Thirteen Reasons Why doesn’t start at the beginning

Thirteen Reasons Why

Tape 1, Side A

Thirteen Reasons Why starts with a funeral of sorts. Something stands out in the middle of a school hallway as a shrine. There are pictures of a girl and notes with respectful messages. All of this over the locker who used to belong to a girl, Hannah Baker, who recently killed herself. Two girls take a picture at the holy spot and share it on their social media to show their condolences. The protagonist, Clay Jensen, recalls how students shared, in a similar way, a defamatory image of the girl when she was alive. He may have thought these people are phony. In his eyes, it’s hypocritical to feel sad towards a dead girl you once scorned. Clay sees memories of Hannah in the places he visits, remembering events when she was in these spaces. “Pardon me, but you really hurt my feelings,” she told him once in the cafeteria. Perhaps he is just as much of a hypocrite as those girls.

It’s bigger than a cliché. Perhaps it’s part of the language of stories itself, that tales start with death. It sort of makes sense. What we tell in books and movies, are more than mere anecdotes we tell every day. These stories are well thought out narratives. They are trying to communicate a bigger idea, for example, depression or suicide motives. It comes from a need to express something, this need is born when people start thinking. There is a truth only humans know, it separates us from animals. Knowing that we are going to die eventually poses a dilemma, it makes us ask if life is meaningless. We don’t keep this on our minds all the time, we distract ourselves from it, through work or addictions. It is with deaths, mainly of those personal to us, where we start to think. We see the phoniness of the people around us. They mean no harm, but their condolences feel weak. They can’t understand how we feel. For us to express these feelings and tell a compelling story, we need to think. Probably that’s why stories start with funerals, it’s where an author’s journey to expression begins. A wake up call.

The concept of the TV show is strong. Clay is given a set of cassettes, seven in total, thirteen recorded sides. They are podcasts recorded by Hannah before she killed herself. This provides a great justification for the use of Voice Over. Each tape frames a person that, directly or indirectly, ended having an impact in Hannah’s suicide. This gives a great structure for the series, every episode someone to blame is considered. The first framed is Justin Foley. What he did? Well, let’s keep that as an untold spoiler for whoever wants to start watching the episode after reading my review. It reminds me of a thought Lisbeth Salander has in the Millennium Trilogy; “There are no innocents. There are, however, different degrees of responsibility.” 

An intriguing micro-cosmos is established with the first episode. Micro-cosmos are those imaginary spaces films build in our minds. We have a school where something is off. We have a kid taking pictures in the window of the school’s bathroom and a kid looking at our protagonist across the hallway blaming him. There is a car that follows Clay around and a mysterious delivery. There are many watchful eyes around crowds. It’s an interesting portrait of a small town in California. The show seems to have a similar statement as Arcade Fire, in regards to how suburbs are disruptive spaces, where human relationships become empty. Teens have this aloofness in their attitude, they are stuck there, not allowed to start college and specializing in what they want to do, while having to take humiliating jobs like the staff on a cinema. They are too old for their dependency towards their parents to be comfortable. And people keep asking why teens go crazy.

We have a town filled with life. Long distance relationships fail in this world, when Hannah’s only friend leaves this town, it’s as if she was dead, she stopped existing despite the easy virtual communications are today. We have casual encounters. There is a girl that likes Clay and asks about his wellness. In the framed flashback, we have a fake casual encounter. Hannah steals a schedule to cross paths with someone. It reminds me of those planned “casual” encounters I had in high school, like taking social service opportunities I didn’t needed just to run into my crush. Another thing that felt familiar was when Clay’s mom forces him to wear a helmet, same as mine. The Hunger Games Trilogy is on a shelf in Hannah’s room. These details make this world feel real.

There are certain criticisms I have at this point. First, the quest Hannah sets Clay on seems fun. Isn’t this series supposed to make an uncomfortable commentary about teen suicide? Give me more drama and not an adventure. Second, what about free time? US teens seem to be able to make a thirteen episode podcast series and then kill themselves while managing a social life and the pressures of high school work. I know is not that big of a push as Paper Towns, where a character sets a very complex mystery for the protagonist to solve, but still. And I get that she wasn’t correctly managing her social and academic life, probably they were the reasons she wasn’t able to cope with life. But wouldn’t making such a big project, even if it’s a lengthy suicidal note, make you feel a sense of accomplishment that allows you to keep going? Third, we have bits that feel off, too much drama for depicting normal lives. Clay is almost run over and ends up with a crazy scar, but acts so badass telling his mom is just a scratch. Then we have scenes like when Clay asks Tony, “You are on my side too?” I feel those soap opera phrases don’t happen in real life. I have had similar situations, but the dialogue to express that is much messier. But that’s just what I feel unrealistic based on my experience, but who knows, it could happen. I’ll need to keep watching to see how my complaints stand.

Thanks Sameer for suggesting this TV Show to me. It is very similar to one of my favorite movies, The Perks of Being a Wallflower. It’s funny, Hipster-mania works by bringing back remnants of the old to today, basically playing with nostalgia. Perks is a Hipster movie because it takes place in the 90’s, it’s a window to that time, and the movie as a whole is a piece of Hipster culture. Charlie listens to his music through cassettes. In Thirteen, “Now they are called obsolete.” Characters choose to use them, probably thanks to Hipster nostalgia. Both Thirteen and Perks have similar photography, themes and style. Thirteen it’s a well-directed TV Show, I like it.

So, is there a blank side to one cassette? Or is there a special message to Clay? I think I’ll find out near the ending. At least we’ll have Clay trying angrily to find if there is something on that side, as the tapes are over and it means, sadly, no more Hannah.