The cast of "13 Reasons Why" at the 2018 MTV Movie & TV Awards. Photo by Nicole Alexander.
It is the rare television season finale that remains a heated part of the cultural conversations years after it airs.
While bringing up “Lost” or “How I Met Your Mother” with the wrong person can still trigger an emotional tirade, for the most part these episodes quickly make way for newer cultural conversations. But in the case of Netflix’s series “13 Reasons Why,” a two-year-old episode is back in the headlines.
Ahead of the show’s third season, Netflix has edited out a controversial and graphic suicide scene that appeared in the first season’s final installment. In a statement, Netflix explained the reasoning for the change: “As we prepare to launch season three later this summer, we’ve been mindful about the ongoing debate around the show. So on the advice of medical experts, including Dr. Christine Moutier, chief medical officer at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, we’ve decided with creator Brian Yorkey and the producers to edit the scene in which Hannah takes her own life from season one.” The original three-minute scene is now much briefer and does not show the suicide itself.
At the time of its release, “13 Reasons Why” generated considerable controversy because of its depiction of teen suicide. The show’s writers defended the choice to graphically portray the protagonist slitting her wrists as a means to show that suicide is painful and traumatic for both the victim and her loved ones. (In the book upon which the first season of the show is based, the protagonist overdoses.) Supporters of the show argued that it was important to address a sometimes-taboo topic. They suggested that the scene and the show as a whole might give teens an opening to talk about isolating feelings and experiences. Critics expressed concern that the series potentially glamorized suicide and might encourage copycat tragedies.
Netflix had already taken some steps to frame the show responsibly before the recently announced edit. After the first season, the streaming service worked advocacy groups to adopt guidelines for presenting graphic portrayals of suicide. The show included warning cards for specific episodes, including the finale, and incorporated a nonfiction feature called “Behind The Reasons” offering resources for viewers struggling with suicidal thoughts. Netflix noted that it is editing the older episode now because it typically sees a boost in viewership for earlier seasons of a show when a new season arrives.
My wife and I watched the first season of “13 Reasons Why.” As I wrote at the time, I think the show has value as a way for teenagers to start a conversation with parents or other adults in their lives. I did not watch season two; I didn’t see much point, and the reviews did little to change my mind. I may or may not circle back to it, or eventually season three, in the future. So I am writing as neither a complete bystander nor an avid fan of this show in particular.
As a rule, I am not in favor of revising or editing art. There may be legitimate reasons to do so, such as restoring material that was needlessly cut or better representing the creators’ original vision. In general, though, I think it is best to leave most works alone. Had a government mandated the editing that just happened to season one of “13 Reasons Why,” I would have opposed it vigorously. But that isn’t how it happened.
Instead, there was a reasoned and conscientious dialog between the creators and the community they were addressing, including but not limited to mental health professionals and school counselors (two groups that sometimes, but not always, overlap). The producers, or Netflix, or some combination, found opponents’ arguments persuasive and made the cut as a result of that dialog. The decisions involved their own art, their own message and their own platform. A person close to the show told The Wall Street Journal that if the creative team hadn’t agreed, it is unlikely Netflix would have made the change. If the creators think it was the right thing to do, I am not inclined to second-guess them.
It is also crucial to consider that young lives are on the line. The show’s creators initially believed that there was more to gain from depicting the suicide in a horrific way, reasoning that it would discourage emulation. The community reaction veered toward concluding that the graphic depiction did more harm than good, though its precise impact is disputed. No parent should have to bear the thought that their monthly video subscription cost their child’s life. I am skeptical that this was the result, but what do I know?
Yorkey, who is not only the creator but also the showrunner of “13 Reasons Why,” said in a statement following the edit, “It was our hope, in making 13 Reasons Why into a television show, to tell a story that would help young viewers feel seen and heard and encourage empathy in all who viewed it, much as the best-selling book did before us.” He expressed the hope that the change would help the show reach an even wider audience while mitigating any potential risks.
“13 Reasons Why” has contributed to an ongoing discussion about suicide in general and teen suicide in particular. We can’t fix a problem unless we recognize it. My home state of Florida recently instituted a requirement that public schools provide at least five hours of mental health instruction to students beginning in sixth grade, in light of this very issue. Regardless of its artistic, critical or commercial success, “13 Reasons Why” accomplishes the aim of recognizing the problem, even if just by staying part of the conversation. In that sense, it is staying relevant longer than much of the content that reaches our screens.