Netflix debuted 13 Reasons Why on Friday. I liked it a lot, particularly for the lead performances by Dylan Minnette and Katherine Langford, which covered for some structural flaws. Now that people have had a chance to see it, I wanted to bring up some points, with full SPOILERS for the whole season, that I couldn’t discuss entirely, or at all, in that earlier review, coming up just as soon as I find a friend who somehow still has a Walkman that I can steal…
I know that the way the Internet content game works, I should probably have 13 points to bring up, but since one of my concerns with the show is that there were too many episodes, I’m going to trim it down a few. In fact, let’s start there:
1. The season should have been shorter.
“13 reasons/tapes = 13 episodes” makes perfect sense on paper, especially in the TV business, but man did this season get sluggish in the middle, with some stories not being rich enough to carry a whole episode. At a minimum, Brian Yorkey and company could have condensed 13 hours down to 10 by combining Jessica and Alex’s tapes into one episode, Tyler and Courtney’s into another, and Marcus and Zach’s into a third, since there’s so much overlap between the events of each of those pairings. (Similarly, the three episodes set at Jessica’s party could maybe have been merged into two, but the things happening there were big and important enough to justify the breathing room.) Or perhaps there could still be 13 episodes, but some ran a half hour or less? Would anyone miss the rock climbing interlude if i just went away? And whatever nuance a character like Zach might have gained by having a whole hour to himself wasn’t worth the sense of padding and repetition and fake foreboding as other characters warned Clay about what would happen once he listened to his own tape. And speaking of which…
2. Nobody needed to warn Clay about his tape!
This was by far the show’s biggest narrative flaw, as Tony and various members of the jock goon squad suggested that all his vigilante stunts would go away the second he heard his own role in this little tragedy. (And Tony, who was more plot device than man for most of the season, also kept cryptically suggesting that Clay might want to ease off until he listened to his own tape.) That is placing an enormous burden on the episode where he finally hears his tape, and one that the actual story — where even Hannah absolves him of guilt almost immediately — in no way lives up to. Yes, Clay might feel guilty for the role he unwittingly played in Jessica’s rape (tenuous at best) and Jeff’s death (a horrible quirk of timing), but nothing on the tape implicates him in a way that would make him stop his crusade. Just dumb, and the most Pretty Little Liars of the whole thing.
3. The show did NOT flinch when it came to depicting Hannah’s suffering.
Both her rape by Bryce and, especially, her suicide in the finale, could have been depicted obliquely, perhaps by just showing the very start of each terrible act, and then the dazed aftermath (Hannah staggering away from Bryce’s house, Mrs. Baker finding Hannah in the bath). We would have understood what happened and felt terribly for Hannah (and for her parents). Had the creative team stepped carefully around the violent horror of both events, I wouldn’t have necessarily blamed them, and the season still would have been powerful.
But the way they chose to depict both ultimately felt necessary to how hard the series hit in its final hours. This was the story of all the things that drove Hannah Baker to take her own life, and we needed to see the worst of that — which the rape was, even if it was Mr. Porter’s cold indifference that proved the final straw — just as we needed to see just how bad the actual method of suicide was. For Hannah to choose… that over trying to just get through another day, and another, and another, brings home how much pain she was in, and how afraid she was to tell her parents, or Clay, or anyone else who might have helped her. She cuts her wrists, and it is agony, and she wails and screams and sobs… but she doesn’t stop. Terrible to watch, but wholly necessary.
4. Clay’s undercover work was clever, but the scene was missing a beat.
Clay using one of Tony’s tape recorders to get Bryce’s confession felt thematically appropriate (that 14th cassette side had to be filled with something) and an ingenious workaround in a world where everyone assumes everyone else could be recording them on their phone… only the confession scene never had the requisite moment where Bryce tells Clay to hand him his phone before he’ll say a word about Hannah, which negates the cleverness of it. I suppose Bryce is such a smug meathead that it would never even occur to him that this twerp, whom he had just beat to a pulp, might be recording him, but it still felt slightly lacking, given its huge importance to the story as a whole.
5. What a beautifully directed show this was.
Tom McCarthy only directed the first two hours, but he was followed by an impressive group, including Helen Shaver, Jessica Yu, Kyle Patrick Alvarez, Gregg Araki, and Carl Franklin. All of them found interesting ways to show the merging of the past and the present, like Clay reaching out to feel Hannah feeling her heartbeat outside Tyler’s window in the fourth episode. Every scene felt intimate and honest and real, even the ones that were clearly dream sequences like the first time we see Clay and Hannah dance together at the winter formal at the start of episode five. I already talked about the rape and Hannah weeping as she cut her wrists, but nearly as brutal was the way Alvarez shot (almost American Crime-style) the scene where Hannah foolishly seeks the counsel of Mr. Porter. Like the matter of Clay’s tape, Mr. Porter’s role in this had been teased and teased for much of the season, leading me to wonder if he had abused her in some way. Instead, it turns out to be even crueler: he’s distracted and distant and cold and utterly fails to recognize how much help she needs, and the way Alvarez shoots the early part of the scene so that it’s just Hannah in close-up while Porter is a detached observer, really drove that home.
6. What were the hints of Clay’s mental health about?
Clay not only has bad dreams and occasional visions of Hannah still being in front of him, but in the middle chapters, there are references to therapy and medicine and even hints of some kind of a breakdown in his past, but then all of that is dropped. Or maybe those are there because…
7. Is there a plan for a second season? If so, why?
The book is self-contained, and the show was announced as a miniseries. But I’ve heard Netflix is at least open to the idea of doing more, and some of the scenes late in the finale — Justin reconciling with Bryce for lack of other options, Tony giving the Bakers the thumb drive with Hannah’s recording on them, the depositions, Alex’s own suicide attempt (a weird cliffhanger at the end of the penultimate episode that was forgotten about til late in the finale) — suggested Yorkey and company were laying some groundwork for another season where those ideas might be further explored. But this is Hannah’s story, even if Clay and the others are reacting to it, and were part of it, and her story’s been told. It’s hard to imagine a second season, if there is one, being anywhere nearly as effective as this was. Netflix hasn’t really done much in the scripted miniseries field, but there’s nothing wrong with telling a story well over one season and then moving on.
Still, the highs were so extremely high that I was willing to go with the lows.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org