Wednesday, May 31, 2017

13 Reasons Why - Side 11: Fleshed out parents help deepen the other characters

Side 1: The Setting
Side 2: An overly contrived premise can present a challenge
Side 3: Hannah Baker, from joy to despair
Side 4: Clay, an outsider who isn't an outcast
Side 5: Clay's tape leads to one of this year's most heartbreaking episodes
Side 6: Mr. Porter - Terrible Counselor or Worst Counselor?
Side 7: Do depictions of suicide provoke imitation?
Side 8: Generating tension that stokes viewer intensity
Side 9: Keeping storytelling clarity in non-linear structure
Side 10: Alex's storyline hides parallels in plain sight


Teen dramas don't tend to have a lot of great material for parent characters. For the most part, the adult authority figures present an obstacle to wish-fulfillment stories of teenage rebellion. Also, these shows are aimed at teens and the assumption is that that audience is rarely compelled by drama around adult characters. (And if you take a look at most of the adult storylines in, say, the first two seasons of Dawson's Creek, you start to understand why. I'm not sure why the writers thought we'd be interested in the Leery's open marriage, but there you have it.) Of course, as soon as you sideline the parents in a series like that, it really feels like the show's centered on college kids rather than high school students. The fact that most performers on those shows tend to be in their early twenties or older tends to reinforce that. (RIVERDALE is an exception to this, a show where the adults are fully integrated into the storylines.)

13 Reasons Why doesn't try to shuffle the parents off-screen. In fact, over the course of the 13-episode run, we meet most of the main characters' parents. In each case, the home life helps inform what we know about the characters. There's a pretty broad spectrum of parenting types, from disciplinarian, to well-meaning but ineffectual, to negligent, to absentee and so on. In every case, who these kids are is reinforced and explained by the parental forces in their lives. It speaks to a real depth in the writing and it's a big part of why all the teens, down to the second tier, feel fleshed out.

Hannah's parents get some of the most wrenching material, as of course, they're blindsided by the suicide of their daughter. In the present, they're trying to make sense of how she got to that point while also seeking some measure of justice. They blame the school for not stopping the bullying or stepping in to protect her, which motivates a lot of the conflict through the back half of the episode run when they file a lawsuit. Hannah's friends and the school employees are going to be deposed, which is the LAST thing they want to cooperate with after Hannah's tapes have demonstrated there's evidence that she blames all of them for her death.

Putting aside their significance to the plot, it's their relationship to Hannah that explores how easy it is to miss the suicide warning signs. The easy way out would have been to make Hannah's parents disinterested or negligent in some fashion. Yet in their scenes with Hannah, we get the sense that they are involved in their daughter's life - or at least have no reason on their end to THINK she's hiding things from them. I can't think of too many real bonding moments between Hannah and her father, but she and her mother have a number of conversations about her aspirations and interests. Mrs. Baker never is put in the position of having to pull teeth to get Hannah to talk, and it's hard to castigate her for not being a mind reader.

Which is not to say there aren't clues to Hannah's state-of-mind to be found. She mentions more than once that her mother can't relate to her experience in high school because her mother was popular. It's a telling observation because it makes us wonder if she feels inadequate and even embarrassed by that fact. Equally telling - her parents were high school sweethearts, which seems to have made her both envious of that kind of connection and depressed to not have something like it. Perhaps she feels high school shouldn't be this hard and there's something wrong with her if she doesn't have the same good fortune as her parents. A lot of movies focus on teens trying to live up to pressure their parents place on them overtly, but this feels like the case of Hannah being intimidated by the shadow her parents cast. It's a burden she's placed on herself, but there is the possibility she's twisted this into feeling like a disappointment with them.

That probably also feeds into her guilt after she loses a bank deposit carrying $700 from the family store. It's no small screw-up, but she feels terrible about it and she cares enough about her parents that their (not unreasonable) disappointment really guts her. It nails her insecurities and makes her even less likely to open up to them in crisis because she already feels like a disappointment. A lot of thought clearly went into this, with the intent of making their dynamic as un-black-and-white as possible.

Again and again, I was struck how Hannah still seemed to have a closer relationship with her parents than Clay had with his, at least outwardly. Clay feels rather disconnected from them, especially his father. There's no simmering conflict (at least not any that isn't provoked by Clay's frequent disappearances), but there's also very little warmth. Clay's mother tries hard to force a connection - mandating family breakfasts, not letting Clay close the door to his room - but it's all done in such a straight-on manner that Clay calls her a helicopter parent and usually shuts down in reaction. She's trying, but she's going about it in completely the wrong way.

This is a hard relationship to evaluate fairly because we don't get many scenes of Clay with his parents in the past. Honestly, the only one that stands out to me is when Clay's getting ready to go to Jess's party and his mom offers to drive him. Knowing how he related to them before Hannah's death rocked his world might provide more context to how deep the divide is between Clay and them. But if you were to go just by the parent-child interactions we see, you might peg Clay's homelife to be the one that more likely foreshadowed a depressed, alienated teen who needs help.

On the subject of Clay's mother... it's really hard not to judge her for agreeing to represent the school in the lawsuit against Hannah's parents. First, I'm shocked her firm would assign her that case given that connection alone. Second, yes, Clay doesn't tell his mom that he knew Hannah very well, but her taking that at face value requires her to take leave of a lot of her senses. No matter how much Clay's been hiding his grief, his mother should be able to pick up on something that's up with him since his school got hit with a suicide (and an accidental death, we learn much later.) She knows from the start that this is going to entail attacking a teenage girl's character - a girl who took her own life. Let's say she has every reason to accept Clay at his word when he says he didn't know Hannah - why doesn't it ever occur to her in the abstract that tearing down a troubled teen might do more harm than good to her relationship with her son?

The familial relationships of the other kids prove to be equally important in defining their character.

- Jess's father is in the Navy and she clearly looks up to him. In a revealing moment that's passed off as a joke, she expresses a fondness for "a man in uniform," not realizing the obvious until Hannah points out that her father "wears a uniform." Over the course of the series we learn that Jess was raped and is in DEEP denial about it, with a good portion of that resistance being driven by her fear of disappointing her father. It forms the backbone of her motivation throughout the series. (In contrast, we only see her mother once and learn next to nothing about her.)

- Justin has the worst homelife of any of the kids. His mother's shacked up with a meth dealer who's abusive to him. It forces Justin to take refuge at Bryce's pool house. Through this we learn of Bryce's generosity - he'd give Justin new shoes, saying he had an extra pair rather than embarrass Justin by making a specific gift of them. Bryce's parents have fed Justin, bought him clothes and looked after him in ways his own family never has. This gives Justin a more complicated loyalty to Bryce than just "bro-code" when Bryce forces himself on Justin's girlfriend, an intoxicated Jess. It's a smart move on the writers' part to make this dynamic as complex as possible. Justin feels he owes Bryce and can't betray him by turning him in. He's also been the recipient of a lot of kindness from Bryce so he's determined to rationalize the rape as an out-of-character moment he shouldn't be judged for.

- Interesting, during the timeframe the series covers, Bryce's parents are never seen. They're absent the entire time, which gives Bryce ample opportunity to host parties and gatherings at his place sans supervision. He doesn't have any visible authority figures, no one to set boundaries. If anything, he's surrounded by enablers. He's popular enough and well-liked in school that no one really can stand up to him. When Hannah is sexually assaulted by him, her fear is the same as likely any girl in her position: "Who would believe me over him?"

- Alex's dad is another authority figure, a local deputy. Alex is deferential to his face, calling him "sir," and it's possible that the rigid morality his dad represents is also what causes Alex to take his own culpability in Hannah's death so hard. And again, we know next to nothing of his mother, beyond the fact she works at the hospital.

Seeing how all of these character backgrounds end up feeding the main story arcs, you can understand why it's usually sound writing advice to know as much about your characters as possible. You could simplify any or possibly even all of these backgrounds and still tell the same story, but the characters and the emotion are so much richer for what these extra shadings add.

Side 12: Episodic structure makes a comeback
Side 13: Thoughts on Season 2

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

13 Reasons Why - Side 10: Alex's storyline hides parallels in plain sight

Side 1: The Setting
Side 2: An overly contrived premise can present a challenge
Side 3: Hannah Baker, from joy to despair
Side 4: Clay, an outsider who isn't an outcast
Side 5: Clay's tape leads to one of this year's most heartbreaking episodes
Side 6: Mr. Porter - Terrible Counselor or Worst Counselor?
Side 7: Do depictions of suicide provoke imitation?
Side 8: Generating tension that stokes viewer intensity
Side 9: Keeping storytelling clarity in non-linear structure

There's a storyline in 13 Reasons Why that might be described as meta-commentary on the whole narrative. It's pretty well-hidden on the first pass through the series, but on a second run, it announces its presence loudly in any scene it appears. Throughout all 13 hours, the characters are left grappling with Hannah's suicide. Many of them are blindsided by it, and those who have access to Hannah's tapes are no less confused.

Of course, the audience is passing judgment on all of them as we take a tour of their worst behavior they inflicted on Hannah. Through every additional indignity heaped on Hannah, every cruel behavior, every public humiliation, we watch a little more of her spirit dim. To us, it seems obvious and inevitable that she was displaying warning signs of suicide, and we might be inclined to indict her friends and family for missing what was right in front of their faces.

Then, in the finale, a guilt-ridden Alex shoots himself in the head, leaving the audience reeling that he too had been suicidal. The first time you saw it, were you surprised things took the turn they did? I was.

Then I rewatched the series. (Remember, I binged it in the space of a week, then watched it AGAIN the week after that. I never have had that reaction to a TV show before.) Let me tell you, once you know how it ends, every scene with Alex might as well have him carrying around a neon sign saying "I'm probably going to kill myself! Ask me how!"

Alex's crime against Hannah was a little less overtly evil than some of the other guys, who groped her and sexually assaulted her. Alex was good friends with Hannah and dated her best friend Jess. Jess wouldn't have sex with him, so he lashed out and created a list that rated the girls of the school by their best and worst features. Because he knew it would hurt Jess, He rated her "Worst Ass" and gave the title of "Best Ass" to Hannah.

This had two major consequences. First, as Hannah put it - it made her ass a target for every boy in school. Coming on the heels of her being wrongly branded a slut and rumors that she "went to third" with Justin, it only fed the perception of her as easy and promiscuous. The second consequence is that Jess assumed there was a reason Alex ranked Hannah so high, and accused her of cheating with Alex. When she ends the friendship, she calls Hannah a "slut" for good measure.

It destroys two of Hannah's close friendships and isolates her even more from her classmates. After her suicide, Alex has deep regrets, saying, "So not only did everyone think Hannah gave it up for me I took away her best friend. And who knows? If she had a friend, maybe..." Clay tells him not to think like that and Alex snaps back, "You want to think whatever you did couldn't be why Hannah killed herself, but the truth is that I did. I killed Hannah Baker! And Justin killed Hannah Baker. And Jessica. And you. We all killed Hannah Baker!"

Suffice to say, he's taking it hard. Here are a couple other examples to watch for:

- In Episode 3, he's seen tearing suicide awareness posters off the walls at school. He mocks the slogan "'Suicide is not an option.' You know what? Clearly it is! Why don't they put up a poster saying 'Don't be a fucking dick?'"

- Later in that same episode, he quits jazz band, something he'd really enjoyed doing. One of the depression red flags is someone giving up something they once got joy from.

- When he provokes Montgomery into a fight, his unusually violent attitude is disconcerting enough. His glum and resigned behavior afterwards also should have alerted us that something was amiss. He seems to want the worse punishment possible - like he feels he deserves it.

- Throughout the flashbacks, there are scattered hints that Alex is going through a depressive time, most notably in any scene where his breakup with Jess is discussed. He's still taking that split hard almost a year later.

- Alex is frequently seen with a group of other kids whose transgressions are discussed on the tapes. Notably, guys like Justin and Marcus are motivated by a desire to keep the tapes and the information on them from becoming public knowledge. Most of them rationalize or even defend their behavior towards Hannah. Alex consistently doesn't. He fully buys into the notion that he's a legit reason why Hannah killed herself.

- At one point Jess says that "Clay doesn't know Hannah lied on the tapes!" Alex snaps back, "Did she? Because she told the truth about me!"

- In episode 9, Justin warns Alex, "Whatever happens to us, happens to you too." Alex responds, "So if I kill myself do you die too?"

The show doesn't hit this point too hard, but there is a scene where "suicide contagion" is discussed, which is when a classmate's suicide can provoke further suicide attempts from other students in the same school. It shouldn't come as a surprise that one of the main characters would fall victim to it, and yet, we're blindsided by the twist.

It's a savvy trick the show pulls. We might be congratulating ourselves on being better people than everyone who hurt Hannah, and secure in our belief that had we been there, we might have saved her - but we don't see it coming with Alex. It brings into sharp relief how it would have been easy for all the warning signs to have been dismissed.

By opening the door to a suicide contagion storyline, the series can address one of the biggest controversies from this first season - that viewers should be aware that exposing some people to Hannah's suicide risks provoking copycat behavior. I have concerns that a second series could dilute the power of this first season, but if it can pull off this balancing act, it might be worth it.

Skye's storyline is given less screentime, but is another case of the show hiding a mirror for another character in plain sight. Skye is the abrasive and... I'm not sure what the right word is.... "alternative"(?)- looking teen who's been a classmate of Clay's most of his time in school. In one of her early appearances she's blunt in insulting Clay for hanging out with a cheerleader, and then mocks him when he says that the girl is "nice." It feels like she's being mean and judgemental for no reason at all.

In another episode, she lashes out at him for ending their friendship when they got to high school. Drawing on a painful memory, she reminds him that he saw her in the hall that day and ignored her. He counters he didn't know what to say to her, since she looked so different. (The implication being that this was when she adopted her new darker and non-conformist look.) With an accusatory tone, she says that he could have just said hi.

Clay, of course, is reacting to this attack on a gut level, not even noticing what's behind this. If he was, he might realize that what Skye is saying to him isn't too dissimilar to the way he acted towards Hannah when he was jealous of other guys who had her attention. She's not being mean - she's been hurt by someone she considered a friend.

She probably goes over the line when she attacks Hannah's choice to kill herself. Clay says she doesn't know anything about it and she comes back with "I know she didn't go through anything different than any of us! We all get through it!" Clay cites the scars on her wrists and asks, "What's this then!" With maybe more venom than she intends, Skye says, "That's what you do instead of killing yourself."

It's a straight-up admission of a cry for help, and one that Clay finally answers in the show's final minutes. He - and we - have seen how so many of Hannah's friends abandoned her because they mistook her pain for her being a drama queen. Even her close friends found her to be a bit much to take, not unlike how Skye can be alienating. Clay recognizes the parallels early enough that it might spare Skye from Hannah's isolation.

Unfortunately, it might be too late for Alex in that regard.

Side 11: Fleshed out parents help deepen the other characters
Side 12: Episodic structure makes a comeback
Side 13: Thoughts on Season 2

Friday, May 26, 2017

13 Reasons Why - Side 9: Keeping storytelling clarity in non-linear structure

Side 1: The Setting
Side 2: An overly contrived premise can present a challenge
Side 3: Hannah Baker, from joy to despair
Side 4: Clay, an outsider who isn't an outcast
Side 5: Clay's tape leads to one of this year's most heartbreaking episodes
Side 6: Mr. Porter - Terrible Counselor or Worst Counselor?
Side 7: Do depictions of suicide provoke imitation?
Side 8: Generating tension that stokes viewer intensity

Today's writing tip from 13 Reasons Why is a simple one, but having seen a lot of amateur writers make this mistake, bears its own post.

The story unfolds in more than one timeframe. There's the present, the post-suicide timeline where the tapes are circulating and Clay is gradually understanding what happened to his friend. And there's the flashbacks which move forward mostly linearly (but not always) from the time that Hannah arrived in town. In screenplays I've seen writers keep things straight for the reader by adding things like FLASHBACK or the date to the slugline. Sometimes there's even a trick like writing the flashbacks in italics

That works when you read, but you also have to think about visual cues and transitions that the audience will need to orient themselves. In that regard, 13 Reasons Why is very smart. There was never a point where I was confused even for a minute about where we were in the scattered timeline. Since this isn't the kind of story where you put the characters in heavy old age makeup to signal the timeframes, that takes some wits.

Here are all the ways the past and present are delineated:

Flashbacks tended to be more colorful and warmer than the present. TRAFFIC used this kind of color tinting to keep its three concurrent stories clear, but with a much more aggressive tint on those scenes. 13 Reasons Why is more subtle, with the present feeling harsher and more blue-grey tinted. It also fits the emotions of the scenes - there's a more romantic feel to Hannah and Clay's life when she was alive and a colder sense to life after she's dead.

Early on in the present time frame, Clay gets into the first of many accidents on his bike and has a cut on his forehead going forward. It's a blunt way to instantly signal the audience which timeline we're in (at least when Clay's in the scene), but that makes it no less effective. If you're writing a script that bounces around in time, don't be afraid to be unsubtle. If you have an audience that's not giving their full attention to the screen, you don't want to risk them getting confused.

Obviously, Hannah's look evolves, the most obvious being when she chops off half the length of her hair once things have gotten really bad. In real life, drastic changes in appearance can be taken as a warning sign of depression, so it also works as a story point. It's worth noting that when Clay thinks back of happy times with Hannah, he always envisions her with longer hair. She herself does the same thing in her brief fantasy of them being happy together. I didn't think to watch this as closely as I should have, but it feels like the colors of her wardrobe become less vibrant.

Furthering that, take note of the difference between how Jess's wardrobe and makeup in the past scenes tend to show her as more done up and pretty than in the present where she's wearing less makeup and her hair is found more often in a pony tail than being let down and styled. The guys tend to look mostly the same in past and present, but the hard times are definitely reflected more in the ladies' looks. (Hannah's mother would be another example of this.)

Also, when you're writing this, think about transitions. Hannah's voiceover is often the device used to introduce the past each episode, but there always comes a point where the episode trusts we know what the specific storylines are that week and forgoes an in-your-face marker. Context matters - why would this specific moment in the present trigger us to go to the past? That's a question to be asking constantly when structuring a story like this.

Always be thinking visually. How is the audience going to get the information they need without becoming lost in the details? Yes, some of these elements are an issue of production design and post-production but always look for opportunities to underscore the differences in time frames in a non-linear story.

Side 10: Alex's storyline hides parallels in plain sight
Side 11: Fleshed out parents help deepen the other characters
Side 12: Episodic structure makes a comeback
Side 13: Thoughts on Season 2

Thursday, May 25, 2017

13 Reasons Why - Side 8: Generating tension that stokes viewer intensity

Side 1: The Setting
Side 2: An overly contrived premise can present a challenge
Side 3: Hannah Baker, from joy to despair
Side 4: Clay, an outsider who isn't an outcast
Side 5: Clay's tape leads to one of this year's most heartbreaking episodes
Side 6: Mr. Porter - Terrible Counselor or Worst Counselor?
Side 7: Do depictions of suicide provoke imitation?

About four years ago, I decided I was going to catch up on BREAKING BAD before the final season made its debut. It was during a period where I was between jobs and had a lot of free time on my hands. After one afternoon of watching BREAKING BAD, I realized I needed to set down a rule: no binging during "work hours." It became quickly apparent that if I allowed myself to, I'd just sit there all day and watch one BREAKING BAD episode after another. So I laid down the rule: from 9am to 6pm, no Netflix streaming. I could write for the blog, or a I could work on a screenplay, or I could do anything so long as it wasn't devouring episodes like I might devour a bag of potato chips.

This was part of my effort to stay productive, but also I was really trying to force myself to move through the series slowly enough that I could savor it and ruminate on each chapter. About ten years earlier, my roommate at the time burned through most of Buffy's seasons in a matter of weeks and it became clear his experience was different from mine. He blew past the lows faster, meaning he and I have drastically different takes on the pace of season six, but the highs resonated differently and the individual pieces lost their identity. That wasn't going to happen to me. No, with BREAKING BAD, I was going to be a good viewer and take my time.

So by night two, I'm laying on the couch at 1:17am as an episode draws to an end. I'm pretty sure it was "Negro Y Azul," with Danny Trejo's decapitated head on a turtle wired to explode. I tended to go to bed around 1:30am so this should have been the perfect time to pack it in, right? But I couldn't stop THERE! I had to see what happened next. And what's one more hour without sleep?

The next episode was "Better Call Saul," the introduction of Bob Odenkirk's Saul Goodman. So when that episode ended, what do you think I did? To make a long story less long, I went to bed after 3:30am that night

I burned through 54 episodes in 10 days. The main plot was compelling, but that's not always enough to make me addicted. BREAKING BAD had that extra kick where I had to see how certain plots developed, and often each episode ended with a game-changing moment whose resolution I couldn't bear to wait another day for.

13 Reasons Why might be the first show I've been able to binge since then that left me feeling this way. It knows which cards to show and which cards to hold. Let's run through some of the ongoing sources of suspense:

1) Why did Hannah kill herself? This is an obvious question and the reason the entire series exists. The device that pumps this up are the flashbacks. It'd be easy to build the series about a bullied outsider who falls from unpopular to suicidal. The more interesting route is to make the earliest version of Hannah the person least like any suicidal cliche we've seen. Since we know she takes her own life, it provokes puzzlement from the audience. "How do we get there from here?"

I want to draw a distinction between this and a similar method of drawing out suspense over a season of stories. The character-based "How did we get here?" is always going to be more compelling than the "Oh my god! Something shocking is going to happen!" one. Sure you could start your series with your main character starting her car, only to have it explode in flames. Or maybe he's walking down the street, only to be suddenly grabbed and pulled into a van. Or maybe your secret agent character is captured and executed before enemy spies. Sure you, have shock value and perhaps even some suspense in the vein of "How does he get caught?"

But it's an emptier kind of tension because all of those examples I cited are things that happen TO your character. All of the change is external and it can presumably be provoked at any time. These kinds of moments have their place in TV drama, but it's a different kind of foreshadowing than what we get with Hannah.

"What makes Hannah kill herself?" is a question that necessitates a more character-based journey. It's about change from WITHIN the character, not a situation that that happens TO the character. The former can be more compelling because it foreshadows a journey with more depth rather than a series of falling plot dominoes that put the character in jeopardy. There's more emotion and more challenge to depicting the former development.

2) Why is Clay on the tapes? Hannah says everyone getting these tapes in some way drove her to suicide. The Clay of the past nurses a silent crush on Hannah and the Clay of the present clearly is hurting from her loss, so what did he do that was so bad? The extra fertilizer for this question is Clay's own shock at being included. He can't understand what he might have done to hurt her and as he learns the sins of his other classmates, it weighs on him that any pain he caused could be equal to humiliation, assault, rumor-spreading and rape.

This is where the use of the tapes really pays off, because everyone Clay's hearing about has already come ahead of him in the cycle. They know their secrets are going out AND they know his yet to be revealed secrets. When he confronts them over what they did, they taunt that he needs to hear the rest, implying that what he did was no better. Again, this turns Clay's tape into a bomb we're waiting to go off. The tension comes not just from Clay learning the truth, but the fact everyone he's against already knows it. They have an advantage he doesn't - and Clay is fully aware of this. This is an undercurrent to every interaction he has.

3) What's Tony's angle? Tony seems to know more than all of the others and early episodes cast him in a vaguely sinister light. Is he telling the whole truth? Why can't he just tell Clay why Clay is on the tapes? Seeing him and his brothers beat up a guy also leaves us wondering - is Clay next? Is there some bigger game Tony is playing? I like that this tease is mostly wrapped up mid-way, as it puts a lid on the Tony-as-plot-device issue.

It turns out Tony carries guilt that Hannah didn't even put on him. He avoided seeing her the night she took her life because he just couldn't handle her drama and he feels like if he talked to her or reacted faster, he might have saved her. Since he couldn't save her life, he re-purposes his guilt into honoring her last wishes to the letter. Especially on a second-run through, it's evident that all his "listen to the tapes," is driven by making sure Clay learns the truth the way Hannah wanted. And, as Tony says to Clay in another suspense-building moment, "I don't know what you'll do when you hear [your tape.]"

This scene is part of the most gripping episode cliffhangers of the run. Tony finds Clay at night in a park. Clay is about to move on to the next tape and tells Tony, "You don't have to hang with me."

"I think maybe I should."

"Why?"

"Because it's your tape."

That alone would have been enough to seal up the episode and make sure everyone will HAVE to see the next chapter. Not unexpectedly, the only person who isn't rushing to that goal... is Clay. He feared the tape was bad before, but to be bad enough that Tony feels he should keep an eye on him... that can't be good. This is another of those moments that Dylan Minnette knocks out of the park. You can feel Clay's vulnerability as this dread physically drains him. Every one of his worst fears plays out on his face as he finds the words to ask, "Did I kill Hannah?"

Tony gives a non-answer answer, "We all killed Hannah," but Clay is in no mood for any spreading of blame or moral equivocating over everyone's actions or inactions. He asks again, more forcefully, "Did I kill Hannah Baker?"

After a beat, "Yeah."

After an ending like that, are you going to miss the next episode?

Episode 11 starts with that tension hanging in the air and really ratchets the suspense higher by rewinding back to just before the party. While leaving work, Clay banters with Hannah and invites her to the party again. She declines, again citing her efforts to turn over a new leaf. Now that we know that Clay was the one to push her to go, we wonder - given the bad things that we already know happened at the party, is THAT Clay's sin? The show makes us wait for the answer, and as we've discussed, gives us some of the best Clay/Hannah scenes of the entire series.

This is another good technique for working with suspense. There's a bomb about to go off at the end of this episode, so the writer has two options - play the dread. Or play against it. The split timeline actually lets them have their cake and eat it too, with the twist that the "happier" timeframe is the one that suddenly gets very, very ugly when Clay and Hannah's hookup goes off the rails.

With Hannah, the writing challenge across the series is "How do you take this girl and make her suicidal?" At the party it's, "How will this seemingly perfect 'date' with two people who adore each other turn into one of the worst nights of either of their lives?" Every heart-tugging moment is just going for the greater hurt.

And through this all, we know that even after we get the truth, there's a bigger unknown awaiting us: What will it do to Clay? Every episode has prepared us for this. It's been a 10 episode exercise in Hitchcock's principle of suspense: There's a bomb under the table and we don't know when it'll go off.

Defy expectations. To make the emotional lows more distinct, contrast them with legitimate highs. When I was reading, I saw so many unrepped writers try to touch their audience by writing scripts of unrelenting sadness. Twenty pages in there's no suspense because the pattern is set that every scene will be ugly and depressing. It's like walking through a haunted house where every three steps, something jumps out in front of you and shouts "BOO!" Very quickly, you get numb to the shock.

13 Reasons Why keeps its audience invested throughout, building foreboding alongside the joy. It makes you beg for the ending you know it has to deny you, and when the end arrives, you feel the loss of Hannah as keenly as Clay does.

Side 9: Keeping storytelling clarity in non-linear structure
Side 10: Alex's storyline hides parallels in plain sight
Side 11: Fleshed out parents help deepen the other characters
Side 12: Episodic structure makes a comeback
Side 13: Thoughts on Season 2

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

13 Reasons Why - Side 7: Do depictions of suicide provoke imitation?

Side 1: The Setting
Side 2: An overly contrived premise can present a challenge
Side 3: Hannah Baker, from joy to despair
Side 4: Clay, an outsider who isn't an outcast
Side 5: Clay's tape leads to one of this year's most heartbreaking episodes
Side 6: Mr. Porter - Terrible Counselor or Worst Counselor?

I came to 13 Reasons Why a few weeks late and managed not to be spoiled by any of the twists within the story because there was a larger topic sucking up all the oxygen: was it responsible of the series to actually depict Hannah's suicide.

First, I want to lay out two stipulations before I dive in here:

1) There's no way any single post I write can be comprehensive enough to resolve this to anyone's satisfaction.

2) I don't think anyone involved with the show made the creative choices they did lightly. I believe they considered all angles and depicted the issue the way they felt made the most appropriate impact. It's absolutely fair to question that judgement, but I don't think any choice was made on a whim.

Soon after the show was released, the National Association of School Psychologists issued a statement saying, "We do not recommend that vulnerable youth, especially those who have any degree of suicidal ideation, watch this series. Its powerful storytelling may lead impressionable viewers to romanticize the choices made by the characters and/or develop revenge fantasies. They may easily identify with the experiences portrayed and recognize both the intentional and unintentional effects on the central character. Unfortunately, adult characters in the show, including the second school counselor who inadequately addresses Hannah’s pleas for help, do not inspire a sense of trust or ability to help. Hannah’s parents are also unaware of the events that lead to her suicide death."

That seems fair, and their entire statement is worth checking out. I disagree with the interpretation that the show is a revenge fantasy, BUT since that's a popular misconception about the series it makes sense to be aware of how to council people who will take it that way.

Dan Reidenberg, the executive director for Suicide Awareness Voices of Education, a suicide prevention non-profit, said, "There is a great concern that I have ... that young people are going to overidentify with Hannah in the series and we actually may see more suicides as a result of this television series."

That's a heavy thing to lay on a show. I don't put a great deal of stock in the threat of imitative behavior. A simplistic way to express my point might be this quote from SCREAM, "Don't go blaming the movies! Movies don't create psychos. Movies make psychos more creative!"

You're all about to jump on the extension of that analogy and say that it doesn't discount the influence on someone already suicidal. Make no mistake - that should be a concern.

There is a psychological phenomenon known as suicide contagion. It's defined by the Department of Health and Human Services as the belief that "the exposure to suicide or suicidal behaviors within one's family, one's peer group, or through media reports of suicide and can result in an increase in suicide and suicidal behaviors. Direct and indirect exposure to suicidal behavior has been shown to precede an increase in suicidal behavior in persons at risk for suicide, especially in adolescents and young adults."

You might have noticed a few passing references to suicide contagion within the show itself. Frankly, with the way season one ends, you could make a VERY strong case that the series is depicting this very threat within the subtext through Alex's storyline. I'm not going to be shocked if season 2 deals with this more explicitly. There is a study that documents that students who have experienced a classmate's suicide are more likely to have suicidal thoughts. The same study also found the same level of risk was present whether or not the person was friends with the victim.

But does exposure to a depiction of suicide have the same risk as when it's the death of a living person? I don't know. I'm not going to blame anyone for an abundance of caution, but I also don't think the creators should be stoned in the square for showing one.

One of the series writers, Nic Sheff, penned an essay for Vanity Fair discussing why they didn't have Hannah kill herself off-screen. We see the act in brutal, careful detail as she fills a tub, gets in and then takes a razorblade to each arm, clearly causing a lot of pain. It's a rough scene to watch and to my eye, didn't romanticize the act at all. It makes the act look about as appealing as sticking your arm into a woodchipper.

It's easier for me to wrap my brain around the idea of that scene prompting an anti-suicide reaction rather than fearing imitative behavior. Psychologically, it makes sense to me that the more graphic the ugliness, the less appealing.

That was the intent. Sheff relates a story of his own experience, talking about how just before he was going to swallow a lot of pills in a suicide attempt, he flashed on the memory of a story a member of his self-help group told:

"She’d decided to kill herself, just as I was doing. Her plan was to drift off peacefully into an eternal sleep, taking copious pills and drinking copious amounts of wine. She lay down on the bed. An hour passed. Then her body reacted. Involuntarily, she sat up and began projectile vomiting blood and stomach fluid. In a total blackout, she ran headlong toward the bathroom, but instead smashed face first into the sliding glass door, shattering the glass, breaking her arm, pulverizing her face, and collapsing unconscious in a pool of blood and vomit and whatever else. She woke up next morning in a pain unlike anything she thought was even possible. She crawled, moaning and crying, to a phone and dialed 911. She was bleeding internally, but she would live.

"The whole story came back to me in heightened detail. It was an instant reminder that suicide is never peaceful and painless, but instead an excruciating, violent end to all hopes and dreams and possibilities for the future. The memory came to me like a shock. It staggered me.

[...]

"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."

Here's the rub: because this suicide scene is fairly unique in its bluntness, I don't know if there's any way to quantify the risk it presents. There might be studies to show that fictional depictions of suicide present a risk of suicidal feelings - but if all that data is based on "sanitized" suicidal scenes like the ones 13 Reasons Why was trying not to emulate, is it applicable to this situation?

We're in somewhat uncharted territory. I don't blame anyone for an abundance of caution.


Per The Washington Post, "Robert M. Avossa, superintendent of Palm Beach County schools in Florida, told parents that school personnel had seen a rise in the number of students who have hurt themselves and threatened suicide."

Then again, we're talking about anecdotal evidence, not results that are derived from scientific study, which is why I feel it's fair game to offer this Thought Catalog post as a counterpoint: "How 13 Reasons Why stopped me from hurting myself." The author is a young woman named Pihu Yadav, a young woman who writes of her own struggles with depression.
"I still remember what it felt like when I saw that for the first time, and will probably remember it for the rest of my life. I saw how her parents reacted to it, I saw how they had absolutely nothing left after their daughter was gone, and I know now that I would never want to put anybody in that place. Ever. 

"Hannah Baker stopped me from killing myself. Even if I’m hurting, I would never want for others to hurt because of me. Hannah Baker taught me to fight and to live. And for that, she is a hero."

For this young woman, the scene worked in the way the creative team intended. I hope that the people like her, the people who saw demonstrated that suicide is no easy answer, far outnumber those who might be inclined to imitate her.

So what are the final takeaways here? First, if you're dealing with a loaded subject like this as a writer, do your homework. You're going to have to defend your choices when called out. If you're smart, you'll have found the foundation to stand on.

Secondly, OWN that choice. You made a creative call and if your strategy is going to be to dodge and pass the buck, you're not ready to write this. Sheff brings his own personal experience to the issue and he stands behind what he wrote. Also, I like that he's not a dick about it. he stands his ground, but his piece feels like it's intended as part of a dialogue, rather than a pissy "You know nothing of our work!"

Write responsibly, and when taken to task, be ready to explain what that means to you.

Side 8: Generating tension that stokes viewer intensity
Side 9: Keeping storytelling clarity in non-linear structure
Side 10: Alex's storyline hides parallels in plain sight
Side 11: Fleshed out parents help deepen the other characters
Side 12: Episodic structure makes a comeback
Side 13: Thoughts on Season 2

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

13 Reasons Why - Side 6: Mr. Porter - Terrible Counselor or Worst Counselor?

Side 1: The Setting
Side 2: An overly contrived premise can present a challenge
Side 3: Hannah Baker, from joy to despair
Side 4: Clay, an outsider who isn't an outcast
Side 5: Clay's tape leads to one of this year's most heartbreaking episodes

Is school counselor Mr. Porter a villain?

In following the reaction to 13 Reasons Why, one recurring topic is that the school counselor, Mr. Porter really misses the ball when a clearly distraught Hannah comes to him trying to speak up about her rape at Bryce's hands.

This happens right after she records the first 12 tapes, and the beginning of Tape 13 lays out where her head was at that point, "But a funny thing happened as I finished number 12. I felt something... shift. I had poured it all out and for a minute, just a minute, I felt like maybe i could beat this. I decided to give life one more chance. But this time I was asking for help."

That's what leads her to Porter. We know the stakes in this moment, but Porter doesn't. This is the last chance to save Hannah. A few days after my first viewing of this episode, I attempted to give Porter the benefit of the doubt. To play Devil's Advocate, it's easy for us to berate him for fumbling the ball because we have so much more context for Hannah's words here. We can't hold him responsible for lacking our omniscient perspective.

And then I rewatched the episode carefully. Even before we get to the moments I might argue are fair-play mistakes, Hannah has said this: "I don't feel anything. I don't care any more... about anything." 

Um. Red flag.

Then she says she's a problem to her parents and breaks down, saying "I need everything to stop. People. Life"

Red. Flag.

Throw out the rest of this scene, and you've still got an amazing case that Porter dropped the ball horribly here. Let's stipulate to that now.

Hannah steers the conversation to her rape. She finds it difficult to just blurt the truth out and instead comes at the subject obliquely, saying something happened at a party. The context makes it clear she's talking about sex and Porter's questions immediately seem to go to the issue of consent. Reacting to the mention of a party, he asks if she had "an encounter" there.

These are the questions he asks, emphasis mine.

"Did anything happen that night that you regret?

"Are you embarrassed by what happened?

"Maybe you made a decision? A decision to do something with a boy that you now regret?"

This is rape culture right there. He puts the burden on her. He say "by what happened" as if it was an act of God that occurred while all the players stood around passively. He implies she made a decision and is only now taking it back.

See what's missing in all of this? Any hint that the boy could have done something wrong. Now with that tone established, Porter fires questions at Hannah, and on a second viewing, it struck me how it had the feel of a cross examination. The questions are confrontational and "yes or no" type interrogatives, not open-ended questions.

MR. PORTER
Did he force himself on you?

HANNAH
I think so.

MR. PORTER
Did you tell him to stop?

HANNAH
No.

MR. PORTER
Did you tell him no?

HANNAH
No.

MR. PORTER
Maybe you consented and then changed your mind.

HANNAH
No, it's not like that!

His mind is on how to prove whatever allegations Hannah is going to make. The most generous reading of his failing in this scene is that he thinks Hannah has come to him as a pretense to any legal action.  He's focused on that big picture while completely missing the even bigger picture - the traumatized girl in front of him.

To Hannah, those questions sound like accusations. If she didn't try to stop it, well that must mean she wanted it, right? She was participating in it, and if she's changing her mind after the fact, well, who's gonna believe the school slut anyway? Hannah's tapes don't tell us these specific thoughts are going through her head, but the actresses performance makes it clear. Even if Porter's just seeking information, what Hannah hears is "Prove it. Convince me." She asks him if it's likely anything could happen to the person who did this.

MR. PORTER
If you can't give me a name, if you don't want to press charges on this boy. If you not even sure you can press charges, then there really only is one option.

HANNAH
What is it?

MR. PORTER
You can move on.

HANNAH
You mean do nothing.

She leaves, despite Porter trying to convince her to stay. She turns him down, and I'll award him a slight bit of credit for realizing he should be doing more. When Hannah leaves, she lingers outside his office a moment, waiting to see if he'll go the extra step to come after her. He doesn't, both because she already turned him down and because he's gotten a phone call. It was her last straw - she went there to see if someone cared enough to help her and what she got struck her like a perfunctory meeting, accusations, and the certainty that Porter cared about nothing once it was outside his office.

If Hannah said the word "rape," at the outset, and if she recounted what happened exactly as we saw it, I want to believe Porter would have recognized he was dealing with something more serious here. The fact he completely misses huge depression red flags early on doesn't help support that theory, though.

Of course, as we see the scene through Hannah's eyes, we fully understand why she doesn't say any of that. Porter's efforts to get more information read as skepticism, even more than he intends. This is the man she's supposed to be able to trust and his opening move is basically, got any evidence? It's an easy leap from that to what Hannah surely concludes, "No one will believe me. Ever." She can't go on if she has to pretend this didn't happen, and so when Porter tells her that the best thing to do is "move on," in her mind, suicide is the only escape.

I gave a lot of thought as to why 13 Reasons Why tells the story this way, and I concluded it was so that we know the first thing to do when we're in the same position as Mr. Porter - listen.

Hannah's pain is obvious to an audience that has enough context to hear the dog whistle she's using. In real life we don't have that. Our reactions to Hannah would be informed by what we know of her, our own experience with her, and what we've heard about her. 13 Reasons Why occasionally raises the possibility of Hannah being an unreliable narrator. Several people insist she's lying on the tapes, and indeed, we're given at least one outright contradiction between what she thought she saw and what happened. More than once, a character draws a distinction between "her truth" and "your truth."

Now let's bring the real world into it. The show apparently fudges a critical detail. Porter implies that he needs all the details before he can go to the police, but in truth, his obligation is much broader. If he knows a student is being assaulted, he HAS to report it. Thus, to be correct, his question to Hannah shouldn't have been, "Can you tell me everything?" He should have asked, "Were you assaulted?" It's a relatively small shift in the writing, but a critically important one. If Porter isn't making a big deal about "burden of proof," Hannah probably would have spoken up. Even if his first impulse is to wonder if this is all about a hookup she regrets, he raises the legal issue in a way that shuts her down.

I feel like we were supposed to believe that Mr. Porter had good intentions but his failing was his inability to look for "her truth." That's directly on theme for this entire series. Instead, he's shown to be dangerously incompetent, and that muddies any grey areas that could have been mined later in the scene.

The overall message about how we can all do better in seeking context for the behavior of people we know is an important one. As human beings, maybe 13 Reasons Why can help us do better in that regard.

Side 7: Do depictions of suicide provoke imitation?
Side 8: Generating tension that stokes viewer intensity
Side 9: Keeping storytelling clarity in non-linear structure
Side 10: Alex's storyline hides parallels in plain sight
Side 11: Fleshed out parents help deepen the other characters
Side 12: Episodic structure makes a comeback
Side 13: Thoughts on Season 2

Monday, May 22, 2017

13 Reasons Why - Side 5: Clay's tape leads to one of this year's most heartbreaking episodes

Side 1: The Setting
Side 2: An overly contrived premise can present a challenge
Side 3: Hannah Baker, from joy to despair
Side 4: Clay, an outsider who isn't an outcast

[Extra warning on this: this is extremely spoiler-heavy with details of the 11th episode of 13 Reasons Why.]

Heartbreaking.

That was almost the only word I could muster after watching the episode of 13 Reasons Why devoted to Clay's tape. It's the eleventh episode, with teleplay by Diana Son, and it's an hour of television that really stabs you in the heart with tragedy and then twists the knife.

Hannah's tapes form the spine of the series, but it's the Hannah/Clay romance that gives it its heart. We've covered a lot of this backstory in the individual posts about Hannah and Clay, especially the significant moment between them on the dance floor in episode five. Those long seconds where they stare at each other, both of them clearly wanting to kiss, and then having that moment ripped away felt important on a first viewing. My second run through the episodes made me realize that moment is even bigger. It's the one point in the show where Hannah could have been saved.

I think the series does an able job of demonstrating that a multitude of factors and choices contributed to Hannah's downward spiral. Once she was in that tailspin, other incidents were catalysts for an even deeper depression, but I also get the feeling that rock bottom was an inevitable destination for her. Traumas like her rape absolutely accelerated it but Hannah's poetry and note to her teacher are pretty strong evidence she'd been depressed for a while already. She needed counseling and so changing one thing, one action wouldn't reverse it.

But her dance with Clay comes right before all that. And it's hard not to imagine if they had gotten together then, so much of what hurt her would be invalidated or have never happened. It's the one pivot point in Hannah's life that could have changed everything. Though it may be a problematic message to say that the love of a nice boy saves everything, there's a better way to look at it. Hannah's depression builds because she doesn't have a strong connection to anyone. There's a deep loneliness to her, no matter what else she tries.

During my first run through the series, it was around episode 8 I tweeted, "I'm at the point in the show where every time Hannah's alone with a male character, I'm bracing for the worst... You just want to give the poor girl a hug, but given her state of mind, that would probably be a terrible idea."

So if nothing else, I was perceptive, but we'll get to that shortly.

It feels true to life that Hannah's decline isn't a steady fall. At the top of the three episodes that flash back to events at an end-of-summer party, Hannah's decided to give herself a fresh start. She cuts off a lot of her hair, is determined to study more and get things back on track. When Clay invites her to the party, she declines, so committed to working on her academics.

Clay goes only because his friend Jeff - who's tried to help him with girls - insists he go. Let me tell you, if you want to know Teenage Me, just study everything Clay does at the party, up to the moment he kisses Hannah. From showing up too early, to nitpicking a baseball metaphor that Jeff uses to convince him to go talk to Hannah, it all felt VERY familiar to me:

JEFF
Take a swing.

CLAY
A swing?

JEFF
You got a fat slider in your sweet spot. You gotta swing your bat through the strike zone, man, and knock it out.

CLAY
Oh, see, I'm aware that those are baseball terms. And if I'm interpreting correctly, I think that given my batting average, what I would actually end up with is a strikeout and not a homerun. With that said, very good use of an extended metaphor.

It's uncanny.

Katherine Langford and Dylan Minnette have undeniable chemistry in this episode. You really believe these two are falling in love, or at least, are finally able to express what they're feeling for each other. I know fans of virtually every teen show get invested in their favorite character pairings, but I have to reach back pretty far to think of a coupling I really believed in and was so emotionally invested in.

But we know how this story ends. Hannah's death hangs over the entire series, but it was this episode where I found myself trying to will another ending into being. She's going to be ripped away from Clay, she's going to choose to end it all. Every minute of cute, easy banter with Clay just makes the audience want to scream, "You didn't have to do this! He loved you!"

It also makes us empathetic to Clay's loss, and in another effective writing choice, this episode turns into the catharsis for Clay's grief. There's real purpose behind every choice in this episode. The writers didn't craft an hour that's an overt downer from start to finish. This isn't like "The Body" episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Here the highs of young love are exploited to make the fall back to Earth that much more impactful.

When the moment arrives, it's even crueler than we feared. The craziness of the party leads the two of them to slip into Jess's bedroom for privacy. It's innocent enough for a moment as they crack jokes about Jess's pet rocks and what they would be named. It leads to Hannah teasing Clay about his name, but reassuring him, "I like the name Clay."

Clay gives it half a beat and says, "I like the name Hannah." A small moment passes, where I'm sure Clay gathers the strength to do what he's likely kicked himself for NOT doing last year at the dance... and he kisses her.

They ease each other back onto the bed and though there's no doubt that Hannah's as invested in this as him, Clay asks, "Is this okay?" Through a smile, she replies, "Yeah, more than okay." Hannah's voiceover tells us, "At that moment, everything was perfect. And for the first time in a long time, I could imagine a future where I was happy, how good life could be." We're shown fantasies of what their life together could be like (where it seems significant that Hannah pictures herself with her longer hair and not her current cut.)

And then it turns. Hannah's tape narrates, "I wanted you to do everything you were doing, so I don't know why my mind took me everywhere else and I thought of every other guy.... and they all became you." The montage of them making out on the bed is intercut with every violation visited upon Hannah thus far on the show, the groping, the humiliation, the harassment. It's like watching a PTSD survivor be triggered and she quickly shouts at Clay to stop and pushes him off. She's practically in tears and a bewildered Clay asks if he did something wrong.

He asks if she's alright, showing his immediate concern not being the passion that was broken, but her well-being. She tells him to get out. He reaches out to her again and she says "Get the fuck out!" And because Clay's the type of guy who respects a girl's wishes, he leaves, more than a little confused bout what he did wrong and very hurt.

Those last several paragraphs were more recap than analysis, but the scene bears examining that carefully. We have enough information to understand both perspectives. Hannah's not a horrible person for making him feel bad, nor is she being a drama queen. And Clay, well, we understand just how hurtful and humiliating that must have been for him. It's simply beautiful writing, where two characters come into conflict over two totally justified mindsets. Neither one is "wrong." Both are completely true to the characters. We get why she pushes him away, even when she doesn't want to, and it's crystal clear why he leaves, even though he wants to stay and help her.

It's a defining moment for both their arcs, where neither character is sold out and every circumstance that put those two in that room comes together in a way that brings them both agony. Multiple layers of conflict are in play here. Hannah's heart vs. her depression, Clay's love for Hannah in conflict with how stung he is. Hannah in conflict with Clay because of what he's triggering in her. Clay's conflict with himself in deciding whether to stay or leave.

The show makes this look easy, but getting all those threads to come together in a perfect symphony? That's hard. Diana Son's teleplay is a master class in that kind of character writing. I'm in awe of this episode every time I've watched it.

And immediately this recontextualizes a moment shown in the previous episode, set after the party. Clay's friend Jeff is killed in a car crash later that night of the party, and Hannah knows circumstances of the accident that no one else does. The following week at school, a tearful Hannah approaches Clay to say she's sorry and ask if they can talk. Clay, still stinging from the party, snaps that she didn't even know Jeff and accuses her of being a drama queen about it to find a way to make it all about her.

When we first saw that scene, Clay's attitude seemed unusually harsh for him, but it was understandable. But once we have the full story of what he was also mad about and what she was trying to explain and apologize for, it becomes clear that was probably another breaking point for Hannah and another moment Clay regrets.

Hannah's tape continues: "Clay? Helmet? [Her nickname for him] Your name does not belong on this list but you need to be here if I'm going to tell my story, if I'm going to explain why I did what I did. Because you aren't every other guy. You're different. You're good and kind and decent. And I didn't deserve to be with someone like you. I never would. I would have ruined you. It wasn't you. It was me. And everything that's happened to me."

I've seen complaints that the show doesn't make it "clear" that Hannah suffers from depression. Bullshit. Listen to that monologue and tell me that's not someone who's DEEP in depression. It's one of the saddest TV character speeches in recent memory. Like Clay we're simultaneously shocked at the depth of her self-hate and realizing that it's a realistic conclusion to everything Hannah's been through.

Dylan Minnette acts his ass off in the next scene as this causes Clay to totally breakdown. At one point he stands on the edge of a cliff as Tony implores him to come back. Clay says he should have stayed with her. He knew something was wrong and he just left her there. It's wrenching to watch. He truly believes she's dead because of him. It doesn't matter to him that she wasn't in her right mind when she concluded this. He feels he had a responsibility to stay.

He imagines a different version of that night, one where he doesn't accept it when she tells him to leave. He stays, and when she reminds him that he thought she was a slut just like everyone else when he saw that picture, he tells her "I was angry for a minute because... because I was jealous of Justin. And I was mad at you for wanting him and not me. I was an asshole, and I'm sorry. I can never make it right, I can never say all this to you, but I love you, and I will never hurt you. I'm not going, not now, not ever. I love you, Hannah."

Langford's steely delivery makes her response wrenching enough on its own, but it's downright devastating knowing this comes from inside Clay's mind: 

"Why didn't you say this to me when I was alive?"

We return to Clay on the cliff with Tony, stepping back from the ledge as he weeps for what he'll never have back. He couldn't have saved her. No matter what he convinces himself of in hindsight, a seventeen year-old boy in that situation would never have had the maturity and the insight to recognize what was going on and diffuse it.

He asks Tony how he's supposed to live with what he's learned. Tony says, "Any way you can," and pulls him into a hug.

Done wrong, the distance between Clay and Hannah in her remaining days could have felt contrived, a device to keep her from seeking help and keep him from reaching out. This show does it right. Everything from Clay's perspective reinforces his judgment that Hannah's being a drama queen and he reacts by withdrawing from her so he won't get hurt again.

Just like she withdrew from everyone else.

It all comes from character. These are complex people, with complicated emotions and reactions.

I thought of the Hannah's I've known, the drama queens, the attention-seekers who turned on a dime. From the outside, they seem bi-polar. They open up to you one minute and seem to distrust everything about you the next. More often than not, they'll exhaust you. For the first time I wondered if that was provoked by them having gone through something way worse than I imagined.

Clay didn't kill Hannah, but you'll never convince him there wasn't more he could have done. The depth of this tragedy is, well, like I said... heartbreaking.

Side 6: Mr. Porter - Terrible Counselor or Worst Counselor?
Side 7: Do depictions of suicide provoke imitation?
Side 8: Generating tension that stokes viewer intensity
Side 9: Keeping storytelling clarity in non-linear structure
Side 10: Alex's storyline hides parallels in plain sight
Side 11: Fleshed out parents help deepen the other characters
Side 12: Episodic structure makes a comeback
Side 13: Thoughts on Season 2

Friday, May 19, 2017

13 Reasons Why - Side 4: Clay, an outsider who isn't an outcast

Side 1: The Setting
Side 2: An overly contrived premise can present a challenge
Side 3: Hannah Baker, from joy to despair

As the character through whom we experience Hannah's tapes, Clay is very much the eyes and ears of the audience. One of the wiser things the use of the tapes does is provide Clay as an audience surrogate while still letting Hannah speak for herself. There's probably a lesser version of this tale that's all about Clay's perspective on her. Hannah's POV lets us more readily appreciate the moments when Clay is in the wrong.

I very much like that 13 Reasons Why depicts Clay as an outsider but not an outcast. Outcasts tend to be the "weird kids," the strange ones who are subjects of bullying and ridicule, the lowest on the food chain. Outsiders are different - they've chosen to stay out of that particular social ecosystem by forming few attachments within it. It affords them the luxury of being apathetic about the usual high school drama because it doesn't impact them. It's easy to be indifferent to something that you don't have any investment in.

It's demonstrated he's not an Outsider because he's disliked. When he goes to buy tickets to the school formal, he's recognized immediately and their shock at his interest is not because he's a loser, but because he avoids those things. Later in the series when he goes to a house party, he shows up three minutes before the scheduled start time, not realizing that no one will be there for at least an hour. He's welcome at any time. Clay has just chosen to exclude himself from the narrative.

This is one of the biggest distinctions between Clay and Hannah. She's part of the whole social web so it wields a power over her that it can't over Clay. The embarrassing photos, the rumors, the "Hot List" where she is named "Best Ass" - all of it has the power to destroy her whole world because the dynamics she's bought into are woven into that. At one point, Hannah says something to the effect of the fact that she envies Clay because he doesn't care what people think. Hell, that's easy when you keep everything at arms length. Nothing can hurt you.

Go listen to Simon and Garfunkel's "I Am A Rock." That's Clay right there.

That's not to say that Clay doesn't pay a price for being so distant. For one thing, it gives him a HUGE blindspot in realizing just how devastating Hannah's humiliations are to her. This is most noticeable when he's oblivious about how awful the "Hot List" is even though she got the "compliment" of "Best Ass."

There's also a huge tell in Clay's line in the first episode about how "I can be myself around her." Clay doesn't care what people think, but he's always got his armor up. Hannah - when we meet her - is the opposite of that. She's open and welcoming and vibrant and flirty... but without any kind of judgment. I hesitate to use this term because it's not a 100% fit, but early Hannah definitely has some traits of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She's very full of life and easy-going. In an indie rom-com, she's the carefree girl who's meant to bring the loner out of his shell.

I recognize a lot of my younger self in Clay. He takes being an Outsider to a greater extreme than I did, but I definitely kept most of my high school classmates at a remove. My relationship to them was more akin to how you think of your co-workers. You see them for seven hours, and then you go home to your life, they go home to theirs and rarely do the twain meet.

I was more involved in school activities than Clay, as editor of the school paper, as part of the Quiz and Mock Trial teams and other stuff of that nature. (I was NOT an athlete.) I was a better student than Clay (Valedictorian, actually) and so I didn't quite fade into the background the way he does. Still, there's enough similarities between us that I recognized a lot of his psychology.

Clay falls hard for Hannah, and wisely the show explores the darker side of that along with its endearing moments. There's a moment where a racy picture of Hannah circulates, leaving everyone to assume she's a slut who hooked up with Justin. In truth, that night was her first kiss, so the audience finds it pretty safe to assume she's a virgin.

When Hannah seeks refuge with Clay, he's cold to her. It's pure petty jealousy. He likes her, he's been in her orbit for a while and it hurts him that she chose some other guy. So he lashes out with a pointed remark about "waiting." She's hurt his feelings and he wants to hurt hers. He gets what he wants, at the cost of a vulnerable Hannah seeing how petty he can be.

I don't want to lump Clay in with the "nice guy" trope. I don't think he literally believes that Hannah owes him sex because of all the time he's hung out with her. I think he feels a genuine connection with her and he's hurt when that's not reciprocated. But again, he's got a blindspot. His jealousy provokes him to be cruel to her at the moment when she really needs her buddy from work.

It's important to give Clay these faults. If he's too saintly, too perfect, he's less interesting. Hannah's tapes force Clay to revisit moments he was certain he misunderstood. It forces him to confront his own failings and his own role in driving Hannah to depression. It's a good writing rule in general - don't leave your main character clean. Especially when writing the "normal guys" in an ensemble, it's important to give them relatable faults. Watching Clay was an infrequent tour in "Oof. I've done that."

I pointed out yesterday how Hannah is given less quirky dialogue than most other teen protagonists, and Clay is given even less of that. He's a much more internal character than her and he doesn't even have the benefits of a device to expose his inner monologue. The audience needs to be able to project onto him and his performance has to trigger our own experiences. The more we relate to him, the more we can understand his character without being told things outright.

There's a cute moment in the fifth episode when Clay goes to the school formal. We're shown a fantasy where he confidently asks Hannah to dance and shows the bold ballroom dance moves of a professional. This is contrasted with the reality, when he finally musters enough nerve to approach Hannah. He stammers through asking her to dance, and when the music finally switches to a slow song, he awkwardly takes her in his arms. There's a great series of shots of him looking at other couples where the guys have their hands on their dates' hips, some of them even on their butts. Clay, with hesitation, positions his hands somewhere in the middle of Hannah's back.

They take a long look into each other eyes. It's one of those pregnant moments where they should be kissing. You can tell they both want to kiss, but no one is ready to make the first move. It feels like the moment where a lot of things would have been different had they made another choice. Alas, the moment is broken by one of the jerk jocks, who spreads a rumor that Hannah is gay. She leaves embarrassed and Clay is left alone. If there's a sequence that really gets the audience invested in the Clay/Hannah pairing, it's this one, and so much of it rests on the actors being able to play emotion without the crutch of words, and being endearingly nervous with the few lines he has.

Dylan Minnette is exactly what this role needs. He's got an expressive face and knows how to play a scene where his thoughts are plainly visible on his face. He says more with a blank stare than a lot of actors his age can say with a monologue. Honestly, it would be far less effective if he HAD been given a Dawson's Creek-esque speech that laid his feelings bare in entirely too eloquent dialogue.

You have to really trust in your own writing to leave that much unsaid. Over the course of the show we see that his failing with Hannah early on was his inability to be bold, to tell her how he feels except when he lashes out. His inaction all sets the stage for the night when he actually does decide to be bold and...

You know what? Let's cover that in the next post. Suffice to say, he finally puts himself out there, something happens and he totally misunderstands the situation... until long after the fact.

Side 5: Clay's tape leads to one of this year's most heartbreaking episodes
Side 6: Mr. Porter - Terrible Counselor or Worst Counselor?
Side 7: Do depictions of suicide provoke imitation?
Side 8: Generating tension that stokes viewer intensity
Side 9: Keeping storytelling clarity in non-linear structure
Side 10: Alex's storyline hides parallels in plain sight
Side 11: Fleshed out parents help deepen the other characters
Side 12: Episodic structure makes a comeback
Side 13: Thoughts on Season 2

Thursday, May 18, 2017

13 Reasons Why - Side 3: Hannah Baker, from joy to despair

Side 1: The Setting
Side 2: An overly contrived premise can present a challenge

From moment one of 13 Reasons Why, we know that Hannah Baker is dead. A shot of a locker decorated with clearly memorial trappings opens the series. The camera pulls back until a classmate, Clay, is in frame. He looks off, and through his eyes, we see Hannah appearing to him in a vision, smiling. From his wistful reaction, it's already clear what one of the major threads will be - Clay's feelings for Hannah.

The beautiful long-haired Hannah of the picture and vision is immediately contrasted with a brief flashback Clay has to a later encounter. She's chopped her hair short, appears tired and tense. He awkwardly tries to compliment her new look and with a distant expression and nearly hollow eyes, all she can muster is "Thanks, Clay."

13 Reasons Why is the story of how that vibrant girl in the memorial picture becomes that sad, troubled person who takes her own life. The more I think about how the show accomplishes this, the more impressed I am. She's not some dressed-all-in-black grim goth wannabe, nor does she have a grim outlook on life. When we meet her, she seems like the last person in the world who'd take her own life.

And that's the point.

The pilot shows us Clay's first meeting with Hannah as she trains him at the movie theater where they both work. She's new to town, and banters easily with Clay. She's quippy, but not in the heightened sense of a Joss Whedon character or a resident of Dawson's Creek. Their early meetings are full of her playfully teasing him, maybe even slightly flirting with him. On the whole, the dialogue generally avoids trying to impress us with its own cleverness, and that's part of what makes Hannah and Clay so relatable - they don't have the awesome comebacks we wish we had at that age. They don't have the clever lines that make someone fall in love with them.

I'm guilty of this as much as anyone. I fall in love with writing snappy, witty lines. I sometimes catch myself trying to be quotable. Some times it's appropriate and other times I'm aware I'm using the humor as a shield to keep from putting raw emotion into my words. 13 Reasons Why is a show I would have struggled with writing because it takes some real bravery to dig into yourself for the vulnerability those characters demand.

(Okay there's one big exception to this: a scene early in the second episode where Hannah and Jess meet in the counselor's office. Their peppy repartee wouldn't be out of place on Gilmore Girls. It's not a bad way to make the two of them fast friends, but on a rewatch that scene really sticks out because it's so different from every other moment on the series.)

So how do you take Hannah from being the kind of girl our hero falls in love with at first sight to someone who slits her own wrists? You put her through hell. That's a mission statement with its own risks. Can the audience endure 13 episodes of "kick the puppy?" Is there a limit to how many bad things can believably happen to one girl?

The worst case scenario: Hannah starts as the most perfect lovable girl in school and is treated unrelentingly like a punching bag until she ends it all. There's no drama in that, and there's no challenge in getting an audience to feel bad when you're beating up on a helpless person. Well, not at first. Keep going to that well and the viewers get desensitized to the treatment.

We watch Hannah's world taken from her piece by piece. One boy takes a revealing photo of her and another one is responsible for sharing it around school, giving her a reputation as a slut. She loses one friend in a misunderstanding over a boy, but smartly, the writers give her a few wins. It's not an arc if the direction is always downward.

A good example of this is when classmate Courtney offers to help Hannah catch a peeping tom. The two girls hang out at Hannah's, bonding over drinks and a game of Truth or Dare. For a moment it really feels like Hannah's found a good friend... until the game leads to a kiss and the discovery that Courtney is gay and closeted. Naturally THAT is the moment the peeping tom captures with his camera and when the photo - which doesn't fully reveal either girl's face - makes it around school, Courtney sells out Hannah to deflect people from discovering her own secret.

In general, most of the people who wronged Hannah are also people she trusted at one point, and the episodes work hard to show us why she keeps finding these connections even though they end badly. But we also see them take their toll, and they're constructed in a way where some betrayals set the stage for later relationships, keeping the show from feeling less episodic than it might have. This isn't just "13 bad things that happened to Hannah." It's the story of one journey with 13 related turning points. The distinction might seem small, but it's critical.

But the real backbone of the series is Hannah's relationship with Clay. Other characters come to the foreground and recede, but Clay is a constant presence. Their dynamic seems easy from the start. Clay even confides to a friend that he likes her and that he feels like he can be himself around her (aka "The Ballad of the Smitten Lovesick Teen.") She even seems aware of his attraction and isn't put off by it.

When she suffers her first humiliation - the circulated racy picture - it's Clay who she seeks refuge with. And ironically, he's withdrawn and out of jealousy, he takes a cheap shot saying "sometimes it's better to wait." It's a stupid teenage boy reaction to have, but we see for Hannah it's no minor slight. It really hurts her feelings to have someone she considered a friend judge her as harshly and wrongly as everyone else does.

I'm going to deal with Clay in the next post, but I want to underline this about Hannah - it's important that she's not some anonymous wallflower when we meet her. This isn't the case of an ugly duckling being plucked from the crowd by some jock who then humiliates her. She's not introduced as an outsider with trust issues who has her loner nature validated. That would be too easy. Hannah is easily someone who could be the popular girl, the ray of light in every room that she enters.

Some writers would find that the harder choice because it requires a more subtle decline for Hannah. You don't take away everything at once. You need to see her slowly building her walls, gradually protecting herself by withdrawing. Her trust has to be violated in so many different ways that we understand why she sees her previously carefree attitude as weaknesses.

There's a great scene in the second episode where she's meets Jessica and the two of them instantly fall into an easy banter. Once it establishes that they're on the same wavelength, the two of them quickly bond. It's like a non-sexual meet-cute and in rewatching it, I was struck how it showed a degree of ease and openness that neither Jess nor Hannah would be capable of several episodes later. They evolve more over those few episodes than most teen drama characters do in a season or two.

There's not one smoking gun in this arc. Hannah Baker dies from a thousand cuts well before the final two that are self-inflicted. A writer in this kind of story needs to find those small moments and also discover ways to layer in hope among those moments. There comes a time when she has to spiral downward as things get really bad, but before then the indignities can be both big and small.

I'm in awe of the character that actress Katherine Langford creates here, working under showrunner Brian Yorkey. This is Langford's first professional role and she's got the additional challenge of burying her natural Australian accent. I would have guessed neither of those facts on my own. She's charged with creating at least three distinct versions of Hannah, and a lot of intermediate steps between those versions. This story doesn't work if we don't feel immediate empathy for Hannah. Langford's open-hearted portrayal of the happier Hannah does that immediately, ensuring we feel the absence of that light when it is gone.

One reason I think the tapes are a necessary conceit of the show is that we need to experience this through Hannah's eyes. I can imagine a version of this that was Clay trying to make sense of his friend's suicide, talking to his friends and piecing the story together. It probably would have given us an idealized version of Hannah, one filtered through the male gaze. But that would make this Clay's story, with the focus being more on his pain than hers. What Hannah does in making the tapes is that she reclaims her story from the rumor and innuendo surrounding her life.

Some have taken her final act as one of revenge. It's interpreted as a spiteful way of hurting those who caused her pain. The more I consider Hannah, the less I see this as an F-you. The tapes are Hannah pouring out her sadness and for once, refusing to be defined by everyone else. Everyone on the tapes wronged Hannah by not just inflicting pain on her, but by passing judgment on her in some way. They all believed the lies about her, even when they were close enough that they should have known better.

She's not telling them she wants them to hurt like she does. She's telling them "You don't get to tell my story. I tell my story."

You know back when I assume the tapes were contrivance? Yeah, I was full of shit. The tapes are everything. It means that suicide isn't Hannah's final statement - the life she lived is.

I think one reason this show has lingered with me so long is it made me think about all the Hannahs I've known. (None who killed themselves, fortunately) It's easy to judge Hannah's friends for failing her when we have the whole story. In real life, dealing with a Hannah can be confusing and frustrating, at least when you're a teenager. An adult typically has a little more emotional maturity to recognize someone in pain. A teenager can find it as hard to deal with a Hannah-in-pain as Hannah would find it to deal with her pain.

I don't know if I'd have processed this show the same way when I was in high school, but I'd like to think that a teenager would come away from this show with a bit more empathy, perhaps even some more patience and understanding for victims like Hannah.

Side 4: Clay, an outsider who isn't an outcast
Side 5: Clay's tape leads to one of this year's most heartbreaking episodes
Side 6: Mr. Porter - Terrible Counselor or Worst Counselor?
Side 7: Do depictions of suicide provoke imitation?
Side 8: Generating tension that stokes viewer intensity
Side 9: Keeping storytelling clarity in non-linear structure
Side 10: Alex's storyline hides parallels in plain sight
Side 11: Fleshed out parents help deepen the other characters
Side 12: Episodic structure makes a comeback
Side 13: Thoughts on Season 2