Wednesday, May 23, 2018

What is a retcon and how was it used in season 2 of 13 REASONS WHY?

Having given my overall thoughts in a fairly non-spoiler fashion for the second season of 13 REASONS WHY, this post will be rife with spoilers as I take on one of the more contentious reveals of season 2. If you haven't seen it yet, this is your warning - turn back now.

Season 2 of the show uses a trial as a framing device through most of the episodes, often interrogating characters about their perspectives and calling into question some of the things Hannah told us in Season 1. This is what's known as a "retcon," short for "retroactive continuity." It's what we call it when backstory is established or changed after the fact. In some circles, "retcon" is used to imply "bad retcon," as in an instance where a newly-established backstory actually contradicts and overwrites previously established facts.

In general, any time a new detail about a character's history is revealed, that's a retcon. I first heard this term in comic book circles, where DC Comics would often rewrite the history of their characters and pretend the new history had been there the whole time. (Hawkman's storyline became a mess because of this kind of thing in the 90s.)

Some TV shows have handled this elegantly. One of the best examples I can think of is ANGEL, where the 100 year-old vampire's history was revealed in many flashbacks over the course of five seasons. The flashbacks often challenged assumptions the fans had about Angel's history, but never actually violated what had been said before. For example, Angel is cursed with a soul in 1898 and fans assumed that he walked the Earth as a tortured soul until 1997 when he was given purpose and became an ally to Buffy.

We came to learn that wasn't the case, that even after he was ensouled, Angel struggled long and hard not to prey on people, with a relapse or two along the way that eventually propelled him to the rock bottom spot he was in just prior to meeting Buffy. It gave new dimension to what was known, but never compromised existing continuity.

Which brings me to 13 REASONS WHY. Via the trial, we hear testimony from several characters that adds to the story Hannah told on her tapes. Some - like Stephanie's tale of getting a willing kiss from Hannah - don't match what Hannah said, but it's easy enough to reconcile the differing recollections and find a way for both stories to be consistent.

That's not the case with three reveals on the stand:

1) Zach Dempsey reveals that in the summer before Hannah killed herself, the two of them became close. She decided to "get it over with" and lose her virginity to him, after which she initiated regular hook-ups with Zach over the course of the summer. It came to an end when his friends returned and he kept the relationship secret, claiming it would protect her from being harassed by his jock buddies.

When Clay finds out, he's heartbroken. He asks the spectral-Hannah he sees in his mind a question she could never answer, "If I'd been there [in town during that summer] would it have been me?" His old jealousy rears up, but his hurt is coming from a deeper place than that. As far as he - and we - knew, Hannah was a virgin. A month before she died, she and Clay almost hooked up at a party, but as they kissed and things got intense, Hannah's mind could only take her to all of the groping, sexual assault and humiliation she'd suffered up to that point. Freaking out with PTSD, she saw in Clay every guy who'd ever touched her without permission and told him to get off her.

So learning that Hannah not only had sex with Zach, but a LOT of sex, he can only ask, "Why did she freak out with me and not him?"

2) The second major retcon is a bit more minor. It comes out that Hannah's father was cheating on her mother, and Hannah found out about it last spring. She demanded her father come clean with her mother. He ended the affair and tried to work things out with his wife.

3) A third retcon is the discovery that last spring, Hannah and Clay spent all night with Jeff and a few other friends doing some trippy drugs. As they came down from the high, Hannah made some remarks to the effect that she was considering suicide.

As to the second one: There's no indication in season one that there had been any affair and especially no indication that Hannah knew. In fact, on Tape 6, when talking about Valentine's Day, Hannah talks about how her parents have the perfect marriage saying, "My parents were high school sweethearts. So shoot me: I still believed in romance." Though the flashback takes place before the cheating, Hannah's VO comes from a time after she knew about the affair. It's incredibly hard to reconcile that with what she knew to be true. It needlessly compromises Hannah's perspective in season one, especially since it would be easy enough to rationalize her parents breaking up in the aftermath of her death.

And the third one? Clay and Hannah seem a bit TOO familiar at this point in their timelines, but that's less of a blip than the fact that both of them spending all night with Jeff undermines Clay's angry "You didn't even know [Jeff!]" when an emotional Hannah approached Clay after Jeff died in episode 10 last season. If this was the only continuity hiccup it would be easily ignored, but the other retcons earn this one more scrutiny. In a big picture sense, it's not terribly severe though.

But the first retcon is a bit more complicated for me. It's revealed in the sixth episode of the season, "The Smile at the End of the Dock," written by Julia Bicknell. It's the first truly great episode of the season, which is not a surprise because Bicknell also wrote the fifth episode of the previous season, which I raved about here. The prior episodes are all pretty strong, but Bicknell's script instantly has more depth, nuance and complexity - with so much of the story driven by strong and relatable emotions from the characters.

But it IS a surprise because the Zach/Hannah relationship revealed within is a development that I have a strong objection to. I don't know if I've ever seen a plot point I disliked so much done in such fantastic way that I was still marveling at the quality of the writing, performances and the direction. I could probably eviscerate and defend this plot line in equally passionate measure.

So in the spirit of the season-long trial storyline, that's what I'm going to do. Today I'm going to prosecute this retcon, going into all the reasons why it's a massive misstep... then tomorrow, I'm going to defend it.

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