I appreciate entertainment which achieves the level of art. And 13 Reason Why is art.
I just finished watching the show and I’m pretty sure I need therapy. But then that’s the point I think. And the reason I’m going against my better judgement in posting about the show here.
Should I watch 13 Reasons Why?
Of course 13 Reasons Why has been a controversial show. Basically a school girl kills herself, but before she does so, she records 13 tapes explaining why. And naming each person who played a role in the story. It is heavy. It is dark. It is intense.
Let me be direct at the get go. I am not recommending this show. Children should not watch this show. If you have an unusually mature older teenager, you might consider letting them watch the show with you. If you’re an adult who likes to avoid such dark and heavy topics, you just might be the person who needs to watch this show.
If you’ve never been suicidal and find it easy to judge those who are, you should probably watch this show. It’s not easy to watch. But then it’s not easy to be suicidal. And you can’t minister to people who have been—or are—if you can’t empathise. Understanding teaches us humility and it takes humility to help the suffering. And if this isn’t something you come across in your life, it’s not because it’s not there. It is. I promise you. The issues raised in this show are happening around you every day. Clay and Hannah and Alex and Bryce live in your neighbourhood; they work at your workplace; they’re sitting next to you on the train. In fact, they’re sitting next to you at church more often than we’d like to admit. We live in a broken world but this is the only world God has called us to reach out to.
Another important point is that if you struggle with suicidal ideation or poor mental health, please don’t watch this show. It’s just not going to be helpful to you. And it will almost certainly be harmful. It fleshes out ideas and scenarios that are dangerous for you. And it may easily romanticise for you something that is not romantic. At all.
In a moment I will outline some of my thoughts on the show here. My goal is to help other Christians who are trying to sort out how to deal with this show. But first, let me direct you to one of the articles I published over at Thinking of God a while back. It is called To Die is Gain: Paul’s logic and the suicidal Christian. It is an attempt to speak to the struggles of the suicidal Christian. Additionally, if you’re here and struggling with some of the issues this show or this post raise, please contact (in Australia) Lifeline on 13 11 14, Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636, or a church nearby.
My thoughts on the show
So, without further ado… my thoughts.
First, there is rightly controversy surrounding this show. As I understand it, it has likely been the proximal cause of multiple suicides/attempts. Does that mean it shouldn’t have been made? I don’t think so. Difficult topics are difficult to talk about. We should not think that because something is the proximal cause of an attempt that it is the substantial cause. It may be. But it may not be. The important thing is that difficult things need to be talked about. If this show says anything, it says this. Ignoring the issues doesn’t make them go away. It just isolates the people who feel alone already. On the other hand, there is a time and a place for difficult discussions. I’ll say it again: Children should not watch this show. They are simply not mentally and emotionally prepared to deal with its content. Or anywhere close. Even older teenagers should not watch this show casually. It is a powerful tool for discussion and reflection. It is dangerous as just another bit of entertainment.
Second, there is the question of whether the show is a good or accurate portrayal of suicide. Certainly it is better than no discussion. But I don’t think it’s a perfect handling. I have multiple concerns. For instance, the main characters in the show make serial bad decisions. They routinely lie to parents and authorities. They systematically fail to go to parents, school leadership, or police about things that are deadly serious. Crimes, for instance. They hide and protect and collude. And sure, the story line creates its own justification, but it also functions as a penetrating commentary on what is broken about—particularly—American society and the American high school system. More seriously, I felt as the viewer that I was so highly sympathetic to the victim of suicide that I was able to easily overlook the terrible things that she did to Clay. And the others. This is not true of all, or even most, suicides, but in this case, there is a strong element of premeditated revenge. And it makes her responsible for a whole lot of other damaged people. Anyone watching the show thinking this is a good way to be heard is being let down by the show. Finally, I have to agree with many other commentators that this show is dangerously graphic in its portrayal of suicide. I think Netflix should be required to depict that scene more discreetly.
Third, at almost every step, the solution would have been an open, trusting relationship between the generations. At very few points in the entire show do the parents (or other authorities for that matter) listen. I mean really listen. Over and over again, the struggling young person speaks, but feels unheard, and so gives up and carries on alone. Alone.
Fourth, the show highlights the fact that it is not trauma that makes people suicidal, but a lack of hope. As long as there is hope, we hang on. But when the last tiny flame of hope is snuffed out, we are vulnerable to this act. The show powerfully portrays the crucial importance of living in a way that brings hope to those around us. It can happen in the smallest conversation; even the smallest look.
Fifth, as with many secular approaches to difficult topics, the ending is all wrong. 13 Reasons Why is masterful in its setting out of the problem. It is powerful in the way it makes you feel what they felt. It raises all the right questions. But it has no ultimate answers. Sure, there are some hints at answers. Short-term ones. But no substantive attempt to deal with an ultimate solution; a reason for hope. It is here that we Christians are in our element. We are a people of hope! Not some vague, gutless hope about some far distant happiness, but a specific, concrete hope that lives and breathes in the person of Jesus Christ himself!
You don’t need to watch this show. I don’t think it’s helpful as entertainment per se. But as art; as a doorway to a discussion at the core of who we are, it is dynamite. If you use it, use it wisely. Carefully.
And if you find it raises difficult issues, don’t be like the characters in the show who isolate themselves and avoid asking for help. Start where Clay finishes. He’s asked “Are you ok?” and he answers “No. Is that alright?” The answer he gets is the right answer. “Yeah.”
It’s ok to not be ok. And it’s ok to admit it and ask for help.
Grace to you.
If you are struggling with suicidal thoughts, please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14, Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636, or a church nearby.