Wednesday, May 31, 2017

13 Reasons Why - Side 11: Fleshed out parents help deepen the other characters

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
Side 10: Alex's storyline hides parallels in plain sight

Teen dramas don't tend to have a lot of great material for parent characters. For the most part, the adult authority figures present an obstacle to wish-fulfillment stories of teenage rebellion. Also, these shows are aimed at teens and the assumption is that that audience is rarely compelled by drama around adult characters. (And if you take a look at most of the adult storylines in, say, the first two seasons of Dawson's Creek, you start to understand why. I'm not sure why the writers thought we'd be interested in the Leery's open marriage, but there you have it.) Of course, as soon as you sideline the parents in a series like that, it really feels like the show's centered on college kids rather than high school students. The fact that most performers on those shows tend to be in their early twenties or older tends to reinforce that. (RIVERDALE is an exception to this, a show where the adults are fully integrated into the storylines.)

13 Reasons Why doesn't try to shuffle the parents off-screen. In fact, over the course of the 13-episode run, we meet most of the main characters' parents. In each case, the home life helps inform what we know about the characters. There's a pretty broad spectrum of parenting types, from disciplinarian, to well-meaning but ineffectual, to negligent, to absentee and so on. In every case, who these kids are is reinforced and explained by the parental forces in their lives. It speaks to a real depth in the writing and it's a big part of why all the teens, down to the second tier, feel fleshed out.

Hannah's parents get some of the most wrenching material, as of course, they're blindsided by the suicide of their daughter. In the present, they're trying to make sense of how she got to that point while also seeking some measure of justice. They blame the school for not stopping the bullying or stepping in to protect her, which motivates a lot of the conflict through the back half of the episode run when they file a lawsuit. Hannah's friends and the school employees are going to be deposed, which is the LAST thing they want to cooperate with after Hannah's tapes have demonstrated there's evidence that she blames all of them for her death.

Putting aside their significance to the plot, it's their relationship to Hannah that explores how easy it is to miss the suicide warning signs. The easy way out would have been to make Hannah's parents disinterested or negligent in some fashion. Yet in their scenes with Hannah, we get the sense that they are involved in their daughter's life - or at least have no reason on their end to THINK she's hiding things from them. I can't think of too many real bonding moments between Hannah and her father, but she and her mother have a number of conversations about her aspirations and interests. Mrs. Baker never is put in the position of having to pull teeth to get Hannah to talk, and it's hard to castigate her for not being a mind reader.

Which is not to say there aren't clues to Hannah's state-of-mind to be found. She mentions more than once that her mother can't relate to her experience in high school because her mother was popular. It's a telling observation because it makes us wonder if she feels inadequate and even embarrassed by that fact. Equally telling - her parents were high school sweethearts, which seems to have made her both envious of that kind of connection and depressed to not have something like it. Perhaps she feels high school shouldn't be this hard and there's something wrong with her if she doesn't have the same good fortune as her parents. A lot of movies focus on teens trying to live up to pressure their parents place on them overtly, but this feels like the case of Hannah being intimidated by the shadow her parents cast. It's a burden she's placed on herself, but there is the possibility she's twisted this into feeling like a disappointment with them.

That probably also feeds into her guilt after she loses a bank deposit carrying $700 from the family store. It's no small screw-up, but she feels terrible about it and she cares enough about her parents that their (not unreasonable) disappointment really guts her. It nails her insecurities and makes her even less likely to open up to them in crisis because she already feels like a disappointment. A lot of thought clearly went into this, with the intent of making their dynamic as un-black-and-white as possible.

Again and again, I was struck how Hannah still seemed to have a closer relationship with her parents than Clay had with his, at least outwardly. Clay feels rather disconnected from them, especially his father. There's no simmering conflict (at least not any that isn't provoked by Clay's frequent disappearances), but there's also very little warmth. Clay's mother tries hard to force a connection - mandating family breakfasts, not letting Clay close the door to his room - but it's all done in such a straight-on manner that Clay calls her a helicopter parent and usually shuts down in reaction. She's trying, but she's going about it in completely the wrong way.

This is a hard relationship to evaluate fairly because we don't get many scenes of Clay with his parents in the past. Honestly, the only one that stands out to me is when Clay's getting ready to go to Jess's party and his mom offers to drive him. Knowing how he related to them before Hannah's death rocked his world might provide more context to how deep the divide is between Clay and them. But if you were to go just by the parent-child interactions we see, you might peg Clay's homelife to be the one that more likely foreshadowed a depressed, alienated teen who needs help.

On the subject of Clay's mother... it's really hard not to judge her for agreeing to represent the school in the lawsuit against Hannah's parents. First, I'm shocked her firm would assign her that case given that connection alone. Second, yes, Clay doesn't tell his mom that he knew Hannah very well, but her taking that at face value requires her to take leave of a lot of her senses. No matter how much Clay's been hiding his grief, his mother should be able to pick up on something that's up with him since his school got hit with a suicide (and an accidental death, we learn much later.) She knows from the start that this is going to entail attacking a teenage girl's character - a girl who took her own life. Let's say she has every reason to accept Clay at his word when he says he didn't know Hannah - why doesn't it ever occur to her in the abstract that tearing down a troubled teen might do more harm than good to her relationship with her son?

The familial relationships of the other kids prove to be equally important in defining their character.

- Jess's father is in the Navy and she clearly looks up to him. In a revealing moment that's passed off as a joke, she expresses a fondness for "a man in uniform," not realizing the obvious until Hannah points out that her father "wears a uniform." Over the course of the series we learn that Jess was raped and is in DEEP denial about it, with a good portion of that resistance being driven by her fear of disappointing her father. It forms the backbone of her motivation throughout the series. (In contrast, we only see her mother once and learn next to nothing about her.)

- Justin has the worst homelife of any of the kids. His mother's shacked up with a meth dealer who's abusive to him. It forces Justin to take refuge at Bryce's pool house. Through this we learn of Bryce's generosity - he'd give Justin new shoes, saying he had an extra pair rather than embarrass Justin by making a specific gift of them. Bryce's parents have fed Justin, bought him clothes and looked after him in ways his own family never has. This gives Justin a more complicated loyalty to Bryce than just "bro-code" when Bryce forces himself on Justin's girlfriend, an intoxicated Jess. It's a smart move on the writers' part to make this dynamic as complex as possible. Justin feels he owes Bryce and can't betray him by turning him in. He's also been the recipient of a lot of kindness from Bryce so he's determined to rationalize the rape as an out-of-character moment he shouldn't be judged for.

- Interesting, during the timeframe the series covers, Bryce's parents are never seen. They're absent the entire time, which gives Bryce ample opportunity to host parties and gatherings at his place sans supervision. He doesn't have any visible authority figures, no one to set boundaries. If anything, he's surrounded by enablers. He's popular enough and well-liked in school that no one really can stand up to him. When Hannah is sexually assaulted by him, her fear is the same as likely any girl in her position: "Who would believe me over him?"

- Alex's dad is another authority figure, a local deputy. Alex is deferential to his face, calling him "sir," and it's possible that the rigid morality his dad represents is also what causes Alex to take his own culpability in Hannah's death so hard. And again, we know next to nothing of his mother, beyond the fact she works at the hospital.

Seeing how all of these character backgrounds end up feeding the main story arcs, you can understand why it's usually sound writing advice to know as much about your characters as possible. You could simplify any or possibly even all of these backgrounds and still tell the same story, but the characters and the emotion are so much richer for what these extra shadings add.

Side 12: Episodic structure makes a comeback
Side 13: Thoughts on Season 2


  1. Really admire all your analysis about the show. I have three points

    1. About Clay's mother taking the case: She says the partners asked her to take on the case, implying she is not a partner. This might have made it hard for her to turn the case down without a reason. She tells Clay at least once that she will step away from the case, but he needs to tell her why she needs to. I think she felt the need for some explanation to give to her superiors as to why she couldn't handle the case.

    2. It does seem Hannah is closer to her parents, at least to her mother, than Clay is to his. However, it is Clay who opens up to his mother, while Hannah isn't able to open up to hers.

    3. I think having Hannah lose the bag of money was a fairly ingenious plot device on the part of the writers. In the book, there is no indication Hannah is close to her parents. As a result, there is no need to explain why Hannah never goes to them as she is spiraling down. In the series, Hannnah is shown to have a pretty good and fairly open relationship with her mother. Therefore the series writers have to explain why she does not go to her for help. Having her lose the money and feel she is a disappointment to them is a pretty simple way to explain why she believes they will be better off without her, which provides a reason for her not to go to her mother and possibly allow her to minimize in her own mind the pain they will feel as a result of what she is about to do.

    Again, many thanks for all your posts on the show.

    1. Hey great comments! My thoughts...

      1) It's always dicey to bring real-world legal logic into 13 REASONS WHY. Season 2 certainly proved that. Even so, I can't help but think that Clay's mother would end up in a lot of trouble at the law firm if her participation gave even the appearance of a conflict. I feel like in real life, she'd have been kept far away from that case even if she was the best person to try it specifically because of her son's connection. I get what you're saying about her feeling like she couldn't turn it down, but it probably wouldn't shake out like this in the real world.

      2. Also a solid point. I think the show does a good job of showing us from early on why Hannah has trouble opening up to her mom. She feels like her mom grew up as the popular girl who had it all and is embarrassed it's not as easy for her.

      3. You know, I liked the bag of money plot device for the exact reason you did in how it explained why she was so distant from her parents and felt like they'd be better off with her. It's one of my favorite additions the show makes because it works SO much better as something to drive her depression down right before the rape. The book leaves us feeling that the night at the other party makes her suicidal on its own and the rape is more of a surrender. I like that the party divides her from her closest support, the bag estranges her from her parents, and the rape works as the second half of a 1-2 punch on the worst day of her life.

      And because of that, the show better communicates Hannah as someone struggling not to drown in her own pain, as opposed to the book where she feels way more in control of her decisions then.

    2. With respect to the last point, Hannah had a third punch that day. I think she went to the Crestmont to pick up her check desperately hoping to repair her relationship with Clay. But her was just incredibly cold to her--so much so that I find this to be a very hard scene to watch. After this I think she felt Clay was lost to her so that after the rape she really had nobody to go to.

      Certainly agree with your point about real world legal logic.

    3. Yeah, good point. I might just correct that she seemed to not be so much "hoping to repair her relationship with Clay" but rather trying to act like the awkwardness didn't happen and will a reset into existence without acknowledgement of their bedroom encounter. (And I get it. I've been on both sides of that "can we just skip to the part where we pretend that didn't happen" convo.)

      I agree this is a hard scene to watch and it embodies one of the things I really like about the show. We can empathize with where both of them are coming from. Hannah just wants to pretend things are normal and really wants her friend back, but doesn't have to strength to REALLY say that. Clay, meanwhile, was deeply hurt by having put himself out there and seemingly rejected as if he did something wrong, so he's guarding himself and probably still nursing a bit of that hurt. In his place, I'd probably be cold too if I thought Hannah believed I got inappropriate and was just coming back to toy with my feelings.

      When I watch this scene, I can't help but ponder how many times Clay relived this after Hannah's death. It's up there with the really other painful scene, when Hannah tearfully comes up to him after Jeff dies, and Clay assumes she's just being a drama queen.

      This is another reason the show surpasses the book for me. In the book, the Hannah/Clay hookup doesn't have the same head of steam built up behind it and Hannah's freakout is less cutting to Clay personally. There's less anguish to their non-encounter encounters after that. In the show, Clay has a lot of regrets about that time and it gives his character more interesting places to go.

    4. You're right about Hannah acting like she just wanted to ignore what had happened. She might have been better off leading with an explanation or an apology. But I really think (hope) that in the hall and at the Crestmont she was ready to come clean and tell Clay what had been happening to her and explain her actions at the party. For some reason I thinh she decided before the party she needed more of a relationship with Clay (romantic or just closer) and was all in on him in a way she never was before.

      I think Clay is poorly written in the scene in the hall and, particularly, at the Crestmont. With respect to the hallway scene, he had known Hannah for more than a year and she had never came to him in tears wanting to talk. Its hard for me to believe he wouldn't have put aside his hurt feelings and talked to her. But given the trauma of his finding Jeff and the short passage of time, I can just barely buy how he acted.

      I can't buy how he acted at the Crestmont. He had had three weeks to ponder what had happened at Jessica's. I feel certain he had relived every moment of their interaction numerous times. Its hard for me to believe that after recalling their conversation and "more than ok" accompanied by her smile, he wouldn't have at least started to believe that something was really wrong with and put aside his hurt feelings. I just think its out of character for him to have been so cold, even criticizing her for not going to Jeff's funeral, I don't think the Clay we saw in the other episodes.

      Its hard to watch Hannah as she talks to Clay on the phone to set up the meeting. She is nervous and fidgety, a far cry from the Hannah of the first few episodes. Even if she did not know exactly why, she knew that was going to be an important meeting for her. Clay obviously didn't know what was going to happen that night, and I realize this is bit over the top, but I think that in some sense, he handed her the razor blades along with her check. His actions cut her last lifeline and made her feel she had no one to go to after her rape. This was probably needed to illustrate the total isolation she felt after she was raped, but I wish it could have been done in a way that remained true to Clay's character,

    5. First, I just want to say I'm really enjoying this back-and-forth. I was hoping these posts would have sparked more of that.

      I don't find Clay to be poorly written in either scene for one simple reason - I remember what it was like to be a teenage boy. Specifically, I remember what it was like to be a teenage boy like Clay. He doesn't put himself out there easily and the first half of the night at the party must have felt like the greatest night of his life. He lets his armor down, goes for it with Hannah, and for a few moments, it's everything he wanted. Then she's pushing him off, crying, telling him to stop - from Clay's POV it has to feel like she thinks he did something VERY wrong, so wrong that it obliterated everything right he did that night. At first he's concerned, ready to help her in her distress. He asks three times if he did something wrong, if she's okay... and she emotionally throws him out. It had to feel like his heart was ripped out and there was probably a little anger there.

      So he walks home, cursing that he ever could have let himself think he and Hannah had something. And this is where it helps to remember something Tony said in episode 8 - "I loved Hannah, but the girl was drama."

      The show doesn't give us enough of the other perspectives on Hannah that we fully understand this. We get Hannah's experience, and we get Clay's time with her, which is almost all sweet scenes. She apparently leaned on Tony a lot, enough that it felt like she was being dramatic. Tony basically says it exhausted him sometimes. Think about Clay's reaction to Hannah in that context. We know the whole story, but he doesn't, so to Clay, that bedroom encounter would DEFINITELY seem like the work of someone being a drama queen. It might even be the ONLY way he could make sense of what happened, realizing everyone else might be right about Hannah.

      Then Jeff is killed. The one guy who REALLY reached out to Clay and tried to pull him out of his shell. Clay has lost his crush and (though he might not think of Jeff that way) his best friend in one night, hell, in ONE HOUR.

      Clay's probably swimming in anger and grief that next week at school. Thinking about Hannah likely only takes him back to that horrifying moment in the bedroom... and then she has the nerve to come up to him in tears. She's crying, seemingly over a boy she barely knew. WE know what she has to say, Clay has no reason to account for any of that. "Here she is," he might think, "Rushing over to make Jeff's death all about HER." So he snaps. It's not really about Jeff. It's about his hurt feelings, about how low that bedroom moment made him feel. Clay bottles stuff up, but when it comes out he can make it sting.

      Could he have been more understanding? Certainly. Is it unbelievable he'd react this way? I don't think so.

    6. The Crestmont - I think I see this one slightly different than you do. Clay is being curt because as much as the good parts of their time together should be showing him there was something there, his most recent encounters scarred him more. He's left feeling like whatever happened in that bedroom took that away. And he has three weeks of non-contact with Hannah to back that up. She told him to go away, so he's staying away. He probably feels foolish for pining for that long so he's resolved not to chase her anymore. Him being curt probably comes from that too.

      I do think by that point if she said, "Look, I really owe you an explanation" and reassured him of her feelings, this meet-up would have ended differently. But that's not what she's doing - she's trying to act like it never happened, that they can pick right back up where things were good. Clay probably feels a little gaslit. Rather than feed it, he just withdraws.

      Ironically, if Clay was a more outwardly emotional person, he might have laid into her about how much that night hurt him. They might have had an emotional fight, gotten it out in the open, then cooled off and been able to move past it. But that's not who Clay is. So he keeps his distance for a week, not realizing later that evening will conclude the worst day of her life. And nine days after that, she goes through with ending it.

      He had no reason he should have understood the full depth of her pain... just like she really couldn't process that his attitude came from hurt, not malice. They each end up rejecting the other in a way that leaves the other reeling and kicked in the gut so hard that they can't work through the other person's side of it. If Hannah understood Clay's attitude was there BECAUSE he cared deeply for her, maybe she'd have realized getting back to where they were wasn't hopeless. Is that too much to expect from her in her post-rape state? Probably. If she hadn't lost her parents' money, would she have been able to keep a rational perspective on where she and Clay were? I think so.

      I think everyone acts according to their nature given the circumstances, and the tragedy comes from us seeing how things could be different, even as we know the paths they're on always were going to lead here.

  2. I think you probably have the better of the argument and I can't imagine it being presented much better.
    But I'm still not sold. I like the way you contrasted the first part of Clay's night--dream come true--with the ending--as bad as he could have conceived. I just think that three weeks would given him enough time to process the fact that the first part of the night indicated Hannah had feelings for him. The expression on her face when he amended girls to girl, the way she took his hand and her confession that the reason she would miss working at the Cressmont was because she would miss working with him, I think 3 weeks would have been enough for him to realize both that there was something there and that there was more to her rejection of him than he was aware of.
    Clay seemed to come back from the summer subtly changed. He pushed Hannah to go to the party--he had never pushed her to do anything. Most of that assertiveness would probably have melted away in her rejection, but maybe not all. I'm not sure which of us is further removed from being a teenage boy, but I think Clay realizing his crush was reciprocated might have been enough to focus on that rather than the hurt of his rejection.
    Maybe our real disagreement is to timing. I think the Clay we see in the series would have been able to process things in 3 weeks--you think it would have taken longer. The sad thing is that I think the writers thought it would have taken 3 weeks and nine days. When he approached her at the lookers on the day she died, I think he was ready to start again. And I think his statement, as impersonal as it was, was almost enough for Hannah. I think she came really close to opening up and might have if he had pushed just a little. But he didn't and she just walked on down the hall.
    I, too, am really enjoying these exchanges and may comment on some of your other posts.

    1. That really is the tragedy of the show, isn't it? What might have been.

      I know it's dicey bringing Season 2 into this, but let's not forget that Clay apparently spent the five months between scenes trying not to think of Hannah at all and actively avoiding dealing with his feelings. True, some of this is because the show needed to put everyone in a holding pattern, but it helps build a case for him being someone who withdraws into himself until absolutely forced to confront his feelings.

      Five months seems a little extreme for me, but if I can buy five months, I can easily accept Clay giving himself a month-long time-out from Hannah.

      But I like that Clay is complex enough that you can make a solid case for your side.