Being a teenage girl is hell in 13 Reasons Why, in large part because no one cares that that’s the case – much less seems interested in doing something about it. Adapted from Jay Asher’s best-selling novel, and executive produced by Selena Gomez, Netflix’s latest sure-to-be-binged TV phenomenon takes a caustic look at high-school misogyny, all of it refracted through a murder mystery narrated by its victim. You see, Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) has killed herself at the outset of showrunner Brian Yorkey’s show, much to the outward dismay of her classmates, teachers and counselors, as well as to the heart-rending misery of friend Clay Jensen (Goosebumps’ Dylan Minnette), who had a not-so-secret crush on her. Far from gone, however, Hannah lives on, through a collection of cassette tapes on which she narrates the thirteen reasons why she took her own life.
Clay receives these tapes on his front door, and as he learns, they come with instructions: he must listen to this compilation in its entirety and then pass it on to someone else, and if he fails to do so, a second set of identical recordings will be made public. Even if Clay isn’t immediately concerned about that possibility, his peers definitely are, given that Hannah’s from-beyond-the-grave missives contain revelations of a damning variety. Pilfering an old Walkman from his buddy Tony (Christian Navarro), an other-side-of-town gearhead whose role in this saga frequently involves hovering in the background of Clay’s every waking moment, Minnette’s protagonist sets about consuming the cassettes, whose sides are dedicated to particular individuals who did Hannah wrong – including Clay himself.
It doesn’t take long to understand that everyone is culpable in 13 Reasons Why, which depicts a pervasive culture of sexism that’ll be recognizable to all girls, and should be repulsive (and eye-opening) to any well-adjusted guy. This environment is populated by Hannah’s first-kiss boyfriend Justin (Brandon Flynn), his wealthy jock pals Bryce (Justin Prentice), Zach (Ross Butler) and Marcus (Steven Silver), yearbook photographer Tyler (Devin Druid), one-time BFFs Jessica (Alisha Boe) and Alex (Miles Heizer), and newer friend Courtney (Michelle Selene Ang). Along with Clay, they form a league of pre-adult cretins, and Yorkey’s show weaves together their various tales via a dual-track narrative in which Clay’s present-day struggle to get through the upsetting tapes – and deal with adversaries eager to protect their secrets – are intercut with Hannah’s traumatic experiences, and Clay’s own memories of those incidents.
Deftly intertwining past and present, the thirteen episodes are a slow-burn build toward ever-more-awful bombshells that, ultimately, expose both individuals’ and communities’ capacities for selfishness and cruelty. That structure is aided by sharp writing that captures teens’ alternately self-deprecating, deceptive and profane voices, as well as by strong, sturdy direction. Director Tom McCarthy brings the investigative-procedural lucidity of his Oscar-winning Spotlight to the first two chapters, while Gregg Araki (The Doom Generation, Mysterious Skin) brings a touch of hallucinatory horror to his mid-season contributions, especially once Hannah’s memoirs begin to deeply affect Clay’s ideas about himself.
13 Reasons Why bracingly confronts the numerous obstacles and injustices faced by modern teenage girls, starting with its opening episode, in which new-to-town Hannah hooks up with tattooed lunkhead Justin, only to find him texting the entire student body a surreptitiously snapped photo of her in a compromising position. It’s “slut shaming” in its rawest form, and the first of many sins committed against her. Those all involve some form of passive or active sexual abuse, be it Alex featuring Hannah on a demeaning “Hot or Not” list that gets passed around school, or Bryce grabbing her behind at a liquor store (to make sure she really does, per Alex’s rundown, have the school’s “Best Ass”).
Further assaults follow courtesy of boorish boys, yet groping and crude objectification aren’t the only ways to deeply violate a young woman like Hannah. As it proceeds into darker, uglier territory, the show reveals how suicide doesn’t just materialize out of the ether; rather, it’s often the byproduct of accumulated hurt from diverse sources (including backstabbing girls). In doing so, it casts Hannah’s tapes as an act of retaliation against violation – a public airing of dirty laundry that, instead of damaging her, only harms the people who tore her down. In other words, they’re her means of coopting her oppressors’ tactics for both revenge and, also, for shining a light on the terrible consequences of hateful actions.
13 Reasons Why expands its plot to focus more on Hannah’s guidance counselor Mr. Porter (Derek Luke) and her grieving parents (Kate Walsh and Brian D’Arcy), who run a local pharmacy and are suing the school for failing to properly identify the bullying that drove her to suicide – litigation that also concerns Clay’s mom, who’s defending the school in the suit. From Hannah’s flirty friendship with Clay (nurtured during their time working together at the local movie theater) and her run-in with a stalker and dalliance with an unexpected paramour, to everyone else’s issues with wayward parents, neglect and substance abuse, the show addresses teenagerdom’s challenges and social dynamics with head-on sobriety. It’s the rare teen-targeted show that bluntly lays bare high-schoolers’ catty nastiness, nasty self-interest, and callous thoughtlessness – the last of those epitomized by Hannah’s memory of catching Clay laughing at the sight of kids tormenting her behind her back.
To be sure, there are missteps here. In order to provide a concurrent storyline that runs as long as Hannah’s, Clay listens to the tapes at a preposterously slow pace, to the point that others keep asking him why he’s taking so long to get to his own installment. Moreover, because he chooses to impulsively act (and react) to information before he knows all the facts, Clay’s conduct sometimes borders on the insufferable. And while Hannah’s traumas are authentically dramatized, she’s forced to endure so many indignities that, in total, she occasionally comes across as a symbolic vessel for an important message, rather than a flesh-and-blood human being.
Fortunately, Langford’s wounded-yet-bold lead performance is altogether charming, and Minnette is equally credible as a guilt-ridden young man forced to deal with his own liability for a tragedy that might have been avoided, were it not for everyone’s belief that what happened to Hannah was no big deal, since it also happens to every high-school girl in America. That misogynistic mindset, of course, is the fundamental problem tackled by 13 Reasons Why, which serves as a rousing you-are-not-alone statement of camaraderie to girls like Hannah. And at its finest, the show is also a defiant rallying cry to take up arms against anyone who still thinks it’s a status quo young girls should continue to accept.