are solid from top to bottom, but two actors are most important. Dylan Minnette plays Clay, and he is equal measures sympathetic and irritating, which is entirely appropriate for the part. The should-be-star-making role of Hannah goes to a newcomer from Australia, Katherine Langford, and she is the best thing about the show.
13 Reasons Why does a great job of showing the endless trauma of attending high school, where awful big things happen occasionally, but where mostly awful little things happen every single day. If you aren’t one of the cool kids, you’re screwed. Many of us got through high school by becoming part of a subculture of non-cool kids. But there are always those who are both non-cool and friendless ... it barely matters if the kid is actually cool and actually has friends, if they don’t recognize those facts ... and their high school lives are abysmal. Hannah is new to the school, and almost immediately she gets slut-shamed, from which she never regains a positive status among her peers. She has some friends, but she tends to push them away, usually because those friends are unthinking and do things that hurt Hannah (these things being the focus of each individual tape recording). 13 Reasons Why shows how cliques work in high school, and how reputations are made. It does this is a mostly realistic way.
Knowing how the story ends creates an ever-growing tension as we watch the episodes. Hannah’s life is crumbling before our eyes, but in the flashbacks, the kids don’t realize their part in how Hannah’s life ends ... to them, it’s just high school. Eventually, events shatter the composure of some of the kids ... auto accidents, physical assaults, things that can’t be ignored. But only Hannah, the author of her story as she records the tapes, takes in the accumulation that threatens to ruin her.
The implication is that Hannah commits suicide for the 13 reasons, and in the context of the series, this is believable. Some have criticized the show, though, for blaming events, when many suicides come from a place of deep depression that might be chemical rather than social. Hannah is increasingly disturbed, and she becomes crucially sensitive to how others treat her, but there is never a suggestion that she might have a chemical imbalance that could be alleviated via drug therapy. No, Hannah’s suicide grows entirely out of those 13 reasons, all of which are about how she is treated by others. (This also leads to a final “message” that we all just need to treat each other with more kind attention.)
The decision of how to show the most horrible events in the story are powerful, and I don’t think there’s any reason to dismiss the approach the show takes, although some will find it too hard to watch these scenes (which is partly the point). There are two rapes, and while the first is mostly in the dark, the second is much more visible. Director Jessica Yu (she did two episodes ... other directors include Tom McCarthy, Helen Shaver, Gregg Araki, and Carl Franklin) shows just enough visual context that we know what is happening, but she spends almost the entire scene on the girl’s face. We see the trauma, and we see on her face the terrible way she becomes an empty shell. Far from being exploitive, the scene is sickening and upsetting.
Hannah’s suicide is also unbearable. In that episode (directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez), we see the final hours of Hannah’s life, and then we watch the final minutes. Many have complained that the actual suicide (via slit wrists) is so graphic it could serve as a how-to for troubled viewers. But the people behind 13 Reasons Why specifically wanted to avoid the usual presentation where we see the suicidal person about to commit the act, then cut to someone discovering the act after the fact. They wanted to show the ugliness of suicide. They insisted that the audience was repulsed. I have seen a few comments claiming that 13 Reasons Why romanticizes suicide. Well, the actual suicide is the least-romantic act imaginable.
There is, in fact, very little romanticizing being done throughout the series. We are always aware of the effect of the accumulation of events on Hannah’s psyche, and at no time do we think, gee, I wish I was Hannah.
While the series is on Netflix, I strongly advise against binge watching it. It would be emotionally overwhelming, for one thing, and each episode deserves processing before moving on to the next. The series is too long, and at times it is repetitive, but it’s a bit like the way Clay listens to every tape from start to finish. You’ll want to do the same with 13 Reasons Why.
I want to single out a couple of actors. Justin Prentice does such a great job of playing a rich, privileged jock that you always want to slap the smirk off his face when he shows up. And then there is Wilson Cruz, who first came to our attention in My So-Called Life as Rickie Vasquez. Cruz appears as a lawyer in a handful of episodes in 13 Reasons Why, and between the ever-lasting love his fans have for Cruz, and the obvious connections between his first series and this one, it is delightful to see him. (His character is named “Vasquez”, which has led some to imagine it’s just Rickie, grown up with a new first name.)
Finally, I have read a few people saying 13 Reasons Why promotes revenge. This supposedly even makes suicide more appealing, since Hannah gets “revenge” by exposing everyone in her tapes. Again, there is nothing in this show that makes me wish I had led Hannah’s deeply sad life. (People looking for a revenge drama might check out the fine vigilante show, Sweet/Vicious.)