13 Reasons Why: Reflection #3 – Maybe there aren’t any good kids
After watching 13 Reasons Why, there is much to be said about this wildly popular and controversial show. I will attempt to share some reflections in a series of posts over the next couple of weeks. I will link to other articles as they are published. Be warned, spoilers and tragedy ahead.
Reflection #3 – Maybe there aren’t any good kids
It does not take long to figure out that there are some major problems going on with the characters in 13 Reasons Why. From the beginning of the first tape to the last, Hannah Baker unfolds detail after painful detail about how she was hurt, betrayed, bullied, lied to, lied about, disappointed, and even raped by those around her. The 13 episodes move almost like a conveyor belt of sins that lay before the audience some of the harshest sides of human nature. To one degree or another, everyone on the tapes has contributed to the mess they find themselves in through their own sinful choices.
Many of the characters, perhaps even all, struggle with feelings of guilt for what they have done. They are not only part of the reason for Hannah Baker’s suicide, but they have torn others apart in the process. They try various things to alleviate the consciences that constantly gnaw at them. Some turn to alcohol, some to blame shifting. Others experience denial, while another wants to confess and bring everything into the light. One girl, who was partly responsible for causing a car accident and successfully blaming it on someone else, actually goes after school hours to the victims house to visit and help out. The elderly couple thinks she is just being a nice girl, but they have no idea she is trying to atone for the fact that the man’s injuries are actually her fault.
What I find really fascinating is the difference in perspective between the students and the adults in the show. On a number of occasions, when a teen begins to express feelings of guilt, they are assured by their parents that it is not their fault. Rest assured, the parents say, “you’re a good kid”. This statement—you’re a good kid—seems to be the central truth claim that the parents use to try and make their kids feel better. This claim is repeated several times over until finally Clay Jensen snaps back at his mother “maybe there aren’t any good kids”.
Maybe there aren’t any good kids. Whether knowingly or not, the show has finally made its first correct diagnosis of the problem. While the adults try over and over to squash this notion, the teenagers’ inner voices speak too loudly. Clay, Jessica, Bryce, Alex, Zach, and the others all know better. They are keenly aware of their choices, and the idea that they are “good kids” is just way too superficial a notion to gloss over their horrendous actions. That they could be just “good kids” who messed up a little is a truth claim that they ultimately seem to reject, although it is never really made clear how they cope with the idea that they might actually be bad people.
I point this out because 13 Reasons is on to something. When Clay shouts in frustration that there might not be any good kids, himself included, it is the closest the show comes to a biblical worldview. Jesus himself says “no one is good except God alone” (Mark 10:18). Scripture does not teach that human beings are good at their core with some minor flaws that need adjusting. Instead, it says that we are sinners by nature, and that what we need is not self-improvement but inner transformation. It is too bad that Clay finally gets headed in the right direction with his assessment of the situation—there aren’t any good kids—but the show never comes back around to properly addressing it. By the end of the show, Clay seems to have learned from his mistakes and becomes a more loving person (he reaches out to a girl that needs a friend). But this, at least in my judgment, seems like an awfully superficial solution. If the kids truly are bad, can they just make that go away by making better decisions? How can they make good decisions from a nature that is broken?
The Christian answer is that they can’t. It is true that there are no good people. We are all self-centred by default. Sometimes even our acts of charity can be driven by selfish motives. What sinners (aka bad people) need is not simply to make better choices. What they need is a new nature. They need renewal, to be born again, to become a new person. This is the hope of the gospel, that by faith in Christ we become new creations (2 Corinthians 5:17). It is what the crew of 13 Reasons Why so desperately needed but never seemed to find. Because of this, the very thing that wreaked havoc in the first place goes on unchecked. The show implies a degree of progress has been made, but this is wishful thinking. If Clay is right that there aren’t any good kids (and he is), then the solution must come from somewhere outside of humanity, from above and beyond. The transforming power of Christ is the solution, it’s just a shame that this hope was never really given any consideration at all.