Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Clay's downward spiral on 13 REASONS WHY makes for an Emmy-worthy arc for Dylan Minnette

Massive and thorough spoilers for the whole season, including a lot of stuff that's more powerful if you see it rather than read about it. If you haven't finished binging, turn back!

I hadn't planned on writing this post, but over the course of the weekend I had a couple discussions with people regarding the new season of 13 REASONS WHY and I ended up talking myself into writing a companion piece to last year's examination of Clay's character. This also will serve as an appreciation of Dylan Minnette, who probably deserved an Emmy nomination for his performance last year in the episode focusing on Clay's tape and gets an entire season's worth of an Emmy reel this year.

After writing my spoiler-free review and my two posts on the retcons of season two, I took a deeper dive into the fan reaction to this season and saw a bit of criticism of Clay as a character. It feels like something important is being missed by the fans in a "big picture" way. Clay is not in a good place, and his condition is quite a bit more severe than his friends are noticing.

If season one was structured around the mental breakdown of Hannah Baker, season two is about the breakdown of Clay Jensen. In a chilling parallel, just as those closest to Hannah failed to realize the significance of her struggle until it was too late, there's no one around Clay to realize how hard he's taking everything. For a show built around raising awareness of the need to be empathetic, the characters fail to learn the lessons of their biggest failure in that regard.

That's not a shot at the writing, by the way. Everyone's behaving reasonably for what they know - it's just that they have huge blindspots.

Clay's journey last year was his discovery of what destroyed Hannah Baker's life and how she became so depressed that she ended it. He carried guilt over what he didn't know, what he didn't do, what he didn't understand. Their last significant contact was at a party where they spent half the night getting closer, only for Hannah to freak out and push him away when things got physical. At first he blamed himself for whatever he did to upset her, and then when Hannah's tapes basically absolved him of guilt, taking all responsibility for how things went bad, he cracked. He blamed himself for leaving the traumatized girl in tears, setting off a chain of events that made things go much worse.

Hannah wanted Clay to know her whole story - to know that she believed him to be good and kind and everything she couldn't see in herself. It feels like she wanted Clay's tape to set him free. Instead, it's clear it broke him.

Through the season, we see Clay experience most of the Five Stages of Grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance.

Clay ended last season by going to extremes to get justice for Hannah and then reaching out to a troubled former friend, Skye. When the show picks up five months later, Clay and Skye are now boyfriend and girlfriend. Skye is a cutter and clearly has some emotional issues. Even last season it was pretty clear that the lesson Clay took from Hannah's death is that he should reach out to someone like Skye before she heads down the same path.

Clay can try to "save" Skye, but in his heart he knows they're not meant to be. When the two of them are about to have sex for the first time, Clay sees Hannah briefly in her place. It's a representation of how both his heart isn't in this relationship and how deeply he's scarred by the way his own intimate encounter with Hannah ended. Poor Clay. He's trying to do the right thing, but he can't lie to himself and he's breaking down. Or to put it another way, Clay starts the season in Denial.

My own guess is that guilt is what's kept him with Skye this long - the fear of what losing him would make her do. That scenario plays out after a fight the two have and Skye goes home to attempt suicide again. She's hospitalized and spends several episodes offscreen as she realizes that what she and Clay have isn't healthy.

Clay's revelation doesn't come so easily. By the end of the first episode, he's graduated from visions of Hannah to carrying on complete conversations with an apparition of her. Some viewers have taken to assume that this is an indication of a full-on psychotic break and Clay is exhibiting signs of schizophrenia. I don't think that's the intent, and it feels more like this is how the show dramatizes Clay's internal struggle with how he can honor Hannah, and also how he processes some of the new details he learns about her over the course of the season.

Katherine Langford is playing Hannah in flashbacks, but it's important to remember that when Clay is talking to ghost-Hannah, Langford is basically playing Clay too. Or at least a side of him that's trying to understand Hannah. "Hannah" never tells Clay something he doesn't already know and when he asks a direct question, she either deflects or gives a rhetorical response. She's a sign of his fractured psyche. He talks to her because he has no one else he can open up to.

One thing the Clay/"Hannah" scenes kind of muddy is the sense of loss surrounding those Hannah left behind. Because of how she's "present" she weirdly feels less dead this season than she did last season. Another consequence of this is because we see more of Hannah in what looks like a normal state, it starts to overwrite the memory of the depressed girl she was when she took her life.

No matter how comforting a version of Hannah that Clay conjures in his mind, one of the most quietly heartbreaking things about the series is that we know that hours before she slit her wrists in a bathtub, Hannah said, "Clay Jensen hates me" while talking to Mr. Porter. And just to make that detail more painful, remember that Clay heard the actual recording of this conversation. He knows that Hannah went to her grave believing Clay hated her. That's gotta be gutting.

Hannah Baker may no longer exist regardless, but the more vibrant "Hannah" that Clay engages with in his mind had ceased to exist well before she bled out in a bathtub. It makes some sense that Clay's coping would involve reflecting on the old Hannah, but it's also a manipulation of the audience.

Clay's downward spiral continues across several episodes, as everything that happens seems to be aimed at hitting him where he's vulnerable. Where last year, Hannah's tapes at least assured Clay that she loved him as much as he loved her, and that their romance only was aborted because she felt she wasn't worthy of him, this year Clay learns that Hannah spent the prior summer sleeping with Zach. Though that provokes some expected hurt and jealousy on his part the real pain of this comes from the new context it places Clay and Hannah's aborted hookup in.

Hannah didn't react to Zach's touch with the revulsion she later would to Clay's. Which again puts Clay back in the only position he can retreat to - wondering what he did wrong that night. No matter what comfort Hannah attempted on his tape, Clay has all that ripped away from him. Everything he believed about what he and Hannah meant to each other is put in question.

(I don't like the Zach/Hannah hookup for precisely the reason that it muddies up that climactic moment in season one, but taking it as canon for season two, it's a pretty rock solid way to add a few more layers of guilt to Clay in terms of triggering the chain of events that led straight to Hannah's death.)

Then in the following episode, written by Brian Yorkey, Clay takes the stand in the lawsuit against the school board. He's hoping that he'll be able to tell Hannah's story - get justice for her. Crushingly, he makes things worse. His own actions last season - sending a naked picture of Tyler around school as retribution, buying drugs from Bryce as a pretense to getting his (inadmissible) confession - come back to haunt him on the stand. He ends up only making things worse.

If Clay wasn't there already, this event drives him to the next stage: Anger.

This is the point where Clay fully breaks and does the one truly indefensible thing: he releases the tapes anonymously over the internet. As he prepares the files, "Hannah" appears to him. Remember - she's not really there, so this is really just a dramatization of the conflict in Clay's head as he prepares to cross a line he can't come back from.

Don't do this.

I'm doing it for you. I'm trying to make things right.

You know it won't.

What else can I do?

Clay's powerless. He has to do something. He's trying to find the action that will fix what went wrong on the stand. And right now, even he knows that this is a bad idea and one that won't change anything. But he can't be idle. It's an interesting evolution for a character who started the series often defined by his inaction.

You can help Jessica and Justin. You can figure out those pictures.

I don't care about the fucking pictures. I care about the truth. I care about you.

Then don't do it. You know I don't want you to.

Clay said in season one that "Maybe it's time to stop thinking about what Hannah wants, and start thinking about what Hannah needs." It's good that the show interrogates Hannah's own decisions, but this conversation is all about Clay's.

Well, maybe you don't get a say anymore. People did terrible things to you and they're getting away with it. You left those tapes for a reason.

What reason?

To make people face what they did and admit it and understand how fucked up it was.

Do you think I wanted revenge?

I take this as Clay asking himself a hard question he's tried not to consider. A big debate about the first season was if we should take Hannah's tapes as a revenge plot. I didn't interpret it that way, and I don't think Clay did either, but the fact Hannah actually voices this question makes me think he's begun to doubt that interpretation. If he thinks she's out for revenge, it makes releasing the tapes that much easier.

And this is the root of his breakdown - he doesn't know which version of Hannah to believe in anymore. The foundation of his view of Hannah has been shaken too much.

I don't know what you wanted, because you left a huge fucking mess. I'm the only one interested in cleaning it up. 

It wasn't revenge. I had to tell my own story. I wanted people to know what happened so maybe it wouldn't happen again.

Exactly. So everyone should hear it.

Clay's not making an invalid observation here. Hannah herself used the threat of publicly releasing the tapes as a way of forcing everyone on there to listen. Further, she didn't leave any instructions about what was to happen afterwards.

Notably, it's only seen in the context of being "her story." Clay doesn't consider that "her story" also involves material that a lot of other people would consider "their" story. Sure he gets to out Bryce as a rapist and put his confession out there... but that also means revealing Jess is a rape victim. That's the myopia of this scene - the only thing that matters to Clay in this debate is what he can do and what he thinks Hannah would have wanted.

I think it's notable that neither Clay nor "Hannah" brings up the issue of outing Jess as a rape victim. This would seem to demonstrate Clay didn't think about this consequence AT. ALL. I suppose it's better than him deciding the benefits of releasing the tapes would outweigh the harm of doing so - but it also points to his dangerous tunnel vision. All he's focusing on is avenging Hannah. It's a single-minded crusade he embarks on without weighing the consequences.

Nothing will keep Ahab from his whale.

No, not like this.

You don't get to decide. You left.

It's that simple for Clay. But the significance here is that he's reaching the limits of the Hannah apparition being useful to him. He can argue with her, but since he's arguing with himself, Hannah's POV is always going to be handicapped. And something interesting happens when Clay reaches the limits of how much he can argue her side of things...

In the eleventh episode of the season, "Bryce + Chloe," written by Marissa Jo Cerar & Thomas Higgins, Bryce takes the stand and tells a mountain of lies about his history with Hannah. He claims they had an off-again, on-again thing. It's all lies, but he's trying to undermine Hannah's rape accusation. Clay doesn't take this well and demands that "Hannah" tell him it's all lies. Of course, "Hannah" can't do that. All she can offer is, "Don't think about it, Clay. Just think about me. Think about touching me. Think about hugging me. How it felt when we were close."

But Clay is past taking solace in the good memories. He says, "I don't want to think about that ever again. Just tell me what's true."

But she can't. And when Clay doesn't have an answer that his subconscious can express through "Hannah," guess what happens? "Hannah" starts reciting some familiar words:

"Here we are. Tape 12. If you've listened this far and you haven't heard your name yet, well, I bet you know exactly what's coming now. Or maybe you don't have any idea."

Tape 12 is the tape where Hannah describes how Bryce raped her. And from this point on in the episode, all "Hannah" does is recite the tape, dramatizing how it's all Clay can think about - how Bryce violated her, broke her... and how he's going to get away with it.

When Clay comes into possession of a gun late in the episode, he heads straight for Bryce's house. We see him followed at every step by "Hannah," eerily keeping pace with him as she narrates that awful night.

When I tried to climb out of the hot tub, you pulled me back in... You told me we were "just having fun."

I'll make him hurt. I'll make him understand what he did.

I struggled, but you were too strong for me. You pulled my underwear down and used your body to trap me there.

Justin pulls up, tries to reason with Clay even as he sees Clay has a gun. But Clay's attention is still pulled by "Hannah."

You gripped my wrists and pushed yourself inside of me.

Get out of my way, Justin.

Come on, Clay, this is fucking crazy.

It felt like a knife cutting me open.

No one's gonna get justice for her.

Clay pulls his gun on Justin, and as unhinged as he is, I'm going to mark this sequence as when Clay hits Depression, for reasons that will soon become clear. (Yes, this means that as best as I can tell, the show skipped Bargaining.) While Clay and Justin argue, we keep hearing Hannah's narration.

By the way, this first person account is unique to this season. Last year we only saw the events depicted on the tapes - we didn't hear Hannah narrate the play-by-play, which is almost as brutally devastating as experiencing it as a scene. Katherine Langford didn't get as much meaty material this season as last, but this confrontation makes up for it.

I begged you, "Please, Bryce," but you told me to relax... You said you would go "nice and easy," but you went harder and faster... When I cried out in pain, you grabbed my hair like the sound of my pain made it better for you.

I can't count on anyone else anymore. I have to do this myself.

You don't have to do this yourself. We can get him tomorrow.

I need to do it now.

Minnette really sells his desperation here. It's another scene that should be a red flag to Justin that Clay needs some serious help.

I just tried to leave my body. I tried to forget the anger and pain.

For Hannah. 

Listen, Clay, I know you loved her, but she's gone. And going in there and hurting Bryce now is not gonna bring her back. She's gone.

If you're lucky, you live a long life, and one day, your body just gives up, and it's over.

How do I make her stop? She won't stop.

Make who stop? Who, Clay? Who are you talking about?

The way I see it, there are two kinds of death.

Clay takes his gun... and points it at his own head.

...If you're not lucky, you die a little bit...

Clay, come on.

...Over and over, until you realize it's too late... 

Just stop. Give me the gun.

Bryce steps outside, sees Clay with a gun to his head and Justin trying to talk him down. Clay freezes, lowers the gun.

...And in that moment, it felt... it felt like I was already dead.

It's one of the more tense moments of the series, and the heartbreaking look that Clay imagines on "Hannah's" face gives all the window we need into the pain he feels and the violation he feels a duty to avenge.

It also hammers home just how much the tapes messed with his head. Whatever Hannah intended, this is the result, and Minnette makes every second of it agonizing to watch. My only gripe with this scene is that "Hannah" should really be appearing as the short-haired depressed incarnation rather than her regular appearance.

This is Clay at his lowest point. He's convinced to walk away without violence and gets his head a little bit better together. By the time of the final episode of the season, he's moved closer to Acceptance.

In this final episode, written by Brian Yorkey, he and "Hannah" have a happier interaction. They sit by the shore together and watch the sunset, as "Hannah" asks him to remember a happy memory. Clay gives a speech at her long-delayed memorial service. As he speaks, he sees "Hannah" walk into the church and take a seat in a back pew...

Hannah Baker came into my life at the end of one summer like a star that fell to Earth. Like nothing I had seen, like no one I had ever met. She was funny, and smart, and moody, and and maddening, and beautiful. And I loved her. I loved her so much. And I ask her every day why she did what she did.

But I get no answers. She took those with her when she went. Leaving me, all of us, angry, empty, confused. And I know that hurt won't ever go away. But there will come a day when I don't feel it every minute. And the anger won't be so hot, and the other feelings will fade, and I'll be left with only love.

A good friend once said to me, "I can love you and still let you go." So, Hannah, I love you, and I let you go. And I miss you. And I hope that wherever you go next, you feel peace, you feel safe in a way that you never did here.

Wherever you go next, I hope you know that I love you. 

Hannah's memorial service is a sequence that on its own justifies the entire second season. By the time Clay finishes speaking, "Hannah" has stood up and walked out the back door into a bright light. The implication is clear... he said he was letting go, and he meant it.

I'm still bothered that Clay's breakdown went largely unnoticed by his friends and family and if there's a third season, it really would be a good idea to see Clay getting some professional help, but Minnette makes the entire downward spiral and reach for recovery incredibly affecting and compelling.

And still... there's the realization that letting go doesn't mean that Clay's fully healed. In a scene that really should have been the final moments of the season, Clay attends the spring dance. Everything is going well until the DJ plays, "The Night We Met." It's the song that he and Hannah shared their one slow dance to at last year's formal.

Clay wanders the dance floor, looking like a man totally lost. Tony, as soon as he hears the song start, says "Shit. I have to find Clay," and so he's the first to find his friend and pull him into an embrace as they both weep. And then Jessica is there. And Alex. Followed by Courtney. And Ryan. All these people touched by Hannah's loss huddle together around Clay, comforting him and each other.

It would have been a perfect ending. Grief and hope. The hint that whatever Clay still has yet to face, he won't have to do it alone.

There's one final scene, with Clay facing down a school shooter. He puts himself in the path of an assault-rifle toting Tyler to talk him down. This comes AFTER he tells his friends not to call the cops on Tyler. On one hand, you can say that Clay is reaching out with empathy, trying to keep Tyler from throwing his life away.

On another hand, you wonder if he has a death wish, and you question how irresponsible it is to show that the "right" thing to do is not call the police to the scene of a possible mass shooting. Maybe in his mind, he's trying to do for Tyler what Justin did for him by talking him down outside Bryce's. Maybe he sees some of Hannah in Tyler and is trying to stop a life-altering mistake.

It's not a perfect fit with the rest of the episode, but Minnette does his damndest to sell it in the moment. You might question it later, but he makes you believe this is something Clay would do. Season three might be well-served by Clay realizing how very lucky he just got, or by giving him a "Holy shit! What did I almost do?" moment.

Either way, if Minnette's there, I'll be there. He and the writers have made Clay Jensen one of the most compelling teen protagonists in the history of the genre.


  1. I'll offer a small defense of the summer romance plotline in that it does end in a significant emotional wound for Hannah, since Zach, whom she had come to know as a sensitive, good guy, ends up rejecting and denying her when he reunites with his jock friends as school starts. It reinforces that 'all men are pigs' and just want one thing from women, even the supposedly "good guys." So at the party, when she and Clay are about to do that one thing, she fears that the sensitive, good guy she knows Clay to be, will similarly be revealed to just be yet another jerk. (Of course that ultimately happens anyway through Clay's unknowing actions.) That and her other wounds combine in the emotional reaction to push him away.

    Regarding Clay's psychological issues and spiraling condition, his family seems to have been aware and tried to help since, IIRC, there are references to meds and therapy from his parents in S2E1, but I'm curious as to what friends you're referring to? By the end of S2, several members of the tape group bonded with Clay, but as evidenced in S1, Tony is his closest and perhaps only real friend and Clay doesn't even realize he's gay. Beyond Tony there's Hannah and that's about it. He and Skye were estranged and while it appears several of the tape group mostly liked Clay prior to the tapes, they didn't seem to be close friends and were all adversaries to varying degrees while he held the tapes. Alex is probably the closest to him of that group, and with him recovering from TBI resulting from his suicide attempt, he's hardly in a position to identify Clay's difficulties. Justin, from living with him, is able to see the signs that Clay can hide from everyone else, so you're left with the recovering homeless addict to intervene. In fact, S2's biggest character arc may be the progression of the group from adversaries to grudging allies, to foxhole buddies - friends born from the experience shared in a battle, that against Bryce and the jock rape culture. They've learned they're all flawed, they're all hurting in some way, and they'll all share lifetime scars from the experience.

    1. That's a decent stab at explaining the Zach thing, but it still leaves the hole of why this isn't even hinted at on Zach's tape. I came away feeling this revelation made Zach look WORSE than S1 did and making him way more "tape-worthy."

      Weirdly there's a faction of fans who have embraced Zach/Hannah as the True Love of the series and I can't wrap my brain around that either. I don't think we're supposed to feel Hannah felt much affection for him at the end either, as he doesn't appear on her "Reasons Why Not" list while Clay does twice.

      As for Clay's mental status, his parents seem to double-down on all the bad parenting of season 1. They raise issues with him, but never lay down the law and never probe too deeply. I get that Clay shuts down and that has to be frustrating, but after season 1 put a lot of this stuff into the light it's frustrating to see them miss warning sign after warning sign.

      On the friend front, you do make some solid points and there's a definite sense a lot of friendships hit the pause button in the interregnum. Alex was in recovery, Tony was dealing with his legal issues, Jess was... somewhere. I'm completely with you on the notion that everyone got closer this season but we DO see that a lot of them are at least friendly and having shared the tapes last year, it would have been nice to see SOMEONE show some insight into "Okay, Clay's REALLY on a dark path."

      Zach has a few moments that could have prepared for that. He clearly feels bad about how he knows Clay will take his testimony and he also picked him to receive the polaroids so there must have been some... respect, maybe... for him.

      But just having Jess or Sheri get a scene like "You okay?" would have gone a long way to showing someone learned from Hannah's tapes.