Brow Beat

Netflix Can’t Fix 13 Reasons Why’s First Season by Cutting the Graphic Suicide Scene

Katherine Langford, as Hannah Baker, stands in a convenient store, holding a phone to her ear.
Katherine Langford in 13 Reasons Why.
Beth Dubber/Netflix

Netflix announced Tuesday that it has re-edited a scene from 13 Reasons Why’s Season 1 finale that graphically depicted Hannah Baker—the high school student played by Katherine Langford—killing herself. Suicide prevention activists and others objected to the original scene when 13 Reasons Why premiered in 2017, on the grounds that graphic depictions and descriptions of suicide methods can lead to copycats and are especially damaging in a show with so many young, potentially vulnerable viewers. In the new version of the scene, the character’s suicide happens off camera, and viewers only see the aftermath of her mother finding her body. Hannah’s death is not depicted at all in the YA novel on which 13 Reasons Why is based.

“Our creative intent in portraying the ugly, painful reality of suicide in such graphic detail in Season 1 was to tell the truth about the horror of such an act, and make sure no one would ever wish to emulate it,” creator Brian Yorkey said in a statement. “But as we ready to launch Season 3, we have heard concerns about the scene from Dr. Christine Moutier at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and others, and have agreed with Netflix to re-edit it. No one scene is more important than the life of the show, and its message that we must take better care of each other. We believe this edit will help the show do the most good for the most people while mitigating any risk for especially vulnerable young viewers.”

On the surface, cutting 13 Reasons Why’s on-screen suicide might seem like a victory for activists, and indeed, multiple mental health organizations—including the Trevor Project, the Jed Foundation, and the American School Counselor Association—have voiced support for the decision to re-edit the scene. And yet it comes more than two years, and another season, since the scene became available to stream, during which time presumably millions of people have already watched Hannah kill herself. Netflix does not regularly release viewing metrics, but according to Nielsen, the second season premiere racked up 6 million viewers within the first three days, almost 40 percent of them under age 18.

Yorkey cites Moutier, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s chief medical officer, as an influence for finally removing the suicide scene from the episode. (Moutier came on board as a consultant in Season 2.) But she’s hardly the first or the only expert to point out the risks involved in such graphic depictions: Doctors, mental health activists, and school counselors all spoke out in the immediate aftermath of 13 Reasons Why’s first season, sounding the alarm that scenes like the one showing Hannah’s death flout established guidelines for news and entertainment aimed at preventing contagion. Dan Reidenberg of Suicide Awareness Voices of Education says he even warned Netflix a month before the show was released.

13 Reasons Why’s creative team responded at the time by defending the depiction. “To look away before it got hard to watch, to imply or aestheticize crucial events, to make it easy and safe for the viewer, would be to do a grave disservice to a story that is neither easy nor safe,” Yorkey wrote in an open letter in April 2017. Director Kyle Patrick Alvarez told Vanity Fair, “If you don’t show the horror of it, then you’re inviting people to conjecture that maybe the act itself isn’t so bad.” In an op-ed, writer Nic Sheff even recalled how a woman’s story of her suicide attempt—notably not a completed suicide like Hannah’s—factored into his own decision not to kill himself, as justification for not cutting away from the suicide on the show.

What has changed in 2019? Well, a pair of concerning but inconclusive studies recently linked 13 Reasons Why’s first season to a spike in suicide attempts, and it’s possible that the renewed debate about the show made executives at the company nervous. Yorkey has publicly disputed the studies’ findings while invoking Netflix’s go-to defense of 13 Reasons Why, that the show has “helped to start conversations” (a noble-sounding aim that allows the streaming service to look like it’s taking the moral high ground while shrinking from any actual moral obligation). Netflix used the phrase again in its announcement that the scene had been recut: “We’ve heard from many young people that 13 Reasons Why encouraged them to start conversations about difficult issues like depression and suicide and get help—often for the first time,” the company said in its statement. But while Netflix says it has “been mindful about the ongoing debate around the show,” that debate has been ongoing since 2017, and Netflix waited until this week to start this particular conversation—one that also reminds viewers 13 Reasons Why has a third season coming out later this summer.

While the scene has been singled out by critics as an egregious example of how 13 Reasons Why ignores guidelines for depicting suicide responsibly, it has also become something of a scapegoat for the show’s broader, more foundational problems. The very premise—a high school student killing herself and leaving behind cassette tapes singling out the people she considers responsible for her death—portrays suicide as the ultimate (and effective!) act of revenge. The show potentially discourages young people experiencing suicidal thoughts from turning to trusted adults by portraying seeking help as pointless: Hannah’s teacher and school counselor both ignore her when she reaches out despite a legal, to say nothing of moral, obligation to intervene. And the miserable first season skirts the topic of mental health, saying little of substance about what drives one bullied person to kill herself but not another, or what Hannah or the people who cared about her could have done to prevent it. It seems we’re supposed to just accept the hero’s claim that Hannah would still be alive if only he’d loved her enough, a suggestion that is cruelly unfair to real-life survivors of suicide loss.

None of that can be fixed by removing a couple of minutes of footage. The show made a sometimes heavy-handed effort to respond to its critics and correct a few of the flaws mentioned above in Season 2—explicitly refuting the idea that love is a substitute for therapy or medication, for one thing—while opening new cans of worms. Hannah continued to appear as a character, not just in flashbacks but in Clay’s imagination, perpetuating the fantasy that suicide is anything but absolutely final, and the season cemented the show’s reputation as “trauma porn” with a rape scene that is both gratuitous and agonizing to watch. It even got meta about the reaction to the first season of 13 Reasons Why, with Dylan Minnette’s character telling the school’s principal that students “just wanted to start a conversation” in response to a schoolwide ban on discussing suicide to prevent contagion, a twisted parody of how critics supposedly want to silence the show.

If Netflix is content to just let 13 Reasons Why be entertainment without also insisting that it’s a force for good just by existing, that’s another conversation entirely. But if the aim is to be responsible about depicting suicide, they’ll have to start with Season 3. The first season, suicide scene or not, is a lost cause. They might as well delete all 13 episodes.

If you need to talk, or if you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, text the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273- 8255.