13 Reasons Why: Trauma and Unreliable Narrators

As it's confirmed Netflix's 13 Reasons Why is returning for a second season, we explore its narrative style and portrayal of trauma...

Warning: contains spoilers for 13 Reasons Why

There’s a scene in the penultimate episode of 13 Reasons Why in which everyone affected by the cassette tapes left behind by Hannah Baker – a 17-year-old high school student who recently committed suicide – discusses how much of her account is true. Throughout the series we’re told repeatedly that some tapes are outright lies, and that Hannah is simply trying to blackmail her classmates from beyond the grave.

By episode 12, we’ve come to understand that this probably isn’t the case, and it’s as close to a twist as the series ever indulges in. While some events may have played out slightly differently, the group is forced to reconcile with the fact that the most important – and incriminating – bits were very true. By doing it this way, the show plays with our own instincts to question the honesty of girls like Hannah.

The series weaves a tapestry of suspicion out of tidbits of information gleaned from flashbacks, Hannah’s voiceover and the testimonies of other characters. We learn about events as our protagonist, Clay, does, and we watch as he peppers his own recollections into situations being recounted on the tapes. He was there the whole time, but still couldn’t stop things from building towards tragedy.

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At other points in the series Hannah is not the only character feeding the audience potential falsehoods. In episode five, we see that the stress of listening to the tapes is causing Clay’s ‘what if’ daydreaming to become actual hallucinations even he can’t separate and, upon learning how he contributed to Hannah’s suicide, he concocts an alternative version of events in which she didn’t die and they happily began dating.

But it’s victims and survivors who are most often met with mistrust both within the universe of 13 Reasons Why as well as in the real world. The default response for many to those who report mistreatment and abuse is to question whether they are telling the truth, whether they remember events correctly, and what, exactly, they want the authorities to do about it.

Kevin Porter, the school counsellor and final subject of the tapes, ticks all of these boxes in one conversation, asking Hannah whether she simply regrets getting involved with the unnamed jock she alludes to, and telling her that it might just be a matter of ignoring him until he goes away. By dismissing her experience in this way, he is the final straw for Hannah, pushing her over the edge.

In this sense, Jessica became the show’s most interesting figure, her entire arc about those around her making her feel like an unreliable narrator of her own story. Afflicted by many of the same aggressions that had driven Hannah to kill herself, Jessica is forced to carry on. She has to stay alive despite everything that’s happened to her and, she, more than anyone, has to sort her fake memories from her real ones.

Jessica’s story is about the lies we’re told and those we tell ourselves in order to survive, which is in direct contrast with Hannah’s inability to continue doing just that.

And that’s what 13 Reasons Why comes down to, in the end – survival. There has been a reasonable amount of controversy surrounding the show’s decision to depict Hannah’s suicide in such graphic detail and, while it’s true that showing these things on screen can impact already-vulnerable people in negative ways, some of the criticism sells the young audience short.

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Teenagers are in the process of sorting out what they know, what adults have told them and what is fed to them by the media, and there is a tendency to underestimate their ability to do this ‘correctly’.

Speaking only of the characters, depressed and traumatized people in 13 Reasons Why are shown again and again to be desperately assembling the reality that is most comfortable for them to exist in. Sheri, a girl who inadvertently caused the death of a classmate, convinces herself that the driver was probably drunk. Justin remains friends with Bryce after Jessica’s rape because he thinks he’s abiding by the ‘bro-code’, and Tyler claims that he did what he did because he loved Hannah.

Society’s pressures, especially those that hit teenagers, are built around the narratives and expectations put upon us. This is Hannah’s story through and through, but it also a story about toxic masculinity, perceptions of victimhood, and the ways in which the world seeks to memorialize beautiful dead girls whilst simultaneously dehumanizing them.

Aside from Bryce, one of the series’ few two-dimensional villains, everyone who wronged Hannah is given a backstory, personal misfortune and – in some cases – understandable reasons for doing what they did. Whether it’s Alex and Zach, who both react to female rejection in the only way they’ve learned how, or Courtney, who’s frightened to come out despite her upbringing, these characters are painted as complicated human beings worthy of our sympathy.

Hannah herself is not the perfect victim she may have been portrayed as in lesser series. There is a chance that some of the events recounted in earlier tapes are misleading and, just as those around her stood by and didn’t help when she needed it, she also does not interject when she witnesses Jessica’s assault. She pushes Clay away when he tries to break through her loneliness, and the tapes themselves are a vengeful act that lump people like Ryan and Zach in with Bryce and Marcus.

The show reminded me more than once of the Veronica Mars episode A Trip To The Dentist. In it, after a season of not knowing what had happened to her at a party at which she had been drugged and raped, Veronica questions her classmates one by one until she can piece together enough information to draw up some version of the truth. Over the course of the series, that ‘truth’ evolves.

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13 Reasons Why is that Veronica Mars episode enlarged, covering an entire season and showing us multiple perspectives on a single tragedy. In episode one, the school remembers Hannah simply as the girl who had committed suicide in her bathtub a week earlier, but by the end many of them – like us – have achieved a basic understanding of the anatomy of such a terrible and irreversible decision.

The show looks at trauma and how it affects our perception of reality. Jessica refuses to believe that she was assaulted because the truth would be too awful on too many levels, and Hannah’s classmates would rather paint her as a liar than hold themselves accountable.

Because of the way she was treated, the only way Hannah thought she would be believed, finally able to reveal her version of the truth, was posthumously. By recording her version of events, she made sure she would no longer be misunderstood or dismissed and that, no matter how many hashtags or empty words on a locker memorial were created in her absence, that she could not be immortalized as just another dead girl dead, gone before her time.