As the school mourns the death of Hannah Baker, her friend Clay receives a box of tapes with messages she recorded before she committed suicide.
"Tape 1, Side A" has a lot of work to do to set up the premise and structure of the show. It's a fairly easy structure too. Hannah Baker committed suicide. And now, she's left behind 13 tapes for the people who contributed to her death to listen to. Every episode will feature one side of the story and focus on one more person whose actions ultimately hurt Hannah. It's all being told from the perspective of Clay. He has just received the tapes. He's in mourning more so than a lot of his classmates. He's lost and confused as to how any of this happened. He can act impulsively at times. The tapes will tell a full story. It's just going to be a brutal experience listening to all of them knowing that it all builds to her tragic death. It's a very intimate focus for a series. This episode establishes the premise. But then, it largely just focuses on one story. Things are happening on the periphery as well. Life still continues for these people in the aftermath of Hannah's death. But the way the show bounces around in time is very meaningful and helps tell a complete story.
The instructions that Hannah left behind seem fairly simple as well. She just wants these people to listen to these tapes. She wants them to understand everything that happened to her and how it all contributed to her death. It's an awareness that not one action forced her to commit suicide. Instead, it was a bunch of mistakes that many people made that became overwhelming to her after awhile. She wants her side of the story to be told even though it may be rough for the people listening. Clay is surprised to know that he's going to be on the tapes at some point. They are only labeled numerically. There is no way of telling when his actions against her will become a chief part of her story. It's a mystery then. Hannah carefully plotted this out. So, it was clearly something she had been thinking about for awhile. And yet, no one saw it coming. No one knew she felt this way or was going to kill herself. She has a friend watching over to make sure the tapes are heard. If not, he or she will release them publicly. That encourages an intimate focus but one that is sure to get very complicated as Clay learns more about Hannah's life.
The story starts simple enough. Hannah went to a party and met a cute jock named Justin. He was dating her only friend in town. Hannah just moved here. And yet, that wasn't the source for drama. Her friend was moving away and didn't care what happened to any of the people in her old life - though she still kept in touch with Hannah. So, Hannah was allowed to show an interest in Justin. In fact, their flirtation is pretty sweet. It showed that she can be fun. She's not afraid to make Justin work for it. It's a nice moment when she tricks him into riding the bus. It's also nice seeing them manage to meet up despite her mom's instance on no phone during homework. But their eventual date in the park is where all of this starts to go wrong. It's fascinating to hear Hannah's side of the story knowing that it will end horribly. For her, it was a simple story of her liking a guy and wanting to kiss him in the park. The fantasy of that moment lives on in her head. It was a nice moment for her. He gave her exactly what she wanted. It was sweet and uncomplicated. It was a mutual attraction that both enjoyed.
But then technology came in and corrupted this moment. Justin took pictures which he shared to his friends when he was talking about the night. He felt the expectation to brag about the night. He built it up as something that it wasn't and allowed his friends to imagine it went further than it did. The picture certainly backed up that claim. Justin had no intention of releasing it to the entire school. And yet, he is friends with someone who did. That's cruel and horrifying. It shows just how easy it is to spread a rumor in high school nowadays. Technology makes that so easy. With one click, it just spends throughout the class. In that moment, the perception of Hannah changes. She is suddenly even more of an outcast than before. Plus, Justin doesn't really seem to care. He didn't release the picture. But he was complicit in that action. So, he ruins everything before it can go beyond just a kiss. Hannah was changing herself for a guy. She showed an interest in basketball just to cheer him on. And yet, he ultimately ruins her life in a new school where she already feels like an outsider.
Clay's reaction to all of this is important as well. He's lived through all of this before. On one hand, there is Hannah's narration of these events. She provides the details of the story for the people who weren't there in the moment. But Clay was there to see the scandal that came from the picture. He's also clouded by his own feelings for Hannah. He knows how he reacted to this scandal. He knows he hurt Hannah with what he said. He hurt her by making a comment about waiting. That's what makes him fear that he's next on the tapes. He knows what he did. The audience isn't fully aware yet. We don't know if he ever acted on his attraction to Hannah and how she responded. We don't know how this scandal affected her relationship to the rest of the school. That will be examined in the next tape. That's what creates urgency for Clay. These tapes soon consume his life. He's putting himself in harm's way just to listen to Hannah's story. He crashes his bike and steals from his friend, Tony, just to get answers. He's distracted. That shows how much he cared for her. But it also highlights how he didn't really know her at all. He didn't understand how she was feeling. Nor did she trust him with all of that information. He's on the tapes for a reason. He needs to find out what that is because he's at a loss. So, he hits play on the next one to get the next part of this story. Will it include him or not? Or will it simply add a new character in? This story is going to get a whole lot more complicated and tragic before it's over. Will it bring Clay peace? It's unclear. But right now, it's the only thing that is at least giving him that possibility.
Some more thoughts:
- "Tape 1, Side A" was written by Brian Yorkey and directed by Tom McCarthy.
- It's clear that Dylan Minnette and Katherine Langford are going to need to carry most of this story. This premiere shows that both of them have captivating screen presences. They carry the tragedy and hopefulness of this story in some compelling and watchable ways.
- This premiere doesn't try to introduce all of the teenagers who will be important on the tapes either. In fact, there are only a few others who aren't important to this first story who appear at all. There's another jock, the yearbook photographer and another friend of Clay's. But that's it. There certainly aren't 13 kids apparent in this story. Not yet at least.
- Hannah's parents are searching for answers as well. Her mom seems involved as a parent. She doesn't want her daughter on the phone until her homework is done. And yet, she's also surprised to discover her daughter had no decorations on the inside of her locker. So, she may not have really known her at all either.
- The parents and other adults of this story don't seem like the focus either. But it is fascinating to see many glimpses into the different parenting styles. Hannah's mom wants to be involved. Clay doesn't want helicopter parents. Tony's dad makes a horrible joke about suicide to scare his son straight.
- Right now, Tony is the only other teenager who is aware of the tapes. He seems like the friend Hannah trusted them with to make sure people listen to them. He claims not to be on them. He knows the journey and is fine with Clay stealing his walkman. Plus, he rightfully tells Clay to just listen to the tapes instead of asking him too many questions.
- Is Tony also the driver of the car that is seemingly following Clay? That was a weird moment. It felt like a way to raise the tension and severity of this situation for Clay. But it's also random for someone to be following him wishing him harm.
- There is brief mention of a lawsuit throughout this premiere. Hannah's parents mention that they need to collect all of her things for their lawyer. So, I'm not totally sure what all of that is about. And yet, I have trust that the show will explain itself more fully soon.
As noted in previous reviews from shows that released their seasons all at once, every episodic review was written without having seen any succeeding episodes. Similarly, it would be much appreciated if in the comments, the conversation would only revolve around the show up to this point in its run.