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Variety TV Critics Discuss Graphic Depictions of Rape and Suicide in Netflix’s ‘13 Reasons Why’

The Netflix show aimed at teenagers depicts suicide and sexual abuse in graphic detail. Our critics discuss the show

Few shows have prompted as much conversation as “13 Reasons Why” — which seems to be part of the point of the Netflix show. It’s almost infinitely discussable, given the weightiness of the show’s topics and the varied ways in which the show met the challenges of depicting them well. It’s caused its share of controversy, but “13 Reasons Why” has also met with a number of positive responses from critics and viewers — and according to Twitter, it’s the most tweeted show of 2017.

Variety’s TV critics, Sonia Saraiya and Maureen Ryan, found themselves with lots to say about the show — but beware, this conversation touches on a number of plot points from the first season of the show. Spoilers ahead. 

Sonia Saraiya: Mo, I just finished “13 Reasons Why,” and I am messed up. That was a doozy of an ending. It might be one of the hardest things I’ve seen on television, actually — which is saying a lot, considering I’ve watched “Game of Thrones” and “Hannibal” and “Outlander.” I knew, of course, that Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) was going to kill herself. But after getting to know her and love her, seeing her do it in that physical, graphic, brutal way was just awful.

When I first started watching this show, I was really taken with how weirdly honest and heartfelt it was — and how Hannah, speaking from beyond the grave, was not a victim so much as a manipulator, enacting her own revenge on the characters. The basic strength of that conceit carried me through a lot of the show’s hiccups — the weaker episodes, the assumptions of blame, the seemingly endless crises wreaking havoc on this one tiny town. Now that it’s ended — and because the ending was such a punch in the gut — it’s made me re-evaluate whether or not depicting this story was wholly responsible, or maybe more to the point, whether or not this series was good.

This show has sparked a bit of dissent about the complications and responsibilities inherent in portraying a show about sexual violence and suicide. “13 Reasons Why” is graphic — and is preceded with a card advising the viewer that they are about to watch sensitive material. That has not been enough to stem the tide of controversy. In addition to Twitter threads from teen guidance counselors and survivors of sexual abuse, even my own friends and acquaintances online have posted things about how triggering they have found it themselves to watch, especially if they have a history of sexual violence or suicidal ideation. It has raised the question, among some viewers, if “13 Reasons Why” is responsible, transparent, or really about understanding these teens — and instead about exploiting their struggle for a story that benefits people who aren’t dealing with this stuff.

You reviewed it in advance. What have you noticed about the reaction to this show?

Maureen Ryan: I thought overall, the show was good and necessary, but this was one of those times where I felt reactions and reviews would be all over the map, and I was right about that. The topics it takes on meant that the road that this show was going to follow narratively was full of pitfalls. I found myself braced for it to fall into a lot of TV’s usual cliches as the episodes unfolded. I’ve spent the past few decades watching TV do a generally terrible, superficial job of dealing with those subjects, too often using rape, suicide and the lives of teen girls as cheap story fuel, rather than complex topics worthy of serious and in-depth exploration.

So I was waiting for missteps, and honestly, I feel like “13 Reasons” avoided a lot of the problems I was expecting — more than I was expecting it to. For my money, its mistakes were more in the narrative arena than in the responsibility arena, so to speak. Story-wise, by the time that Clay (Dylan Minnette) was getting a tarot reading in a coffee shop, my patience with the show’s artificial and sometimes inartfully constructed obstacles was at an end. (I could also do a whole rant on the number of underage teenagers with massive amounts of ink, but let’s save that one for another day.)

When it came to the toughest scenes, the show did a reasonable job of avoiding cliches and was often moving or thought-provoking. I know that there are those who think it glamorized suicide, and made it seem like the only option. Here’s my question, though: When can we talk about the things that drive teenagers (or anyone, for that matter) toward suicidal thoughts? I think the show makes the space for those discussions, which I think is valuable. I truly respect and understand the reservations some people have about the show, but I think there are a lot of young people in psychological pain, engaging in self-harm and falling into addictions and depression. I would bet this show is driving a lot of conversations about those topics. Maybe it’s causing people to open up to their friends and family about their feelings of isolation and despair. I could be wrong. But I think that was one of the goals, and I’d be surprised if that weren’t the case. Do you think I’m off-base about that?

Saraiya: Not at all. If anything it seemed to me like several of the moments in the show are designed to be teachable moments. And to be honest, I don’t think I’ve seen a show that has quite so powerfully portrayed what exactly happens when a girl is labeled the “slut” in a school environment; it’s a cascading series of events over the course of months, and the way it wreaks havoc on her own sanity and her relationships at school felt realistic in a way that surprised me.

The sexual assault was also surprisingly well-rendered — if you are of the opinion that such a thing can be well-rendered at all. The emphasis was on the victims and their experiences; the portrayal was not sexy or fun or mistaken about what was really happening. And the ease with which the show’s rapist Bryce (Justin Prentice) used social norms to shift into abuse was eye-opening, as was the way he defended himself to Clay weeks later.

At the same time, both rape scenes (which are both shown repeatedly over multiple episodes, in flashbacks as well as in linear story) were simply awful to watch. And while on one hand, that is the point, on the other it does not surprise me to discover that people were disturbed or haunted by these scenes. And I have just described my own reaction to the suicide scene, too.

I have sort of come to the conclusion, with the sexual assault scenes, that as hard as those are to watch, there is an awful indignity in cutting away from the characters’ pain, too. Perhaps the show didn’t have to flash back as much as it did — but that speaks more to the narrative lag in the middle of the season than exploitation, I think. Not including the full extent of the rape, out of some kind of “modesty” or “respect,” makes the act this unimaginable thing that can’t be survived, or a shameful thing that has to be hidden. It is triggering — but life, unfortunately, is triggering. And “13 Reasons Why” shows extraordinary grace in depicting the aftermath of Jessica (Alisha Boe)’s assault — her spiral into alcohol abuse is both irrational and understandable, as well as reflective of current research on trauma’s co-morbidity with addiction.

The suicide is different, possibly. I am the type of person who errs on the side of saying something over saying nothing, and that is more or less the gist of this defense of the show’s portrayal of suicide from writer Nic Sheff. I cannot disagree with him, really: If I ever thought slitting my wrists seemed like a good idea before, it is completely stomach-turning to think on it now. But on the other hand, that scene provided an interested viewer with the exact methodology for doing it, and an idea of what it might look or feel like. That is a scary thing to show to 13-year-olds, right?

Maureen Ryan: My son is 14, about to turn 15, so a lot of things about this show definitely scared me — a lot. A number of parents have said that they watched the show first in order to see if it would be OK for their kid — or for themselves. I think that’s an absolutely valid approach, and if people found it triggering at all, I have zero problem with them tuning out the show. It’s absolutely a case where self-care should take priority, and if it was too hard to fall down into that pit with Hannah and Jessica, I get it.

That said, to get people to really pay attention to these issues, to get people to really be shocked by what people like Bryce are capable of, I think the show had to show the rapes. It had to show the suicide. I wrote a whole column about why the latter was necessary, especially in a TV environment in which women are raped all the time and the consequences are never shown — or we just get that idiotic scene in which a sexual assault victim sits on the floor of the shower and cries (and that’s it! The rape is processed! Let us never refer to it again!). “13 Reasons Why” was very hard to watch at times, and as we talk about this, I can feel the swirling mass of dark and painful emotions I felt when viewing those scenes. But the show successfully produced those responses for reasons I think are defensible — it was trying to get our attention. And it succeeded.

Speaking of Bryce, I think it’s a bit of a dodge to have his parents always be away — the inference we’re supposed to draw, I guess, is that a lack of supervision is part of what allowed him to become this monstrous, entitled rapist. But the fact is, many of the Bryces of the world have parents who simply look the other way, allow their kids to grow up without a sense of compassion or empathy, and defend their kids’ actions, no matter what. (Since my son was in preschool, I’ve come across parents who reflexively defend their kids, no matter what they’ve done. It’s heartbreaking, because sometimes you can see kids and young people being turned into selfish monsters right before your eyes. It’s a process, sadly.) The thing is, the people in our society who rape and assault don’t come from nowhere: They come from social and familial backgrounds and even work environments that either don’t curb their worst actions or encourage them.

“13 Reasons Why” didn’t help its own cause, however: The show messed up by having so many major incidents cascade in so few episodes right at the end of the season. In relatively quick succession, we saw the full rape of Jessica, Jeff died, we saw the rape of Hannah and then she committed suicide. For a show that meandered way too much in the middle, it tried to pack in way too much at the end of the season. I think the entire Jeff subplot should have been cut, and the show could have been streamlined in any number of other ways. There was just too much going on at the end of the season, and when people voice their concerns about the show and how it treats these very serious topics, that’s where, for me, their complaints gain some traction. There just wasn’t enough time to explore the final stages of the story for Hannah, and to make the case more fully regarding why her specific choices made sense for her (and not necessarily for anyone else).

Again, I think those storylines sprang from good intentions and in execution, they were largely laudable, but there was too much extraneous stuff swirling around at the end of season one. “13 Reasons Why” probably could have more with less, as it were. Does that make sense?

Saraiya: It absolutely does. I agree with you — why on earth was the Jeff story in there? Was it just to pad out the number of tapes, so that Sheri (Ajiona Alexus) would be on the list? If so, that’s a pity — because the padding distracted a lot from how powerful some of the other material was. It distracted away from being teachable, actually — the last episode is so packed that it’s hard to unpack. The fact that the story ended with Alex Standall (Miles Heizer)’s suicide made me wonder if there will be a second installment of “13 Reasons Why,” telling Alex’s story. It would be kind of horrifying if there were a Season 2 — but on the other hand, it exposes part of the fundamental puzzle at the heart of the show.

Ryan: Quickly interjecting here to say that I think a second season would be a disaster. There’s no way the power of those tapes or that structure could be recreated, and without that, there’s no way to re-create the emotional undertow of season one. I’m wildly against a second season. Sorry to interrupt — back to you.

Saraiya: On one hand, here’s this very responsible bent towards education and respectful portrayal. On the other is a kind of moody, noirish, soapy mystery. When I first went around talking about “13 Reasons Why,” I called it “Brick” meets “My So-Called Life” with a dash of “Black Mirror’s” episode “Shut Up and Dance.” The high school has a very lived-in and sort of malicious, mysterious quality, like “Brick”; Hannah is a dreamer, like Angela in “My So-Called Life” (and Clay is her Brian Krakow); and the tapes’ wheedling exhortations and threats reminded me of the anonymous terror motivating that “Black Mirror” episode — especially as you grow to realize how culpable your lead characters are. “13 Reasons Why” got caught a little in the gap between responsibility to the story and responsibility to the issues. It’s understandable. It’s also how we got here, wondering what to make of it. For the first two episodes, I was half-convinced that Hannah was going to emerge from hiding and take her revenge on her classmates — I guess I was imagining a “Pretty Little Liars” situation. It’s interesting that while perhaps “13 Reasons Why” romanticizes suicide, it’s also achingly obvious throughout that the whole story would have been much more romantic if Hannah hadn’t killed herself — if she’d revealed how powerful her voice could be while still alive. In a way she gets the justice she felt was lacking from the world through her tapes. But she still loses the most.

And she has to put her parents through finding her, which was, maybe, the most difficult element of that scene for me. Kate Walsh and Brian D’Arcy James were both great in those roles.

An interesting anecdote: A friend of mine visited with a class of middle-schoolers and they told her they’ve all watched “13 Reasons Why” but have to tell their parents they didn’t. Which is intriguing, because in some ways “13 Reasons Why” is the most after-school special a 13-episode show can get. If, by showing things that are graphic, this program gave itself the cachet of taboo — well, I guess that’s fine. Kids watch much dumber things when their parents aren’t looking.

Ryan: I agree. It reminds me of reading Judy Blume’s “Forever” in junior high school — one dog-eared copy went around the entire eighth grade. It was supposed to be inappropriate for kids our age, but we were desperate for any kind of knowledge about sex and relationships. That’s still true of kids now, but even more so, I think a lot of teenagers are desperately seeking information about issues of assault, trauma and mental health.

Let’s face it, there are plenty of teachable moments in the series. Speaking as an adult (and recalling the confused teen I was), I am haunted by the scene of Hannah and the school guidance counselor.

One of the problems with “13 Reasons Why” is that it failed in its attempts to give complex portrayals to some of the supporting characters, and that’s the case with Kevin Porter (Derek Luke), the counselor. (Late in the season, we get a half-hearted scene of him at home, talking out his troubles with his wife, but it is too little, much too late.) He was never really a three-dimensional character, which was the case with a number of the adult characters and a few of the teens.  

That said, the scene between Hannah and Porter is something I think about a lot. It was very much an intentional teachable moment, but the deep sincerity of that intent didn’t take anything away from its power. Hannah was very specifically trying to reach out and tell her story, and there were a dozen different ways in which Porter shut her down, minimized her complaints, or just reinforced the sense that she already (mistakenly) had — that no one would believe her or could help her. One of the big lessons of the show is that Clay could have done a better job of listening (and there are numerous characters who could have tried harder to connect with and support both Jessica and Hannah). But the biggest lesson beyond that arrives in Porter’s office. Doing what needed to be done would have been a hard, scary slog for him — he’d have to confront the powers that be, as well as Bryce’s parents and a host of other indifferent or hostile authorities.

But that’s how rape culture is addressed — not just in grand gestures like the signing of a bill, or one notorious assaulter or harasser being fired or sent to jail. Every day, in every way, we all have to listen to the Jessicas and Hannahs of the world, and do what needs to be done to help them heal and to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Making sure that the Bryces don’t always win is incredibly difficult, but it’s the work that needs to be done, and in that moment, those in authority (through Porter) let Hannah down.

I was once a high-schooler who realized, long after the fact, that I experienced clinical depression for most of that time of my life. Now I think about the power of social media — would I have survived if it had existed when I were attending high school? I shudder to think. The ease with which peers can rip apart one of their fellow students is terrifying, and if that person is already vulnerable in any way, the capacity to wreak damage is just enormous. And that incredible power is in the hands of teenagers who don’t understand the full ramifications of their actions. When they do begin to understand it, as Zach (Ross Butler) most certainly did, they sometimes turn away and shut that information out. Or all too often, they understand too late, which is the case with everyone Hannah knew, or tried to reach out to.

Saraiya: I hope “13 Reasons Why” is inspiring a lot of people to have a conversation about these issues. And I hope that anyone who watches it sees what I did — a story of a girl who didn’t need to end her life, despite what happened to her and around her. During the last episode with its terrible suicide scene I just kept hoping Hannah wouldn’t do it. That’s a profound feeling; for that alone “13 Reasons Why” will stick with me.

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