“It’s what you do next that counts.”
“Tape 5, Side B” begins with what might be 13 Reasons Why‘s bluntest but most effective visual metaphor. There’s a car crash – it was easily avoidable, and there were several contributing factors, and one party is dead. It’s stupid, senseless, and grotesque, and – this is a major theme of this episode – unnecessary.
This tape continues at the party, and ostensibly focuses on Sheri, and while she gets more to do than Marcus did in his tape, the episode pays equal attentions to the ramifications of her actions (or inactions) in the present day. Normally this would bug me (I gave Marcus’s episode a series low of three stars for the same reason), it’s executed pretty wonderfully. There’s so much wonderful color in the margins of this episode; director Carl Franklin composes it like a Renaissance painting, which might sound hyperbolic, but everywhere you look there’s detail and story being added.
Take Justin and Jessica, both of whom we’ve seen in the past and present being pretty shitty. But in spite of that, they’re strangely easy to root for; that’s partly due to the chemistry between Alisha Boe and Brandon Flynn, and partly because they have this huge, unacknowledged secret between them, and they’re trying so hard not to let it break them. Clay and Alex get a quietly heartbreaking scene wherein Alex tries to console Clay over a classmate’s death; even when rebuffing Alex, Clay tells him that he doesn’t have to leave. (Alex is quietly becoming the MVP of this show, and Miles Heizel’s performance remains the most emotionally open and honest.) 13 Reasons Why is at its best when it steps away from the teen murder conspiracy and just lets its kids be kids. I assume Jay Asher’s novel is told in first-person, because 99% of young adult novels are, but the smartest choice the show makes is allowing itself to follow multiple protagonists. Any of these kids – Alex, Courtney, Zach – could have been our entryway into this world; we only follow Clay because that’s when we stepped in to this world (please don’t consider that a knock on Dylan Minnette’s terrific performance).
What I love about “Tape 5, Side B” is that it’s emblematic of the show as a whole in its portrayal of a horrific domino effect. Sheri offers Hannah a ride home and knocks over a stop sign; she doesn’t want to tell anyone, despite Hannah’s protestations; Jeff runs the stop sign and gets into a fatal crash, which is blamed on him because of the beer found in his car, unbeknownst to everyone that he was sober and took it upon himself to make a beer run. Hannah feels responsible for his death, regardless of whether or not she could have prevented it. This is a turning point for her, and the show; she’s gone beyond feeling disposable and forgettable and has started feeling actively toxic and harmful.
I want to take a moment here to appreciate Brandon Larracuente’s fine work as Jeff. He was never the biggest character on the show, but he had so much heart that he loomed large. Jeff was warm, and open, and more importantly, he was genuine. His affection for Clay was never tinged with mockery the way it was with Zach or Marcus or any other jock – he actually liked him, and was trying to make sure he had the best high school life possible. He was one of the few characters on 13 Reasons Why to realize that while life might be easy for him, it wasn’t easy for everyone, which makes it even more of a gut-punch that this death has been in front of our eyes since episode one: Jeff has never been seen or mentioned in the present day. I’ll miss Larracuente’s work, and I hope he goes on to a long career.
Jeff’s unvarnished goodness also speaks to another theme of “Tape 5, Side B” – some people are better than their tapes make them out to be. Sheri, for example, has been spending time with Jerry Cantrell (not the guitar player for Alice In Chains), who was in the accident with Jeff. She hasn’t revealed her role in the accident happening, because, as she points out to Clay, what good would it do? If she told the Cantrells, or Jeff’s family, that it was, in a way, her fault, would that help anyone? And in Clay’s insistence that she come clean, we see another point the show is trying to make: sometimes the right thing is worth doing even if it doesn’t help.
13 Reasons Why avoids sermonizing or hectoring, which is pretty impressive considering how heavy the message it is that it tries to impart. Namely, all actions have consequences. Some minor, some major, but they happen nonetheless. It’s a good lesson for all young – or older – viewers to take to heart. It’s a lesson that the show makes sure to underline in the last scene, when Tony shows up and offers to stay with Clay while he listens to the next tape. When Clay wonders why, Tony tells him: “Because it’s yours.” Which would be a great enough ending, but 13 Reasons pushes it further. Clay demands to know if he killed Hannah Baker, and Tony refuses to let him off the hook – he tells Clay yes.
A Few Thoughts
- This show’s only real major stumbling block is its seemingly pathological disinterest in humanizing Clay’s mother Lainie. She gets a good scene in here and there, but she seems negligent at best and monstrous at worst.
- Kate Walsh is doing amazing work. She has not once felt like an actor; she feels like a parent.
- If you’ve read my work in the past, you know I’m not a fan of subplots involving characters becoming alcoholics, but Alisha Boe is doing a great job playing Jessica as she becomes more unhinged and reckless. I don’t think Clay is who these kids need to worry about anymore.
- That said, Boe says the phrase “actors in Hollywood” so strangely that she might as well be saying “actors in Hollyweird.”