Sunday, May 26, 2024

Alice Isn’t Dead: Grief and Greed

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Review of Season 2, Episode 4 of Alice Isn’t Dead, “Chain”

Do you ever find that one episode in a piece of media you love to consume that resonates with you and makes you realize that yes, this is why I love this show, this is exactly why I’m into this?

I’m really liking this episode, y’all. With Sylvia coming in much earlier than she did last season, this small adventure is a breath of levity the listeners, and even more than us Keisha needed. Every road trip has its ups and downs, its moments of suspense or quiet, and this episode is a brief break before the storm unleashes again. Character introspection, complex relationships, a bit of mystical, it packs everything I love about Alice Isn’t Dead.

Reminiscing two past episodes of the first season (“Alice” and “The Factory by the Sea” both shared the eerie oddity of the events unfolding in this episode), “Chain” shows the return of Praxis, previously Praxis Industries, the brand is apparently now a burger chain where Keisha and Sylvia grab lunch. They witness the family drama between the two co-owners, siblings who can’t get along since their parents died, and get on their way… only for the exact same restaurant to reappear on the road the next day in a completely different city. And another one. And another one where they find the restaurant closed down, not without Keisha having influenced them into solving their long-lasting grudge against each other. After a brief discussion with a Bay and Creek supervisor who seems very wary of Keisha knowing about Praxis, Keisha and Sylvia head out to their destination all this time: the place where Sylvia’s mom was murdered. But that’s for next episode.

Of all the weird happenings on the roads in season one, Praxis was one I expected to stay in the past. I also expected the weirdly reappearing locations to be left to the Charlatan episode, “Alice”. It seems that they’re both making an appearance again now but with a clear purpose that sheds so much light on the previous time Praxis was a part of the story. Again, Keisha’s musings throughout the episode are all very tied to the story in the beautiful, allegoric style that defines Alice Isn’t Dead. This time, the meaning is much clearer. This episode in some ways is exploring the complex circumstances of being a pawn in a capitalistic system.

“It’s hard to tell regions apart just by looking at the buildings now. A CVS is a CVS, a Starbucks is a Starbucks. I’m not here to moralize, I’m just telling you what it is to be a traveler now. Every place is built like every place, and so the only thing that tells you that you’re moving is the nature that’s been allowed to stay.”

How fitting for this episode centering on the particular reality of a small business, that one Praxis restaurant? Confronted with their personal situation, Keisha constantly thinks about the way corporate chains erase individuality out of existence. This gives a broader context to the episode “The Factory by the Sea” where Keisha helped a constantly aging man into a coffin of his own fabrication. The weight of working all your life in a harsh economic system. Productivity til the second you die.

In a season that has been markedly more political than the first one, it only makes sense that this theme would be explored even deeper. In her ponderings, Keisha is consistently showing mercy for the individuals who are part of the bigger capitalistic system and particularly big chains. Although she believes and observes that a capitalistic and greedy society is trying to erase the individual, Keisha herself and the narrative consistently put the individual into focus.

As a side-note: these observations are interesting to put into the context of the writing behind Alice Isn’t Dead. Night Vale Presents is a small independent production of weird quirky podcasts. As a business, they’re fighting to have their individuality and worth recognized in the big system of what’s commercial and what’s not. Obviously, Keisha’s thoughts, although completely in line with her compassionate and observant personality, are infused with the personal reality of Joseph Fink’s professional life. Individual meeting corporal.

This duality of personal and individual experiences within the scope of a much larger system has also always been at the center of the overall narrative of Alice Isn’t Dead. There’s always been the intersection of the bigger conflict between the Thistle Men (sponsored by the American government) and Bay and Creek (still too mysterious to know much about its origins), and the personal situation of Alice and Keisha’s relationship that motivates the plot forward.

This episode explores this in a very interesting way with the family drama that Keisha and Sylvia are the unwitting witnesses of. In particular, it shows how similar situations awaken different reactions in different people. Although there is obviously something going on with Praxis (the Bay and Creek supervisor was way too suspicious of it for it not to come up again later) that Ramon and Donna are both a part of, the episode chooses to focus not on that at all but on the familial tension between Ramon, waiter at the Praxis burger restaurant, and his sister Donna, the cook.

“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.”

Ramon and Donna lost their parents some five years ago. When it happened, Ramon completely shut down in his grief and Donna had to make the hard decision to sell the family house to pay all the expenses left by their parents. Ramon is upset at that choice he felt he had no part in and stops talking to her. Five years later, he still hasn’t, even if they still work at the same family restaurant together. When they explain the situation to Keisha, she immediately feels compassion for them and asks if she can give her opinion on the matter.

“Someone hurt me, betrayed me. And that has defined what my life has been for every second of every day after. And it has sucked. If I had any other choice I’d take it. if you have any other choice besides being defined by a feeling of betrayal, you should jump for it. jump for it like dry land to the drowned.”

This moment is important for Keisha. She’s able to recognize nuance in traumatic situations of feeling abandoned, re-exploring her own experience of Alice leaving her through the lens of another story. She’s able to help people through their own struggles and in the process, she’s also finding a bit of herself and growing as a person.

The episode was fascinating in being such a self-contained family drama, a triptych of how they resolved their personal issues, without being judgmental. Donna was given the space to be upset that her brother shut down and left all decisions to her, only to complain about the choices she’d made when he wasn’t making any. Ramon was given the space to feel his grief deeply, internally, and to process his emotions at his own pace. There was a lot of empathy towards the characters and not just from Keisha.

I shouldn’t be surprised, of course. Being compassionate towards their characters has always been a strength of the Night Vale writers. But the narrative itself allowed both of them to settle their sorrow while acknowledging that they both had a completely realistic and understandable reaction, worthy of compassion.

And of course, this was formative for Keisha, who is definitely showing more and more character growth as time goes by. Although there isn’t clearly one side of the siblings’ fight that represents Alice, one that represents Keisha, it’s still obvious that their conflict mirrors the gap that Alice left behind in Keisha’s life. It’s been a couple years since Alice left, she tells us. That’s a long time to swallow the bitter pill that her wife left her, for all the good reasons in the world maybe, but still left with no warning. And although she says her feeling of betrayal is what defines her, I think that Keisha is once again here characterized first and foremost by her compassion. She handles the situation with the uttermost respect and maturity. Ultimately, just like Ramon and Donna are able to put their past differences aside and move forward in life, Keisha is able to have her own motivations outside of Alice, as has been proved all throughout the second season.

One of these motivations is of course Sylvia. Now, I only brushed upon her in my previous review, for a good reason that she only made her appearance at the very end of the episode. This episode has everything you’ve wanted from Sylvia and is packed with interactions between her and Keisha that give some depth to their relationship.

“I forgot how alone I was til I wasn’t anymore. Having Sylvia here has been nice. And maybe I feel guilty about that, because she’s still a teenager, and she should be living in a stable home, going to school and being a kid, not circling this country with me.”

While not completely maternal, the relationship certainly has its nurturing aspects. Throughout the episode, we’re constantly seeing how young Sylvia is. She naps a lot, asks indiscreet questions to strangers, makes a cute drawing of the waiter she’s just met for him to pin on the wall, begs Keisha to just go grab lunch already… And even more adorably, we see how she looks up to Keisha and genuinely enjoys being with her. They tease each other, enjoy each other’s presence, bond. (Small detail but: how unbelievably cute is it that Sylvia was going to order a chicken sandwich, but then Keisha orders a burger and Sylvia decides to get one too? Ahem, I’m sorry, getting lost in the feels, let us go on.) Keisha’s recovery arc has consistently been to get herself motivated to help the people she thinks deserve help and Sylvia is definitely the number one face we can put on that goal of hers. Seeing them joke around, interact, spend time together, is really lightening up a show that can be so heavy and daunting. Sylvia is a breath of fresh air, for Keisha and for us. She brings out the best in Keisha and this episode was only evidence of that.

All in all, “Chain” gave us exactly what Alice Isn’t Dead is good at. Great character introspection, interesting and fresh dynamics between all four characters involved, witty ponderings from Keisha, and the perfect touch of mystery for later episodes, which are bond to be much more heavy. But let us leave the murder mystery for the next episode.

Image Courtesy of Night Vale Presents

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