ByErik Arndt, writer at
writer, critic, and fan of stories and all the ways they're told / @proven_fiction
Erik Arndt

The Netflix series 13 Reasons Why has been well-received by critics and viewers alike, and it’s not difficult to see why. As intriguing as the central storyline is, perhaps even more compelling is the way in which it is told. 13 Reasons Why employs some less-than-common techniques — such as non-sequential flashbacks, a possibly unreliable narrator, the division of main character duties between two separate characters — and it pulls them off beautifully, for the most part.

The issue of the main character is one that is particularly fascinating. Let’s begin by posing a question: Who is the main character, Hannah Baker or Clay Jensen? A case could be made either way; indeed, you could alternately argue that they are co-main characters. It depends on your understanding of what it means to be a main character.

Katherine Langford plays deceased protagonist Hannah. [Source: Netflix]
Katherine Langford plays deceased protagonist Hannah. [Source: Netflix]

Identifying The Main Character

There are multiple duties, or ways in which a main character is rendered on screen. They include:

  • The protagonist who propels the story forward.
  • The point-of-view character, through whom the audience experiences the story.
  • The focal character, who receives most of the attention from both the audience and other characters.
  • The hero, who the audience roots for and who usually succeeds in the end.

In any given story, the main character may fulfill two or three of these roles, if not all four. Some stories split these roles between two characters, as is the case with .

The character Hannah propels the story forward — in spite of the fact that she is dead — while Clay spends much of the time reacting. Hannah, therefore, is the protagonist. She is also the focal character, as the story is set in motion by her death and her tapes, and she continues to be the cause of almost everything that happens in the story. In addition, Hannah is the narrator.

The audience views scenes through the eyes of multiple characters, but Clay is the primary point-of-view character. Most of the flashbacks are told from Hannah’s perspective, but often clever directing and editing bookends these scenes with Clay listening to the tapes, suggesting that the audience doesn’t see Hannah’s story directly, but rather, through Clay’s understanding of her story. It is through Clay that we, the viewers, experience most of the show.

Now, these roles are somewhat fluid; there are times when Hannah’s point of view is not framed within Clay’s, and there are times when Clay takes action and moves the story forward. As to which character you most want to succeed, I suppose that varies from one viewer to the next.

Dylan Minnette plays Clayr, and Christian Navarro is Tony. [Source: Netflix]
Dylan Minnette plays Clayr, and Christian Navarro is Tony. [Source: Netflix]

Clay, the Unconventional

Hannah as a main character makes sense; she’s got a personality, she’s proactive, and we can immediately see that she is complex. Clay, on the other hand, initially seems like an odd choice for viewers to follow.

For the first half of the season, Clay is hardly proactive, but rather, reacts to new information and to what’s happening around him. However, he does take some action in seeking answers. His frantic bike rides in the first episode are enough for viewers to latch onto as we wait for Hannah to progress the plot. But it’s still not much in the grand scheme of things.

In almost any other story, Clay would be a remarkably weak main character, and the property would suffer because of it. It certainly would prevent the story from receiving the praise that 13 Reasons Why has been getting, even if he was only the co-main character. Yet he’s not a problem in this show; he’s not even a weak point. On the contrary, he’s the glue that holds everything together. So what makes Clay work in this series?

13 Reasons Why is an unusual story told in an unusual way. Maybe Clay Jensen is exactly what this series needed.

 [Source: Netflix]
[Source: Netflix]

A Conduit For The Story

13 Reasons Why is a mystery of sorts; even without that, there are complexities in relationships and scenarios that the viewer needs to be made aware of before the present storyline progresses too much. Now imagine if one of the other "reasons" — i.e., one of the people who listened to all of the tapes in a single day — was our point-of-view character. How is the audience supposed to process all that information at once? How are we supposed to match the past storyline with the present storyline? How are we supposed to care or understand why it matters?

Those other characters seem surprised at first that Clay is taking so long to go through the tapes, but that’s the only way we can experience Hannah’s story with any real coherency or significance. As Clay takes time to process new information, the viewers have the opportunity to do the same.

But it’s not just a matter of pacing. While Clay isn’t terribly proactive at first, neither is he passive. He’s not a silent observer. He reacts to things, and the way that he reacts tells us more about his connections with other characters (especially with Hannah) as well as provides us with insights to the implications of certain events.

We experience the story by observing Clay observe Hannah as she experiences the story. That almost sounds like Inception logic. But that reasoning called attention to itself in that film. Here, it’s done rather subtlety. It’s all done so smoothly, most viewers probably didn’t even realize it was happening. In order to do that well, the story — from the plotting of the series to the scripting of each episode — had to be carefully engineered. So you can presume that the writers and directors paid special attention to crafting their main character.

 [Source: Netflix]
[Source: Netflix]

A Conduit To A Serious Issue

Let’s continue with Clay’s reactions. They are important for informing the audience, yes, but they are also important for grounding the audience in its heavy and delicate themes. 13 Reasons Why centers on the suicide of a young girl, or more specifically, the reasons for said suicide. That’s not an easy topic to cover, and it’s a challenge to address it without upsetting some people.

As high as the suicide rate is in the US — not to mention the statistics on depression — it’s likely that nearly everyone who watches knows someone who has attempted suicide, or at least considered it. It’s a tragedy, yet a reality. Of course, people are affected by suicide in different ways. How then can anyone tell a story on such a delicate topic and address the needs of every viewer? There’s not one single answer, and 13 Reasons Why doesn’t try to supply us with only one.

There are many ways Hannah’s death is dealt with. There are so many emotions shown, so many ways to grieve, and even ways to push aside the sad fact. Several of her classmates respond to Hannah’s death in superficial ways (some even advise others to “get over it” just a few days later), which perhaps serves to reflect the broken way our society responds to death and tragedy. Yet in the midst of this, some characters have moments of showing deeper feelings.

On the other end of the spectrum lies Hannah’s parents, who rightly grieve in a fierce manner. The audience, however, can’t be on either end of this spectrum. We would revile at how little her classmates feel, or perhaps even be ashamed that it echoes our own reactions to tragedy. Conversely, we would be overburdened at the intense weight of Mr. and Mrs. Baker’s grief. The only way for us to stay with the story (and enjoy it, despite its subject matter) is to be somewhere in the middle. To be where Clay is.

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Clay roams the spectrum throughout the show. The concept of a spectrum falls apart here, as spectrums are only one-dimensional. Clay exhibits both a breadth and a depth of emotions. It’s likely that at least one of the feelings he displayed — if not all of them — is one that you have experienced in a similar situation. He transitions into a feeling then explores it thoroughly so that we might have an intimate look at that emotion, then transitions to the next one lest we let ourselves become numb. Whereas a character’s display of emotions ties the audience to that character in virtually every story, here it does more to connect the audience with the subject matter. Because Clay lets himself feel, we too can feel. Through Clay, we can appropriately acknowledge the tragedy.

Watch all 13 episodes of 13 Reasons Why, streaming now on Netflix, and tell us what you think about this new teen melodrama in the comments below


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