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
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.

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
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.

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
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.

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
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.

"Did he force himself on you?"

-"I think so"

"Did you tell him to stop?"


"Did you tell him no?"


"Maybe you consented and then changed your mind."

-"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.

"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.

-"What is it?"

"You can move on."

-"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.

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
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.]


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 like 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:

Take a swing.

A swing?

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

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, 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.

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

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 lets us do is it gives us 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 than 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, I believe 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.

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.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

13 Reasons Why: Side 2 - an overly contrived premise can present a challenge

Side 1: The Setting

13 Reasons Why gets away with a stunt that would be a crippling blow for most other shows - it has a premise that smacks of contrivance just to ensure the show exists.

We're asked to believe that a suicidal girl would record 6.5 tapes (13 sides) detailing her slide into suicide, meticulously structured so each side targets a specific participant one-by-one, then arranged a convoluted scheme to have those tapes passed to the targets one-by-one as a final "fuck you." Further, she claims to have a contingency that will be implemented if the tapes aren't listened to or passed on. If people shirk their responsibilities, a second copies of the tapes go public, destroying the reputations of all involved.

When I first heard this hook, I joked that it sounded like THE RING in reverse. Instead of watching the tape and dying, you listen to the tapes or face punishment. It feels way too contrived just to force Clay, our lead character, to endure each tape in episodic fashion, thus providing the series writers with a convenient structure upon which to hang the series. (Impressively, the fact that 13 reasons fits into the typical 13-episode order is a neat coincidence, considering the series began life as a book)

You have to think about the character who would conceive this suicide revenge scheme. She has to be in such despair that going on is painful, but she engineers a plot so complex that it should be the work of a Bond villain (or a screenwriter.) Here's every step you have to buy into:

- That Hannah would record an overlong suicide note... (Verdict: Credible on its face, and even more credible when the series casts it as her final effort to make sense of everything and even suggests that letting it all out was briefly cathartic enough that she reconsidered her plan. It was only after her conversation with the school counselor that she made the final decision to end it.)

- ...on cassette tapes... (Verdict: Sloppy. Never mind the trick of having to get equipment to record them, how could Hannah be sure that her targets would have tape players of their own? We see that Clay has to resort to stealing his friend's walkman in order to hear the tapes, which means he might not be the only one with such a problem. It might have worked better if Hannah had included a walkman inside the box of tapes. I mean, the girl plans for everything else and not THAT?)

- be passed one by one or else they get released. (Verdict: Contrivance, but a necessary one. Tony is all but stated to be the accomplice who will execute that last part of the plan, as by the time the final episodes roll around, he seems to be the only person in a position with the means to do so. Early on he leaves Clay with the impression that he's ignorant of the mechanics of how the tapes would come out, but it's easier for me to believe Tony is telling a convenient lie than imagine Hannah somehow trusted another off-screen player to carry out this part of the plan.)

The writers were smart to be somewhat vague on the execution of that final clause. The only reason to dig deep into how that works is if the threat was a Chekhov's Gun to be fired in the latter episodes. Since things never deteriorate to that point, I'm comfortable assuming it was part-bluff, part-Tony's responsibility. But that's a perspective you only get with hindsight. When we're asked to swallow it right away, it sound pretty far-fetched.

The simple fact is that without this contrived hook, there would be no series. That makes this what we call the "buy-in." It's one of those things where the show all but says outright "These are the roles we're playing under. Take them or leave them." I feel like you can get away with silly notions - but only if they're introduced early. As the writer, you have a window of only so long before the audience's conception of the world's rules solidifies. At that point, if you suddenly hit them with a giant contrivance, you won't have the benefit of the doubt.

 I wouldn't blame someone if they felt the set-up was overly complicated. Also, when you're asking for that big a buy-in, you have to earn it. 13 Reasons pays that mortgage through stellar acting and really well-written characters. But if you make me choke down a ridiculous concept and you don't even have the decency to make it good? You will earn my wrath.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

13 Reasons Why - Side 1: The setting

I've been mostly an absentee landlord here of late. After eight years, it's hard to come up with new takes that don't feel like something I've written already, and when you couple that with the time I've been spending on other projects, there just hasn't been much motivation to keep up with perfunctory posts. That changes today, with the first of a 13-part series of posts delving into things to take away from the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why. The show's been released to Netflix for over a month and a half, but I only just finished it. I've seen some of the cultural conversation about the show, but this is a series that's lingered in my brain well after I finished it and so it seemed appropriate to make a return with this run of posts.

Warning: I will be spoiling plenty about the show, and I'll make an effort to make these "lessons" accessible to those who haven't seen the show and perhaps don't have the time or interest to watch it.

There are plenty of remarkable aspects to 13 Reasons Why that we'll explore in this 13-part series, and one that I've seen little attention given to is the grounded world it creates.

It surprised me to realize this, but there really aren't that many grounded teen dramas on TV at the moment. Everything is in a heightened reality of some kind, and that adds an extra veneer of artifice to the tone and characters. I had a great deal of praise for how Riverdale was able to deftly deal with bullying and slut-shaming this season, but as relevant as it was to the age we live in, it still took place within the Twin Peaks-y reality of the show. That grounded storyline existed alongside nighttime soap trappings like land power plays, street gangs, incest, family rivalries, and of course, murder. That's not a knock on the show, which eventually came to remind me more and more of Veronica Mars with the soap quotient cranked up a few notches, but just an observation on how the teen world is reflected and translated in media today.

13 Reasons Why is different in that it feels like it could all be happening in the school down the street, or a neighboring town. Yes, this despite the high concept premise that builds the show around a series of tapes left behind by a recent suicide victim named Hannah Baker. There are 13 sides to the tapes in all, each one devoted to a different person whose actions eventually pushed Hannah to take her life. If you're on the tapes, they get passed to you and you have to listen to them all and pass them to the next person or else Hannah has arranged for a second set to be released. The presumption is that what's on these tapes is so horrible that none of the 13 would want that to become public knowledge. The show is structured so that we experience the tapes through the perspective of Clay, a classmate and friend of Hannah's.

The hook is certainly high concept, but the world in which it happens isn't and that's a crucial key to 13 Reasons Why's success. The story's impact comes from recognizing how this could be (or could have been, if you're like me and are a number of years removed from high school) happening right now in your school. I tried a number of times to imagine other teen dramas dealing with this sort of storyline. A show like Dawson's Creek could never have sustained this because of the darkness inherent in accusing the main cast of being complicit in a chain of events that led to suicide. The narrative would have to "protect" too many people from actions that are difficult to forgive, even after accounting for obvious villains. One Tree Hill might have embraced the melodrama more readily, but again, that's a world where the teen characters get instant careers as pop stars and fashion designers.

The vast majority of teen drama is about wish fulfillment and escapism. We don't want to see OTH's Haley James struggle with the real consequences of becoming a teen bride, or being a forgotten sibling in an overstuffed family. Instead, we want her to follow her dreams of being a musician, see her somehow make her young marriage work (after an obligatory struggle), wear awesome clothes and be loved. Surround her with familiar archetypes we all love, cast them with insanely attractive people all wearing the clothes you wish you could afford and tune in every week to have your feelings affirmed by a pleasing soundtrack.

And by the way, there's nothing wrong with liking a show like that, or making one. (Though the better ones find ways to play in that kind of sandbox and create interesting characters at the same time.

The world of 13 Reasons Why is not that sort of comfort food. One of the earliest things that struck me is that while familiar archetypes show up (the popular girl, the BMOC jock, the awkward outsider hiding behind his camera), we never got what I call "the gerrymandered lunchroom." You know the scene I'm talking about. It's in most teen movies, where the new arrival to school is basically given a map to the way all the lunch tables are divided by cliques, as if these were tribes that never interact. ("Here are the jocks, the burnouts, the nerds, the popular girls, the emo girls... etc."). It's not a Saved by the Bell reality where everyone also neatly and immediately fits into their particular clique on sight.

That feels true to my own high school experience, where everyone certainly had identities that could fit some of those identities, but it was more common for them to be straddling several different types of social circles. Life there was more likely to be explained by Venn Diagrams than a strict hierarchy. And in the series it works this way too. Clay, who's something of an outsider, is able to move pretty freely among the groups when he wants to. Even Hannah, who isn't one of the popular girls, still pops on the radar of most of the boys, to the point where the alpha jock seems impressed she came to his party. (As opposed to the "what are you doing here, loser" that the teen movie outcast is often faced with.)

In the movies, the Regina Georges of the world announce themselves in every deed and action. And because of this, the morality is simpler, even when we understand why she is who she is. Regina is bad and if you're around her, she either corrupts you or you resist her and become the hero by default. 13 Reasons Why shows a high school where the villains are less self-aware in their malevolence, and the heroes aren't given an easy path to doing the right thing. It makes some of Hannah's friends into even scarier villains because we can see how good people contribute to another good person's pain through action or inaction.

We're shown Hannah's world, and it's built in a way that we understand how from her perspective, every aspect of that world seemed to be set against her.

And then we realize her world is our world. Not Capeside, not Beverly Hills, not Tree Hill... a community very much like ours.

It can happen here.

Side 2: An overly contrived premise can present a challenge

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

"It was a clean shoot" - HOMICIDE's most debated episode turns 20 today

"It was a clean shoot."

I must have seen those words several hundred times during my time reading the Usenet group devoted to Homicide: Life on the Street. Within that community, it referred to a plot point so notorious that no further context was needed - the climax of season 5's "Deception." (Teleplay by Debbie Sarjeant; Story by Tom Fontana & Julie Martin & James Yoshimura.)

Today, that episode turns 20.

I've thought of that episode and its fallout a lot over the last few years, as we've seen more and more police-involved shootings gain prominence in the news. I can't help but reflect on how much those Usenet debates taught me about police procedure long before the larger zeitgeist was arguing when it should be legal for a cop to shoot someone.

The Homicide episode was the resolution to a subplot that had run through several episodes over the course of the prior year. Detectives Lewis (Clark Johnson) and Kellerman (Reed Diamond) had long been trying to get the goods on local drug kingpin Luther Mahoney (the fantastic Erik Todd Dellums), who'd managed to slither out of every attempt they made to nail him. In this episode, they finally crack the case when circumstances lead them to intercepting one of Mahoney's incoming heroin shipments. One swap of fake drugs for the real ones later, and Luthor's dealers face a lot of angry customers. Luther himself knows he had to have been betrayed by either his own lieutenant or his suppliers.

So he agrees to a meeting in a public place. Things go bad, Luthor kills two people and escapes to his penthouse. Lewis and Kellerman are separated and by the time Kellerman gets to Luther's penthouse, Luther has gotten ahold of Lewis's gun and is aiming it right at him.

Kellerman issues three warnings to drop the gun. Luthor turns to Kellerman, gun arm extended 45 degrees at his side and with a mocking laugh, says, "Go ahead Detective. Read me my rights." Kellerman, advancing on Luther, says "You have the right to remain silent" and then shoots him in the chest.

Debate: is this a clean shoot?

In the strictly legal sense, yes. So long as Luther has the gun, he can be considered an active threat. Kellerman has warned him twice to drop it. Law enforcement professionals who frequented the group confirmed that this factor pretty much makes Kellerman's actions defensible. (Despite the questionable act of beginning a Miranda reading before shooting the suspect.)

Here's where Homicide muddied the waters a bit. Before Kellerman arrives, Lewis is the first one to catch Luther. And when Lewis pulls a gun on him, Luther immediately puts his hands up and says "I'm unarmed. I'm surrendering."

Lewis responds by holstering his gun and giving Luther a beatdown for all the murders over the past year that he's escaped justice for. During this struggle, Luther gets Lewis's gun and that's the point where Kellerman enters.

Someone's in the wrong here, but it isn't Kellerman. As you might expect, though, the cops sanitize their statements to keep Lewis in the clear. It's an interesting bit of ethics coming from the characters we're expected to see as "the good guys."

Does what Lewis did change any of the facts about what Kellerman did? In terms of if Kellerman was right to do what he did, I say no.

And yet, this shooting would have repercussions through the following season. A new arrival to the squad, Falsone (Jon Seda, playing a character I so disliked it took a solid decade not to react with disgust to his appearance in any other series), kept picking at this scab, convinced that Kellerman was the dirty one. It didn't help that Kellerman wasn't in a good place. Prior to the Mahoney shooting, he'd been accused of corruption when he was in fact the only member of his old squad not taking payouts AND he'd come close to committing suicide over his distraught reaction to another of Luther's victims.

And Lewis ends their partnership, basically cutting Kellerman out of his life as much as he can. Kellerman takes none of this well, drinking heavily and is clearly compromised on the job. By the end of the season, when what's left of the Mahoney organization has more or less declared war on the squad, Kellerman finds himself being interrogated over the shooting by Falsone... and the squad's biggest gun and best interrogator in the box: Detective Pembleton (Andre Braugher.)

When the big interrogation goes down, Lewis doesn't directly implicate Kellerman, but more or less lets Pembleton know that going after Kellerman wouldn't necessarily be on the wrong track. Thus, Kellerman finds himself defending this shooting again a year after the fact, with Pembleton and Falsone seizing on Kellerman's reenactment of the scene where he shows Luther had the gun down. Kellerman continues to insist that the suspect had a gun, but the others act as if "but the gun was down" trumps that.

This ends Mike's career. His lieutenant says he'll toss the confession if Kellerman resigns. thereby sparing the unit from further scrutiny.

In the real world, it doesn't. And it's interesting to me that Homicide chose to tell the story in this way. There are three options:
1) straight up ignorance of police procedures - unlikely
2) disregard of real procedures in the name of dramatic license - possible, maybe even probable.
3) we're meant to look below the surface to understand WHY everyone as they do.

As 3 is the most interesting to debate, that's the line of thought we're gonna follow here.

At the end of this arc, arguably the most significant example of police conduct goes unpunished, and really not even acknowledged. Lewis beat up a surrendering suspect and put himself in a position where that suspect took his weapon. And to the bitter end, Lewis never acknowledges that or even gives the dramatically satisfying speech of telling Kellerman, "I'm sorry I put you in that position, Mikey." Hell, he never even acts grateful for what was done, instead, more or less gaslighting Kellerman into taking all the blame.

I used to hate how this ending sold out Kellerman. He was one of my favorites, and Reed Diamond was vastly underrated in that role. To this day, when he shows up on my TV, I'm excited to see him. Andre Braugher's departure that season sucked up most of the press, but Kellerman's exit also left a massive hole in the squad. I would moan about the "bad writing" of this ending and let myself get sucked into the "clean shoot" debate. It was years before I realized I wasn't giving the writers credit for the hidden depth of the story. Deep subtext wasn't often present in network drama, and certainly not when the characters assert something about the story that is actually directly antithetical to the meaning of that story.

And so we return to Mike Kellerman, the loyal friend, the good cop, the guy who wouldn't even rat on the dirty cops in his old arson squad despite the fact doing so would have instantly saved his skin. His reward for this was that the stink of being dirty hung over him so much that witnesses even recognized him as "the dirty cop" from the news. The guy who tried hard to do everything right, got punished for it at every turn. The way the Mahoney saga went is entirely keeping with that. Kellerman's tragic fall comes not from something awful he did, but from the corruption of others around him. It's his lot to wear the scarlet letter that belongs to others. He's not the guy to throw others into the fire and not even two corruption scandals will take that last bit of integrity from him.

It was a clean shoot. It could never be anything BUT that given the circumstances.

Kellerman doesn't go down because he's defending the shooting. He goes down taking the bullet that belongs to Lewis's sloppy takedown, because as long as the debate stays on the shooting, no one's really out for blood there.

Kellerman is the cop he was trained to be. And this is a story about how the system and society destroy him, while less noble "good guys" thrive for far longer.

It was a clean shoot.