Much has been written about the way 13 Reasons Why depicts bullying, sexual assault, and suicide — and the filmmakers purposefully presented uncomfortable scenes to represent all three. “It was supremely important that we do everything we could to tell the truth,” showrunner Brian Yorkey says. “In the case of the more traumatic events of the show, we felt a real responsibility not to look away from them. The temptation to tell that story in a way that makes it easier to watch is tantamount to not telling the truth. So where we were bold, we were only bold because the truth is powerful and sometimes difficult.”
One of the production team’s most-debated decisions came in the finale, which shows Hannah’s suicide in excruciating, graphic detail. (In Jay Asher’s 2007 novel — on which the show is based — it’s rumored that Hannah overdosed, but it’s never clearly stated.)
“It’s a very brutal sequence and very hard to watch, and we debated that at great length,” Yorkey says. “We had some wonderful doctors who helped us to understand what the experience would be like for Hannah and in what ways past depictions of suicide, especially by teenagers, had been aestheticized and made pretty. We set about to do it as truthfully as we could.”
Suicide certainly isn’t new to pop culture, but unlike Dead Poets Society and any number of other onscreen portrayals, 13 Reasons kept a camera on Hannah (Katherine Langford) through every step of her devastating decision. “When these things happen in books or movies or TV shows, we don’t see it, and we’re comfortable with that,” Asher says. “But then we wonder why people in our culture still don’t understand how horrific those things are.”
It’s those scenes that have launched worldwide conversations, with responses both negative and positive. Some schools have banned talk of the show; others have sent home letters advising parents on how to speak to their kids about the series. In response to the uproar, Netflix has added multiple trigger warnings to 13 Reasons Why, which already features an after-show special, Beyond the Reasons, where cast and creators and medical professionals talk about issues the series presents. “If the book or TV show can get people talking about these uncomfortable things, that’s beautiful,” says Asher.
For Yorkey, 13 Reasons has two central themes: “You never really know what’s going on in someone else’s life,” and, as Asher writes in every copy of the book he signs, “Everything affects everything.” They’re lessons Yorkey hopes people take away from the show, because as Clay (Dylan Minnette) says in the season 1 finale, “It has to get better.”
“I don’t know any scientific way of knowing why the show has had the response it’s had,” Yorkey says. “I’m sure it’s a combination of many things and it’s different things for different people. My hunch is it’s because we — the writers, the directors, and especially the actors — did everything we could to be truthful and to do justice to the lives that kids lead.”