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How '13 Reasons Why’ Makes the Same Mistakes it Warns Against

Trigger warning: Self-harm, suicide, gun violence.

In the second season of Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why,” Clay (Dylan Minnette)—the series’ frustratingly dim protagonist—has a new girlfriend. Played by Sosie Bacon, Skye has a string of stars tattoos on her collarbone, an affinity for graffiti street art, and a motorcycle that makes Clay’s bike seem puny. She also has fresh cuts on her skin, which Clay notices as they try to have sex for the first time together. He stops, then unhelpfully berates her: “You’re supposed to call me, even if you just think about it. Where are your rubber bands? Have you been trying meditation?”

“Meditation is the most fucking boring thing in the world,” Skye snaps.

“Then we’re going to take a mindfulness walk,” Clay insists, to which Skye dryly laughs. It seems that showrunner Brian Yorkey and the creative team behind “13 Reasons Why” are simultaneously self-aware of and completely oblivious to the harmful clichés the show presents. On one hand, Skye has all the makings of a self-possessed, multidimensional main character. She smartly points out common misconceptions about mental health, like when Clay visits her in the hospital after an instance of self-harm. “It’s like I have all these feelings, and I can’t control them—like I’m a visitor in my own mind. And if I don’t catch my breath, I’ll burn up and blow away,” Skye says to him. “And I know you want to save me from that, and I love you for it. But you can’t.” The key word is “save.” Skye, and presumably the writers who created her, know that mental health extends beyond the romantic spats like the one to which Clay originally attributes this instance of self-harm, and requires more support than a boyfriend-turned-savior. Skye’s story is—or should be—less male-centric and more complex than that.

But it isn’t. Skye’s character is sidelined, only brought onto the screen to teach Clay a lesson or two before mysteriously disappearing into her own unseen world of mental health recovery. Her whole premise reads like some punk dreamgirl who teaches Clay how to be wild—but sensitive—before vanishing once her character is no longer useful, once Clay knows how to wield a can of graffiti with artistic expertise and offer wilting flowers to girls who are hurting. “You really do have a thing for complicated girls,” Clay imagines Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) saying to him, as he watches Skye’s ambulance drive away. Skye’s selective screen time completely contradicts the values Skye embodies.

This is the constant tug-of-war that defines the second season of “13 Reasons Why.” When its first installment was originally released in 2017, viewers, publications, and mental health professionals both praised and criticized the Netflix series adaptation of Jay Asher’s novel, and very quickly, the conversation expanded beyond mental health itself to the representations of it. The show’s producers anticipated the backlash over the second season—which extends past the timeline of Asher’s book—as Netflix commissioned a study with the Northwestern University’s Center on Media and Human Development looking at the ways “13 Reasons Why” affected teens. In response to the results, they prefaced episodes with trigger warnings and the season premiere with an introduction of the show by the actors—not the characters. “Two-thirds of parents in our study asked to have the cast come out of character to discuss how to get support,” Wright wrote in the press release. Perhaps the fourth-wall breaking would remind viewers that “13 Reasons Why,” despite its relevant subject matter, is above all, fiction.

Fiction though, is a dangerous space, particularly when it chooses to revive a dead girl for 13 long hours. In the first season, Hannah only existed in flashbacks or “in stereo,” via the tape recordings she left behind for the people who wronged her. But in the second season, Hannah is brought back as a ghost, an in-the-flesh hallucination only Clay can see, presumably because he’s the one who dreamed her up. “Are you real?” Clay asks.

“Do you see me?” Hannah’s ghost responds.

“Are you corporeal?”

“That seems like a science fiction question.”

“Can I touch you?”

“That seems like a loaded question.”

The answers should all be “no,” but the show continues to dodge the question, even though that implies that Hannah Baker is in some way, alive again. It’s disturbing, and not just for Clay. One of the critiques held against the first season was that it glamorized suicide. Mental health professionals raised alarm over the potential for suicide contagion, a phenomenon in which one suicide can trigger others. And it seemed like “13 Reasons Why” was listening with all sincerity. At one point, the show’s administrative villain brings up a compelling point to justify a cruel policy that restricts the students from talking about suicide at all: “Kids get talking about Hannah, maybe even admiring what she did. They might think that somehow, this is an answer. It might be a way for other kids to feel their pain, that they could live on after they die.”

But they can’t. Reviving Hannah Baker presents a risky, desperate illusion that suicide guarantees an afterlife in which you can still have conversations with your loved ones and witness karmic retribution against those who have wronged you. In the last episode, Hannah’s ghost attends her own service. She’s just a product of Clay’s imagination, but it’s difficult to remember that when the actress behind the character is sitting there, alone in the church pews. She’s there as the people who hurt her gather, presumably to hear and say beautiful words about a beautiful girl after she died—because she died. And it might be hard for viewers to realize that she can’t hear these things now.

You could argue that the show wouldn’t be as interesting without Hannah Baker, the reigning heroine even in memoriam. But that’s exactly the point: Suicide shouldn’t be sold as entertainment. It should be talked about, not spectacularized. “13 Reasons Why” disguises itself as a savior, sometimes recognizing problematic content within its own written dialogue. But any relevant messages that “13 Reasons Why” attempts to deliver get twisted or lost in the drama and lights of the show.

Take, for example, its very last scene. After being raped in a controversially graphic depiction, Tyler Down (Devin Druid) piles rifles into the back of his trunk and sets out for the school while the students are at their Spring Fling. He notifies the girl he likes about his plan, who then goes on to alert those close to Tyler at the dance. At this point, the reasonable course of action would be to protect themselves and call the police, like what child psychologist and “13 Reasons Why”’s series consultant, Rebecca Hedrick, recommends in “Beyond the Reasons,” Netflix’s talk-show style one-episode spinoff that gathers different cast and crew members to try to break down the series’ themes. “We would never advise anyone who’s exposed to an active shooter to confront them, even if it’s a loved one,” she said. “We would advise to get away.”

But instead, Clay plays hero and tries to save Tyler from shooting the school with a small act of kindness. It’s a bizarre twist of foolish heroism that miraculously works, ignoring Tyler’s predisposition to violence and his pre-established obsession with guns. It makes no sense, and as Vox aptly puts it, “it reinforces the myth that school shooters are the victims of bullying pushed to the breaking point and lashing out against their tormentors.” The show simply does not have enough bandwidth (nor the right approach, considering this controversial decision was tacked on right at the season’s end with no time to process afterwards) to unpack issues like gun violence when they're already struggling to safely portray suicide.

“13 Reasons Why” also puts guns in the hands of teens two other times, a disturbing image considering the second season was released on May 18, just a few months after the high school shooting in Parkland, Florida. On June 6, the series was renewed for a third volume, set to be released in 2019. "It’s engaging content. It is controversial,” Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said at the streaming service’s annual shareholder meeting in defense of the decision. “But nobody has to watch it."

But as cultural phenomenons tend to do, “13 Reasons Why” extends far beyond the laptop screen. It seeps into our daily lives, manifesting in memes or promposals or even suicide. The appeal of TV is that it is so good at glamorizing its content, and it is so easy to spread.

“13 Reasons Why” is the show that never should have existed. Dan Reidenberg, the executive director of Suicide Awareness Voices of Education, was apparently contacted a month before its debut. Netflix asked for guidance. Reidenberg said that they should stop. "But that wasn't an option," Reidenberg said. "That was made very clear to me."

Maybe third time’s the charm. There need to be conversations about mental health and suicide if we ever want to destigmatize mental illness. But if Netflix keeps romanticizing trauma under the guise of heroism, then we will always be stuck on conversations about the representations of mental illness, and never mental illness itself.

—Staff writer Grace Z. Li can be reached at grace.li@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @gracezhali.

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