Even if you haven’t willed yourself into watching all 13 episodes of 13 Reasons Why on Netflix yet, it’s likely you can’t avoid seeing stories about it online. The teen drama—based on author Jay Asher’s YA novel about a high schooler who leaves behind a set of explanatory tapes about why she committed suicide—plays out like a coming-of age mystery, a romance and a cautionary tale at once. Much of it is graphic.
The series, executive-produced by Selena Gomez, is intended as a blunt conversation piece about issues like high school bullying, slut shaming and rape, the latter of which is graphically depicted more than once. The show is meant to be uncomfortable, and that includes—SPOILER ALERT—a tragic scene that shows its main character Hannah Baker moving forward with ending her life. In a Vanity Fair column about the decision to depict the suicide, show writer Nic Scheff writes:
I’ve been reading quite a few posts by suicide-prevention advocates and other individuals expressing concern, or even outrage, at the show’s decision to depict its protagonist’s suicide on-screen. In other words, they thought it would be better to leave her character’s death to the imagination.
This response was actually quite surprising to me. From the very beginning, I agreed that we should depict the suicide with as much detail and accuracy as possible. I even argued for it—relating the story of my own suicide attempt to the other writers.
While my reasons for ending my life were far different from the protagonist’s of 13 Reasons Why, there were some similarities. We both experienced a feeling of complete and utter defeat.
In the column, Scheff goes into detail about his own suicide attempt, which involved suddenly remembering a woman from a rehab session who made him rethink the decision and ultimately save himself.
In an episode of 13 Reasons Why, we see Hannah sitting in a bathtub and slitting her wrist as her blood colors the water. Scheff writes:
So when it came time to discuss the portrayal of the protagonist’s suicide in 13 Reasons Why, I of course immediately flashed on my own experience. It seemed to me the perfect opportunity to show what an actual suicide really looks like—to dispel the myth of the quiet drifting off, and to make viewers face the reality of what happens when you jump from a burning building into something much, much worse.
It overwhelmingly seems to me that the most irresponsible thing we could’ve done would have been not to show the death at all. In AA, they call it playing the tape: encouraging alcoholics to really think through in detail the exact sequence of events that will occur after relapse. It’s the same thing with suicide. To play the tape through is to see the ultimate reality that suicide is not a relief at all—it’s a screaming, agonizing, horror.
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Others involved in the series have had to defend the purpose of the suicide scene and whether it’s solely gratuitous, which I don’t think is the case for a series that seems to want to say something, however messy and discomfiting the execution. You can argue about whether it was necessary, though.
Creator Brian Yorkey told The Hollywood Reporter, in reference to the scene, “It was incredibly difficult to shoot and to even contemplate showing it in such detail. We did it very specifically. We felt like it would be too easy for us to make her suicide look glamorous and peaceful... We wanted to confront the fact that suicide is messy, ugly and it’s incredibly painful. We wanted to tell that story truthfully. And as difficult as it is to watch, it should be difficult to watch.”
If someone you know exhibits warning signs of suicide: do not leave the person alone; remove any firearms, alcohol, drugs or sharp objects that could be used in a suicide attempt; and call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255).