Tuesday, May 23, 2017

13 Reasons Why - Side 6: Mr. Porter - Terrible Counselor or Worst Counselor?

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

Is school counselor Mr. Porter a villain?

In following the reaction to 13 Reasons Why, one recurring topic is that the school counselor, Mr. Porter really misses the ball when a clearly distraught Hannah comes to him trying to speak up about her rape at Bryce's hands.

This happens right after she records the first 12 tapes, and the beginning of Tape 13 lays out where her head was at that point, "But a funny thing happened as I finished number 12. I felt something... shift. I had poured it all out and for a minute, just a minute, I felt like maybe i could beat this. I decided to give life one more chance. But this time I was asking for help."

That's what leads her to Porter. We know the stakes in this moment, but Porter doesn't. This is the last chance to save Hannah. A few days after my first viewing of this episode, I attempted to give Porter the benefit of the doubt. To play Devil's Advocate, it's easy for us to berate him for fumbling the ball because we have so much more context for Hannah's words here. We can't hold him responsible for lacking our omniscient perspective.

And then I rewatched the episode carefully. Even before we get to the moments I might argue are fair-play mistakes, Hannah has said this: "I don't feel anything. I don't care any more... about anything." 

Um. Red flag.

Then she says she's a problem to her parents and breaks down, saying "I need everything to stop. People. Life"

Red. Flag.

Throw out the rest of this scene, and you've still got an amazing case that Porter dropped the ball horribly here. Let's stipulate to that now.

Hannah steers the conversation to her rape. She finds it difficult to just blurt the truth out and instead comes at the subject obliquely, saying something happened at a party. The context makes it clear she's talking about sex and Porter's questions immediately seem to go to the issue of consent. Reacting to the mention of a party, he asks if she had "an encounter" there.

These are the questions he asks, emphasis mine.

"Did anything happen that night that you regret?

"Are you embarrassed by what happened?

"Maybe you made a decision? A decision to do something with a boy that you now regret?"

This is rape culture right there. He puts the burden on her. He say "by what happened" as if it was an act of God that occurred while all the players stood around passively. He implies she made a decision and is only now taking it back.

See what's missing in all of this? Any hint that the boy could have done something wrong. Now with that tone established, Porter fires questions at Hannah, and on a second viewing, it struck me how it had the feel of a cross examination. The questions are confrontational and "yes or no" type interrogatives, not open-ended questions.

Did he force himself on you?

I think so.

Did you tell him to stop?


Did you tell him no?


Maybe you consented and then changed your mind.

No, it's not like that!

His mind is on how to prove whatever allegations Hannah is going to make. The most generous reading of his failing in this scene is that he thinks Hannah has come to him as a pretense to any legal action.  He's focused on that big picture while completely missing the even bigger picture - the traumatized girl in front of him.

To Hannah, those questions sound like accusations. If she didn't try to stop it, well that must mean she wanted it, right? She was participating in it, and if she's changing her mind after the fact, well, who's gonna believe the school slut anyway? Hannah's tapes don't tell us these specific thoughts are going through her head, but the actresses performance makes it clear. Even if Porter's just seeking information, what Hannah hears is "Prove it. Convince me." She asks him if it's likely anything could happen to the person who did this.

If you can't give me a name, if you don't want to press charges on this boy. If you not even sure you can press charges, then there really only is one option.

What is it?

You can move on.

You mean do nothing.

She leaves, despite Porter trying to convince her to stay. She turns him down, and I'll award him a slight bit of credit for realizing he should be doing more. When Hannah leaves, she lingers outside his office a moment, waiting to see if he'll go the extra step to come after her. He doesn't, both because she already turned him down and because he's gotten a phone call. It was her last straw - she went there to see if someone cared enough to help her and what she got struck her like a perfunctory meeting, accusations, and the certainty that Porter cared about nothing once it was outside his office.

If Hannah said the word "rape," at the outset, and if she recounted what happened exactly as we saw it, I want to believe Porter would have recognized he was dealing with something more serious here. The fact he completely misses huge depression red flags early on doesn't help support that theory, though.

Of course, as we see the scene through Hannah's eyes, we fully understand why she doesn't say any of that. Porter's efforts to get more information read as skepticism, even more than he intends. This is the man she's supposed to be able to trust and his opening move is basically, got any evidence? It's an easy leap from that to what Hannah surely concludes, "No one will believe me. Ever." She can't go on if she has to pretend this didn't happen, and so when Porter tells her that the best thing to do is "move on," in her mind, suicide is the only escape.

I gave a lot of thought as to why 13 Reasons Why tells the story this way, and I concluded it was so that we know the first thing to do when we're in the same position as Mr. Porter - listen.

Hannah's pain is obvious to an audience that has enough context to hear the dog whistle she's using. In real life we don't have that. Our reactions to Hannah would be informed by what we know of her, our own experience with her, and what we've heard about her. 13 Reasons Why occasionally raises the possibility of Hannah being an unreliable narrator. Several people insist she's lying on the tapes, and indeed, we're given at least one outright contradiction between what she thought she saw and what happened. More than once, a character draws a distinction between "her truth" and "your truth."

Now let's bring the real world into it. The show apparently fudges a critical detail. Porter implies that he needs all the details before he can go to the police, but in truth, his obligation is much broader. If he knows a student is being assaulted, he HAS to report it. Thus, to be correct, his question to Hannah shouldn't have been, "Can you tell me everything?" He should have asked, "Were you assaulted?" It's a relatively small shift in the writing, but a critically important one. If Porter isn't making a big deal about "burden of proof," Hannah probably would have spoken up. Even if his first impulse is to wonder if this is all about a hookup she regrets, he raises the legal issue in a way that shuts her down.

I feel like we were supposed to believe that Mr. Porter had good intentions but his failing was his inability to look for "her truth." That's directly on theme for this entire series. Instead, he's shown to be dangerously incompetent, and that muddies any grey areas that could have been mined later in the scene.

The overall message about how we can all do better in seeking context for the behavior of people we know is an important one. As human beings, maybe 13 Reasons Why can help us do better in that regard.

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

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