This is a spoiler-free review of 13 Reason Why’s opening episodes. Already seen 13 Reasons Why? Read our spoiler-filled thoughts on Season 1’s finale.
Based on a 10-year-old young adult novel by Jay Asher, viewers may expect Netflix’s newest series, 13 Reasons Why, to present an outdated depiction of high-school life, yet the very opposite is true. The series explores many highly-relevant issues, including the impact of slut-shaming, body image, and cyber-bullying on adolescence life. Part high-school drama, part coming-of-age story and part mystery-thriller, 13 Reasons Why tackles some tough subject matter in its first four episodes, although not always concisely.
Boasting executive producer credits from Tom McCarthy and Selena Gomez, 13 Reasons Why follows shy but likeable Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette), who finds a mysterious box outside his house filled with 13 cassette tapes. The tapes are recorded by Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford), Clay’s classmate, co-worker and long-time crush, who took her own life just two weeks prior. Detailing the betrayals, bullying and shaming that led Hannah to commit suicide, each tape is dedicated to a person she holds culpable for her decision. Following her death, Hannah has the tapes sent to each of the 13 individuals and leaves instructions for them to be passed on to each person on the list, or else a second copy of the compromising tapes will be released publicly.
Clay is understandably shocked to find out that he could have influenced Hannah’s decision to end her life in any way. He’s also one of the last to be given the tapes and the revelatory effects of them are already reverberating around the school, causing divisions and conflict between the recipients.
The way the series coordinates between the past and the present and between Clay’s and Hannah’s perspectives is both intricate and immersive. Clay listening to the tapes is interweaved with Hannah’s narration, along with flashbacks of Hannah’s experience and Clay’s present day ordeals in the wake of her suicide. This overlapping structure is inventively handled and helps beautifully illustrate how small instances and actions can snowball into awful tragedies.
Despite its slick structure, the first four episodes lack any juicy plot developments. The series’ insistence on withholding information often feels contrived and consequently makes for an unrewarding, frustrating experience at times. Clay’s enigmatic friend, Tony (Christian Navarro), epitomises this as his cryptic dialogue and behaviour quickly becomes tiresome.
These opening episodes meander too frequently – the 13-episode season length initially feels bloated to fit the 13-tape narrative structure and each 50-minute instalment could quite easily trim 15 minutes from its run-time. While fans of the source material are likely to lap it up, others may not find 13 Reasons Why quite as binge-worthy.
However, magnetic turns from Minnette and Australian newcomer Langford help distract from this narrative bagginess. Minnette’s performance as do-gooder Clay is emotive, engaging, and raw – he simply doesn’t put a foot wrong. Langford is also impressive, portraying Hannah enigmatically yet empathetically. Some of the series’ best moments are the sweet, humorous and powerful developments in their friendship. As they bond through working at the local cinema, their complicated connection feels palpable. Unlike Clay and Hannah, though, many of the other characters fit into the standard archetypes of teen dramas – the jock, nerd and cheerleader characterisations are all covered. In a series that is heavily character-driven, these unmemorable, clichéd secondary figures hamper the narrative intrigue.
But while its execution sometimes falters, 13 Reasons Why must be commended for discussing important, hefty issues. The series explores how determining responsibility in a suicide can be a difficult, messy and endless task. Timely commentary is also provided on the effects social media can have on the public and private lives of teenagers. For a young-adult adaption, it’s a mature piece of television that delves into the social pressures of adolescence in a surprisingly uncondescending manner.
If 13 Reasons Why is going to be Netflix’s next Stranger Things, its latter episodes need better momentum, as well as some more compelling supporting characters. But two striking lead performances and a sincere approach to its subject matter make 13 Reasons Why a watchable and affecting experience.
All episodes of 13 Reasons Why are now available exclusively on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.