13 Reasons Why And The Most Powerful Teen Drug Of All: Nostalgia

The show has struck a chord with its audience because it understands how central nostalgia can be in teenage wish fulfillment

[This piece contains spoilers for 13 Reasons Why.]

Today’s pop-culture landscape is pockmarked by endless exhumations. Teen entertainment is no exception: From Riverdale to Stranger Things, the surprisingly enduring reruns of Friends to the no-brainer-for-Disney’s-accountants reboot of Beauty and the Beast, they all have origins or inspirations that predate their core audience by decades. [Editor's note: Friends often airs on MTV.] With its timely anxieties about phone-accelerated slut-shaming, Netflix’s YA phenomenon 13 Reasons Why may look like it bucks the nostalgia trend. But the secret to its success may very well lie in its adept channeling of the many ilks of teen wistfulness — those genuine and acutely felt, as well as those sentimental and patently faddish.

The desire to be haunted propels 13 Reasons Why. The series begins shortly after high schooler Hannah (Katherine Langford) takes her life, her memorialized locker sorrowfully gazed upon by Clay (Dylan Minnette). When he arrives home from school, Clay finds a box of cassette tapes waiting for him. Within lies Hannah’s suicide note in serialized-podcast form, naming the dozen people who drove her to despair. (One lucky guy makes a repeat appearance.) The first season plays out a disconcertingly juvenile romantic fantasy, in which Clay — whose crush on Hannah was intense, mutual, but unfulfilled — confronts the people who hurt her. The soft-spoken sophomore even punches her jock rapist (Justin Prentice) — and is pummeled for his chivalry in a partial atonement for his own cameo on Hannah’s tapes.

Adapted from Jay Asher’s 2007 novel of the same name, the drama uses frequent flashbacks to chronicle Hannah’s final days. Clay suffers in her absence exactly as she intended, especially as he sits in class or at the lunch table where they became uneasy friends (and where she silently dwelled on the traumas of having a “sexy” photo circulated around school, witnessing her unconscious best friend’s sexual assault by a fellow student, and later being brutally violated by the same boy). Clay’s regret-streaked mawkishness for his time with Hannah is a big part of the show’s appeal — assuming you’re moved by lines like, “I cost a girl her life because I was afraid to love her.” He mourns her without judgment or qualifications — exactly as many an actual teen imagines how sad and sorry everyone will be at her premature funeral.

But more compelling is Hannah’s all-encompassing nostalgia — for the innocence of childhood, for friendships that burst into life and fizzle just as fast, for the days of gallant courtship, for a once-great America. 13 Reasons Why understands, perhaps better than any other teen show in recent memory, that adolescence is packed with wistfulness, both real and artificial. In times of uncertainty, the past can be the most comforting security blanket around.

High school is the place where many of us learn that the world is a far crueler place than we could have possibly conceived. Some learn that lesson in history class: Hannah is confronted with it when rumors of her “easiness” explode after a misbegotten panty shot, taken by her date while she was on a playground slide in a skirt, disseminates around school. She’s shocked and saddened that Justin (Brandon Flynn) shows off the image to his basketball teammates, who text the image to their fellow students. Later, her best friend, Jessica (Alisha Boe), starts dating Justin — who reluctantly gives his friend “permission” to rape his passed-out-drunk girlfriend.

Sexual assaults like the ones against Hannah and Jessica are all too common, and the scenes of their abuse are duly hard to watch. Hannah’s rape is terrifying, especially as we see her shut down emotionally as her bodily autonomy is taken from her. But that night is only the culmination of a series of damaging experiences that she endures. Arguably even scarier — for this is the real reason why Hannah ends up dead — is her logical-in-the-moment conclusion that the world is too terrible to live in.

Hannah’s experiences are extreme, but her coping mechanisms are completely relatable, even approaching universal. A kind of blanket misanthropy that “explains” humanity’s shittiness is part and parcel of the teenage experience. And like many high-school cynics, Hannah feels an unspoken nostalgia for her earlier selves, those that existed before she realized how callous her schoolmates can be and before her friendship with Jessica was complicated by the boys who came between them.

For a sophomore in high school, Hannah also exhibits a parental distrust in technology. Asked by a librarian if she’s a Kindle kid, she shakes her head: “I’m a paperback, write-in-the-margins kind of girl.” She’s equally suspicious of social media: “We’re always watching someone. Following someone. And being followed. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram: They’ve made us a society of stalkers.” In previous generations, teenage Luddism was an anti-trendy, anti-consumerist protest — a plea for authenticity. Here, it’s existential pessimism. “Everything was better before,” she sighs.

It’s not just human interaction that’s going to hell for Hannah, but the economy, too. Her parents’ (Kate Walsh and Brian d'Arcy James) town pharmacy is financially sinking — no match for Walplex’s lower prices and 24-hour availability. The series doesn’t foresee its high school characters’ futures beyond college, but there’s an overarching fatalism that doesn’t need to be spelled out for audiences. It used to be that you could look forward to better prospects as soon as you got through school. But such optimism is waning fast.

Nostalgia is the raison d'être for Hannah’s hardware of choice: the cassette. It’s in these plastic blocks that she invests her postmortem hope. By the time she was born — around 2001 by the show’s chronology — the format that had replaced cassettes, the CD, was about to be shown the door by Napster and the first-generation iPod.

So why Hannah’s love for the cassette? She never comes right out and says so, but it’s clear that she longs for a time when bullying wasn’t so undemanding, when technology didn’t make everyone at school an accomplice to her tormentors simply by receiving a text. Hannah has two requests of the 12 people who she designates as witnesses to her story: “Rule number one: You listen. Number two: You pass it on. Hopefully, neither one will be easy.” There’s no playing a cassette at 1.5x speed, the way you might an audiobook. Included with Hannah’s tapes is a hand-drawn map that her small audience can follow, if they wish: “No Google Maps, no apps, no chance for the interwebs to make everything worse, like it does.” Her ultimate desire is for someone to make the effort to get to know her, and so the series premiere finds Clay scrambling to find a Walkman. (Which he, and the teens watching at home, can purchase from Urban Outfitters.) Hannah’s cassette liners are full of colorful marker doodles. Analog equipment fosters understanding. Today’s advances enable harassment.

Every generation romanticizes parts of history. Decades, once over, become trends. But it’s important to recognize fantasies, including nostalgic ones, as such. 13 Reasons Why’s very premise — that someone will fathom and empathize with you completely through a last will and testament — is one. So is the idea that you can make everyone who’s ever done you wrong feel bad if you kill yourself. The series is full of improbabilities, none more than the character of Tony (Christian Navarro), the distributor of Hannah’s tapes. A rockabilly clad in a leather jacket with a ’68 Mustang and a James Dean pompadour straight out of Rebel Without a Cause — a teen-angst film that actually proves adolescence has been miserable for a very long time — he ostensibly devotes all of his free time to spying on the cassette-listeners to make sure they feel sufficiently guilty, as a kind of POC steward to the last wishes of dead white girls. The show has no recognition that Tony, too, is a figure of white nostalgia. And if you’re old enough to have lived through the cassette era, you know it’s less about belabored mixtapes than miles of fragile brown tape forever getting tangled in your player. 13 Reasons Why has clicked with its audience because it grasps how central nostalgia can be in teenage wish fulfillment, as well as how much adolescents have to mourn — even before things take a tragic turn.