*Warning – this post contains spoilers for 13 Reasons Why seasons 1-4*
Alfred Hitchcock once said that a writer must ‘always make the audience suffer as much as possible.’
13 Reasons Why, the ground-breaking Netflix teen drama, which dropped its fourth and final season last week, must have paid attention to this quote a bit too much.
The main conceit, and concern, of 13 Reasons was, if not death, then suffering and trauma. The series opened with the suicide of Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) and it ended with its main characters searching for a way to break out of their cycles of pain and find a place in the real world.
Teen dramas have a long and storied history of using controversial or traumatic storylines to educate their young viewers on sensitive topics, whether it was Jessie Spanno’s addiction to caffeine pills on Saved By The Bell, Glee tackling school shootings or The OC’s manic pixie girl Marissa Cooper (Mischa Barton) who seemed to sway from disaster to disaster.
13 Reasons Why – adapted from the book of the same name – may have started off with these intentions, and the first season especially can be seen to want to educate its viewers as well as shock them. But it was in the ensuing episodes, following Hannah’s demise in the first series finale, that trauma seemed to become a quick and easy narrative fix to guide characters such as Clay (Dylan Minnette) and Justin (Brandon Flynn) into place.
Much has been written and discussed about the infamous scene in 13 Reasons’ debut season, where we actually see, in painstaking detail, Hannah Baker commit suicide in the episode Tape 7, Side A.
Not only does it serve as the culmination of the series’ narrative, but quite literally turns the hurt and ostracisation we’ve seen Hannah undergo all season into a physical act. It’s a haunting and harrowing scene of television, one you don’t so much watch as actively try to look away from.
Netflix famously decided to digitally remove the scene from the show following an outcry over its graphic nature, and this is understandable. Not only is the framing of Hannah’s suicide incredibly gratuitous, but the placement of the camera turns the viewer into a voyeur for Hannah’s pain – something we cannot stop or change. The real power of the scene is not in the suicide itself, but the reaction of Hannah’s mother (Kate Walsh) when she finds her daughter dead.
This should have taught 13 Reasons Why a lesson, but it did not. The story, started by Hannah, should have been bookended by her death – but on it went. On to a second season, whose own narrative thrust culminated in the sodomy of Tyler (Devin Druid) by Montgomery (Timothy Granaderos). What made it worse, is this despicable act was explained as a result of pseudo-repressed internalised homophobia, as Monty was seen grappling with his own sexuality in season 3, which ended with his death.
Indeed, 13 Reasons seems to have a hard time equating queerness in young people with anything other trauma or stigma, as its queer characters are relentlessly punished for their very existence. Tony (Christian Navarro) can be seen to be the only out gay character to escape this, but he is so straight-acting, I doubt he would even show up on the Kinsey Scale.
And so, we come on to the fourth and final season – where the graduating class of Liberty High have endured the 12 steps of grief, tenfold. It makes EastEnders look like Last of the Summer Wine.
The most controversial plot point of the finale is Justin’s HIV diagnosis, which is left untreated and as a result, he dies of AIDS. We’ve already discussed how this storyline stigmatises people who are HIV positive, but it doesn’t end there.
It is a cruel plot twist, designed once again to slot just the necessary amount of trauma and pain into proceedings to carry the show over the finish-line, but it’s a punch to the emotional gut that carries no weight or force. And it doesn’t escape us that it is Justin, who has battled addiction and depression throughout the series, that dies of AIDS, when the actor who portrays him is one of the only queer members of the cast (Flynn was previously in a highly publicised relationship with British singer Sam Smith).
Yes, drama should shock us and yes, drama should push boundaries – but there should always be a point to it. For 13 Reasons Why, the point seemed to dissipate after Hannah’s death, a narrative so potent, that the show could never quite come up with anything to match it.
So instead, what should have been a one-off teen drama series educating its young viewers about the importance of speaking out and recognising that high school can quite literally be hell, has ended up as a further three bloated additional seasons, whose shock-jock motifs of installing violence, be it sexual or otherwise, into the narrative does nothing but fetishise the trauma associated with these acts.
While Alfred Hitchcock may have said audiences should suffer as much as possible, sometimes we can become desensitised to our own suffering.
The legacy of 13 Reasons Why will be just this – a show that started out with noble intentions, but alienated its audience with acts so cruel and traumatic, we lost all interest.
13 Reasons Why is available to stream now on Netflix.
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