Late in the second season of 13 Reasons Why, Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette) has an altercation with his school principal, Mr. Bolan (Steven Weber). Bolan has imposed a new rule at Liberty High that anyone talking about the suicide of Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) will be suspended. “Suicide contagion is a real thing, and we’ve got to take measures to protect you kids,” he says. Clay argues that Hannah’s death has started a conversation that the students desperately need to have, and that silence doesn’t protect them. “The most dangerous thing would be to believe Hannah’s suicide is more than a tragic death,” Bolan counters. “She’s not a hero. She does not have lessons to teach us.”
The exchange feels like a mea culpa on behalf of the writers and producers of 13 Reasons Why, albeit a loaded one. The first season of the series landed on Netflix with little fanfare just over a year ago and quickly became a phenomenon among teens, garnering the word-of-mouth acclaim and viral social-media popularity that the streaming service prizes over ratings. Then came the backlash. Mental-health experts and suicide-prevention campaigners charged that the show glamorized Hannah’s suicide, presenting it as a revenge fantasy. They criticized 13 Reasons Why for portraying her death in graphic, gory detail, counter to media guidelines for tackling the subject of suicide. The show also faced accusations that it inspired copycat deaths, and in July, a study published by JAMA Internal Medicine found that the series’s release corresponded with a rise in online search inquiries related to suicidal thoughts and methods.