Wednesday, May 23, 2018

What is a retcon and how was it used in season 2 of 13 REASONS WHY?

Having given my overall thoughts in a fairly non-spoiler fashion for the second season of 13 REASONS WHY, this post will be rife with spoilers as I take on one of the more contentious reveals of season 2. If you haven't seen it yet, this is your warning - turn back now.

Season 2 of the show uses a trial as a framing device through most of the episodes, often interrogating characters about their perspectives and calling into question some of the things Hannah told us in Season 1. This is what's known as a "retcon," short for "retroactive continuity." It's what we call it when backstory is established or changed after the fact. In some circles, "retcon" is used to imply "bad retcon," as in an instance where a newly-established backstory actually contradicts and overwrites previously established facts.

In general, any time a new detail about a character's history is revealed, that's a retcon. I first heard this term in comic book circles, where DC Comics would often rewrite the history of their characters and pretend the new history had been there the whole time. (Hawkman's storyline became a mess because of this kind of thing in the 90s.)

Some TV shows have handled this elegantly. One of the best examples I can think of is ANGEL, where the 100 year-old vampire's history was revealed in many flashbacks over the course of five seasons. The flashbacks often challenged assumptions the fans had about Angel's history, but never actually violated what had been said before. For example, Angel is cursed with a soul in 1898 and fans assumed that he walked the Earth as a tortured soul until 1997 when he was given purpose and became an ally to Buffy.

We came to learn that wasn't the case, that even after he was ensouled, Angel struggled long and hard not to prey on people, with a relapse or two along the way that eventually propelled him to the rock bottom spot he was in just prior to meeting Buffy. It gave new dimension to what was known, but never compromised existing continuity.

Which brings me to 13 REASONS WHY. Via the trial, we hear testimony from several characters that adds to the story Hannah told on her tapes. Some - like Courtney's tale of getting a willing kiss from Hannah - don't match what Hannah said, but it's easy enough to reconcile the differing recollections and find a way for both stories to be consistent.

That's not the case with three reveals on the stand:

1) Zach Dempsey reveals that in the summer before Hannah killed herself, the two of them became close. She decided to "get it over with" and lose her virginity to him, after which she initiated regular hook-ups with Zach over the course of the summer. It came to an end when his friends returned and he kept the relationship secret, claiming it would protect her from being harassed by his jock buddies.

When Clay finds out, he's heartbroken. He asks the spectral-Hannah he sees in his mind a question she could never answer, "If I'd been there [in town during that summer] would it have been me?" His old jealousy rears up, but his hurt is coming from a deeper place than that. As far as he - and we - knew, Hannah was a virgin. A month before she died, she and Clay almost hooked up at a party, but as they kissed and things got intense, Hannah's mind could only take her to all of the groping, sexual assault and humiliation she'd suffered up to that point. Freaking out with PTSD, she saw in Clay every guy who'd ever touched her without permission and told him to get off her.

So learning that Hannah not only had sex with Zach, but a LOT of sex, he can only ask, "Why did she freak out with me and not him?"

2) The second major retcon is a bit more minor. It comes out that Hannah's father was cheating on her mother and Hannah found out about it last spring. She demanded her father come clean with her mother. He ended the affair and tried to work things out with his wife.

3) A third retcon is the discovery that last spring, Hannah and Clay spent all night with Jeff and a few other friends doing some trippy drugs. As they came down from the high, Hannah made some remarks to the effect that she was considering suicide.

As to the second one: There's no indication in season one that there had been any affair and especially no indication that Hannah knew. In fact, on Tape 6, when talking about Valentine's Day, Hannah talks about how her parents have the perfect marriage saying, "My parents were high school sweethearts. So shoot me: I still believed in romance." Though the flashback takes place before the cheating, Hannah's VO comes from a time after she knew about the affair. It's incredibly hard to reconcile that with what she knew to be true. It needlessly compromises Hannah's perspective in season one, especially since it would be easy enough to rationalize her parents breaking up in the aftermath of her death.

And the third one? Clay and Hannah seem a bit TOO familiar at this point in their timelines, but that's less of a blip than the fact that both of them spending all night with Jeff undermines Clay's angry "You didn't even know [Jeff!]" when an emotional Hannah approached Clay after Jeff died in episode 10 last season. If this was the only continuity hiccup it would be easily ignored, but the other retcons earn this one more scrutiny. In a big picture sense, it's not terribly severe though.

But the first retcon is a bit more complicated for me. It's revealed in the sixth episode of the season, "The Smile at the End of the Dock," written by Julia Bicknell. It's the first truly great episode of the season, which is not a surprise because Bicknell also wrote the fifth episode of the previous season, which I raved about here. The prior episodes are all pretty strong, but Bicknell's script instantly has more depth, nuance and complexity - with so much of the story driven by strong and relatable emotions from the characters.

But it IS a surprise because the Zach/Hannah relationship revealed within is a development that I have a strong objection to. I don't know if I've ever seen a plot point I disliked so much done in such fantastic way that I was still marveling at the quality of the writing, performances and the direction. I could probably eviscerate and defend this plot line in equally passionate measure.

So in the spirit of the season-long trial storyline, that's what I'm going to do. Tomorrow I'm going to prosecute and defend this retcon, first going into all the reasons why it's a massive misstep... then presenting the case for ignoring those reasons.


  1. This post may better belong where you prosecute and defend the retcon, but I'm going to put in here and focus on Clay's question as why Hannah freaked out with him and not Zach.

    First, with Zach, its hard to conceive of a more controlled environment for her to have sex with Zach. It was her idea and she was with someone who, at least in this area, was I think entirely trustworthy. It was in her room, her bed and at a time when I would have to think she was as sure as humanly possible her parents would not be coming home.

    At Jessica's party, the environment was far from controlled. It would have been easy for anyone to see them going into or coming out of the room, which could well have added to her anxiety regarding her reputation. And while it was obviously willing and consensual, it was not planned. And she seemed to have had a decent amount to drink.

    More importantly perhaps, she also had the end of her relationship with Zach do deal with. I don't think she was in love with Zach, but by the end of the fling I think she had real feelings form him. But he told her he wanted to keep relationship secret in a way that I'm sure made her feel ashamed. He may not have intended that, although I'm disinclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. And then he showed keeping the relationship ship secret was so important to him that he did nothing while Monty publicly humiliated her. Bryce was the one who stopped the ridicule. He didn't do it to help Hannah, but still--Bryce did something and Zach did nothing.

    Obviously, Zach's actions did not show up on what I refer to as Hannah's montage of horrors because it hadn't been filmed. (I've always thought it was interesting and kind of commendable that the show included Clay's prior missteps in the montage). But I have to think she was also recalling Zach's actions, particularly as they were so fresh. Its seems reasonable to think that his actions might have been the ones that pushed her over the edge. Justin's actions ruining her first kiss had a great effect on Hannah. Its hard to believe Zach's actions weren't even more harmful.

    In your reply to a prior comment, you mention the plot hole as to why the relationship is never mentioned on the tape. My best theory is that in the show, Hannah agreed to Zach's request to keep the relationship secret. By the time she made the tapes, she had gone through a year where seemly everyone she knew had betrayed her. I think she decided she was not going to be like them and would not violate her agreement with Zach. This does somewhat call into question her credibility on the taste, but I think its a pretty good reflection of Hannah's character.

    Like you, I think, the retcon is pretty hard to justify giving both the complete absence of any hint of it in Season 1 and the pretty near complete absence on any indication in Season 1 that Zach is in any way grieving Hannah. I don't like Zach and think he's weak and cowardly, but I do think Season 2 indicates he had feelings for Hannah. There just doesn't seem to be any hint of this in Season 1.

    I get the impression the show added the fling to show Hannah having a positive relationship. To do this, they sacrificed continuity and had Hannah act in a way that was out of character. I think the dialogue she used to make her proposal was very Hannahesque. But I think the concept was just too clinical for the girl who I think continued to believe in romance until the day she dies. But even worse, I don't think the show even achieved its aim. I find it hard to consider as relationship to be a positive one where it ends with one party believing the other is ashamed for people to know the relationship even existed.

    1. Ah, another debate! This'll be fun!

      In the five months since the episode was released, I've seen a number of attempts to make sense of these twists, much as you did. I think we all acknowledge that there's no explanation that fits perfectly and the best we can do is come up with some assumptions that limit the damage to continuity. What you've got is one of the better efforts, but to my mind, the writers were still a little too reckless in adding this.

      I agree that they wanted to show Hannah in a positive relationship with a guy. The BEHIND THE REASONS pretty much states that was the motivation. One thing that nags at me about this is that Hannah doesn't get to speak for herself about how or why she chose to lose her virginity like that. .The summer break was probably an irresistible gap in continuity for the writers. (And for me too. My first spec episode of this show also takes place in that gap.) But I feel like if you watch this episode between episodes 8 and 9 of season one, no one would feel like themselves here. Maybe you can write this off as Zach's perspective driving it, but again, such a major event for Hannah gets filtered through a guy and that feels... wrong somehow.

      I think your last paragraph is dead on. They wanted to tell what they thought was a sex positive story, and I guess showing Hannah take ownership of her sexuality was a priority. In a vacuum it might have worked, but the problem is that this doesn't happen in a vacuum. It's the story of how a teenage girl succumbs to depression. The way the fling ends ultimately gets VERY close to endorsing the conservative view it was supposed to challenge. It plays like she shouldn't have put herself out there to get her heart stomped to pieces by a guy who chose his friends over her. It's baffling to me that fans seem to have adopted this as a sweet relationship because the way it ends just shits all over any cuteness that led up to it.

      It makes Zach look worse, and I think I preferred the way season one suggested that Zach really didn't come around until after Clay confronted him and then even later when he was at the deposition. There are just too many moments early in season one - after Zach has HEARD the tapes - that he is still too tight with the bully-jock crowd. To know that's the person he remained AFTER his summer of being sweet to Hannah... it really vaults him up to being among the worst kids on the tapes. To me, what he does HERE had to have been more damaging to Hannah than just stealing her compliments.

      This is why I think they would have dodged a FEW issues just by giving Hannah a fling with someone we didn't know, or who at least wasn't on the tapes. If I'd gotten the assignment, "write Hannah losing her virginity," that's the way I'd have gone. And I probably would have given her some more agency in ending it. (This is me trying to find a way that her summer fling wouldn't be a logic recipient of the tapes.)

      Though again that leaves the problem of how this fling wouldn't trigger her, but being with Clay immediately activates PTSD for sexual trauma. You make a good stab at that, pointing out her tryst with Zach was under controlled conditions while her hookup with Clay was not. I'd go with that if it was just one or two hookups, but we're lead to believe they screwed like rabbits all summer. (And yeah, maybe Zach exaggerates, but I think we're intended to take everything here at face value, particularly since he seems genuine in how bad he feels about how much it hurts Clay.)

    2. Does Hannah keep the fling off the tape to protect Zach? You could cite her not naming Jessica as a rape victim as evidence of this... but then you have to consider that she KNOWS everyone hearing the tapes would realize who she was talking about with regard to that rape. She also outs Courtney on the tapes, so given the degree to which Zach wronged her, it's hard to see her protecting him. And it can't be to protect herself because she goes into dramatic detail about her own rape and other things she feels she did wrong.

      I guess if you buy into the idea that Hannah's a manipulative drama queen, you'd rationalize she kept this story off the tapes to better depict herself as a pure virginal victim. I don't like to think of Hannah as being that manipulative or dishonest, though. I think the writers definitely wanted to knock down the trope of the "virginal victim" and went through contortions to get there, despite all the explanations it demanded. Just having Clay ponder the inconsistencies isn't enough to cover it. The fact Hannah had sex doesn't really change what we think about her, but the fact she concealed it in a way to manipulate her own narrative definitely might. I can see why Clay feels played, and Justin calling out his Virgin/Whore complex feels like a dishonest way of refuting some really good questions.

      The other thing I think is notable is Hannah's "Reasons Why Not" List. On a list where she's trying so hard to find good reasons that Clay and her parents each get listed twice in some fashion, there's not even a passing mention of Zach. Given what they shared, that's a pretty telling indication of how she felt about that relationship near the end. Would she have any reason to protect it?

  2. Replying to your second post first. I don't think she kept the fling off the tapes to protect Zach. I agree that at the end she had no warm feelings for Zach and no reason or desire to protect him. What I think she was trying to do was honor her word when she agreed to Zach's request to keep the relationship secret. I think it meant something to her to believe she wasn't like the persons on the tapes that betrayed her. Throughout the series Hannah did her best to be a good friend to everyone, whether the deserved it or not. The fact that keeping the fling off the tapes might have protected him was irrelevant. What was important to Hannah was that she keep her word and thereby be a good friend even though Zach didn't deserve it. I may not be explaining the distinction I am making well enough. Also, to be clear, I don't think Hannah was being manipulative in any way.

    Returning to your first post, I agree the writers were too reckless in adding the fling, although that may be understating it. While they preserved her agency in the fling, your point that the nevertheless showed it completely from the boy's perspective is a great one and one I never considered. I'm probably giving away any sense of objectivity by saying this, but I pretty much detest Zannah in every respect.

    I also can't understand those who view the relationship as sweet and seemed to think it could have lasted if fate hadn't conspired against it. Fate didn't have anything to do with it--it was Zach's weakness and cowardice. I don't think Zach viewed Hannah as disposable, but after he received that text saying Bryce was back he kind of treated her as disposable.

    I think the only way they could make the fling work and show a relationship being positive to the end would be to bring in a character who as a result of circumstances would only be there for the summer. That way the relationship could have ended naturally, with no one being at fault.

    With respect to your last paragraph, I'd like to think the controlled situation theory works even in light of the frequency of their encounters. I imagine all of their encounters took place in Hannah's room. I can't really see them going to Zach's house or anywhere else. I think Zach did testify truthfully and without exaggerating. I think Zach simply lacked the guile to lie. And while I think Zach had many faults, he never seemed to feel any need to build himself up by magnifying his number of conquests. If he was going to lie he would have been better off to deny the fling altogether as in light of his actions at the end it just didn't make him look very good.

    You would understand this better than I, but I thing TPTB decided the wanted to send a message concerning a sex positive relationship and were either willing to sacrifice their story a bit or convinced themselves that they structured it in such a way that story wasn't sacrificed. Or they may have just hoped that enough people would be distracted enough by how cute Langford and Butler were together to ignore the damage to the continuity.

    Finally, and I tread on dangerous grounds here, but I think in constructing the sex positive relationship they lost sight of Hannah only being 16. I think it was refreshing and healthy for Zach and Hannah to improve as they went along and increasingly satisfy each other. The same with Hannah practicing on her own. But for some reason having her say it was literally the only thing she wanted to do when they were talking at the Crestmont was a bridge too far for me.

    1. Yeah, I don't like Zannah much as a concept at all. Aside from the many continuity issues it raises, I don't think it reflects well on either character. If Hannah had somehow lived through her junior year, I could see her eventually having some kind of relationship with Zach, but it just doesn't belong in the middle of the story they were telling in season one.

      I don't think TPTB were unaware of the continuity issues raised here and in many reviews. I think they felt they had a story they wanted to tell using Hannah and believed that the notion she wouldn't have put everything on the tapes was enough to explain it.

      I too had a reaction to that line at the bridge. It felt very un-Hannah to me, and in thinking about it now, it made me realize ANOTHER stereotype it perpetuates. In movies, we often see "damaged" women throw themselves into meaningless sex. At the point in Hannah's arc where this happens, her depression is supposed to be reaching its apex. Episodes 7 & 8 were clearly conceived as the point where she starts sinking. So in the middle of that is where she "gets it over with with Zach." There's probably some realism to that... but it would require not treating this as some idealized cute romance. The hooking up would have darker undertones to it if we had been made to experience in its proper context.

      I also think some of the motivation for all of this was to shock the audience a little. When Clay is being lectured for what Justin sees as his prudish attitude to Hannah's sex life, that's the writers talking to us. "You think Hannah's a bad person just for having sex?! What does that say about you?"

      And you know, challenging that might be a valid cause... with another character. But Hannah comes with so many issues and baggage attached that it's way more complicated than that.

      And yeah, we're not used to seeing 16 year-olds be THIS sexual on TV, but that's the way of the world I guess. I did appreciate that they took a rather modest approach to shooting Hannah. I don't think we're ever invited to leer at her. If this was the CW or Freeform, she'd have spent half the episode in her underwear.