Emmy spotlight: Newcomer Katherine Langford (’13 Reasons Why’) is a revelation as a suicidal teen

13 Reasons Why” is the first major acting credit for Katherine Langford, and that by itself is remarkable. She plays the central role of Hannah Baker, who by the start of the series has already died by suicide. But before her death she recorded audio cassettes as a form of suicide note explaining her decision, and the series dramatizes those recordings through flashbacks and voice-overs. Those scenes are the heart of the series, and Langford is a revelation.

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What’s most remarkable about her performance is how natural it is. There are no false notes. She never strains for an affect or forces an emotion. It’s one of the most believable portrayals of a teenager I’ve seen in quite some time – her Hannah feels like someone I really might have known in high school. And because the performance is so genuine it’s all the more heartbreaking when later episodes reveal the events that brought Hannah to her lowest point. And the last episode wrecked me.

Based on a 2007 novel by Jay Asher, “13 Reasons” has a tricky premise to pull off. Hannah’s use of audio cassettes feels implausible in the era of smart phones, and the way she distributes those tapes requires a generous suspension of disbelief, so it’s especially crucial to form a connection to her. Langford succeeds in the seemingly effortless way she plays Hannah’s dual realities: on the outside she seems to be experiencing everyday teenage angst, but behind her eyes we can see her growing loneliness, isolation, and hopelessness. She shows us depression as a condition that is both all-consuming and easy to miss if you’re not looking closely enough. In the hormonal battlefield that is high school, it’s hard to appreciate the lives of others from within our own anxieties and preoccupations.

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I was reminded of the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” episode “Earshot,” which also deals with suicide as Buffy is suddenly able to hear the thoughts of the entire student body: “If you could hear what they were feeling,” Buffy says. “The loneliness, the confusion. It looks quiet down there. It’s not. It’s deafening.” In much the same way Langford’s performance is a cacophony of emotion beneath a reserved exterior.

Her performance has been widely praised by critics. Melanie McFarland (Salon) calls Langford “magnetic” and says that she “allows Hannah to radiate with bruised, shielded innocence even as she cloaks the character’s suffering with an open smile and sardonic humor.” Matthew Gilbert (Boston Globe) adds, “As Hannah, Katherine Langford is everything.” Maureen Ryan (Variety) describes the actress’s work as a “career-making performance.” And Liz Shannon Miller (IndieWire) says, “Langford’s performance is essential here, an aching wound of ever-building sadness, believable and raw even when faced with some moments which verge on teen cliche.”

Have you binged “13 Reasons Why” since it premiered on Netflix on March 31? Do you agree with me and the critics that Langford is a rare find worthy of Emmy consideration?

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