‘13 Reasons Why:’ Shock Value Over Servicing the Narrative

Now that the world has premium cable channels and online streaming services, network concerns in regards to censorship are not as important. Shows can have sex, gore and swearing without any interference. Basically, the world has come to recognize you can make a show where people talk like adults.  This is a huge step towards creating better TV shows that push the envelope in terms of content and subject matter. Sometimes though this can go horribly wrong and shock value can matter more than serving the story.

One of the shows that has enjoyed this freedom in terms of content is one of Netflix’s most popular new releases, 13 Reasons Why.  It stunned the world with its hard opening that forced people to acknowledge the harsh realities of life that seemed to be glossed over.  The first season received critical acclaim and became one of the most noteworthy shows to debut in early 2017.  Season two of the drama has not received such acclaim, getting negative to mediocre reviews from most outlets.  Part of this criticism is laid at the feet of one of the most disturbing scenes to ever be shown on screen.  It takes place roughly halfway through the season 2 finale, and it’s just horrific.


In the scene, the character of Tyler, who has suffered as a target of bullying, is followed into the bathroom by a member of one of the school’s sports teams.  Once inside, Tyler is brutally assaulted and raped by one of his attackers, the details of which will not be discussed in this piece.

Rape is horrible and the people who partake in the act are inhumane monsters. This is something many people know and accept – that rape is something terrible. That is why writers can imply it because viewers know that it’s dreadful.  Audiences may not be able to understand the whole of it, but that’s what dealing with the aftermath of the attack is meant to do, show how the character is affected because of  the rape.  The consequences of the sexual assault are where the story should handle this subject, not the rape scene itself.

That scene was gruesome and a truly disturbing viewing experience. It adds nothing to the story and is pushing the envelope for no other reason besides the fact that they can.  All the writers had to do was imply what was about to occur – show not tell – and allow the audiences to fill in the rest with their minds.  The narrative gains nothing from showing the brutal assault for that length of time.  Even if the writers wanted to show the beginning of the assault, it goes on for far too long and the brutality is almost entirely unnecessary.  What Tyler attempts to do after the rape at the end of the episode, that alone tells you what the experience was like for him.

Another scene – not as graphic – that I recalled when watching the episode was Sansa’s rape in the sixth season of Game of Thrones.  It was a pointless scene that offered nothing to the story and existed purely to shock the show’s audience.  Viewers knew that Ramsey was a bad person and that marrying him would lead to a poor marriage, but was the rape necessary – or was even seeing it necessary?


The one problem with being critical of this scene is when it is compared to Hannah’s death scene in the first season.  My opinion is that said scene works because it reveals the pain one goes through when they slit their wrist, how she’s scared when she does it which shows the extent of her depression.  It’s also a genuinely quiet scene and never feels like it’s intentionally trying to shock viewers, though that is the result due to the subject matter.  There’s no feeling of excess and instead it just developed the series’ larger themes.

The season one rape scenes are far more brief don’t feature the almost excessive brutality shown this season.  Said scenes don’t feel like they’re meant to purposely shock the audience and much like Hannah’s death blend perfectly into the narrative.  Hannah and Jessica’s scenes do not go on for so long that viewers aren’t taken out of the narrative.  The result of trying to shock the audience with brutal and horrific content is that they are no longer engaged in the narrative, and are taken out of it because of what they have witnessed.  It is as if the show is telling you to stop and look at what’s happening, rather than letting the viewer work out the significance for themselves.  It is tactless and lazy story-telling.

The rape scene in the finale of 13 Reasons Why is an example of when a series pushes the envelope beyond the realm of good taste, when shock value trumps developing the narrative.


What did you think of the scene in question, or of the second season as a whole? Leave your thoughts in the comments.














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