Thirteen Reasons Why (Again), and the Undermining of Important Messages

Many of you who have read either my blog or my book, 22 Scars, know that I don’t take mental illness lightly. Having suffered with depression and bipolar symptoms for what essentially amounts to the entirety of my adult life, being a former self-harm addict and struggling to this day with suicide ideation, any story that tackles the difficulties of living with mental illness is going to fall under heavy scrutiny (by me, anyway), because it’s a raw, delicate subject that needs to be addressed sensitively. (And needs to be addressed.)

I’ve already written about my disappointment in the original season of the TV show Thirteen Reasons Why for showing a graphic – but not graphic enough – suicide scene in the final episode. I have to be careful myself when reading and watching media about self-harm and suicide, and whilst the scene was definitely triggering, it was also terribly wrong. It played heavily into the stereotype of the depressed teenager slitting their wrists in the tub, and made the whole process seem – to my eyes, anyway – ridiculously easy and relatively painless.

The book on which the show is based does not do this. In fact, the book scarcely mentions the character’s suicide at all, and deals much better with the fallout and ramifications of the teen’s suicide amongst her friends and family. The few allusions that do exist seem to imply that Hannah Baker overdosed, rather than slit her wrists.

That being said, the original season of Thirteen Reasons Why at least tried to deal with the subject matters of teenage depression, mental health, tragedy and trauma in a meaningful way, and despite its flaws, conveyed the message adeptly that suicide has consequences – and self-justifications – that reach far beyond the individual victim. I can’t say I’m a fan of the idea of blaming others for one’s own suicide ideations and actions, but I’m willing to acknowledge there are people in the world who do genuinely think that way.

And the story itself – that of a depressed and traumatized teenage girl ending her life, and the fallout thereof – is an important one, and certainly not one whose message should ever be diluted, diminished, or forgotten about. So then why on earth did they feel it was necessary to extend the story to three further seasons of teenagers engaging in increasingly horrific and traumatizing acts, some of which feel more appropriate to a Quentin Tarantino film than a teen drama?

Unlike TV shows such as Game of Thrones, which deviated from the source material by necessity, there is really no reason that Thirteen Reasons Why needed a second, third, or fourth season. The story of Hannah Baker was concluded, and to pretend Thirteen Reasons Why is more than her story is to diminish the tragedy of her suicide. This isn’t to say that further topics such as racism, school shootings, bullying, etc. aren’t equally important topics, but I can’t help feeling they belong in their own stories – not in Hannah Baker’s.

Furthermore, the continuation of the series doesn’t feel like a natural continuation of an ongoing story, but rather something more akin to John Wick, in the sense that it’s as though each season feels the need to go further, push harder, and be more controversial than the one that preceded it. We don’t need to see children murdering each other, plotting to commit mass shootings, or sodomizing each other with broom handles just because we already saw suicide and rape in the first season; there needs to be a strong, compelling reason for every act in a story to take place, and this comes across as sensationalizing terrible things, and throwing things at the viewer purely for shock value.

I’ve had people ask me if I intend to write a sequel to my own novel dealing with suicide and self-harm; people wondering what happens to Amy at the end of 22 Scars, or wanting deeper insight into her parents. To be honest, I have no particular intention of revisiting that story or its characters, because I don’t feel it’s necessary: the story ends exactly where I wanted it to (ambiguous though it might be). But if I did, it certainly wouldn’t be to ‘top’ the original; and even in my actual second novel (work-in-progress), dealing with very different people and events, doesn’t try to be more graphic, controversial or outrageous than 22 Scars. In fact, most of it is probably pretty tame by comparison, but that’s because it’s not the same story.

I think that the writers of Thirteen Reasons Why – or maybe the producers, or the studios, who know – got caught up in the idea that they needed to retain viewers by pushing boundaries further. And whilst they may have succeeded in getting renewed and getting people to watch their grotesque horror-show, they did it at the expense of the message that the original story was trying to convey.

Perhaps the series’ one redeeming feature is that, in the subsequent seasons, there are brief moments where the cast talks directly to the viewer about the subjects the show deals with, encouraging impressionable minds to talk, discuss their feelings, and seek help. This is a strong, positive message to have. But to place it before such graphic content that seems deliberately tailored to shock and offend is like the content warning that airs before South Park; it really doesn’t mean anything.

Thirteen Reasons Why had an important message to send, and whilst the first season conveyed it to varying degrees of success, the subsequent three seasons, to me, completely undermine everything that was trying to be said. And although Jay Asher, author of the original novel, has said that he doesn’t mind the deviations from the book in season one for the sake of the message, I don’t know what his thoughts are on the events of the following three seasons.

When I write a book like 22 Scars, or The Broken, I don’t set out with a specific message in mind; but I’m highly aware that stories like these nonetheless convey deep meaning to the readers and viewers, and I need to be cautious with how I present the subjects themselves. I took great lengths in 22 Scars not to glorify self-harm, and I’m attempting to take similar steps to avoid glorifying racism, victimization and underage sex in The Broken. These are topics that absolutely need to be discussed, but they can’t be glossed over and portrayed as anything other than the deeply traumatizing events that they truly are.

If you haven’t watched the remaining seasons of Thirteen Reasons Why, I’m not going to tell you to avoid them; at the end of the day, they’re still stories that retain some level of validity inasmuch as all stories deserve to be told. But I will caution you that from my perspective, they do not do justice to the original season, nor Jay Asher’s original book, and should be viewed with a deep awareness of just what the writers were trying to achieve. They may be stories that needed telling, but I wish they wouldn’t pretend they have anything to do with Hannah Baker’s mental illness and ultimate suicide.

If you have seen all four seasons of Thirteen Reasons Why, I’d love to know your own perspective; am I too easily triggered because of my own prejudices regarding mental illness? Or did these stories seem egregious to you as well? I’d love to know!

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