Even if you haven’t watched Netflix’s controversial teen suicide drama 13 Reasons Why you’ve almost certainly heard the clamor. Adapted from Jay Asher‘s hit YA novel of the same name and produced by Selena Gomez, the series centers around the suicide of Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford), charting the events leading up to and following her tragic decision through a series of 13 tape recordings she leaves behind to explain her decision and send one last message to the people who pushed her to it.
The show is an unqualified hit. While Netflix is notoriously secretive about their ratings numbers, 13 Reasons Why is breaking social media records and dominating the conversation on teen-centric platforms. It’s also a critical success. The series boasts a solid 85% on RT, and in our review, Aubrey gave it a clean four out five stars, praising the mature and devastating, if occasionally melodramatic, portrayal of a deadly tragedy. So ultimately, it’s no surprise that Netflix — a network that almost always re-ups original content — is well on the way to renewing the series for Season 2. In fact, THR reports that the writers room for the sophomore season has been up and running for weeks. However, though a second season is a no-brainer from a business perspective, it threatens to undermine everything that made 13 Reasons Why special in the first place.
To be perfectly blunt, I am torn in my opinion of the series. Specifically, about the value of opening a conversation on traditionally taboo subjects versus the damage of how that conversation is handled. And I’m not alone. Since debuting on the streaming service earlier this month, 13 Reasons Why has sparked wildfire debate. To say that the series is divisive would be quite the understatement. Schools, parental groups, and a number of mental health organizations have issues warnings about the series due to its graphic depiction of sexual assault and the suicide itself, and perhaps more damning, the dangerous romanticism with which it treats Hannah’s decision to end her life.
New Zealand’s office of Film & Literature Classification went so far as to create a new rating that prohibits anyone under the age of 18 from watching the show without adult supervision. Their official website has the best analysis I’ve seen yet digging into why the series is both a revolutionary step for on-screen representation of oft-ignored issues while also being a potentially destructive to teenagers struggling with depression and self-harm. If you’re looking for an in-depth analysis, I highly recommend you give it a read.
However, even with the problematic depictions and questionable moral throughline, 13 Reasons Why has served a very valuable purpose. We’re here, right now, talking about suicide, about the on-screen representation of suicide and rape and other issues that are too often pushed to the back burner. That conversation is deeply rooted in the tragedy of this character’s death and the story of Hannah Baker holds up a mirror to the audience, asking us to take our kindest and cruelest acts into consideration. Without finality, the series loses much of its powerhouse impact.
The impulse for a second season has already diminished the finale, which sets up a string of new intrigue for its wide cast of characters, teasing further tragedies and setting the wheels in motion for the possibility of justice against those who wronged Hannah Baker. The result is an ending that feels like it’s looking forward instead of respecting the finality of the moment Hannah takes her life. A second season also furthers the myth of resolution, the lie that such a loss can ever truly be explained or healed. If 13 Reasons Why is going to have a second season, that season needs to be about survival. What it means to live with your grief instead of dying in it. But the finale points in the opposite direction; one that leads to a tangled mess of melodrama that would only further complicate the moral implications of the series.
Because 13 Reasons Why wades into tricky territory and never quite finds its footing. Graphic depictions aside (which showrunner Nic Sheff eloquently defended in a Vanity Fair op-ed), the series presents Hannah’s decision as rational, almost unavoidable, in the face of her peril. That also gives the series a strange metric of what qualifies as “enough” to commit suicide. The reality is it doesn’t always take compounded tragedies to cost a life. Kids kill themselves for a lot less than what Hannah endures, and that doesn’t make it any less tragic. In keeping, 13 Reasons Why skirts any in-depth analysis of depression and mental illness, taking such care to avoid villainizing Hannah Baker, even when she takes dreadfully damaging and harmful action (her tapes leave many of her classmates in a place where they are considering suicide or violent acts — something that fundamentally undermines themes about the power of kindness) that it threatens to glorify her, and ultimately her suicide. It’s a refreshing spin on common depictions of suicidal individuals, and one that leaves a lot of room for young viewers to come forward with their issues, but it’s also one that bends the truth to make Hannah a hero.
Without spoiling the show, it is pretty clear what tragedy 13 Reasons Why is setting up next, another hot button issue that will no doubt result in hundreds of think pieces and heated debates. Based on the treatment of suicide and sexual assault, I have doubts that the series is up to the challenge of walking through that landmine respectfully. But, above all, to take the emphasis off of Hannah, and off the fallout from her death, is to undermine the very impact of it. 13 Reason Why is special because it offered a platform to the voices of those who suffer trauma, to those who feel unheard, what does the show become if it drowns out Hannah’s voice in a din of drama?
If you or someone you know needs help, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or visit their website.