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13 Reasons Why Cuts Painfully Deep Into The Pangs Of Adolescence

The young stars of Netflix’s unflinching new drama tell MTV News what the show gets right about growing pains

[Spoilers for the first season of 13 Reasons Why.]

13 Reasons Why is an open wound, the kind that throbs and lingers long after the initial pain is inflicted. In the Netflix drama, adapted from the YA novel by Jay Asher and premiering March 31, adolescence is raw and unflinching as seen through the eyes of its young characters. And Hannah Baker is the dead girl at the center of it all.

The tragic circumstances that led Hannah to take her own life are the show's focus, recorded on 13 tapes. Each cassette, placed inside a shoebox along with a map, is dedicated to a person she thinks should share a portion of the blame for her death. The story begins when the worn shoebox, now wrapped in a paper bag, shows up on the doorstep of 17-year-old Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette).

Intrigued, Clay pops the first tape into his dad's “radio thing” (a boom box) and listens. “I'm about to tell you the story of my life — more specifically, why my life ended,” Hannah's voice says. “And if you're listening to this tape, you're one of the reasons why.”

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Clay Jensen (Minnette) examines the mysterious first tape before listening.

This chilling discovery sets the tone for what's to come. Each episode unfolds like a mystery as Hannah, played by Aussie newcomer Katherine Langford, recounts the events that led to her death through a series of flashbacks. Hannah's instructions are simple: listen to all 13 tapes, follow the map, and then pass it on to the next person on the list. Fail to comply, and a second copy of the tapes will be made public, exposing everyone's secrets.

In the present timeline, Clay is our moral compass, and his complicated relationship with Hannah — first as kindred coworkers bonding over their shared awkwardness, then as something more — becomes the show's raw, emotional crux. Minnette and Langford radiate chemistry onscreen as they tackle everything from comedy to teen romance to heart-wrenching pain with real nuance and authenticity — a feat accomplished without a traditional chemistry read, an industry practice used to gauge actors' compatibility.

Finding that chemistry was a collaborative process between the then-19-year-old actors, Oscar-winning director Tom McCarthy (who helmed the first two episodes), and Pulitzer Prize–winning executive producer Brian Yorkey, who knows that a writer's greatest strength is the ability to listen. Often, he'd integrate the young actors' mannerisms and speech patterns into the scripts.

For Langford, who landed the role of Hannah after forgoing drama school in Australia, Yorkey would use some of her colloquial phrases, like her fondness for saying, “Dear Lord.” With Minnette, Yorkey went even further.

“I would tell him things that scared me about acting or things that I was intimidated by, [and] every time I mentioned one of those things, the next script we'd get, that moment would be in there,” Minnette recalled. “He wanted to keep challenging me, and he wanted me to do things that I was afraid of in this role. He really got that out of me.”

That meant allowing himself to be vulnerable on camera. As the 13-episode series progresses, Clay's stability declines as he begins to buckle under the weight of Hannah's pain and his classmates' misdeeds. He lashes out at everyone — his parents, his teachers, the school counselor, the others on the tapes, and even his closest friend, Tony (Christian Navarro) — to obscure his own guilt at being complicit in Hannah's suicide.

Meanwhile, Langford shoulders much of the drama's emotional gravitas. Hannah's transformation from a witty outsider to a suicidal young woman who masks her distress is brutally affecting, and 13 Reasons Why never shies away from difficult moments. Hannah is routinely harassed by her male classmates after an invasive photo of her, taken by her crush Justin (Brandon Flynn), is sent to the entire school. A few months later, her former best friend, Alex (Miles Heizer), awards Hannah the title of “Best Ass” in a class-wide “hot or not” list, which only reinforces her reputation as a "slut."

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Justin (Flynn) shows off the intimate photo he snapped of Hannah to his friends Zach (Ross Butler) and Bryce (Justin Prentice).

“Things like putting around a list and having your name on a list that objectifies you, that's a big deal, and it can have big consequences,” Langford said. “Being in high school is like being in a [different] world. That's your world, and there isn't any perspective. Once your reputation is ruined — in a way, your reputation is everything — that's it.”

On the tapes, Hannah explains how she was sexually assaulted in a public diner, how her ass was grabbed in a convenience store, how she felt violated in school hallways, and in Episode 12, how she was raped by the school's golden bro, Bryce Walker (Justin Prentice), in his hot tub. Through it all, the camera stays focused on Hannah as every ounce of pain, embarrassment, and fear shows on Langford's face.

This was intentional. And the show's sensitive material, specifically in Episodes 12 and 13, was talked about at length by Langford and the producers, including Yorkey and executive producer Selena Gomez. (The latter episode graphically depicts Hannah slitting her wrists in a bathtub, a harrowing image that viewers will be unlikely to forget.) Langford also worked with medical and psychological experts to help accurately portray these kinds of traumatic events.

“The choice to stay on these moments to a point where it makes the audience just past uncomfortable was a very deliberate decision, and it was done because we wanted to show the ugliness and not use these events and issues as plot devices or romanticize them in any way,” Langford said. “In doing that, it challenges the audience.”

“We are not glorifying these acts,” Minnette added. “By forcing you to watch, by forcing you to flinch and feel heartbroken and devastated and disturbed ... The only way to do it is to break your heart because that's real life.”

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Hannah Baker (Langford) stands in the school hallway.

But the suffocating toxic masculinity on display is not the only reason for Hannah's tragic demise. The ones like Clay, who witnessed Hannah's suffering firsthand or sensed her growing depression and did nothing to help, are also at fault. Of course, Hannah blames herself, too, for wanting to see the best in people and giving second chances when she probably shouldn't have. In the end, Hannah takes her own life because she doesn't think there's a way out. She even pushes away Clay, perhaps her closest confidant and the boy she loved, out of fear that she would somehow ruin him, as if her sickness would inflict him too.

For Langford, the most difficult part of the process wasn't filming the most emotionally grueling and mentally exhausting scenes of her young career; it was the act of letting the character of Hannah Baker go after living with her for 16 hours a day, six days a week, over six months. “It was at a point where I had been playing her for so long and [had] watched everything and [had] lived vicariously through what she had been through,” she said. “At that point, I didn't want to let her go.”

Being a teenager can sometimes feel like the end of the world. It's a tumultuous time when the highs can feel euphoric and lows can feel downright apocalyptic. Despite some minor faults, like how at one point the other kids on the tapes entertain the idea of killing Clay to keep him quiet, 13 Reasons Why captures what being a teen is really like with characters who feel everything all at once, all the time.

“I pass on a lot of teen roles that get sent to me because a lot of the time it doesn't feel real,” Minnette said. “It's sugar-coated. There's no depth to it.”

“When you watch stuff that is YA, it looks like it's been made YA. It doesn't look real,” Langford added. “I think we really respected the intellect of the audience. It wasn't just a show about young adults. It's an adult show because it's shown in a way that's unflinching and real.”

If you or someone you know is dealing with mental illness, there are ways to get help. Find resources, tips, and immediate help at Half of Us, or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK.