Friday, June 2, 2017

13 Reasons Why - Side 13: Thoughts on Season 2

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
Side 11: Fleshed out parents help deepen the other characters
Side 12: Episodic structure makes a comeback

I understand the original concept for 13 Reasons Why would have been as an anthology series like American Horror Story or True Detective, where the cast and storyline would be reset each season. This would have made sense, as the series uses up all the material from the novel on which the story is based. However, with the announcement of the renewal came confirmation that the cast and characters will return.

In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, showrunner Brian Yorkey discussed some of his plans for season 2. The creators did such an incredible job with season 1 that I want to give them the benefit of the doubt that season 2 won't have a sophomore slump. That said, some of his ideas are not the direction I would have taken.

Yorkey confirms that we WILL see Hannah again. "I think one of the things that is still hanging out there is this question of is someone responsible for Hannah’s death? Is the school responsible? Who is responsible, if anyone is? One way we’ll explore that question is through the trial and also through all of these kids reflecting on where they are a few months down the road and what other secrets are being uncovered. That’s going to take us into the past, into Hannah’s story. We’re going to get some new context for events we already know about and we’re going to see a lot of things we hadn’t even heard about yet that fill in some really interesting gaps in our understanding of who Hannah Baker was and what her life was."

I think I've been pretty clear in early posts about my utter admiration for Katherine Langford's performance as Hannah and how I've found her to be one of the most compelling female protagonists of late. So it's not a reflection on the actress or the character when I say that I feel incredibly strongly that we should never see Hannah again. To resurrect her, even via flashbacks, would compromise the integrity of her storyline.

In season one, the very last time we see Katherine Langford on screen is Hannah's suicide scene. That's no accident. Other shows might have given us a Hannah appearance later, just as a way of getting a slightly happier or wistful final scene. But there's no comforting voiceover from Hannah. Clay doesn't have any adorable flashbacks to good times with Hannah, so that we can end the show with a sad smile. We don't even get a silent hallucination of Hannah waving goodbye to Clay or some other way to let us feel she would have been happy for what he did.

No, the last we see of Hannah is a girl in immense pain, slashing her own wrists and dying before our eyes. There's real power in that moment and the show doesn't diminish that with anything to soften that statement.

As Hannah herself says on the tape at the start of the first episode: "No return engagements, no encore and this time absolutely no requests."

The second pass through the series plays very differently. We've already discovered everything there is to know about Hannah. The tapes hold no surprises for us and so it really sets in at that point that Hannah's story is both literally complete and emotionally complete. Having experienced Hannah's deepest lows, there's an even greater sadness to the moments of joy in her life. I'm not sure if there's a good way to explain this, but there's a real sense of loss that hangs over the series after we have the full context for anything. She's as dead to us in those moments as she is to Clay.

I hope that when she turns up in Season 2, Hannah's used sparingly. There's real power in that character's reappearance. We shouldn't see Langford on-screen again unless the story demands that specific emotional sucker punch. It needs to mean something to revisit Hannah, and the worst thing the show could do would be to use her in a scene where she's merely a continuity checkpoint. Even though flashbacks are going to take us to other pivotal moments in the characters' lives, I feel Hannah can easily be kept an off-screen presence.

The other concern is that in using Hannah again, the show will reveal something about her that will compromise her arc from the first season. By the time she died, most of the main characters considered Hannah a drama queen, and it's a label that was somewhat understandable when you consider their limited point of view. We've seen through the tapes that a lot more was going on with Hannah and it was a very sympathetic and empathetic portrayal.

But once we're telling the story from, say, Jess's perspective, we're back to dealing with "drama queen Hannah." That feels like a lot less interesting use of the actress and the character, and again, it would only mar our memories from season one.

A year from now, I hope I'm eating my words and saying I can't imagine season two without Hannah, or Hannah's story without season two. For now, put me down as concerned.

I'm almost as wary of Clay's storyline continuing as I am of seeing Hannah again. There's always the risk that continuation will ruin what felt like an appropriate ending to season one. On the plus side, there's a lot of fertile ground to work with. Surely Clay's relationship with his parents could stand some development, as well as whatever happens between him and Skye. It also wouldn't be a surprise to see him dealing with some kind of survivor's guilt, especially considering what he learned on Hannah's tapes. The poor kid got a lot dumped on him that he shouldn't have to deal with at his age. Alex's suicide attempt can only aggravate that.

As far as the other cliffhangers, I feel like Alex probably shouldn't survive his suicide attempt. If I was writing it, I'd probably have him brain dead on life support with the deadline looming for when his parents are planning on pulling the plug. Through Alex, the show could address the issue of suicide contagion and perhaps give voice to some of the issues that have risen in the wake of the show's release.

I think we all agree that Bryce needs to go down. With his confession on tape, maybe the storyline would deal more with the ramifications of the popular kid being revealed as a rapist. I have a hard time seeing the show turn into "The Trial of Bryce Walker."

Yorkey says, "a different sort of analog technology that plays a hugely important role in season 2. So the cassette tapes aren’t at the center of it — those two boxes of tapes are still hanging around and matter to people — but there will be a new piece of technology for 13-year-olds to Google and try to understand what it was." That feels like a reference to Tyler's photographs. The finale showed that Tyler had a number of pictures of the main characters hanging in his dark room. (13 pictures, 13 reasons why, perhaps?) It certainly felt like a hit list, considering he took down Alex's photo after recalling Alex stood up for him against a bully.

In the same episode, we also saw that Tyler was stockpiling guns. If that's foreshadowing a school shooting story, I'm gonna get nervous. Part of the appeal of season one is how universal many of the traumas felt. If we get to school shootings and rape trials in season two, a little bit of that verisimilitude gets lost and this could become just another teen drama. As a writer, I get the appeal of "13 Reasons Why... I shot up my school" though.

It feels like the writers have proven a number of times that they're capable of handling sensitive subjects. I'm here for the character drama. The two biggest assess of season one - Katherine Langford and the Hannah/Clay relationship - can't be deployed in the same fashion in season two.

The next season will ultimately live or die on the strength of its character arcs. It feels like there's a lot more to be said with some of these characters. As I see it, the real challenge is figuring out which kid gets to be the emotional anchor for season two in the way that Clay and Hannah were in season one. What I wouldn't give to be a fly on the wall for a few days in THAT writers room.

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