Monday, April 9, 2018

Transitions and emotional identification in the fifth episode of 13 REASONS WHY

I'm going to try to start doing something I probably should have been doing more of. When I get off on a nice tweet-storm, I should post it here, reformatted as a blog post. It takes basically the same effort and I find I prefer having something archived here than having to search through thousands of tweets.

I'm in the middle of attempting to write a spec episode of 13 Reasons Why, so I'm revisiting a few episodes to study the style and technique again. (Also, I'm incredibly impatient for season 2, so going back to the better episodes is basically serving as my methadone.)

This discussion of the 5th episode of season 1 of 13 Reasons Why ("Tape 3, Side A") is from a tweetstorm I wrote on Saturday. You can find the original thread here. I've done some editing and expounded on a few thoughts here.

I was rewatching the 5th ep (school dance/Courtney's tape) of 13 Reasons Why last night and saw a few storytelling/transition/structure things worth discussing.  The episode was written by Julia Bicknell (only writing credit of hers I can find) and directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez. Alvarez also directed the heartbreaking finale of Season 1, and the truly terrifying film THE STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT.

This is (I believe) the first ep where Clay has already heard the whole tape before the start of the ep. Usually Hannah's narration plays while we see him listening on headphones. Not this time. It means his actions the entire ep aren't of discovery, but of reaction. Not insignificantly, this is the first time that the severe actions on the tape strongly intersect with Clay's history. His past interactions with Hannah are usually asides. Here, they take center stage and it ups the emotional stakes.

This is ALSO the first time that it's implied the flashbacks we see are the memories of other characters too. The tapes aren't our only bridge there. Courtney flashes back to an earlier lunch with Hannah, and when Hannah's dad looks at her corsage, it triggers another memory. It helps spread the emotional identification around. It's not just Clay getting kicked in the gut by these memories, it's everyone around Hannah. It helps to make the ep an emotional pressure cooker so that we're ready for the release that comes at the end.

Also, after 4 eps where the flashbacks are about "This is what this means to Hannah" it's nice to see everyone else's stakes in those memories: what they knew, what they didn't know, and what they probably regret. It seems like a tiny detail, but it's huge. Quite rightly, the show has put most of its energy on getting us to identify with Clay and his grief, and only the pain of Hannah's parents has really been explored aside from that. Making this episode a flashback from at least four characters' interactions (Clay, Hannah, Courtney and Hannah's father) helps drive home one of the show's running themes about how connected everyone is and how much their actions affect others.

But ultimately, this is Clay's ep to shine. Because this flashback means something to him, it's knife-twisting to realize how devastating it must be to relive that moment at the school dance. It's a cute "I want to kiss her but I'm too scared to make a move" flashback on its own....

...but when you add it to everything else, he has regret of, "Why DIDN'T I do it? How could what I was scared of be worse than this?"

There's an end speech that Dylan Minnette acts the hell out of where he talks about never getting to dance with her again, and you feel his pain:

"When I listen to the tapes I want to see her in school tomorrow. I want to eat Mike and Ikes out of the box with her at the Crestmont. I want to dance with her again, and kiss her when I should have kissed her.

"But I can't."

When I posted this as a Twitter thread, the director of the episode responded with a few thoughts:

I mentioned to Kyle that on subsequent viewings, after we've actually watched Hannah die, it has the effect of putting us more in the emotional space where Clay is at this point. I did a lousy job of explaining this on Twitter, but at this point in the show, we still have eight episodes worth of Hannah's life to learn about. Even though she's dead to us in the present, she's still "alive" in the past in a way. Once we've reached her suicide, we've see it all. And we know what Clay knows.

So when we revisit these episodes, her loss somehow feels more real. There's nothing left of her and when Clay takes Courtney to her grave, we're HYPER-aware that the girl we watched die painfully is in a box below the ground. It feels very unsettling to be there, like it's almost wrong to intrude on that space.

If you've only watched this episode once, go back and revisit it after you've seen Hannah's suicide. I'm curious if you end up with the same reaction as me.

Also, this tangentially relates to a point I made last year in my 13-part series on the show. In the final segment I discussed the news that Hannah would continue to appear via flashbacks in season 2:

"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 way we experienced Hannah's life gives her future use an enormous amount of emotional power. Let's hope it's used properly.

Also, what happens to Hannah is this ep is a strong structural turning point because it pulls together the wrongs of the previous four ep and basically turns them into a snowball of pain that escalates everything that goes very bad. The picture out of context that led to the rumor she went to third base with Justin, the "hot list" that named her "Best Ass" and only further objectified her, the out-of-context picture of her kissing Courtney, which further fed rumors of her promiscuity - it all gets tided together here when Courtney uses them as a shield to deflect people who think there's something going on between her and Hannah. Basically she throws Hannah under the bus to save herself.

So the episode accomplishes two things: accelerates Hannah's descent, and more directly involves Clay in that downward spiral. The weight of that devastates present-Clay and sets him on the unstable path he continues for several episodes. Clay's not only dealing with the regret over his inaction towards Hannah on a romantic level, but he has to be thinking that he failed her in a more basic emotional support capacity as well. That guilt, and the desire to do something about, becomes what drives Clay for the rest of the season.

It's a lot of PLOT, but because of the way the show transitions between the past and present so effectively, and uses the emotions of the other characters to evoke our own, it makes us FEEL as its drawing all these threads together.

Lesson is: story works best when you don't divorce plot from emotion. Find every technique you can to get the audience to identify emotionally with the characters and you've got gold.

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