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, from joy to despair

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 does is provide 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 that 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, 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.

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


  1. That was one of the things that surprised me the most. The "realistic" dialogue those teenagers had and the good work the actors did with it. One movie that also features the same brilliance in this area I think is "The Spectacular Now". Teens are usually so over-written, so clever. I get it and it's cool sometimes (hey, Buffy fan 4eva) but it became sort of a trope, the dialogue-y teen and the smarter-than-adults child. It was nice to see a show looking for that grounded dialogue.

    1. I have nothing to add to this beyond affirming that THE SPECTACULAR NOW is brilliant and that I totally was making connects between it and the series as I watched too.

      Another great point of grounding: everyone dresses like real teens. My wife even made a point of praising that when Hannah's dress for the dance looked like something a girl that age might buy and not the designer clothes of PRETTY LITTLE LIARS.

  2. I'm going to focus on your section about the dance and ask what you think would have happened if Hannah had not gone to rescue Jessica. Given that they both seemed to be feeling the same thing at the same time, I think they might have connected, although I find Hannah's dialogue in your spec script indicating they might not have been feeling the same thing intriguing.

    I think that to a large extent Jessica was Hannah's white whale. I don't think Hannah ever got over losing Jessica as a friend. As good a person as I think Hannah was, I'm not sure she would have broken away from Clay at the dance for anyone other than Jessica. Its a shame because not only did Jessica never seem to be grateful to Hannah for what she did, I don't think she ever really understood, or perhaps even remembered what Hannah did.

    Similarly, I'm not sure Hannah gets in the hot tub if Jessica was not already there. I think the fact that they were exchanging friendly matter and Hannah's fragile mental state over what had previously happened that day made Hannah believe, however irrationally, that she still had a chance to connect with Jessica.

    And of course, her desire to reconnect with Jessica made the guilt she felt over not intervening to help her at her party even more overwhelming. I think this guilt was misplaced because I don't think Hannah could have really helped her without exposing herself to danger. But I think Hannah really felt guilt. While her rape was the triggering event that put her firmly on the path to suicide, I think it was the guilt she felt over her actions at the party, combined with her utter feeling of isolation that kept her from pulling out of her spiral as she always had before. Obviously being raped was a level of trauma far above what she had previously experienced. But I think her guilt and isolation convinced her that she was pretty near worthless and not really deserving of being saved.

    I liked you analysis of Clay's armor. And despite what he said about feeling like he could be himself around Hannah and how comfortable we see them when they are together in the first few episodes, I think his armor may have also crippled his relationship with Hannah. While the show certainly gives us the feeling they are becoming increasingly close, I don't think we ever actually see them doing anything indicating they are even particularly close friends. We never seem discussing anything really personal or confiding in each other. Part of this is I think because as outgoing as she was, I think Hannah found it difficult to open up to people. And I don't think Clay was even to get out of his shell, even with Hannah and even as to subjects that has nothing to do with romance. It seems revealing that even in the Molly episode when they were under the influence of drugs their conversation still did not touch on anything personal. I think that when it came to crunch time, during the last month of her life, their failure to really even develop a close friendship made it easier for them to keep each other at arms length and easier for Clay to be pretty unaware of how bad a shape she was in.

    1. Quick word about that bit in the spec script: that's Hannah's perspective on it a year and a half after the fact and it's very much colored by what she's been through and ESPECIALLY the fact she's not feeling the same thing for Clay that she once did. (Which, as implied, is both a result of her recovery and the anti-depressants she's on.) Her teenage brain has concluded, "If I'm not feeling the rush from you now that I felt from the point where everything went to hell, maybe it was never real to begin with." I'm not sure she's 100% right about that, but it's what she might reasonably think and project backwards onto her infatuation with Clay.

      When I wrote that spec, I did a rough break of the entire season just so I had a sense of what I'd be writing towards. If future eps existed, a major thread would have been about Clay and Hannah rebuilding their connection and Hannah coming around to the idea that she DID love Clay back then and that those feelings were going to manifest differently now. There would have been some back and forth, but they probably would have become a couple around episode 10.

      I think they actually would have connected if the moment at the dance had been allowed to play out. Even if Clay still balked when it came time to kiss her there, I bet they'd have spent the rest of the dance together and Clay would spend enough of the night beating himself up that he might have finally gone for it. For her part, Hannah doesn't seem to realize her feelings for Clay until shortly after that, but I bet them kissing in that moment would have accelerated that revelation.

      I really like your take on Jessica/Hannah, and I think you're right. I don't even have anything to add to that, it's pretty spot on, especially with regard to the guilt she feels after the party.

      I feel like Clay and Hannah were real friends, as much as you can define it by teenage standards. They continually seek each other out and clearly feelings ran deep on both sides. It definitely runs deeper than in the book, where they're more like ships passing in the night. I think there's different degrees of opening up. They might not have shared deepest secrets, but they're both more vulnerable with each other than with most others. At sixteen, that's a pretty huge deal.

      Think of it this way - after the fact, Clay isn't musing on how much he misses Kat and what she meant to her, even in terms of casual connection. His speech at the grave makes it clear - he feels a void with Hannah gone, and her actions in the last few eps of season one show that she felt the loss of their connection too. Also, for Mr. Porter to bring up Clay in his meeting with Hannah shows that they must have hung out together enough for even a disinterested faculty member to notice.

  3. Hitting your fourth and fifth paragraphs, I didn't mean to suggest they weren't real friends, just that they weren't as close as I think we are meant to think they were. In addition to not talking about personal stuff, with the exception of the Molly party, we never see either of them making any effort to hang out with each other outside of school and work. Hannah has social time with everyone else she is friends with during the series, but with the one exception, never with Clay. I certainly don't question the depth of their feelings, but its almost they were so caught up in their unexpressed romantic feelings that the didn't put much effort into the friendship.

    Back to your first paragraph briefly, in addition to the antidepressants, the length of time she went without seeing Clay may have made it difficult to retain the same feelings.

    Finally, while I know you like to take Hannah at her word, I think she started to have real feelings for Clay on the night of the eclipse and was feeling them the night we see him walking her home. So I agree that without Jessica's intervention, I agree that one way or another, something would have solidified the night of the dance.

    1. Yeah, when I wrote that spec I basically tried to work out a sense of what Hannah had gone through during that "missing year," basically trying to justify her and Clay not seeing much of her. There's a lot that's affecting her perceptions in that first episode. I figured the audience could infer plenty of that while still not making it impossible for them to find their way back to each other.

      I agree with you about the eclipse being a turning point in her feelings towards Clay, even if she didn't consciously realize it then or during that walk with Clay. The dance could have ended up another near miss like those, or it could have been the turning point. Given how quickly she realized her feelings after that, I lean towards the latter.

    2. Small point on the walk. I've always been confused by the hug. Did Clay realize she wanted him to do something but couldn't manage the kiss? Given his usual level of obliviousness that seems a little much. I can certainly see him doing nothing, but the hug threw me. I'm pretty sure it was the only time they hugged.

    3. That's how I've taken it. He was too chicken to go for the kiss, probably scared it was too forward, so he went for the hug. (And probably kicked himself for it all the way home.)