13 Reasons Why is an interesting, stylish, well-acted, and controversial television series adapted by Brian Yorkey for Netflix from Jay Asher’s novel Thirteen Reasons Why (2007). The series is thick with coming-of-age themes. Profanity is one of them, and it’s all over the dialogue, as you’d expect, but one of its central characters, Clay Jensen (played by Dylan Minette) memorably awakens to both the pleasure and the gravity of profanity in “Tape 4, Side B” (1.8), which aired, with the rest of the series, on 31 March 2017.
As the series opens, Hannah Baker (played by Katherine Langford) has committed suicide and has recorded her reasons for doing so — thirteen of them — on cassette tapes sent after her death to the people she holds responsible for it. That’s a disturbing premise, and some critics found the presentation of it troubling, as well. Clay isn’t one of those reasons, though the tapes are delivered to him, too, and he listens to them, gradually learning what things had been going on in Hannah’s life besides their falling in love, horrible things, things swearing was made to resist and relieve.
Until “Tape 4, Side B,” however, Clay is not a sweary guy. He’s an achingly thoughtful, considerate, soft-spoken, and responsible kid — he’s the genuine article, which is why Hannah loves him — who becomes Hannah’s avenging angel once he understands the tapes. Tony Padilla (played by Christian Navarro) is his familiar, popping up unexpectedly, insisting that Clay listen to the tapes, helping him — if cryptically — to interpret them, and watching, protecting, and ministering to Clay as he eventually, necessarily loses his shit. Hannah entrusted Tony with the tapes and with distributing them to Clay and Hannah’s tormentors. Taking care of Clay is Tony’s idea, motivated partly by his friendship with Hannah and partly because, like her, he loves Clay.
Tony needs to tell Clay about his friendship with Hannah but especially that he was on the scene immediately after the suicide. Better, he thinks, to do so away … away from school, the town — any geography caught up in the story. Also, he feels responsible to help Clay manage his mounting anger — fueled by the tapes — and his anxiety that one of the upcoming tapes will be about him, which it is, but it turns out that he’s not — as he fears — complicit in the tragedy. Much of the story is about people falling or jumping off a cliff, but Tony reverses the metaphor. He drives Clay to a cliff and they climb it. Clay has never climbed a cliff face before and he hasn’t really sworn before, either.
When they reach the summit, this is what they say:
Clay: Oh, god! Oh, shit! Oh, man! That was freaking amazing.
Tony: Was it? Or was it fucking amazing?
Clay: That … was… fucking amazing. I thought I was gonna die.
Tony: Well, you didn’t, did you?
Clay: I saw this YouTube video once where this guy in Spain was walking on this crane — it had to be at least fifteen stories. He’s walking, walking, and then he slips, lets out this loud scream, seconds later just wham!
Tony: When what?
Clay: Well, the, uh, camera went black, but I’m pretty sure he died.
Tony: Shit, Clay.
Clay: Fuck. [sigh] I never totally realized, that’s a really great word.
Tony: It is, huh. Oh, you’re bleeding.
The setting establishes the value of the profanity spoken in it and the knowledge of profanity taken away. The cliff is profound, the effort expended to climb it is profound, the sweat is profound, the view from the cliff is profound, dealing with Hannah’s suicide is profound, the feelings roiled by the tapes are profound, his friendship with Tony is profound, especially in its reticence. Profanity in that setting is profound by association.
Clay’s ascent to the emotional apex profanity represents isn’t secure at first. He slips on and off of it, not quite gaining a foothold: first “Oh, God!” then an intensification to “Oh, shit!” followed by a retreat into “Oh, man!” but no commitment to fuck yet — so far, the experience has only been euphemistically “freaking amazing.” Tony leads Clay to the expletive he desperately needs: “Was it [only freaking amazing]? Or was it fucking amazing?” Clay realizes it’s a compassionate suggestion, and, in response, he tries “fucking.”
The next line is my favorite: “Fuck.” Just trying it out. Really, encountering it for the first time. How does one use a word like that? Tony knows. Tony demonstrates: “Fuck!!!!” (NB: I just decided they were four-exclamation-mark fucks — there’s no science in it.) And Clay follows his lead and so enjoys catharsis. For most of us, profanity’s a run-of-the-mill means to that end. Most of us have found occasional relief in it, and none of the living in 13 Reasons Why deserves relief more than Clay.
Clay experiments with the pragmatic opportunities the great word affords. The four-exclamation- point fuck is the climactic use. The next instance — just because it’s next — isn’t new, it can’t be, and it isn’t jubilant. It’s an alternative to Tony’s “shit” that also reiterates it. Just a couple of lines on from the four exclamation points, it’s already practiced. I mean, it’s good profanity, but it’s no apex. We’re already witnessing descending action. Mostly it’s an excuse for metapragmatic evaluation, which we appreciate, loving strong language as we do: fuck’s “a really great word.” Fuckin-A, Clay Jensen, fuckin-A.
It takes Clay three fucks to come to that conclusion. I’m not criticizing. I mean that it takes about three fucks for any of us to come to that conclusion. It takes Clay only four fucks for fuck to become mundane. As Tony puts it, “Huh,” and “oh.” Then, we hear fuck in that offhand register, though if you’re bleeding, well, fuck. We’ve all been there, whether we’ve actually uttered fuck, or not. That’s the denouement.
So, what’s special about the scene’s profanity and Clay’s gradual grasp of profanity’s protean value is that there isn’t anything special about it — it represents our common experience with profanity, elation to ennui in three easy steps. No, that’s not quite right. Another special thing is that Clay had to climb a mountain to achieve profanity. Most of us exert ourselves less, both to resist it and to deploy it. Clay’s extraordinary effort — not to mention the purity of his discovery of fuck — makes his apotheosis and descent a great recent moment in profanity.
13 Reasons Why tells Hannah’s story. It’s about how certain aspects of teen life imply suicide, even though — thank heavens — they don’t usually result in it. It’s a complex cautionary tale. It’s also, however, about Clay’s coming to terms with, well, everything. The profanity Clay tells on the mountain speaks to loss of innocence but also to expanded agency. Still, the momentary fulfillment he feels in the very utterance only tentatively redeems a fallen world.