Thursday, June 20, 2024

Alice Isn’t Dead: Better late than never

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Review of Season 2, Episode 7 of Alice Isn’t Dead, “The Monk of Crystal Springs”

So, erm. Do you ever feel like crap when the penny drops much, much later than it probably should have? Yeah. So the hooded person and the Officer are two different people after all. It only took me 7 episodes to realize this. Yay? Whether this confusion was intentional from the writer, or I’m just a slow dumb-dumb who jumps to assumptions remains to be seen.

One thing is sure, in the midst of a highly mystical episode that prompts so many more questions than it answers, this sudden bit of clarity is a blessing. If last episode had a religious quality to it, I don’t know what to say about “The Monk of Crystal Springs”.

There is quite a lot to this episode, and most of it is confusing. Keisha stops at the Crystal Springs rest area near San Francisco and reflects on its history, when it used to be tended by a veteran who fought drug and gang activities in the rest area to make it a haven of tranquility by the road. In the bathroom, she is approached by someone who speaks so enigmatically that they make her uncomfortable. Just as she leaves, she hears them say the word “Praxis”. Her first impulse is to run away as far as she can, but outside, she notices a statue near the rest area that looks suspiciously exactly like a Thistle Man. This gives her the reason she needed to face the mysterious stranger in the bathroom again, who reveals themselves as an oracle and warns her that she has no idea of how vast the conflict she’s found herself in the middle of is. And disappears just as quickly as they came about.

What’s the takeaway from this? More importantly than anything else, it seems that my initial assumption at the very beginning of this season was wrong. The two individuals I had conflated, the hooded figure and the Officer, are two distinct people, or at this point I would be strongly mistaken if they were one and the same (please let them not be the same person: I’ve had enough epiphanies for a season). This means that many things I have written in previous analyses, where I scratched my head at this inconsistent characterization for the entity I perceived as one person, was erroneous by nature of this mistake. It’s easy to track down where this misconception came from: the mini-episode tidbits from before the season even started. Indeed, in the first mini-episode, Keisha said she sensed that someone was following her.

“I’ve felt something following me since Montana. More dangerous than the Thistle man – a more rational, more subtle kind of danger.”

She reiterates that fear in the second one.

“I need this silence. Something has felt off since Montana. I think someone’s following me.”

And in almost the same breath goes on to describe someone who seems to be observing her:

“There’s someone standing in the shadow of the troll. They’re wearing a hoodie and the hood is pulled low. I can’t see any part of their face, but they’re watching me, I think. I feel… power coming from that person. Not danger necessarily, but a deep power that holds the potential of danger. […] Whoever was in that hoodie… whatever was in that hoodie… Maybe there is something here that should be worshiped.”

And the next tidbit, from the Officer’s perspective, tells us:

“I followed Keisha here.”

So was this confusion on purpose on the writer’s part? I honestly can’t say. Going through all past episodes, I cannot find a clear example of the two being explicitly conflated except in my own mind. I guess I was so swept up in the idea of Keisha being followed that, when she spotted a creepy figure looking at her, I naturally imagined that this was the same person as the woman who openly claimed to be following her. It reminds me a little bit of the first season, where Keisha constantly mistakes what the Thistle Men are doing for what Alice is doing to her, and vice versa.

Is this in the same vein? I think that this is too advanced a Doylist analysis for me. I don’t pretend to know what was in his mind when he wrote the pre-season mini-episodes. One thing is sure, this episode seems to disprove the theory that the hooded person and the Office are one and the same.

Not that the mistake was completely devoid of any sense. There are parallels to draw between them. Both characters are nameless and described as standing awkwardly, more like a rough sketch of a person than an actual human being. Both are presented as violent: the Officer is essentially characterized by how much she craves violence and one of the two times we see the hooded figure before is in the video of Sylvia Parker Sr’s death, in which she brutally murders a Thistle Man. They represent danger and mystery and both describe themselves as part of a bigger entity that we know nothing of. They both have some sort of teleportation powers, or at least very very good camouflage skills. And both of them seem to be following Keisha in some way.

So if I thought they were the same person, and they have all those traits in common, why did I now change my mind? Well, we’ve met both now. Keisha met the Officer in episode 1 (“The Last Free Place”) and has now met the hooded person, who introduced themselves as an Oracle. And this episode builds them up as distinctively different from everything the Officer seems to be about. The pronouns should already be some indication. Even if Keisha initially referred to the Officer using “they” (as one should do when in doubt), she switched to “she” pronouns as soon as she had her first conversation with her. The hooded Oracle remains “they” throughout their conversation with Keisha (the future liberals want, y’all). Even more importantly, the Officer is voiced by another performer than Jasika Nicole, who interprets all other characters, including the Oracle. But what really distinguishes them is the attitude.

The Officer is an extremely confident person − just like the Thistle Men. In her interactions, she takes up space, demonstrates her lack of any fear, tries to dominate the field. She’s determined and very secure in her own abilites to bring demise onto Keisha. This couldn’t be more different than the Oracle. They’re slumped, slouched, and keep their hood down to avoid looking into Keisha’s eyes. They mumble all throughout the episode, so much so that Keisha barely understands them and only makes out a few words. There is also no teasing to them at all, which is something that characterizes the Officer (as well as the Thistle Men). There seems to be nothing about them that is meant to threaten Keisha, either in words or in actions.

There also seems to be nothing malicious about them, which is the polar opposite to the Officer. Whereas she is consistently written to be similar to the Thistle Men, the Oracle seem to stand against everything about them. A small tidbit making that explicit is that they’re described as smelling distinctly like heather, which was specifically mentioned last season as the one thing the Thistle Men cannot stand. We also saw them kill a Thistle Man in the video of Sylvia’s mom’s death, and the only other person we have ever seen kill a Thistle Man was Keisha in last season’s finale, someone who is decisively on the side of “good”, if there is such a clear cut thing.

I personally think Sylvia may have been in the right in describing the hooded person as “a powerful force of good” earlier. Quite a bit different from the Officer who, erm, threatened violent death upon her the first time they met. It’s also no mistake that Keisha eventually describes the eyes of the Oracle as “two human eyes” who are distinctly crying. The Thistle Men, in opposition, as well as the Officer, are constantly described as not quite human. No wonder I thought this was inconsistent characterization, or at least misleading: they’re not the same character. And opposing the Officer, who seems to be tracking Keisha to kill her, in this episode, the Oracle offers their help to Keisha, as awkward as the manner of this offer is.

Which leads us to Praxis.

“What is Praxis?”
“One day you will understand. And when that day comes, we will be there to help you.”

There is quite clearly something building up to it all season long, although I’d be damned if I knew what was going on. But from what we already know from Praxis, it is quite unsurprising that the Oracle would be linked to them. All the times that we’ve seen Praxis, there was something about them not making quite sense. The factory by the sea had the young Jackie grow old and dying in a matter of minutes. The Praxis burger restaurant reappeared in different locations with the exact interior and employees working in it. The Oracle describes themselves as appearing in hidden places along the roads. Even the bathroom where the conversation takes place seems out of its time, as it is a glimpse of the past (Keisha’s environment is thrown back at a time where the monk was still taking care of the rest area). Praxis seems to be all about the weird little things happening on the roads, whatever they are. Throwback to episode 4, “Chain”:

“What is Praxis?” I said.
Donna smiled at me. “Oh honey, if you don’t know that yet, don’t worry. You’ll find out when it’s time.”

I think that I’ll refrain from making any more hypotheses, since most of my point of view this season was based on a completely false assumption. Where Bay & Creek fits into all this, I couldn’t say. And what is Alice’s part in it? Many things that happened in season one seemed to be Alice’s doing, but then, Sylvia did describe Keisha’s situation, just like hers, as the roads taking weird turns for them, and what Praxis does definitely seems to be fitting this description. Is Praxis the force of good counterbalancing Thistle’s mindless violence? Is the war really between Bay & Creek and Thistle? This episode certainly builds up Praxis as a major player in the story and whatever its role is, I can’t wait to hear about it.

In a way, I am almost happy that this epiphany, stupid as it is, came to me during “The Monk of Crystal Springs”. Keisha came to several realizations herself in this episode. She realized that the statue on the rest area was that of a Thistle Man, which prompted her to look more into what the Oracle had to say. She realizes that Praxis is the mystery she has to solve, the key to all this. And even beyond realizations, the episode is a lot about changes and transformations. The rest area was turned into something beautiful, something peaceful, then back into something ordinary. Keisha’s ponderings talk about people losing the sense of smell when in an environment with a very strong scent and what a pity it is. The Oracle themselves has the gift of disappearing or teleporting. The bathroom turns into an older version of itself, with flower vases and the old monk who is no longer present in the actual time frame during which Keisha visits the rest area.

All in all, “The Monk of Crystal Springs” was a strong build-up to wherever the story is heading. Its atmosphere was out of this world. Alice Isn’t Dead really always succeeds in this, making believable fantasy out of modern day America, the kind of mythical creatures that could jump on you at any turn of the road. I can only hope they don’t do any harm to Keisha as the story keeps unfolding.


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