S-Town, 13 Reasons Why, and Making Art Out of Self-Destruction

The podcast and the Netflix show both tackle the subject of despair, but in remarkably different ways.

Olivia Baker (Kate Walsh) listens to the audio files her daughter made in 13 Reasons Why (Netflix)

This article contains multiple spoilers about S-Town and 13 Reasons Why.

When the podcast S-Town was released a little over a week ago, the most immediately remarkable thing about it was its method of delivery: All seven episodes were made available on the same day. This model has become old hat for TV shows thanks to Netflix, but S-Town is the first major podcast to present itself this way, as a single longform work that can be consumed any way the listener pleases. And, it turns out, it benefits the story greatly. S-Town starts out by hooking listeners into a possible murder-mystery, but quickly transmutes into something else, less grabby, but just as enthralling.

In the first episode, the host and producer Brian Reed details how he received a tip about a possible murder that had been covered up in the small town of Woodstock, Alabama. The person offering the information just happens to be an character straight out of a Carson McCullers novel: an eccentric clock restorer named John B. McLemore, who, in recorded phone conversations, goes on extravagant rants about the moral and cultural degradation he perceives in Woodstock, which he refers to as “Shit Town.” Reed travels to meet McLemore and reports out some of his claims, but by the end of the second episode it becomes clear that S-Town’s focus won’t be on the alleged murder, which it turns out never happened. Instead, it’s on McLemore, who, Reed finds out from an emotional phone call, has taken his own life.

The remaining episodes explore a variety of mysteries and conflicts, including the possibility of buried treasure and the ugly squabbles over the property and people McLemore left behind. But the overarching question is how McLemore’s life got to this point. In that, S-Town resembles 13 Reasons Why, a Netflix show released the same week. The drama, adapted from a bestselling young-adult book released in 2007, makes clear from the beginning that it’s about the suicide of a 17-year-old named Hannah Baker, who leaves audiotapes behind pointing to the multiple reasons why she took her own life. Like S-Town, it unspools as a mystery, in which the most urgent question isn’t the what so much as the why. As works of entertainment, both shows have to tread a line between illuminating the subject of suicide and sensationalizing it. And the ways they succeed—and fail—point to larger lessons about understanding pain and making art out of trauma.

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If S-Town starts by presenting itself as one thing and easing listeners into its real investigation, 13 Reasons Why is abrupt in its framing. The first episode opens on a shot of a makeshift memorial set up on a school locker, adorned with photographs and handwritten platitudes. “Hey, it’s Hannah,” a voice explains. “Hannah Baker. That’s right. Don’t adjust your … whatever device you’re listening to this on. It’s me, live and in stereo. No return engagements, no encore, and this time, absolutely no requests. Get a snack, settle in. Because I’m about to tell you the story of my life.”

Hannah’s tone in what’s essentially her suicide note, as perky and self-assured as a cheerleader leaving a voicemail, is the first sign of a crack in the concept of 13 Reasons Why, adapted by the Pulitzer-winning playwright and librettist Brian Yorkey (Next to Normal) from the book by Jay Asher. (The former Disney star Selena Gomez and her mother Mandy Teefey are executive producers, as is the Oscar-winning director Tom McCarthy.) From the start, there’s something indisputably awful about the conceit of a dead girl leaving recriminations from beyond the grave for the people who plagued her, particularly when the suicide-as-revenge-fantasy framing is accessorized with the trappings of a typical teen drama—impossibly good-looking 20-somethings playing teenagers, a quirky soundtrack, a budding romance between two sweet souls.

Hannah (played with grace by the newcomer Katherine Langford) reappears in flashbacks and as the architect of the tapes, which have 13 sides, each tackling a different person whom she believes is in some way responsible for her decision to end her life. The tapes have already circled through the subjects of sides 1-10 when they reach Clay (Dylan Minnette) at the story’s open; each episode shows him listening to a different installment and parceling out the mystery, while being tortured by the question of what role he might have played in Hannah’s death. Minnette is one of the strongest elements of the show, portraying Clay as a truly sensitive and decent kid who adored Hannah, which makes it all the more uncomfortable that 13 Reasons Why is structured so neatly around his suffering.

But something happens as the episodes unfold. The mood darkens as Hannah’s tapes deals with increasingly shocking and violent events, and the show reveals how incisively it can portray rape culture, the complex hierarchy of high school, the allure of cruelty, and the warning signs for teenagers who are on the edge of despair. Hannah’s disconcertingly breezy narration is increasingly sidelined in favor of Clay’s acute grief and rage as he targets Hannah’s tormentors.

It’s still very much an adult’s-eye view of teenage pain: Hannah as a character is remarkably under-developed, given the amount of screen time she gets, and the most realistic and emotive performances come from Kate Walsh and Brian d’Arcy James as her shell-shocked parents. But the show is informed by a real sense of sympathy for what kids have to go through. “Nothing that anyone did to [Hannah] was any different than what happens to any girl at any high school,” a teenage boy says at one point. This moment of insight doesn’t ameliorate the fundamental issues with 13 Reasons Why, but it hints at how it could have been better.

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13 Reasons Why, perhaps accidentally, captures the disparity between the storied high-school villains of TV and movies (rich bullies, meatheaded jocks, surly outcasts) and the real monsters kids wrestle with (gossip, abusive adults, demanding parents) by portraying both. It’s realistic and clichéd at the same time. S-Town, by contrast, is well aware of the stereotypes that await a New York City reporter recording his impressions of a small southern town, and so as Reed investigates what might have driven McLemore to suicide, he constantly checks his own impulses and assumptions about Woodstock. McLemore’s own dismissals of the town (that it’s a backward hovel populated by idiots and criminals), which could possibly align with the impressions some coastal listeners have of Alabama, are frequently picked at and disproven.

Like 13 Reasons Why, S-Town’s narrative benefits hugely from being absorbed all at once. Serial, its predecessor (both podcasts come from the producers of This American Life), was released once a week, giving listeners time to forget complex details and lose the manifold threads of the case. But S-Town isn’t holding anything back for dramatic impact, or even really teasing future reveals. Its genius is in how gently it delves into McLemore’s personal history, and the humanity with which it treats him.

McLemore, it emerges, talked openly about ending his life, to Reed, and to friends and neighbors. He had a history of depression that dated back to college, where he saw a counselor for a while and went on medication. He made no friends while attending Birmingham-Southern College, and he didn’t live on campus, driving home to his family instead. Because he was regularly picked on, he used humor to deflect bullies, making fun of himself before others could do so. He described himself as “mostly homosexual,” in a town with a limited understanding, at best, of what that might mean. He was deeply lonely. And, later in life, he began to suffer profound anxiety about climate change, geological disaster, and economic collapse.

What sets S-Town apart from other explorations of suicide, other than the fact that it’s nonfiction, is how resistant it is to trying to draw meaning from McLemore’s death. It doesn’t strive for didacticism or easy generalizations, even as it sheds real light on the reality of rising small-town suicide rates, and an increasing epidemic of despair for middle-aged white Americans. Its focus is simply McLemore and his extraordinary mind, and that it illuminates broader issues is due to the care with which Reed tells his story, and his refusal to judge anyone he encounters. Crucially, when it comes to the question of how McLemore took his life, S-Town explains it quickly, without elaboration or detail.

This is good journalistic practice: The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s official guidelines state that stories that explicitly describe suicide methods or use dramatic or graphic language and images actually increase the risk of additional suicides. Which makes 13 Reasons Why’s depiction of Hannah’s death, even as a work of fiction, all the more appalling, considering its demographic. It shows her stealing razor blades from her parents pharmacy, wrapping up her affairs, running a bath, climbing into it fully clothed, and then cutting her wrists open in such explicit detail that it’s traumatic to watch.

The camera stays on Hannah as she inhales and exhales rapidly, then sinks into the bath and closes her eyes. For a show targeted primarily at teens it’s shockingly irresponsible, as is the fact that 13 Reasons Why includes trigger warnings in title cards but no information whatsoever about suicide prevention hotlines or how to seek help. (S-Town has also been critiqued on that front.) Adults and counselors are revealed in the show to be inept and sometimes hostile; Hannah’s death is portrayed as an act of revenge that might eventually bring abusers to justice.

But beyond all this, the show’s biggest flaw is that Hannah, its primary character alongside Clay, is defined entirely by her victimization and death. As a viewer, you never learn what kind of music she liked, or movies, or whether she liked to cook, or wanted to travel, or what subjects she was good at. The only piece of information that’s provided about her dreams comes as a plot point, when Hannah is encouraged to join a poetry group after stating that she might want to be a writer. The poem she writes is ultimately stolen and published in an unofficial school magazine, sparking more ridicule, and a sense that not even her deepest thoughts are safe from scrutiny and humiliation.

To compare this to S-Town, whose portrait of John B. McLemore is extraordinarily empathetic, unflinching, and rich, is to see the difference when a storyteller grapples with a person rather than a theme. Certainly Reed benefits from the fact that his subject was a living, breathing person, but that doesn’t mean writers of fictional stories shouldn’t aspire to give their characters the same complexity and humanity. S-Town tells the story of a man who killed himself, but that’s hardly the point of it—you’re left at the end with a fascinating portrait that challenges everything you might have thought at the beginning. 13 Reasons Why, by contrast, ends with a clumsy and inflammatory nod to which kind of teen tragedy it’ll be tackling next season.