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."


"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

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