Wednesday, May 31, 2017

13 Reasons Why - Side 11: Fleshed out parents help deepen the other characters

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


Teen dramas don't tend to have a lot of great material for parent characters. For the most part, the adult authority figures present an obstacle to wish-fulfillment stories of teenage rebellion. Also, these shows are aimed at teens and the assumption is that that audience is rarely compelled by drama around adult characters. (And if you take a look at most of the adult storylines in, say, the first two seasons of Dawson's Creek, you start to understand why. I'm not sure why the writers thought we'd be interested in the Leery's open marriage, but there you have it.) Of course, as soon as you sideline the parents in a series like that, it really feels like the show's centered on college kids rather than high school students. The fact that most performers on those shows tend to be in their early twenties or older tends to reinforce that. (RIVERDALE is an exception to this, a show where the adults are fully integrated into the storylines.)

13 Reasons Why doesn't try to shuffle the parents off-screen. In fact, over the course of the 13-episode run, we meet most of the main characters' parents. In each case, the home life helps inform what we know about the characters. There's a pretty broad spectrum of parenting types, from disciplinarian, to well-meaning but ineffectual, to negligent, to absentee and so on. In every case, who these kids are is reinforced and explained by the parental forces in their lives. It speaks to a real depth in the writing and it's a big part of why all the teens, down to the second tier, feel fleshed out.

Hannah's parents get some of the most wrenching material, as of course, they're blindsided by the suicide of their daughter. In the present, they're trying to make sense of how she got to that point while also seeking some measure of justice. They blame the school for not stopping the bullying or stepping in to protect her, which motivates a lot of the conflict through the back half of the episode run when they file a lawsuit. Hannah's friends and the school employees are going to be deposed, which is the LAST thing they want to cooperate with after Hannah's tapes have demonstrated there's evidence that she blames all of them for her death.

Putting aside their significance to the plot, it's their relationship to Hannah that explores how easy it is to miss the suicide warning signs. The easy way out would have been to make Hannah's parents disinterested or negligent in some fashion. Yet in their scenes with Hannah, we get the sense that they are involved in their daughter's life - or at least have no reason on their end to THINK she's hiding things from them. I can't think of too many real bonding moments between Hannah and her father, but she and her mother have a number of conversations about her aspirations and interests. Mrs. Baker never is put in the position of having to pull teeth to get Hannah to talk, and it's hard to castigate her for not being a mind reader.

Which is not to say there aren't clues to Hannah's state-of-mind to be found. She mentions more than once that her mother can't relate to her experience in high school because her mother was popular. It's a telling observation because it makes us wonder if she feels inadequate and even embarrassed by that fact. Equally telling - her parents were high school sweethearts, which seems to have made her both envious of that kind of connection and depressed to not have something like it. Perhaps she feels high school shouldn't be this hard and there's something wrong with her if she doesn't have the same good fortune as her parents. A lot of movies focus on teens trying to live up to pressure their parents place on them overtly, but this feels like the case of Hannah being intimidated by the shadow her parents cast. It's a burden she's placed on herself, but there is the possibility she's twisted this into feeling like a disappointment with them.

That probably also feeds into her guilt after she loses a bank deposit carrying $700 from the family store. It's no small screw-up, but she feels terrible about it and she cares enough about her parents that their (not unreasonable) disappointment really guts her. It nails her insecurities and makes her even less likely to open up to them in crisis because she already feels like a disappointment. A lot of thought clearly went into this, with the intent of making their dynamic as un-black-and-white as possible.

Again and again, I was struck how Hannah still seemed to have a closer relationship with her parents than Clay had with his, at least outwardly. Clay feels rather disconnected from them, especially his father. There's no simmering conflict (at least not any that isn't provoked by Clay's frequent disappearances), but there's also very little warmth. Clay's mother tries hard to force a connection - mandating family breakfasts, not letting Clay close the door to his room - but it's all done in such a straight-on manner that Clay calls her a helicopter parent and usually shuts down in reaction. She's trying, but she's going about it in completely the wrong way.

This is a hard relationship to evaluate fairly because we don't get many scenes of Clay with his parents in the past. Honestly, the only one that stands out to me is when Clay's getting ready to go to Jess's party and his mom offers to drive him. Knowing how he related to them before Hannah's death rocked his world might provide more context to how deep the divide is between Clay and them. But if you were to go just by the parent-child interactions we see, you might peg Clay's homelife to be the one that more likely foreshadowed a depressed, alienated teen who needs help.

On the subject of Clay's mother... it's really hard not to judge her for agreeing to represent the school in the lawsuit against Hannah's parents. First, I'm shocked her firm would assign her that case given that connection alone. Second, yes, Clay doesn't tell his mom that he knew Hannah very well, but her taking that at face value requires her to take leave of a lot of her senses. No matter how much Clay's been hiding his grief, his mother should be able to pick up on something that's up with him since his school got hit with a suicide (and an accidental death, we learn much later.) She knows from the start that this is going to entail attacking a teenage girl's character - a girl who took her own life. Let's say she has every reason to accept Clay at his word when he says he didn't know Hannah - why doesn't it ever occur to her in the abstract that tearing down a troubled teen might do more harm than good to her relationship with her son?

The familial relationships of the other kids prove to be equally important in defining their character.

- Jess's father is in the Navy and she clearly looks up to him. In a revealing moment that's passed off as a joke, she expresses a fondness for "a man in uniform," not realizing the obvious until Hannah points out that her father "wears a uniform." Over the course of the series we learn that Jess was raped and is in DEEP denial about it, with a good portion of that resistance being driven by her fear of disappointing her father. It forms the backbone of her motivation throughout the series. (In contrast, we only see her mother once and learn next to nothing about her.)

- Justin has the worst homelife of any of the kids. His mother's shacked up with a meth dealer who's abusive to him. It forces Justin to take refuge at Bryce's pool house. Through this we learn of Bryce's generosity - he'd give Justin new shoes, saying he had an extra pair rather than embarrass Justin by making a specific gift of them. Bryce's parents have fed Justin, bought him clothes and looked after him in ways his own family never has. This gives Justin a more complicated loyalty to Bryce than just "bro-code" when Bryce forces himself on Justin's girlfriend, an intoxicated Jess. It's a smart move on the writers' part to make this dynamic as complex as possible. Justin feels he owes Bryce and can't betray him by turning him in. He's also been the recipient of a lot of kindness from Bryce so he's determined to rationalize the rape as an out-of-character moment he shouldn't be judged for.

- Interesting, during the timeframe the series covers, Bryce's parents are never seen. They're absent the entire time, which gives Bryce ample opportunity to host parties and gatherings at his place sans supervision. He doesn't have any visible authority figures, no one to set boundaries. If anything, he's surrounded by enablers. He's popular enough and well-liked in school that no one really can stand up to him. When Hannah is sexually assaulted by him, her fear is the same as likely any girl in her position: "Who would believe me over him?"

- Alex's dad is another authority figure, a local deputy. Alex is deferential to his face, calling him "sir," and it's possible that the rigid morality his dad represents is also what causes Alex to take his own culpability in Hannah's death so hard. And again, we know next to nothing of his mother, beyond the fact she works at the hospital.

Seeing how all of these character backgrounds end up feeding the main story arcs, you can understand why it's usually sound writing advice to know as much about your characters as possible. You could simplify any or possibly even all of these backgrounds and still tell the same story, but the characters and the emotion are so much richer for what these extra shadings add.

Side 12: Episodic structure makes a comeback
Side 13: Thoughts on Season 2

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