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, from joy to despair
Side 4: Clay, an outsider who isn't an outcast

[Extra warning on this: this is extremely spoiler-heavy with details of the 11th episode of 13 Reasons Why.]


That was almost the only word I could muster after watching the episode of 13 Reasons Why devoted to Clay's tape. It's the eleventh episode, with teleplay by Diana Son, and it's an hour of television that really stabs you in the heart with tragedy and then twists the knife.

Hannah's tapes form the spine of the series, but it's the Hannah/Clay romance that gives it its heart. We've covered a lot of this backstory in the individual posts about Hannah and Clay, especially the significant moment between them on the dance floor in episode five. Those long seconds where they stare at each other, both of them clearly wanting to kiss, and then having that moment ripped away felt important on a first viewing. My second run through the episodes made me realize that moment is even bigger. It's the one point in the show where Hannah could have been saved.

I think the series does an able job of demonstrating that a multitude of factors and choices contributed to Hannah's downward spiral. Once she was in that tailspin, other incidents were catalysts for an even deeper depression, but I also get the feeling that rock bottom was an inevitable destination for her. Traumas like her rape absolutely accelerated it but Hannah's poetry and note to her teacher are pretty strong evidence she'd been depressed for a while already. She needed counseling and so changing one thing, one action wouldn't reverse it.

But her dance with Clay comes right before all that. And it's hard not to imagine if they had gotten together then, so much of what hurt her would be invalidated or have never happened. It's the one pivot point in Hannah's life that could have changed everything. Though it may be a problematic message to say that the love of a nice boy saves everything, there's a better way to look at it. Hannah's depression builds because she doesn't have a strong connection to anyone. There's a deep loneliness to her, no matter what else she tries.

During my first run through the series, it was around episode 8 I tweeted, "I'm at the point in the show where every time Hannah's alone with a male character, I'm bracing for the worst... You just want to give the poor girl a hug, but given her state of mind, that would probably be a terrible idea."

So if nothing else, I was perceptive, but we'll get to that shortly.

It feels true to life that Hannah's decline isn't a steady fall. At the top of the three episodes that flash back to events at an end-of-summer party, Hannah's decided to give herself a fresh start. She cuts off a lot of her hair, is determined to study more and get things back on track. When Clay invites her to the party, she declines, so committed to working on her academics.

Clay goes only because his friend Jeff - who's tried to help him with girls - insists he go. Let me tell you, if you want to know Teenage Me, just study everything Clay does at the party, up to the moment he kisses Hannah. From showing up too early, to nitpicking a baseball metaphor that Jeff uses to convince him to go talk to Hannah, it all felt VERY familiar to me:

Take a swing.

A swing?

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

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

It's uncanny.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He asks if she's alright, showing 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.

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. movie365 - Having just finish watching this, I am both stunned and heartbroken. This is a gritty tale of life and the cause and effect of other peoples actions which can force someone into thinking their only way out is suicide. Don't dismiss this as yet another teen angst series; its not. Its an important piece of cinematography which about the darker side of life. If you have older teens, watch it with them. Make them see what it can really be like for some people and that their actions have consequences. It gets pretty hardcore at the end, making you think. Making you stop. Making you realise what what you should do is sometimes very different from what you actually do. You don't have to have handed someone the gun, sometimes its because you don't take it away from them too; doing nothing can be just as pivotal as causing the heartache. The acting is marvellous from these young adults depicting what its like trying to survive modern life as young adults and what they will, or wont, do to fit in.
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  2. I greatly enjoyed this post. I especially liked your reference to the self-hate Hannah felt as indicated by her your name does not belong part of the tape. She had felt this way for a while as indicated by the poem where she acknowledged her love for Clay but says she is so far from being good enough to be with him. Its heartbreaking to know she felt this way and, as you say, more than enough evidence of her depression.

    I do think there was another point where she could have been saved. This was the scene where she and Clay talked about Dollar Valentines at the Crestmont which ended with her calling Marcus. The structure of this scene is parallel to the dance scene in that in both scenes Clay could have saved her--by kissing her or picking up on her hints and asking her out--or she could have saved herself--by kissing him or asking him out. Both scenes illustrate the tragedy of them having these feelings but lacking the courage to express them. I also think this was the only scene where she seemed to have contempt for Clay. After he remarked that it was easy for her to call Marcus and accept his invitation, I thought that the "it can be" she flung back at him carried a lot of scorn with it. But of course it was 2017 and nothing was preventing her from asking him out.

    1. Is it contempt that she's showing in that moment? I think it kinda mirrors Clay's attitude in the "Maybe it's better to wait" conversation in the first episode. He lashes out because he's hurt and jealous, feeling like his interest in her wasn't reciprocated, and Hannah motivation here isn't too dissimilar.

      It's definitely petty, but in a believable teenage kind of way.

      And yeah, you're right. If Clay had acted on that, things would have been totally different. Plus, he SHOULD have acted because we see that she's actually at the top of his list.

    2. I think you're probably right that she was feeling more hurt and disappointment than contempt. Clay takes a good bit of heat for being oblivious and not making a move, but this is the scene where it really hit me that the ball was on her racket just as much as on his. At this point, her self-esteem and self-confidence were not that damaged and I find it a bit inexplicable that she did not take the initiative here or in an earlier episode, I'm not sure whether the show meant to make this point, but there is a real contrast between Hannah's lack of assertiveness with Clay and the easy, didn't give it a second thought way Mckenzie suggested to Tyler that they should go out.
      I think there is a bit of a disconnect between the book and the show. In the book it was easy to see why the Clay/Hannah relationship didn't progress because there wasn't really a relationship--he admired her from a distance and she, in a different way, kind of did the same. The show right from episode 1 deepens the relationship. We are all the richer for it because I think that while the show, at least season 1 is Hannah's story, it is the Clay/Hannah relationship that takes it to the next level. But the closeness and the richness of the relationship makes it more difficult to understand why the relationship never builds after scenes like the dance and night watching the moon. We are almost forced to believe Clay is almost unbelievably oblivious and scared and that Hannah, particularly the confident Hannah of the first 5-6 episodes, has no sense of agency when it comes to Clay. The excellent way the relationship is written and acted, leaves me at least wondering why it always seemed to stand still. I'm not sure there would have been a good way to explain why there was never any progress, and I will gladly accept the lack of an explanation as the price for the richness of the relationship, but I think the writers often failed to grapple with why two people who seemed so comfortable and at ease with each other could never make the breakthrough.
      I apologize for peppering you with so many comments. I am on vacation which, perhaps for fortunately for you, will end tomorrow.

    3. Don't stop commenting on my account. I'm enjoying this discussion.

      I'll deal with Clay quickly because he's the easiest. I think Clay's inaction is partly just him being shy and also partly the fear that if he goes for it and he's read the signals wrong, he risks blowing up the friendship too. From the first episode he says, "I feel like I can be myself around her." Some of that is the crush talking but I also feel like we see ample evidence that Clay isn't connected to too many people. I think he's taken a "half a loaf is better than none" stance. he'd rather be "just" her friend than go for something more and make it awkward.

      With Hannah, I feel like we can take her at her word when she indicates she doesn't realize any attraction to Clay until she's doing the survey for dollar valentines. Yes, in retrospect, the night where they watch the moon is definitely a turning point, but at most, she felt it on a subliminal level. If he'd kissed her there, I think she'd have kissed back. In fact, since she hints in episode 1 that she suspects his crush, maybe the fact he didn't do anything in that moment convinced her that he was over those feelings. She might perceive "the moment" but not really get the deeper emotions she and Clay both have.

      Also, Clay's a stable presence for her during a time when she keeps reaching out to people and having it blow up. I think she'd consciously discounted him as a romantic possibility precisely because there was no drama and it was so easy. She'd gotten used to thinking, "that's just what our thing is." If things at the Winter Formal hadn't taken an ugly turn, she might have even realized her feelings that night. I can buy the slow burn makes it so she has to actively be thinking about her type before she realizes "Wow, I'm talking about Clay!"

      I can forgive her not being more assertive in that one conversation. She's just figuring out how she feels and is getting mixed signals from Clay. It doesn't feel out of character that she'd get frustrated and then end up going with the guy actually pursuing her. (Also, note her MO in the first episode with regard to Justin. She keeps manufacturing meetings with him, but it's all about her putting him in a position to make the first move and ask her out. She's been socialized to believe that the way it works is she shows interest and the guy takes the initiative. Clay doesn't use that playbook, and so it frustrates her.)

      Then after that is the real spiral. Marcus's groping convinces her to just isolate herself, so I can buy her not making another pursuit of Clay for a while. If she hadn't had that bad date with Marcus, would she have made another run at Clay? Maybe.