(WARNING: This article contains spoilers for 13 Reasons Why. You've been warned.)
13 Reasons Why, the TV adaptation of Jay Asher's hit novel, is not like most shows in the young adult genre. It's a story that reaches right out of the screen and breaks down the barriers between entertainment and reality, taking on hard topics like suicide and bullying. It's no surprise that a wave of controversy washed ashore after it dropped on #Netflix. Here's what's up: In its graphic campaign against suicide, does #13ReasonsWhy actually glamorize the act?
Say what? It's a harsh accusation, yes, especially since it's aimed at a show advertised as a message of hope, but it brings up an important question. Is 13 Reasons Why appropriate for people who are experiencing similar circumstances? If we take a closer look at the way the show depicts suicide, some major red flags pop up.
Here Is Where The Trouble Starts
13 Reasons Why tells the story of Hannah Baker, played by Katherine Langford, who recorded a collection of cassette tapes containing the 13 reasons why she killed herself. After her death, the tapes find their way to Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette). For the first few episodes, the show explores the complexities of the high school social ladder, teen relationships and cyber bullying. It's a setup that seems almost insignificant considering the tragic result, but as each episode progresses, the situations grow darker.
13 Reasons Why focuses on the way little things can build up inside a person, each situation breaking them down a little further. It balances itself well in the first few hours, but the ending episode depicts Hannah's final moments with a camera that never blinks: She kills herself onscreen.
How Does '13 Reasons Why' Intend To Fight Suicide?
As a whole, the show portrays suicide in a dangerous light. It lingers on the emotional aftermath of Hannah's death on her parents, peers and even the people who disliked her. The show's biggest strength is in the way it takes time for each character arc to develop. 13 Reasons Why is a pressure cooker of uncomfortable truths, and it cooks until it explodes.
But then there's the scene. Out of everything else in the series, Hannah's suicide deserves a viewer discretion warning the most. It isn't accompanied by a soulful soundtrack or colored in a sad blue palette. The scene is a harsh representation of what suicide really looks like: It's messy, difficult, scary, and it's an act filled with as much regret as intention.
It's easy to say that by making it painful to watch, 13 Reasons Why reached its anti-suicide storytelling goal. However, there's a second side to the issue, and 13 Reasons Why has the potential to be extremely problematic for people going through tough times.
What Makes The Show Dangerous?
Is 13 Reasons Why a multifaceted look at how adolescents deal with tragedy? Yes. Is it an honest representation of how seemingly insignificant things build up in a person until they snap? Absolutely. Is it a trivialized, dramatized concoction of events? Again, that's a yes. But with all 13 Reasons Why has going for (and against) it, it's also a revenge story.
The first red flag appears when the concept of the cassette tapes comes to life. Hannah holds a certain sway over people from beyond the grave, and even with characters recognizing how manipulative and dramatic Hannah could be at times, the way she throws guilt at everyone is a kind of bullying of her own. It isn't properly addressed. No matter if Hannah's actions were deserved, they still send a concerning message to the audience. After death, you can still make people pay.
Even past these mixed messages, the biggest danger of 13 Reasons Why still comes from the suicide scene. On one hand, the graphic imagery is a way to turn people away from the act. On the other hand, it's enabling. Psychologists say that people —teens, adults, everyone — who have thoughts of harming themselves should never be exposed to the details of a suicide. Be it images, descriptive narrative or emotional reactions, details often act as inspiration to suicidal people, giving them the resolve to go through with the act.
13 Reasons Why was created to give people hope, but it could also drive them deeper into a hole.
Should You Watch It?
Between a meaningful story on the surface and the underlying elements that are dangerous for suicidal people, does 13 Reasons Why find a balance?
In terms of plot, yes. The story makes a significant effort to show all sides of the issues, even if some of those issues are given more light than others, and even if some of the issues are never fully developed. But in terms of the emotional experience, 13 Reasons Why falls short. It takes a full-on dive into dark territory. The story is filled with imperfect characters doing unjustifiable things, and not everything portrayed onscreen is properly addressed.
13 Reasons Why comes with viewer discretion warnings attached to a few episodes. They're worth a notice. Some people will be more affected than others, of course, but caution isn't a bad idea when topics like suicide, rape and bullying are on full display.
13 Reasons Why has already helped some people work through their struggles, but the graphic closing episode and the way Hannah's character is built has the potential to push people farther down. If you go in, go with the intention of swimming. As Hannah's story tells us, when it comes to suicide, it's far too easy to sink.
Do you think it was wrong for '13 Reasons Why' to show Hannah's suicide?
(Sources: Center for Suicide Research)