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'13 Reasons Why' and the inescapable darkness of teen angst

Ramzy Muliawan
Ramzy Muliawan

Writer, exchange student, politics and football aficionado

Indianapolis, Indiana | Sat, May 13, 2017 | 08:59 am
'13 Reasons Why' and the inescapable darkness of teen angst

This image released by Netflix shows Katherine Langford in a scene from the series '13 Reasons Why.' (Netflix via AP/Beth Dubber)

As Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) ended her precious life by slitting her own veins in the bathtub, Netflix latest original series 13 Reasons Why reached the point that struck the hearts and minds of their viewers: that the dark world of schoolyard bullying, depression and suicide is not as distant as you might think.

A 13-episode adaptation of Jay Asher’s 2007 best-selling young adult novel Thirteen Reasons Why, the series premiered just last month and featured a string of young but highly talented casts. It broke the record for the most streamed TV series in Netflix and paved its way to be arguably one of the company’s finest original works so far, on par with House of Cards and Stranger Things.

The storyline follows the story of Baker, a depressed teenager who kills herself and leaves behind 13 audio cassette tapes for thirteen different people who played a role, from little to significant, in her decision to end her life.

The series, however, starts with Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette), the eleventh person in the series but the second to last to receive the tapes. Jensen, a shy, socially awkward boy who had complicated but uncommunicated feelings toward Baker, starts to listen to the tapes one by one, only to discover that the truth is more brutal and hurtful than what he had expected.

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Created by Tony Award-winning Brian Yorkey, 13 Reasons Why counts singer-songwriter Selena Gomez as an executive producer. Amid the controversies surrounding racial and ethnic diversity in Hollywood, the cast was stunningly multifarious: of 11 people portrayed on the tapes, you can find a girl who is a lesbian, of Korean descent and was adopted by a gay couple, for example. You might even find some Indonesian seasoning in it: Ross Butler, the actor who plays school jock Zach Dempsey, is half-Indonesian.

The real deal about 13 Reasons Why is its brutal yet honest interpretation of how modern teenagers react to the ageless theme of bullying and depression, and how clever that kind of portrayal is delivered to the viewers. The show interestingly explores the techniques of intimidation that were previously uncharted territory to some mainstream movies or TV shows, but also combines it with old-school types of psychological terror that was not uncommon to the viewers of the previous generation.

It include the likes of cyberbullying (Episode 1, Tape 1 Side A), when Justin Foley (Brandon Flynn) spread Hannah’s racy picture after their sensual encounter on the playground; or stalking (Episode 4, Tape 2, Side B) when the school’s creepy yearbook cameraman Tyler Down (Devin Druid) followed Baker around and produced another series of sexually-seasoned pictures of her. Yet macho fistfights, like the one between Alex Standall (Miles Heizer) and Montgomery de la Cruz (Timothy Granaderos), or body-shaming using paper lists, as featured in Episode 3 (Tape 2, Side A), also played an important role.

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The array of themes were also brilliantly served cold. Sexuality, of course, but not the rigid male-female relationship, rather a more abstract interpretation of love and desire that has no exact borders. Distrust of institutions and authority, colored Baker’s decision to take the matter into her own hands. Baker and Jensen’s relationship is perhaps the most underrated tale. 

Finally, the graphic depiction of Baker’s suicide is perhaps one of the most powerful moments of this series. Some might find it highly disturbing, something that no similar pieces of work before have ever done, which might even romanticize the dark nature of suicide. I find it a cruel yet ingenuous delivery of a cold fact: no matter how one tries to deny or avoid it, the reality of teenage depression and suicide is something that is often a little too close to home. (kes) 



Ramzy is a high school student who loves journalism, politics and football. When he is not writing for his school newspaper or tweeting at @ramzymuliawan, he can be found watching Semen Padang, Juventus or San Antonio Spurs matches. In 2012, he co-founded the Minangkabau edition of Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. A native of Padang, he calls Pekanbaru home; he is currently living in Indianapolis, Indiana, as an exchange student with the Kennedy-Lugar YES Program.

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