Thursday, May 25, 2017

13 Reasons Why - Side 8: Generating tension that stokes viewer intensity

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?

About four years ago, I decided I was going to catch up on BREAKING BAD before the final season made its debut. It was during a period where I was between jobs and had a lot of free time on my hands. After one afternoon of watching BREAKING BAD, I realized I needed to set down a rule: no binging during "work hours." It became quickly apparent that if I allowed myself to, I'd just sit there all day and watch one BREAKING BAD episode after another. So I laid down the rule: from 9am to 6pm, no Netflix streaming. I could write for the blog, or a I could work on a screenplay, or I could do anything so long as it wasn't devouring episodes like I might devour a bag of potato chips.

This was part of my effort to stay productive, but also I was really trying to force myself to move through the series slowly enough that I could savor it and ruminate on each chapter. About ten years earlier, my roommate at the time burned through most of Buffy's seasons in a matter of weeks and it became clear his experience was different from mine. He blew past the lows faster, meaning he and I have drastically different takes on the pace of season six, but the highs resonated differently and the individual pieces lost their identity. That wasn't going to happen to me. No, with BREAKING BAD, I was going to be a good viewer and take my time.

So by night two, I'm laying on the couch at 1:17am as an episode draws to an end. I'm pretty sure it was "Negro Y Azul," with Danny Trejo's decapitated head on a turtle wired to explode. I tended to go to bed around 1:30am so this should have been the perfect time to pack it in, right? But I couldn't stop THERE! I had to see what happened next. And what's one more hour without sleep?

The next episode was "Better Call Saul," the introduction of Bob Odenkirk's Saul Goodman. So when that episode ended, what do you think I did? To make a long story less long, I went to bed after 3:30am that night

I burned through 54 episodes in 10 days. The main plot was compelling, but that's not always enough to make me addicted. BREAKING BAD had that extra kick where I had to see how certain plots developed, and often each episode ended with a game-changing moment whose resolution I couldn't bear to wait another day for.

13 Reasons Why might be the first show I've been able to binge since then that left me feeling this way. It knows which cards to show and which cards to hold. Let's run through some of the ongoing sources of suspense:

1) Why did Hannah kill herself? This is an obvious question and the reason the entire series exists. The device that pumps this up are the flashbacks. It'd be easy to build the series about a bullied outsider who falls from unpopular to suicidal. The more interesting route is to make the earliest version of Hannah the person least like any suicidal cliche we've seen. Since we know she takes her own life, it provokes puzzlement from the audience. "How do we get there from here?"

I want to draw a distinction between this and a similar method of drawing out suspense over a season of stories. The character-based "How did we get here?" is always going to be more compelling than the "Oh my god! Something shocking is going to happen!" one. Sure you could start your series with your main character starting her car, only to have it explode in flames. Or maybe he's walking down the street, only to be suddenly grabbed and pulled into a van. Or maybe your secret agent character is captured and executed before enemy spies. Sure you, have shock value and perhaps even some suspense in the vein of "How does he get caught?"

But it's an emptier kind of tension because all of those examples I cited are things that happen TO your character. All of the change is external and it can presumably be provoked at any time. These kinds of moments have their place in TV drama, but it's a different kind of foreshadowing than what we get with Hannah.

"What makes Hannah kill herself?" is a question that necessitates a more character-based journey. It's about change from WITHIN the character, not a situation that that happens TO the character. The former can be more compelling because it foreshadows a journey with more depth rather than a series of falling plot dominoes that put the character in jeopardy. There's more emotion and more challenge to depicting the former development.

2) Why is Clay on the tapes? Hannah says everyone getting these tapes in some way drove her to suicide. The Clay of the past nurses a silent crush on Hannah and the Clay of the present clearly is hurting from her loss, so what did he do that was so bad? The extra fertilizer for this question is Clay's own shock at being included. He can't understand what he might have done to hurt her and as he learns the sins of his other classmates, it weighs on him that any pain he caused could be equal to humiliation, assault, rumor-spreading and rape.

This is where the use of the tapes really pays off, because everyone Clay's hearing about has already come ahead of him in the cycle. They know their secrets are going out AND they know his yet to be revealed secrets. When he confronts them over what they did, they taunt that he needs to hear the rest, implying that what he did was no better. Again, this turns Clay's tape into a bomb we're waiting to go off. The tension comes not just from Clay learning the truth, but the fact everyone he's against already knows it. They have an advantage he doesn't - and Clay is fully aware of this. This is an undercurrent to every interaction he has.

3) What's Tony's angle? Tony seems to know more than all of the others and early episodes cast him in a vaguely sinister light. Is he telling the whole truth? Why can't he just tell Clay why Clay is on the tapes? Seeing him and his brothers beat up a guy also leaves us wondering - is Clay next? Is there some bigger game Tony is playing? I like that this tease is mostly wrapped up mid-way, as it puts a lid on the Tony-as-plot-device issue.

It turns out Tony carries guilt that Hannah didn't even put on him. He avoided seeing her the night she took her life because he just couldn't handle her drama and he feels like if he talked to her or reacted faster, he might have saved her. Since he couldn't save her life, he re-purposes his guilt into honoring her last wishes to the letter. Especially on a second-run through, it's evident that all his "listen to the tapes," is driven by making sure Clay learns the truth the way Hannah wanted. And, as Tony says to Clay in another suspense-building moment, "I don't know what you'll do when you hear [your tape.]"

This scene is part of the most gripping episode cliffhangers of the run. Tony finds Clay at night in a park. Clay is about to move on to the next tape and tells Tony, "You don't have to hang with me."

"I think maybe I should."


"Because it's your tape."

That alone would have been enough to seal up the episode and make sure everyone will HAVE to see the next chapter. Not unexpectedly, the only person who isn't rushing to that goal... is Clay. He feared the tape was bad before, but to be bad enough that Tony feels he should keep an eye on him... that can't be good. This is another of those moments that Dylan Minnette knocks out of the park. You can feel Clay's vulnerability as this dread physically drains him. Every one of his worst fears plays out on his face as he finds the words to ask, "Did I kill Hannah?"

Tony gives a non-answer answer, "We all killed Hannah," but Clay is in no mood for any spreading of blame or moral equivocating over everyone's actions or inactions. He asks again, more forcefully, "Did I kill Hannah Baker?"

After a beat, "Yeah."

After an ending like that, are you going to miss the next episode?

Episode 11 starts with that tension hanging in the air and really ratchets the suspense higher by rewinding back to just before the party. While leaving work, Clay banters with Hannah and invites her to the party again. She declines, again citing her efforts to turn over a new leaf. Now that we know that Clay was the one to push her to go, we wonder - given the bad things that we already know happened at the party, is THAT Clay's sin? The show makes us wait for the answer, and as we've discussed, gives us some of the best Clay/Hannah scenes of the entire series.

This is another good technique for working with suspense. There's a bomb about to go off at the end of this episode, so the writer has two options - play the dread. Or play against it. The split timeline actually lets them have their cake and eat it too, with the twist that the "happier" timeframe is the one that suddenly gets very, very ugly when Clay and Hannah's hookup goes off the rails.

With Hannah, the writing challenge across the series is "How do you take this girl and make her suicidal?" At the party it's, "How will this seemingly perfect 'date' with two people who adore each other turn into one of the worst nights of either of their lives?" Every heart-tugging moment is just going for the greater hurt.

And through this all, we know that even after we get the truth, there's a bigger unknown awaiting us: What will it do to Clay? Every episode has prepared us for this. It's been a 10 episode exercise in Hitchcock's principle of suspense: There's a bomb under the table and we don't know when it'll go off.

Defy expectations. To make the emotional lows more distinct, contrast them with legitimate highs. When I was reading, I saw so many unrepped writers try to touch their audience by writing scripts of unrelenting sadness. Twenty pages in there's no suspense because the pattern is set that every scene will be ugly and depressing. It's like walking through a haunted house where every three steps, something jumps out in front of you and shouts "BOO!" Very quickly, you get numb to the shock.

13 Reasons Why keeps its audience invested throughout, building foreboding alongside the joy. It makes you beg for the ending you know it has to deny you, and when the end arrives, you feel the loss of Hannah as keenly as Clay does.

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. I'm back.

    I fully agree that the cliffhanger you describe is hard to beat with respect to getting people back for the next episode. But is it really something Tony would have said?

    Tony was always firm that Clay had to listen to all the tapes. But he was also always pretty gentle with him and knew how hard the tapes were hitting him. As you say, Clay was really pinning him down for a yes or no answer. But it seems to me that if he's forced to answer yes or no, he's more likely to answer no, particularly given how he tries to convince Clay after he's heard the tape that there was really nothing he could have done.

    I understand that for dramatic purposes, it was important for Tony to say yes. I just think its a little out of character, considering how hard he tries to protect Clay.

    And I was wondering why you think Clay was on the tapes. Was it for the reason Hannah said, or maybe because, subconsciously she resented him for not being there for her more? I think that at the end she couldn't hardly bear to think badly about him and still considered him the one person that didn't let her down. (The Clay Jensen hates me line would somewhat call this into question, but I think this was at least a little bit of a purposeful exaggeration on her point and I'm not sure that consciously she blamed him for hating her.) And while realize that at the end Hannah's thinking was likely at least a little warped, she was a smart girl, realized how sensitive Clay was and on some level at least understood that the tapes at least had the potential to destroy him. I don't think it was her death that changed his life, maybe forever, but the tapes. I don't think she wanted to destroy his life, but I do wonder if subconsciously at least she wanted him to hurt at least a bit because when she was hurting he didn't do much for help. I place a higher burden on him because of the way he felt about her, and I wonder if on some level at least maybe she did too.

    By the way, I really enjoy reading your political comments on your twitter feed. I admire the way you really feel passionately about things, clearly think things are going very wrong, but haven't given into cynicism. I think I share most if not all of your views, but am probably a little further on the cynicism continuum.

    1. Defending Tony's statement at the end of episode 10 might be the shakiest argument I've had to make in defense of season one. I don't really blame anyone who thinks it's a cheat for him to answer "Did I kill Hannah Baker?" with "Yes." (If it was me, I'd have ended the episode on "Because it's your tape.")

      You're right in that it feels out of character for Tony. I can rationalize that he's not expecting that specific question, that he thinks he can do damage control afterwards, that he's afraid a "no" will make Clay stop - or WORSE, make him continue and be COMPLETELY blindsided by what's waiting for him. But does any of that change the fact that pretending Tony HAS to answer Yes or No without explaining is a false construct? No.

      I can rationalize it,I can defend it, but there are strong arguments against it.

      Why do I think Clay is on the tapes? I tend to take Hannah at her word on the tapes. (I realize that season two doesn't always do that, suggesting she's directly obfuscate and misrepresent on purpose in some cases. It's the main reason I don't like the retcon about her father's cheating, as it directly conflicts with her statements on the tape that her parents have a perfect marriage. Once you demonstrate she's lied about something that insignificant to her story, but important to her world view, it calls EVERYTHING into question.) I think what happened there was important to her spiral, important enough she couldn't ignore it. I think her telling that part of the story out of order is her effort in a weird way to divorce Clay from the cause-and-effect of what happens afterwards.

      I don't think she resented him. I think it destroyed her to feel that she'd burned that relationship to the ground and telling the story that way was her almost taking it on herself. She can still feel that and have her heartbroken by the belief that "Clay Jensen hates me." I don't think she thought about the negative effects on Clay. If anything she might have thought she was absolving him by explaining what went wrong that night and why she ruined it all. Nothing we hear her directly say on Tape 11 makes me feel like she was trying to hurt him, not even in a passive aggressive way.

      We know Clay is sensitive, we get how his mind works, but I don't think even a healthy Hannah can be expected to be any wiser about the mind of a teenage boy than Clay is about a teenage girl. Throughout season one, we see plenty of instances of Clay not "getting it" with regard to how things work for girls (their contrasting takes on the Hot List especially). So I chalk up Hannah's ignorance of how this hits Clay to be sort of her side of that dynamic. I don't think she realized he still cared enough to be hurt this deeply, and badly underestimated how much of this he would put on himself.

      Basically, I think her version of Clay was as idealized as Clay's version of Hannah at times. And when they were their best selves, each one came close to actually being that person. You have to wonder... if they had been able to see themselves as the other saw them, would they have had more confidence in themselves?

      And thanks for the comments on the Twitter. I didn't realize you were on there.

  2. I appreciate the way you manfully grappled with the Tony question. I don't buy your first argument--I think by that time Clay was in on the tapes until the end. I think you're onto something with your second one. Better to make it sound worse than it is--nobody will probably remember that--than to undersell the pain and have him be completely unprepared.

    I agree that if you accept Hannah deliberately lied anywhere on the tape it then becomes hard to know what to believe. I think the Dad retcon might be salvageable. Subject to what I say below, I don't think Hannah said on the tape that the marriage was perfect, just that they were high school sweethearts. By the end I'm not sure that even without the infidelity she thought their marriage was perfect. I think it was pretty strongly implied that their being distracted prevented Hannah from getting enough of their attention. But I thought there was also a strong undercurrent that the fact that they bickered so often really wore her down and kept their home from feeling like enough of a sanctuary.

    That raises a question I've always had: what was actually on the tapes. They had to be more than her voiceovers. But I can't believe they included all the flashbacks. For instance, one Marcus' tape I'm sure she included a description of what happened happened at Rosie's. There was also a flashback where Hannah's mom gave her Valentine Day gifts and she told her mom that what her mom and dad had was perfect. I have a hard time believing a description of that event was on the tape, just like I find it hard to believe the scene where she trained Clay was included on the first tape.

    I agree that she was crushed by her belief that she had ruined the relationship with Clay and she did everything she possible could on his tape to tell him the breach was her fault. Far from expressing any resentment on the tapes, she indicated in a few places how much she thought about him.

    I do think that at least when healthy Hannah had a better grasp on the mind of a teenage boy than Clay had on the mind of a teenage girl. Hannah seemed to have a better ability to read people, although beating Clay in that regard wouldn't take much. And while she said Clay hated her and to some extent believed it, I think she realized her death would hit him hard and, even worse, the tapes would fill him with guilt. Tape 11 and especially the Clay ... Helmet speech was her best and sincere attempt to absolve him of responsibility and guilt. Even so I still think that without realizing it she may have resented him for not being braver and more aware.

    I really liked your next to last paragraph. I agree that they put each other on pedestals which kept them from being able to talk to each other in a way that permitted the relationship to develop and her to stay alive. And a good bit of the time they did deserve the high opinion the other had of them. It would have been nice if they could have at least got a little closer to realizing they were good people, good enough for each other.

    1. Re: parent's marriage - I believe she says something in episode 6 about how the reason she believes in true romance is because of her parents' marriage. While the flashback that plays under that scene takes place before Hannah knew about the cheating, she's recording it with full knowledge of her dad did. It's such a contradiction that when I was watching S2, I assumed the plaintiff's would use this to get the tapes admitted through a back door. ("Your Honor, if my client's cheating had provoked their daughter's suicide as the school's attorney suggests, why would she speak so well of their marriage?")

      What's on the tapes? - On later viewings I paid more attention to this and you start to notice how they cue us in that not every flashback is taken from the tapes. Episode 5 is a good example of an ep where other characters have memories of Hannah that are triggered through other means (her father looking at her shoe from the formal), even as those scenes take place at the same time as Hannah's tape that episode. Clay also has a lot of Hannah flashbacks that aren't necessarily what Hannah is talking about on the tapes. And I assume as he's listening, he's filling in details with his own memories. The training scene you mention is actually shown to us before Clay gets the tapes so that's DEFINITELY coming from his own memory and not anything Hannah recorded.

      I think they justify the Valentine's Day flashback as relating to Hannah's discussion of romance, but I can't remember if they also show Olivia transitioning into and out of that flashback.

      In Season 2, when Hannah is haunting Clay and reciting Tape 12, I'm pretty sure some of the dialogue is new to us. Part of her description of the rape is an addition to what we heard in VO, IIRC.

      The attraction of writing Clay/Hannah as a relationship that could mature once everyone's feelings were out in the open was one reason I was compelled to write that spec season 3 ep. (It's also a reason why for a few insane moments, I considered taking the full-season story break I wrote and gradually turn it into scripts over the next 8 months or so. Fortunately cooler heads prevailed.)

      I think Clay was learning to be bolder and had things not gone sideways in Jess's room, he probably would have gotten more out of his shell and grown into the idealized version Hannah saw. And I think he would have seen more of Hannah's faults and realized neither of them had to be perfect to deserve each other.

      And maybe season 3 will see Clay getting involved with someone and learning some of these lessons. I think Skye let him purge some demons with regard to Hannah specifically, but he pursued her because of her flaws. What happens next time he chases an idealized crush?

  3. I like your theory as to which flashbacks are on the tapes.

    Since I can't imagine how much time an effort it would have taken to write additional scripts, I glad you decided against doing so. Selfishly though, they would have been great to read.

    Something did seem to change with Clay over the summer. He never would have pushed Hannah that hard to go to the party the year before. And then he might have followed his first instincts and left after she arrived even in the face of Jeff urging him to stay. I might have said this before but when he approached he at the lockers the day she died, I think he was about over being hurt by the rejection. If he had had even another week to work with, his additional courage might have been enough for him to force them to have a real talk.

    I kind of think the only real lesson Clay has learned is that standing by and doing nothing can't be the right thing. Although I also think he's stronger, more determined and has more self-confidence. I think that if he does chase an idealized crush, he might find new ways to blow, but will at least give it a shot. And I know it shouldn't but that kind of makes me sad.

    1. Yeah, the first spec episode was a fun warm up to keep the writing muscles going... and I'd done a lot of work in figuring out storylines, so presumably I'd build on that. I should be thankful that 13 epsiodes seemed too daunting. Had they done an 8 episode season I might have gone for it. That feels like the middle ground where the audaciousness of the stunt might have justified the work.

      One thing you can't help but think about when watching the last few eps is how close things were to happening differently. If only Clay had a little more time to process it, if only Hannah hadn't left that case on top of the car, if only she hadn't wandered to Bryce's.

      Your last paragraph calls to mind why I think a 3rd and 4th season are justified even if they move past Hannah's story. I want to know that Clay comes out of it all right. I want to see him able to put all this in the rearview mirror. The end of S2 is a good first step and so I hope they continue down that road in S3 and S4. Same for Jess's recovery. As a survivor, she gets to be a Hannah proxy of sorts, showing that every case of sexual assault doesn't have to be the end of one's life. As long as the writers stay true to those threads, I feel like they've got a couple more years in them.

      Will Clay probably still screw up romance? Sure! He's a teenager - ALL of those kids are going to screw up, but I think he's past making the same mistakes and probably will be better at moving on from his newer ones.

    2. I'm probably not as enthused about new seasons as you are but I agree that see what happens to Clay and Jess will be important reasons to watch.

      This probably is a silly question, but does the show depend too much on if onlies. The book had quite a few and the show piled on even more. I know you put in one of your posts that the show wisely showed Hannah having some victories, and I agree, but for the most part it seemed like anything that could go wrong for her or the relationship did. I realize some of that is needed for the show to end the way it did, but did you ever start to wonder whether they started to get close veering into implausibility?

    3. Nah, that doesn't bother me, mostly because you can look at any drama and play the same game. Think of how many ways we could apply that to BREAKING BAD in hindsight, particularly in the final season.

      The difference here is that we're told from the start where all of this leads, and the thesis of the show is about showing us every brick that was laid on the road to hell.