Monday, July 15, 2024

Alice Isn’t Dead: Absent Family

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Review of Season 2, Episode 8 of Alice Isn’t Dead, “Absent Family”

It’s not often that I can start this review with a major piece of news related to this beloved podcast, and I can’t help myself. It has been recently announced that Alice Isn’t Dead is going to be adapted into a novel (written by Joseph Fink) and that a television series is also in development! This is such a groundbreaking deal for the independent podcast creators of Night Vale Presents that I can barely contain my excitement − and neither can they.

In troubled times, again and again, good pieces of fiction remain essential. This upcoming book, as well as the possibility of a screen adaptation, is evidence that Alice Isn’t Dead is a story very much needed in today’s America. It asks the relevant questions, the hard questions; it provides few answers, and hard to swallow ones at that, but I am beyond delighted that the immense contemplative value of this narrative is now more broadly recognized. I can’t wait for the book to come out so I can actually delve into the actual pages of a story that is fast becoming my favorite piece of fiction currently being produced. I’m sure my volume will be loved and cherished and annotated and abused as soon as I get it.

In light of this wonderful announcement, there is still the rest of the season to review, and I have three episodes left to cover. It was a tight wrap with more than a touch of angst and gore, and the episode I am reviewing today was certainly no exception. “Absent Family” gives us a lot to reflect on.

After last episode’s semi-discussion with the Praxis Oracle, Keisha is left with such a mere blurry picture of the war she’s finding herself caught in. So, she decides to go back to one of the very few elements she has personal experience with and tries to find the Bay and Creek base again to demand answers. Unluckily for her, she finds the secret entrance shut down and no other visible way to enter the underground base. Faced with the failure to confidently confront Bay and Creek as she had planned, she asks herself why they even let her live after she found out about their secret base, if it wasn’t to let her in again.

Her conclusion is that they allowed her to live because she must have a role to play in the war somehow. And that if she still has a role to play on the Bay and Creek side, then it must mean that the Thistle side will continue to track her down as they have so far. Just as she reaches this conclusion, the one who I have dubbed the Officer for sake of consistency (although I have seen people call her Watcher − she has no canon name as of yet) pulls up next to the house and chases Keisha, who barely manages to escape after stabbing the Officer non-lethally. Keisha’s last thought of the episode is that she is bound to be constantly on the run if she wants to stay alive.

This is another episode of a pre-finale confrontation that actually feels earned and relevant to the story. The Officer is terrifying, and more and more like the Thistle Men with each passing scene. In this episode, she again taunts Keisha, a major characteristic of Thistle, mixed with the threat of open violence. She chases Keisha in the most inhumane way. Even descriptions of her appearance line up with the not-quite-human Thistle Men of last season.

“She was dressed haphazardly in something like a police officer’s uniform, but the details were all wrong.”

She claims to have followed Keisha through her sense of smell, which makes sense considering the Thistle Men also seem to have found her scent trail no matter what. And again, as we have heard several times before, she mentions this unnamed side she seems to be sent by, the looming threat of Thistle that seems to be somehow protected by the US government.

“Hey listen! I have a job to do now. Here we go!”

Of course, it’s only a matter of time before the ultimate confrontation, but thank God Keisha escaped her clutches now. The duality of this war, Bay and Creek versus Thistle, is once again underlined. But there is the constant impression that neither side is clearly defined and the whole conflict remains a huge question mark.

Still, her realization is more than a little hard to swallow. She’s no stranger to being on the run, of course. In fact, all of her ponderings during this episode are about her experiences as someone who is constantly traveling. The hard truth she’s confronted with about the war is mirrored in her reflections about the life of a permanent traveler. Just like she can never be truly safe so long as she lives, she also cannot find a true sense of belonging so long as she travels.

But she also emphasizes the silver lining that she has personal experience with the whole of America. I believe her having the past experience of a loving marriage with Alice, which gives her actual personal reasons to be involved in this war, is relevant as well. More will definitely be said about this in later episodes.

Although Alice hasn’t been openly mentioned that many times this season—certainly much fewer than during the first one—she is hidden behind every word of this episode. The title itself, “Absent Family”, is a reminder of the gap she left behind.

“Alice, our paths are different now.”

In many ways, Keisha reaching the epiphany that she must always run has everything to do with her overarching character arc this season of slowly letting go of Alice (and no spoilers on the finale allowed before I finally reach that part of these episodic reviews!). Home isn’t a place, she told us back in season 1. Home was a person. The endless cycle of traveling, jumping from one place to another with complete rootlessness, reminds me of the sadness she finds herself wrapped up in, her grief over Alice’s departure that she constantly pushes past.

“I need to live long enough to figure out what my place is in this war.”

It is, after all, part of the same narrative. Keisha is letting go of the last barrier. She has a role to play in this war, for sure, and she knows that Alice is still out there somewhere. But she also must run away from the danger and with that, give up the hope of reuniting with her wife. And at this point, Keisha has had to find meaning in her life apart from Alice.

As an aside, I’ve seen people call their past relationship dependent and unhealthy. I’m not sure I would go to that length, only because of my personal experience with anxiety, which is a core aspect of Keisha’s personality that affects all her relationships. There are things that mentally ill people are less able to do on their own, and I think that calling a relationship unhealthy because one partner relies on their partner’s help in some measure to live with their mental illness is not the best way to capture that type of dynamic.

Of course, mentally ill people can push too far in that direction, but I don’t think we’ve been presented with evidence clearly proving that this was the case between Keisha and Alice. Keisha sometimes needing Alice’s support during anxiety attacks does not mean that this was a permanent reliance. And just because she was deeply hurt and shocked by Alice’s disappearance and took a very long time to heal those wounds doesn’t necessarily indicate that their relationship was imbalanced. That seems like an expected reaction to one’s wife disappearing from your life with no warning signs.

Back to the main point, there are many small lines in this episode that subtly remind us of Alice’s absense. The house itself, from which the underground base used to be accessible, can be understood as a metaphor for Alice and Keisha’s broken relationship.

“There was the farmhouse, as I had left it. By all appearances, a shell of what had once sheltered people. A family who staked their lives on the health of the fields, only to be undone by age or disease, or those same fields, or a desire to move on and try something else. Or more probably, never a family. Every broken plank of wood, every sagging wall a reconstruction, a fake.”

Keisha shows once again that the pain of Alice’s sudden departure, though dulled by time, is never completely gone. It’s just a burden she must live with. She still resents this woman for having lied to her for so many years (she mentions the lies in a later portion of the episode, and how she resents them). For having made her feel like she had a normal loving wife, but who in reality was lying through her teeth the whole time they were together.

Of course the empty house would represent this feeling of home she had with Alice that is now gone. And of course the house wouldn’t even be a real one, just an external structure that Bay and Creek built to hide their shenanigans. And if the home is symbolic for Keisha and Alice’s marriage, then, when Officer Thistle asks Keisha “Why are you poking around this place again?”, I can’t help but be reminded of Keisha asking herself the same questions. Why is she still hanging onto the hope that Alice is out there? That they can still salvage their marriage one way or another? Throughout the episode, as Keisha asks herself the question of why she is still alive, there is no doubt to my mind that there is the extra layer of what her life means without Alice.

In any case, Keisha’s conclusion is so blatantly Keisha. Of course, she would think that if she’s alive, then it means that she must help in this war one way or another. There is optimism in this, somehow. I can’t help but be reminded of a quote from another podcast by Joseph Fink, the ever-famous Welcome to Night Vale,

“It has to make sense. Otherwise… otherwise it doesn’t make sense!” − Steve Carlsberg (“The September Monologues”)

For all the hope she has gradually lost over the course of the series, Keisha still keeps the certainty in her heart that there is a meaning to all this, that her life must have a purpose. And if that purpose is not Alice, then it must be something else. She still clings to the hope that she’ll find the true reason why she must be here and why this is happening. She still hopes for some sort of justice. Of course, calling it optimism would be a stretch, considering that her second immediate conclusion is that no matter what that goal is, she must flee from the danger that accompanies it. Is it possible for optimism to be pessimistic? Keisha is constantly toying with that line.

At this point, I think that the racial aspect of this narrative should also be mentioned. Now, as a white person, my analysis of it cannot be as insightful as that of a mentally ill black lesbian like Keisha. I’m not stating this as a fact, but just as my personal interpretation. I think they’re doing something right with this. There is this trope of black women having, or more specifically choosing, to support the burden of every single person around them.

Keisha seemed to be on that trajectory earlier in the season because of her kind and generous heart, broken as it is. That involvement showed her good nature, but it also aligns itself with that trope. The emotional burden placed on black women in real life is already so heavy that this kind of portrayal could be unhelpful or even harmful. Keisha choosing to witness other people’s burden, to see this war that perpetually wants to drag her into it, and to run away from it, is brave. She has her own dangers to be wary of and she’s already being brave by protecting herself in any way she can.

Keisha’s narrative is unique in many ways and a lot of that is because her identity and her struggles are never ignored. At the same time, they’re never the sole focus of her character. Stories about mentally ill black lesbians are nowhere near frequent enough. As a lesbian with an anxiety disorder, I’ve always praised their handling of mental illness as a very validating and respectful portrayal. There are some less flattering things to be said about how the narrative has been handling her queerness sometimes, though the criticism is mild and in any case nuanced, but that aspect is best left for this season’s finale.

As a whole, “Absent Family” deals with a question that has always been at the core of this story. What is the meaning of Keisha’s life without Alice in it? What is her life’s goal now? What has changed? Handling grief and change has always been the central point of the narrative, and this episode gives the best answers Keisha could come up with right now. Let us hope that her grief comes to an end soon.

Image Courtesy of Night Vale Presents

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