TV is overwhelmed with dead people. It’s particularly and exhaustively obsessed with dead or brutalized women — they’re victims on procedurals, but they’re also remarkably common on prestige crime mysteries. The Ur-victim of the genre feels like Laura Palmer from Twin Peaks, a young woman whose placidly, icily dead face became the vanguard of a group of similarly silent dead women. Veronica Mars’s Lilly Kane, The Killing’s Rosie Larsen, the dead women of True Detective, The Night Of’s Andrea Cornish, and on and on, bouncing through Top of the Lake, Happy Valley, The Fall, and more. (When they’re not young women, they’re often very young boys; see Broadchurch and The Missing, for example.)
Netflix’s new 13 Reasons Why feels very much in keeping with the genre: beautiful dead girl, shocked and saddened community, how could this have happened?, beatified victimhood, you get the drift. It’s also a series rife with flaws; most notably and frustratingly, it is way too long. Mysteries are always about the storyteller’s ability to draw out the final revelations in a way that feels painfully tense. Resolve it too soon and the answer feels underwhelming; draw it out too long and the urgency is lost. Too often, 13 Reasons Why loses the urgency. But its strongest feature is the way it takes the attractive, young dead woman and twists that narrative, flipping all the usual questions of agency and control on their heads.
Shows like Veronica Mars or Twin Peaks give us access to the victims in bits and pieces, through flashbacks and memories and discovered letters. The mystery always centers on not just who killed these young women, but some central question of who they, the victims, really were — what was going on in Lilly Kane’s last days? Was Laura Palmer a good girl, or was she a bit wild? Their sex lives, their fears, their friends: All of this stuff becomes part of the mystery. It’s true for 13 Reasons Why, too. Hannah Baker’s life is the mystery here, far more so than her death.
But unlike the other dead girls strewn across serialized TV mystery, Hannah speaks. As we learn from the first episode, the premise of the show is that she’s left behind a series of cassette tapes detailing exactly what she’s been thinking and feeling in the days leading up to her death. Her voice is what drives the whole series, and she’s as infuriating and present and withholding and manipulative as any good first-person narrator — she delays, she obfuscates, she smirks wryly at your inability to understand.
The show’s ostensible protagonist is Clay Jensen, a moon-faced and often blankly staring teen who receives the tapes in a mysterious box at the beginning of the show. He’s our stand-in, which means he spends a lot of time literally standing around and looking at things while Hannah’s voice plays through his headphones. Played by Dylan Minnette, Clay’s open, regularly aghast expression is more of a mirror than anything else. He goes where Hannah tells him; he reflects the feelings she projects. His face also serves one additionally vital service – in order to keep the flashbacks straight, current-day Clay keeps getting walloped in the head. If you’re ever uncertain about whether a story is taking place in the past or in the present, his bandaged, scarred forehead will be your guide. As a timekeeper, as an ear, as a physical body to move through space and forward the narrative, Clay’s more object than subject.
Clay Jensen’s surprisingly absent agency makes sense here, because Hannah’s not just the narrator. In the story of her own death, Hannah plays all the roles – even from the beginning she’s the detective, carefully leading her audience through the events of the past year, asking her listeners to follow along on a map, collecting and presenting evidence, providing theories and motives and links. Characters like Lilly Kane or Laura Palmer lay quietly in death, waiting for people to discover their secrets. Hannah, meanwhile, takes a remarkably active role in her own afterlife, laying out her own theory of the crime with care and precision.
The questions of control and agency and fault in 13 Reasons Why don’t stop there, either. As we also learn in the show’s first episode, Hannah committed suicide. So she’s not just detective and narrator — she’s also the perpetrator. The idea of mystery itself gets twisted; we know who committed the crime, so the question becomes less about what happened and more about why, and if it’s even possible to know something like that. As he listens to each tape, the question Clay keeps asking himself and his peers is “who’s responsible for Hannah’s death?” It’s the question her parents want to answer as well, and it’s the question all the people named in the tapes want to shut down. It’s also one the series struggles with, to its own benefit. Can anyone really explain what happened to Hannah, even Hannah herself? Would any answer be sufficient? Would any blame really be accurate, given that no one disputes that Hannah was ultimately the one who did it?
They’re complicated, fraught questions, and they’re ones that 13 Reasons Why is admirably happy to pose without forcing too-simple judgments on the answers. But regardless of how the characters feel about those questions, the show works largely because Hannah does speak. Whether or not she’s a reliable narrator, whether her indictments of her peers are fair, and regardless of whether one person failed her or everyone did, she has far more representation and control over her own narrative than any other attractive dead teenager on TV. At the very least, her own version of events is weighted equally with anyone else’s.
That control is also what gives the show its draining, tragic heft. She has more agency in the afterlife than she ever felt she had in life, and as we know from the very opening of the series, it can’t give her a different, more empowered outcome. Nor does it necessarily make things better for all the other students after her death, or for her bereft parents. Hannah’s able to play victim, detective, and perpetrator, and maybe the chief prosecutor as well, but nothing can undo what’s already happened. Instead, after several middle episodes that take some unnecessarily meandering, distracting turns, the end of the season starts to pivot to whether there should be a difference between the things cassette-tape Hannah claims to want, and the things she may have actually needed. No one really knows how to answer that, least of all Clay, who finally pushes himself into a more active role toward the end of the series.
But again, the strength of the show is that it’s framed in a way that lets that conversation actually exist. It’s not the world versus the unanswerable enigma of a beautiful deceased body, but the world listening to Hannah as she wanted to be heard, and then struggling with how to respect and respond to that story. Some of her listeners want to bury her story, or deny it, or delegitimize it, or they feel despair or feel furious or whatever – they still have to hear it, and cope with it.
It would be nice if TV weren’t so overwhelmed with dead women, but it’s a relief to watch something where for once the dead girl gets a chance to explain things for herself.