[This is a review of the 13 Reasons Why season 1 finale. There will be SPOILERS.]
Netflix’s latest original drama, 13 Reasons Why, comes to a compelling conclusion as Clay (Dylan Minnette) finishing listening to the tapes Hannah (Katherine Langford) recorded before she committed suicide, and decides what to do next. On the surface, 13 Reasons Why is a faithful adaptation of the best-selling YA novel from Jay Asher, Thirteen Reasons Why, following Clay Jensen as he listens to a series of cassette tapes recorded by his classmate/friend/girl for which he pined for a number of years as she tells the story of how her life unraveled and the “reasons” she committed suicide.
However, even in the 13 Reasons Why series premiere, it became clear that this particular adaptation would include a great deal more of the story surrounding Clay, Hannah, their families, friends, as well as the students and school faculty members featured on the tapes. In fact, while Clay – and, by extension of the tapes, Hannah – is the main protagonist of 13 Reasons Why, the series puts focus on the likes of Hannah’s parents, especially her mother Olivia (Kate Walsh), her classmates Jessica (Alisha Boe) and Justin (Brandon Flynn), and the person Hannah trusted to keep the second copy of the tapes, Tony (Christian Navarro).
In the 13 Reasons Why season 1 finale, ‘Tape 7, Side A’ – written by showrunner Brian Yorkey and directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez – many of these storylines come to a satisfying conclusion, as many would expect given the standalone nature of Asher’s novel. Clay, as number 11 on the tapes and having decided to skip number 12 – Bryce (Justin Prentice), the classmate responsible for raping Jessica and Hannah – passes the box of tapes along to the school’s guidance counselor Mr. Porter (Derek Luke) after confronting him about his role in Hannah’s suicide.
The scene between Clay and Mr. Porter is spliced with the scene in which Hannah tried to ask the counselor for help, hinting at her suicidal thoughts and how she was raped by a classmate. Just as in the series premiere – and throughout the season – the different tones of the cinematography are a stark contrast, with Hannah’s being washed in bright, warm light, while Clay’s is full of cooler colors. The scene marks an emotionally climactic point in the stories of Clay and Hannah, and is beautifully written to highlight the different goals of each confrontation, keeping the tension high as Clay and Hannah try to get what they came for even as the viewer knows Hannah did not. Both Minnette and Langford demonstrate fantastic performances of their respective characters in the scene, bringing it all together.
This particular sequence of Clay’s confrontation also follows Hannah through the aftermath of her own discussion with Mr. Porter, which includes her distributing the two sets of cassette tapes and returning home to commit suicide. Netflix precedes this episode with a trigger warning about disturbing images and there’s no doubt it was referring to the scene in which Hannah slits her wrists in her bathtub and waits to die. The sequence is unblinking in its portrayal of Hannah killing herself, with the camera not allowing viewers to look away from the moment, then focusing on Hannah’s face as she sits and waits.
It’s a brutally honest sequence, reminiscent of all the other honest moments in 13 Reasons Why as Hannah unflinchingly told her story. The scene is directly followed by Olivia walking into the bathroom some time later to discover Hannah, and the reactions of both Olivia and her husband Andy (Brian d’Arcy James) prove the show’s dedication to depicting both sides to every story told throughout the course of season 1. While 13 Reasons Why is ostensibly Hannah’s story of why she committed suicide, it’s as much the story of how everyone in her life was impacted by her death, which is what makes the series so successfully compelling.
Aside from the emotionally moving scenes of Clay and Hannah’s emotional turning points, ‘Tape 7, Side A’ also spends a great deal of time wrapping up various other story threads. Jessica breaks up with Justin, who has left his mother’s house for good and is emotionally unraveling from the fallout of his actions; Jessica also makes a decision of how to proceed after learning the truth of what happened at her party, starting off by telling Clay not to turn over Hannah’s tapes, then beginning to tell her father.
Tony, who has struggled throughout season 1 with how to handle the task Hannah left him with, gives Hannah’s parents digital copies of her tapes. Mr. Porter is shown finishing listening to Hannah’s tapes when the school principal rushes in to tell him Alex Standall (Miles Heizer) – a student included on Hannah’s tapes – has shot himself and is in critical condition. Elsewhere, Clay reaches out to his fellow classmate and former friend Skye (Sosie Bacon) and they leave school together with Tony and Tony’s boyfriend Brad (Henry Zaga).
These final scenes seem to hint 13 Reasons Why sets the stage for a second season, but also work as an open-ended conclusion to the series if the show’s creators and Netflix decide not to continue on. It’s a satisfactory conclusion as is, portraying the far-reaching effects of not only Hannah’s suicide but the events leading up to her death as well. Whether or not Netflix grants the show a second season, 13 Reasons Why set out to tell a difficult story in the most honest way possible, and in that much, it greatly succeeds.
13 Reasons Why season 1 is available in its entirety on Netflix.