It’s no secret that the Netflix show 13 Reasons Why has become an instant hit. Initially, this fandom started with the book written by Jay Asher, but as soon as the story hit our living room screens, it transcended that niche group and affected the lives of an entire generation. That may sound a bit dramatic, but I truly believe that this show impacted millennials on a large scale. Many teen movies and teen television shows have attempted this feat, but few have gained the strong response they were looking for. 13 Reasons Why is different. The way it’s shot, the way it’s told, every piece of cinematic detail that went in to the show builds on one another until the viewer is so affected by it that they are completely broken down into their rawest form: ugly crying alone on the couch while reflecting on the pain in their own lives. You may find yourself wondering why this has derailed you emotionally when almost all other teen dramas bounce right off you. Well, let’s explore that:
- A Light Day vs. A Dark Night
Whether you notice it or not, the light to dark ratio switches as the show progresses. The more emotionally draining the show becomes, the more the lighting reflects the negative feelings through undertones of darkness. Lighting is not something one usually realizes and because of that, and due to the fact that it is done over a period of a few episodes, you don’t realize how it affects you until it overwhelms your emotions.
There is also a stark difference between the lighting in school and the lighting outside of school, which is brilliant because to us it seems so natural. When you go to school it’s during the day, and afterwards it’s the evening, but this plays a big role in the emotional response of the viewers. When we think of high school, which is very well lit in the show, we think of putting on a façade and a big theme throughout the show is saving face while around your classmates. When each person is outside of school though, when it’s dark, that’s when the depth of their feelings and sometimes their immorality shows. Therefore, that duality between light and dark representing how you think someone is verses what they really are has an innate effect on your psyche, but because it’s done in a way that makes sense to your brain, it can be hard to tell that it’s effecting you so much. Don’t think it’s a coincidence that Clay listens to his tape at night or that the climax of the terrible things Hannah went through occurred in a dark room at a party, which took place at night. It may seem so obvious that that’s where these things would occur, but that conspicuousness is what allows them to be so subtle.
- A Wes Anderson Classic
There are a number of unnecessary medium shots with character(s) centered to make you as the viewer feel uncomfortable. This occurs when the camera gives us too much negative space on either side of the character(s), in locations we’ve already seen. It is supposed to make you feel uneasy because this show is not supposed to be one you breeze on through. You must feel the pain that Hannah and Clay feel because, if you don’t then you don’t connect with the story and it becomes another forgetful teen drama. Wes Anderson uses this shot a lot because it adds to the quirkiness of his films, but what happens when you mix quirkiness with suicide in a camera shot with lighting that provides undertones of darkness? You feel like something is very off. Something is not quite right with what you’re looking at, but you can’t put your finger on it because each aspect is so subtle. That’s the genius behind 13 Reasons Why. Each piece builds on each other in such a subtle way that you don’t realize it’s affecting you emotionally until it hits its breaking point, causing you to hit yours.
- Knowing the Unknown
Most shows follow the perspective of the main character because the writers want viewers to form a strong attachment to them. That way, we root for them to succeed. In 13 Reasons Why, we are shown this world and this journey through the lenses of Hannah and Clay, but we also get the juxtaposition of being shown what they don’t know. This approach is different and abnormal, but it works because the content is so intimate that we get attached to Hannah and Clay so easily that the writers do not have to put in that extra effort to get viewers to care. Instead, they focus that energy on the viewpoints of opposing characters to drive the theme of judgement and to connect to a larger audience.
It’s so easy to judge someone without knowing their whole story, but even more than that, it’s easy to be judged by someone who doesn’t quite understand why you are the way that you are. That is a universal truth that gets under every viewers’ skin no matter what you have or have not been through because everyone has been on one side or the other of this. You as the viewer understand why Hannah is hurt by someone’s actions, but then, in a turn of events that does not normally happen in teen dramas, you discover the antagonist’s side of the story as well, and sometimes it’s not as malicious as you originally thought, and other times it is. Suddenly, the world becomes much more relatable because reality is complicated. Things aren’t black and white or good and bad anymore and with a relatable world comes a believable world, thus allowing not just relatability, but empathy from the viewers. That’s a lot of confusing feelings to cypher through.
- Diverse Diversity
Much like in The Breakfast Club, each character represents a different type of high schooler as well as a different type of issue high schoolers have. Normally teen dramas hone in on the person who is being bullied, thus giving you one main story line to follow, but as I stated earlier, this show doesn’t keep your focus on them. There are a number of other problems the characters face that the show focuses on. This allows for more than the bullied to relate to the show. From dealing with rape, to negligent parents, to drug abuse, 13 Reasons Why is more than the suicide or bullying plot because life is more than a singular struggle and the writers really wanted to drive that home. On top of that, the cast is extremely diverse so not only can people relate via experiences, but they can relate via ethnicities and races. That is something that hardly any other show, teen drama or not, does and it’s those layers that cause such an intense connection to the events.
- An Expert Build Up
Obviously each episode has a specific purpose: to show how each individual in the story pushed Hannah closer toward suicide. What you don’t realize is that, as you watch each episode, you slowly morph in to one of those characters. For me it was Clay. The more I got to know him, the more I related to his struggles. It happened little by little, without me even realizing it and it’s that stealth that took me by surprise. Little pieces of info slipped into conversations with his parents or with his classmates caused me to attach myself to his character. If you pay close attention to the perspective you glommed on to, and I know there’s someone you align with, then you’ll start to realize the little pieces of themselves that drew you in. I was fine until episode 6, at least, I thought I was, but as soon as I got halfway through the season, I unexpectedly fell apart. I didn’t see it coming at all, but looking back, I realize how expertly Clay’s character was unraveled and I understand that, little by little, I began to see myself in Clay until I mirrored his internal destruction. That’s what makes this show so dangerous yet so important.
There are many people who are extremely critical of the show 13 Reasons Why because it’s triggering, but in an unexpected way. So many viewers were not fully broken down emotionally until many episodes in, and it’s because of the slow and subtle build that you found yourself suddenly overcome with emotion. I know it took me by surprise and I know it took a lot of my friends by surprise, but this show is so expertly done and encapsulates so many issues and represents so many different people, therefore separating itself from other more forgetful or more dissociating teen dramas.
7 comments on “The Subtle Destructiveness of 13 Reasons Why”
Wow. I haven’t watched the series yet and am a little nervous to. But this account was so informative/interesting that now I’m even more intrigued!
Thank you for reading my piece! I was nervous too, and it is extremely powerful, but if you choose to watch it I hope you like it!
Great review! The show has had an unusually strong impact, especially on the target audience – the teenagers. I watched it after my students recommended it and only then did the change in the classroom climate become clearer to me – my students (middle school) started showing much more empathy to each other. The show definitely has its merits and the anti-bullying message has obviously sunk in, however, I believe that Hannah’s character has been a bit too victimized – regardless of the amount of bullying, the decision to take you own life is ultimately your own.
Thank you for your comment and for taking the time to read my piece. It’s great to hear the positive impact this show has had on your students! I must say though, suicide is a hard topic to talk about and it’s especially hard when you are on the outside looking in. I think what the show wants to get across is that everyone has a breaking point and suicide is often caused by those who push others to that ultimate breaking point. It’s a very sad thing being made to believe you have no other choice but death and, although Hannah was the one to actually kill herself, she wasn’t the one to push herself to that point and in to that hopeless mindset.
Once again, thanks for reading and good luck with the rest of your school year!
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A great analysis!!
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