Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Alice Isn’t Dead: Badwater

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Spoilers for Season 2, Episode 6 of Alice Isn’t Dead, “Badwater”

If Alice Isn’t Dead was a TV show, “Badwater” would be a special episode released and advertised on its own. Scratch that, if Alice Isn’t Dead was the holy scriptures, “Badwater” would be its best prophetic book, poetic and cryptic. If it was A Song of Ice and Fire, “Badwater” would be its “Feast for Crows”? Whether you believe that is a sign of higher quality or not, one thing is sure, there has never been such an episode in the current corpus of this story.

Through introspection, the listener is invited to explore the fascinating foils that are the two narrators of the episode. They’re such a stark contrast to one another, and yet similar at their core. Low action overall is compensated by rich character exploration and an eerie atmosphere. It’s an excellent episode plunging the audience even further down into the deep supernatural America that is the setting of this horror story.

Yes, there’s never been anything like “Badwater” before in Alice Isn’t Dead. Not that the action differs much from the usual. Keisha is still on her everlasting road trip, still secretly followed by some mysterious fiend, a constant threat of violence still looming over her head whether she is actively aware of it or not. She passes through small towns, noting the local oddities of the places she visits, observes a strange light in the sky.

It would be a rather unremarkable episode if there wasn’t another voice joining hers, which I will still call the Officer’s, for lack of a proper name given to us by canon, who is well-known to the audience by now (voiced by Roberta Colindrez). Everywhere Keisha goes, the Officer follows without her knowledge and adds her own comments on the weirdness found on the roads of America. A predator tracking her prey. Just as she’s readying to launch her assault in the midst of a dust storm Keisha is trapped in, a mysterious light in the sky halos around the truck and protects Keisha from harm. A raincheck?

It’s impossible to describe how thrilling “Badwater” is from start to finish. Maybe I’m a scaredy-cat (admittedly, I am; I can’t explain to myself why Alice Isn’t Dead is my favorite work of fiction when I usually shy away from anything even remotely scary). But the knowledge of the constant threat Keisha is under without her even realizing it is much more terrifying for me than the actual violence that could take place, or has taken place on the show before.

Aside from the atmospheric horror set by the dual narrative of the hunter and the hunted, this episode’s highlight is by far the extensive character exploration. Not for the first time, Keisha’s character is contrasted with her main antagonist this season, but never before in such an explicit way.

Of course, it’s important to note that this episode once again underlines that they are deeply similar in some aspects, if just for the format of storytelling used by Alice Isn’t Dead. “Badwater,” just like any other episode of the story, keeps pointing out elements of the landscape they ride through that remind them of a special aspect of American society, pondering on certain moral dilemmas. And though Keisha may believe that this is only an observation exercise:

“There is no metaphor to be taken there, no reason to relate this to my life. It’s just a drive.”

(Sure, Jan. No metaphor at all. Not like this has been the foundation of the podcast since episode one.)

America as a geographical area has always been deeply tied to American values by the narrative, which is true in this episode as well. Both Keisha and the Officer have this in common—they are very observant people even from behind the wheel, and they are internally driven to reflect on their surroundings. Maybe this is why the latter works so well as an antagonist; she’s using the exact same tricks that Keisha uses in her own mind, but perverts the thought patterns and twists them into her own violent frame of mind.

The obvious distinction drawn between Keisha and the Officer has always been their morality, from the time she was introduced. The more violent the Officer seems, the more tenderhearted and righteous Keisha appears in contrast. After the previous episode (“Taconic”), during which it was revealed that the Officer was more morally ambiguous than previously thought, this difference is more relevant than ever, lest we forget who the protagonist is. But it could not be made more evident if the author tried.

“There’s a café that is only open a couple of days a week, but is surprisingly good […]. I feel grateful for people who come to places like this and do things like this. Dance and make artisanal avocado toast.” − Keisha

“It’s time for me to switch cars again. So when a tourist couple pulls into the unlit lot […] I help myself to them and then help myself to their vehicle. I feel grateful for people who come to places like this.” − The Officer

Some people like nice local businesses, some people like murder? So, erm, yeah, the Officer kills at least three people during this episode (that we know of), while Keisha visits two small towns and expresses compassion towards the people living there. Even more than in their actual behavior, the contrast between them also resides in the reasoning behind their observations. Whereas, out of love for her fellow underdogs, Keisha often refrains from moral judgment towards the people she observes and their social mores (usually aligning herself with the victims of the system, which is what she criticizes), the Officer seems to be morally detached from the situation as well, but out of utter lack of caring.

“Everyone’s jobs are expendable. Except mine. This kind of violent hunger is always in demand. I could sleep a thousand years and wake up to a world that needed me.”

At least she’s not judging them, I guess? Yay?

In the same pattern, throughout the episode, we see Keisha longing for everything good in the world (peace, relief, human relations, quiet), and the Officer craving terrible things. She drives on a road through a region likely to be flooded and dreams of drowning and being hit by lightning. She tastes a bitter taste in her mouth and wants more of it. She sleeps in ruins, enjoys the cold. This episode is so peppered with random nasty details about her. Quite the perfect portrait fitting an odd, intelligent creature constantly this close to going on a killing spree. Oh, and she once again openly states that she is on a mission to kill Keisha.

This is another difference made clear between them, though less obvious than their moral contrast. The Officer is a woman with a plan. Keisha’s plan, since she promised herself she wouldn’t look for Alice anymore, has mostly been to survive from one moment to the next. She’s looking for clues to help her understand the bigger conflict she’s in the midst of, but overall just trying to stay alive. The fact that she is so helpless and deep in the unknown makes Keisha open to any road, as long as her truck fits there. This is nothing like the Officer. Everything she does is described (by herself) as conditional to how well it fits her own motivations and goals.

“If it is beyond my use, then it is not worth bothering with.”

In her determination, the Officer seems unable to enjoy the small moments that Keisha is so fond of. She only does what’s needed, only drives where the plan requires her to go. In this way, she is way more in control than Keisha is. This is also because Keisha is consistently portrayed as an emotionally driven character. She constantly looks to her own moral compass as the only guide that drives her. Since her emotions are evolving, her meanderings are also transforming. The Officer is a very rational being, only driven by the logic of her own plan which she seems entirely emotionally detached from, or at the very least morally detached. The only emotions to be traced in her are a mild amusement at Keisha’s restlessness and a desire for violence.

At which point I feel the need to re-center the discussion around the biggest question mark of this season: why does the Officer work in such extremely similar ways to the Thistle Men? The previous episode threw everything off by revealing that she was most likely not part of their organization, or at least if she had been, she went rogue at some point during the murder of Sylvia Parker Sr. This season has had much less content on the Thistle Men than the first one, but one need only to recall their modus operandi to be reminded of our new antagonist.

Just like last season, the Thistle Man made a big show of his murder skills (?), intimidating Keisha long before attempting any assault on her; the Officer has yet to actually put in effect the threats of violence she keeps hanging over Keisha’s head. Just like them, she leaves trails of bodies behind her along the roads. She seems to possess magical powers of some sort, as they do. Even her behavior towards Keisha is not without some echo in their behavior. She also loves to play her games, flaunt her power, taunt Keisha, but then shows a sort of almost tenderness towards her in the most surprising moments.

“Now, Keisha. It happens now. It’s okay. I’m right here with you. […] Breathe easy, Keisha.” − The Officer

“You see now?” he said. “So go home. Listen,” he seemed suddenly concerned, worried for me, even. “You can still go home.” − “Nothing to See” (Season 1, episode 3)

So many questions, and so few answers. One thing is sure, whether she is Officer Thistle or not, this woman is a predator, and Keisha is her prey. How long till she falls into her trap?

So what is the takeaway of this episode? Besides the inherent value to character introspection, for me, the strength of “Badwater” resides in the ending: Keisha escapes the Officer’s tracking, even temporarily. This climax was not out of nowhere, even if it was presented as a miracle. There is an almost religious quality to the atmosphere throughout “Badwater” and I feel like the ending is akin to divine intervention, but one that Keisha sought out. The zigzagging light that she spotted in the sky and felt so fascinated with ended up saving her.

“The light lowers. It’s just in front of me through the glass. I can see nothing, but I keep driving until the entire cab is enveloped in light. I don’t feel heat. I don’t feel anything. I don’t care that I don’t know where I’m going. I speed into the light. And then I am out of the dust cloud.”

This symbolic scene of Keisha being saved by the light reminds us that she is constantly following the light in the choices she makes. Even if she struggles with anxiety and with the remnants of her trauma, Keisha keeps her heart consistently in the right place. She has an optimism to her, sometimes in the most dire circumstances, or at the very least a rigid determination.

“I’m on a narrow and windy pass, never meant for a truck this size. I’ve made a mistake, but the only way out is through.”

Throughout the episode, she hopes for the best, even when she feels afraid or creeped out, which is again in stark contrast with the Officer wishing for the dark things, the horrible. There is a moral satisfaction to seeing Keisha rewarded after looking for the light. It makes me wonder if this is foreshadowing a bigger climax where Keisha’s righteousness is rewarded by the narrative on a bigger scale, as it was in the first season’s final episode. But then, was this concept not mocked by the Thistle Man in the very first episode?

“Good people deserve good things.” − “Omelet” (Season 1, episode 1)

Nevertheless, “Badwater” remains a highly fascinating episode, playing with the notion that Keisha and the Officer may share their observant introversion, but systematically showing how different they are in their behaviors, impressions, and values. The Officer prays for the horrible, has been working towards it diligently, but finds herself bested by Keisha, who keeps a heart full of compassion. For how long she’ll be able to delay the confrontation, only the future can tell.

Image Courtesy of Night Vale Presents

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