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 photographs 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 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

1 comment:

  1. I'm glad you revisited the tape device in this post as I meant to comment on the last one that I saw the tapes as a storytelling device as well as a plot device - the modern (well, cassettes so retro-modern) version of an epistolary novel. Set in the past it might have been a series of letters; set up to the moment, a series of private YouTube videos. In any case, it allows the dead to speak from beyond the grave - to allow Hannah, as you note, to tell her story, which I agree is her motive rather than revenge. Also as a storytelling device, in focusing each tape on a specific person, I think it helps with progressive disclosure of the various events of the night of the big party. You get to see scenes from different viewpoints which helps reinforce one of the central themes - that you never know what is going on with someone else and what they might be struggling with. I think it is trying to encourage the empathy you hope for, not just for victims but for everyone you interact with.

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