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.]

Heartbreaking.

That was almost the only word I could muster after watching the episode of 13 Reasons Why devoted to Clay's tape. It's the eleventh episode, with teleplay 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:

JEFF
Take a swing.

CLAY
A swing?

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

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

It's uncanny.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He asks if she's alright, 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?)

- ...to 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