Warning: Spoilers Ahead!
Last year, I read the young adult novel Thirteen Reasons Why. Simple enough premise--Hannah Baker, a suicidal teenager, records a series of tapes before ending her life. Her friend Clay Jensen receives the tapes, and some very simple instructions. Listen to the tapes and then pass them on to the next person. Stop passing them, and a third party will play the tapes for the entire school. Oh, and if you received the tapes, you are one of the reasons that Hannah ended her life. The recipients include the boy who was her first kiss (who spread rumors that they did so much more), catty girls who were "fake friends," a Peeping Tom photographer, the campus rapist, and a guidance counselor who didn't listen to her final cry for help, among other. Clay? Nice guy who had a crush on her, and who left her alone in a moment when she was in distress.
Netflix just turned it into a series. Originally it was meant to be a movie, but instead, each of the tapes becomes its own episode. The series begins after Hannah's suicide, and while the school puts on a public display of mourning, Hannah's parents are commencing a lawsuit against the school. Clay receives the tapes, and is one of the last of the listed recipients, so most of the other people on the tapes have already heard them. And here is where things get interesting. Clay considered Hannah a close friend, and had a mild crush on her, so he wonders what he could have done to make her suicidal. Instead, he goes after the other recipients. Most of them are the "good" kids--athletes, student government leaders, cheerleaders, popular kids--and so they're more concerned about saving their own reputations than about considering the repercussions of their actions. There is a hope that once someone is "gone," those who bullied and tormented that person, who made their lives a living hell, will feel remorse for what they did. With few exceptions, none of them feel any remorse at all. Instead, they try to paint Hannah as an unstable liar. When that doesn't work, they go after Clay...
The moral is supposed to be that every action has consequences, and that what someone considers a "harmless" prank could inflict serious damage on another person. However, this lesson seems lost on every recipient of the tapes, including Clay. Many of them deny their involvement, and with good reason. If those tapes come out, they could be in serious trouble. Bryce committed two rapes. Justin not only assisted Bryce with one (and of his girlfriend, no less), but spread a photo of Hannah with her skirt up. Tyler stalked Hannah for weeks, and also spread a suggestive photograph. Sherri knocked down a stop sign, causing an accident in which another student died. Marcus felt her up against her will. Ryan stole one of her poems and published it without her knowledge or consent. So, just with a few people, we have rape, accomplice to rape, dissemination of child pornography (Hannah was a minor), leaving the scene of an accident, destruction of city property, sexual harassment, and theft of intellectual property. And while the other people named on the tape may not have committed felonies, their actions do not place them in a very positive light either. They bullied Hannah, spread rumors about her, hurt her as revenge on third parties, and played pranks. And thought a few flowers and signs on her locker could make it all better. (A rather amusing scene features Courtney, one of the recipients, and Hannah's mother. Courtney tells Mrs. Baker that she and Hannah were good friends. Mrs. Baker replies that if that were true, Courtney would never have used roses on Hannah's memorial, as Hannah hated roses.) Meanwhile, few of them adjust their behavior after hearing the tapes. The girl who knocked down the stop sign volunteered to help an old man injured in the accident, and eventually turned herself in. Another boy eventually calls out all the recipients on the tape for caring more about their own skins. But the others, including Clay, bully Tyler for being a Peeping Tom. The athletes named on the tapes beat Clay up to keep him from talking, and Marcus plants drugs on Clay to discredit him. Most of them throw Bryce and Justin under the bus. And the sad part is, the school administration behaves no better than the kids, attempting to cover up their own involvement. In the end, Clay reaches out to an unhappy classmate who has begun self-injury, and gives a digital copy of the tapes to Hannah's parents.
This series is a distressing look at the dynamics of human connections, or lack thereof. It shows that, for all we think that we are "good" people, we have the capacity to do great harm. That at our core, most of us are self-absorbed and cruel.