Tuesday, May 30, 2017

13 Reasons Why - Side 10: Alex's storyline hides parallels in plain sight

Side 1: The Setting
Side 2: An overly contrived premise can present a challenge
Side 3: Hannah Baker, from joy to despair
Side 4: Clay, an outsider who isn't an outcast
Side 5: Clay's tape leads to one of this year's most heartbreaking episodes
Side 6: Mr. Porter - Terrible Counselor or Worst Counselor?
Side 7: Do depictions of suicide provoke imitation?
Side 8: Generating tension that stokes viewer intensity
Side 9: Keeping storytelling clarity in non-linear structure

There's a storyline in 13 Reasons Why that might be described as meta-commentary on the whole narrative. It's pretty well-hidden on the first pass through the series, but on a second run, it announces its presence loudly in any scene it appears. Throughout all 13 hours, the characters are left grappling with Hannah's suicide. Many of them are blindsided by it, and those who have access to Hannah's tapes are no less confused.

Of course, the audience is passing judgment on all of them as we take a tour of their worst behavior they inflicted on Hannah. Through every additional indignity heaped on Hannah, every cruel behavior, every public humiliation, we watch a little more of her spirit dim. To us, it seems obvious and inevitable that she was displaying warning signs of suicide, and we might be inclined to indict her friends and family for missing what was right in front of their faces.

Then, in the finale, a guilt-ridden Alex shoots himself in the head, leaving the audience reeling that he too had been suicidal. The first time you saw it, were you surprised things took the turn they did? I was.

Then I rewatched the series. (Remember, I binged it in the space of a week, then watched it AGAIN the week after that. I never have had that reaction to a TV show before.) Let me tell you, once you know how it ends, every scene with Alex might as well have him carrying around a neon sign saying "I'm probably going to kill myself! Ask me how!"

Alex's crime against Hannah was a little less overtly evil than some of the other guys, who groped her and sexually assaulted her. Alex was good friends with Hannah and dated her best friend Jess. Jess wouldn't have sex with him, so he lashed out and created a list that rated the girls of the school by their best and worst features. Because he knew it would hurt Jess, He rated her "Worst Ass" and gave the title of "Best Ass" to Hannah.

This had two major consequences. First, as Hannah put it - it made her ass a target for every boy in school. Coming on the heels of her being wrongly branded a slut and rumors that she "went to third" with Justin, it only fed the perception of her as easy and promiscuous. The second consequence is that Jess assumed there was a reason Alex ranked Hannah so high, and accused her of cheating with Alex. When she ends the friendship, she calls Hannah a "slut" for good measure.

It destroys two of Hannah's close friendships and isolates her even more from her classmates. After her suicide, Alex has deep regrets, saying, "So not only did everyone think Hannah gave it up for me I took away her best friend. And who knows? If she had a friend, maybe..." Clay tells him not to think like that and Alex snaps back, "You want to think whatever you did couldn't be why Hannah killed herself, but the truth is that I did. I killed Hannah Baker! And Justin killed Hannah Baker. And Jessica. And you. We all killed Hannah Baker!"

Suffice to say, he's taking it hard. Here are a couple other examples to watch for:

- In Episode 3, he's seen tearing suicide awareness posters off the walls at school. He mocks the slogan "'Suicide is not an option.' You know what? Clearly it is! Why don't they put up a poster saying 'Don't be a fucking dick?'"

- Later in that same episode, he quits jazz band, something he'd really enjoyed doing. One of the depression red flags is someone giving up something they once got joy from.

- When he provokes Montgomery into a fight, his unusually violent attitude is disconcerting enough. His glum and resigned behavior afterwards also should have alerted us that something was amiss. He seems to want the worse punishment possible - like he feels he deserves it.

- Throughout the flashbacks, there are scattered hints that Alex is going through a depressive time, most notably in any scene where his breakup with Jess is discussed. He's still taking that split hard almost a year later.

- Alex is frequently seen with a group of other kids whose transgressions are discussed on the tapes. Notably, guys like Justin and Marcus are motivated by a desire to keep the tapes and the information on them from becoming public knowledge. Most of them rationalize or even defend their behavior towards Hannah. Alex consistently doesn't. He fully buys into the notion that he's a legit reason why Hannah killed herself.

- At one point Jess says that "Clay doesn't know Hannah lied on the tapes!" Alex snaps back, "Did she? Because she told the truth about me!"

- In episode 9, Justin warns Alex, "Whatever happens to us, happens to you too." Alex responds, "So if I kill myself do you die too?"

The show doesn't hit this point too hard, but there is a scene where "suicide contagion" is discussed, which is when a classmate's suicide can provoke further suicide attempts from other students in the same school. It shouldn't come as a surprise that one of the main characters would fall victim to it, and yet, we're blindsided by the twist.

It's a savvy trick the show pulls. We might be congratulating ourselves on being better people than everyone who hurt Hannah, and secure in our belief that had we been there, we might have saved her - but we don't see it coming with Alex. It brings into sharp relief how it would have been easy for all the warning signs to have been dismissed.

By opening the door to a suicide contagion storyline, the series can address one of the biggest controversies from this first season - that viewers should be aware that exposing some people to Hannah's suicide risks provoking copycat behavior. I have concerns that a second series could dilute the power of this first season, but if it can pull off this balancing act, it might be worth it.

Skye's storyline is given less screentime, but is another case of the show hiding a mirror for another character in plain sight. Skye is the abrasive and... I'm not sure what the right word is.... "alternative"(?)- looking teen who's been a classmate of Clay's most of his time in school. In one of her early appearances she's blunt in insulting Clay for hanging out with a cheerleader, and then mocks him when he says that the girl is "nice." It feels like she's being mean and judgemental for no reason at all.

In another episode, she lashes out at him for ending their friendship when they got to high school. Drawing on a painful memory, she reminds him that he saw her in the hall that day and ignored her. He counters he didn't know what to say to her, since she looked so different. (The implication being that this was when she adopted her new darker and non-conformist look.) With an accusatory tone, she says that he could have just said hi.

Clay, of course, is reacting to this attack on a gut level, not even noticing what's behind this. If he was, he might realize that what Skye is saying to him isn't too dissimilar to the way he acted towards Hannah when he was jealous of other guys who had her attention. She's not being mean - she's been hurt by someone she considered a friend.

She probably goes over the line when she attacks Hannah's choice to kill herself. Clay says she doesn't know anything about it and she comes back with "I know she didn't go through anything different than any of us! We all get through it!" Clay cites the scars on her wrists and asks, "What's this then!" With maybe more venom than she intends, Skye says, "That's what you do instead of killing yourself."

It's a straight-up admission of a cry for help, and one that Clay finally answers in the show's final minutes. He - and we - have seen how so many of Hannah's friends abandoned her because they mistook her pain for her being a drama queen. Even her close friends found her to be a bit much to take, not unlike how Skye can be alienating. Clay recognizes the parallels early enough that it might spare Skye from Hannah's isolation.

Unfortunately, it might be too late for Alex in that regard.

Side 11: Fleshed out parents help deepen the other characters
Side 12: Episodic structure makes a comeback
Side 13: Thoughts on Season 2

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