“It must be possible to swim without becoming water yourself.”
Most people on 13 Reasons Why have been deliberately cruel to Hannah – Justin shared a compromising photo, Tyler took yet another one, Zach stole notes from her compliment box. But sometimes cruelty is borne of negligence, or of self-centered single-mindedness. Which is the subject of the powerful “Tape 4, Side B,” which focuses on an unexpected character: Ryan, who until now has existed mostly on the show’s periphery, showing up occasionally in flashbacks as Tony’s boyfriend (oh yeah, we get confirmation in this episode that Tony is gay).
After meeting a cute librarian at a college fair, Hannah goes to the poetry circle he hosts at the library. There she meets Ryan, to whom she gives an understandably cold reception – she’s still pissed that he wrote about her in his Dollar Valentine’s column. Right away, 13 Reasons begins showing us signs that Ryan shouldn’t be trusted; he’s clearly willing to publish whatever he thinks will make for a good story, regardless of how the subjects might feel about it.
But it starts out well enough; Ryan asks for, and is granted, forgiveness, giving her a pink Moleskine notebook and encouraging her to pursue her writing. Which she does, sharing a deeply personal poem at a reading. Ryan tells her she should publish it, she demurs, and you can see where this is going.
On its surface, publishing Hannah’s poem without her consent – indeed, over her protestations – might be seen as a nice gesture, albeit a misguided one. Ryan even tells her that she’ll thank him one day. But that’s not the point. It all comes back the word I used above: consent. And although Ryan didn’t violate Hannah’s body in the way that Marcus did, he took her privacy and made it public. To make matters worse, the worst teacher in the world (I’m surprised she doesn’t have a tape), decides it’s a good idea to analyze the poem in class, even though the author might be in her class and less than willing to have her work dissected by her peers, all of whom already suspect she wrote it. A girl who has been the subject of cruel rumors doesn’t need her classmates imagining her lacy black underwear, which Hannah writes about in the first line of the poem.
Like I said, on its own, this doesn’t seem that bad. But it’s not what Hannah wanted, and Ryan’s actions robbed her of agency. Like everyone else on the tapes, Ryan didn’t listen, and when enough people don’t listen to you, it’s easy to wonder if you need to be there at all.
“Tape 4, Side B” weaves past and present together in a pleasing way, which some episodes have struggled with. Clay ditches school, only to run into Tony immediately (he deadpans, “You have got to be kidding me”). Tony takes him to climb a mountain, which, sure is symbolic, but it leads to one of the most emotionally honest scenes of the series so far.
Tony sheds some light on the unexplored relationship between himself and Hannah. She came to his door with the tapes the night she killed herself, and Tony didn’t answer the door because he just didn’t feel like dealing with her. It’s easy to see why Tony blames himself for Hannah’s death – here he is, just one more person who didn’t take the time to listen to her. The difference between Tony and everyone else (besides Clay) is that Tony is trying to make amends for his inaction, which is why he’s become the caretaker of the tapes. The added detail that he saw Hannah’s body being carelessly loaded into an ambulance is just the right amount of horrifying. It’s a terrific scene, directed to perfection by Gregg Araki (White Bird In a Blizzard) and brilliantly acted by this show’s secret weapon, Christian Navarro.
The only real stumbling block of the show is the growing conspiracy between Marcus, Courtney, Jessica, Zach, Justin, and Alex. I like the interplay between all the characters (Alex and Jessica have fun teasing Justin), it’s marred somewhat by Justin’s outlandish suggestion that they kill Clay and make it look like a suicide. Any time teenagers start talking about killing other teenagers it strains credulity (in fiction, that is; in reality it’s horribly common).
Do I think these kids are going to kill Clay? Not really, and that’s part of the reason I’m wary of this development. And if Clay turned up dead, what makes them think that Tony wouldn’t release the tapes out of a sense of justice? It’s the one stumbling block of an otherwise solid episode.
A Few Thoughts
- “I’m a skinny faggot who writes poems” is a great line.
- Kate Walsh continues to deliver; the way her face crumbles when she sees Hannah’s handwriting is devastating.
- Clay’s mother Lainie, however, remains particularly unsympathetic, because she won’t recuse herself from the ghoulish job of defending the school against the Bakers.
- Clay and Tony falling in love with the word “fuck” recalls the brilliant scene from The Wire, where McNulty and Bunk investigate a crime scene with only that word as dialogue.