Review of Alice Isn’t Dead Season 2, Episode 2 “Mouth of the Water”
Keisha has grown so much, folks. It’s been there all along, but in this episode, it really shows. Not action packed like most of last season, not introducing a new series-shattering character like the previous episode opening the season, “Mouth of the Water” is the closest to a short breather we could find in a horror story. Not much happens and yet it gives us so much.
As many so-called filler episodes, “Mouth of the Water” focuses much more on character growth and introspection, which are elements Alice Isn’t Dead has always excelled at. An ideal occasion for the listener to think back on previous characterization and realize the evolution that has happened since the series began.
What actually happened?
“There once was a black boat on a wide blue river. The only people onboard were the people who had asked the dangerous question. And one day, it sunk and was never seen again. It’s a simple story, a story with no ending. The kind of story that happens every day in this country.”
After a short pause on a beach on the coast of the state of Washington where she ponders on the possible disaster of a hurricane, Keisha visits Cape Disappointment. Flirting with Laurel, a coastguard, she accidentally points out a small black boat immobile in the water and earns her cold shoulder in exchange. Later, after Keisha asks around in town for more explanations about the boat and finds none, Laurel explains to her that her brother and nephew disappeared trying to climb onto the boat and have been missing since, over a year ago. Keisha suspects the Thistle Men to be involved, but under examination observing the boat through binoculars, she finds that the deck is in fact covered with dozens of missing people, decades of missing people. She makes the decision of not helping the town with the boat mystery and as she leaves Cape Disappointment, she sees the black boat being sunk by a passing ship.
A short summary for a short sequence of actions, but the whole thing is packed with small moments of significance.
Let’s start with the overarching theme portrayed in this episode, throughout all the events that actually take place as well as Keisha’s reflections intercutting the action. Overall, this episode deals mainly with helplessness, or more accurately the inevitability of doom, and how much control one exerts in such circumstances. From the cold opener on the beach, it’s quite clear that Keisha’s views on the matter are rather pessimistic. She ponders on the possibility of a tsunami, counts the time she would have left to try to run to safety if dogs started barking and the ground started shaking, and comes up with the conclusion that she would die even if she had been warned. This sentiment is echoed in her observation as she rides on the long bridge out of Cape Disappointment that, if a disaster was to happen while she was driving on the bridge, she would have no escape route.
Her internal ponderings during this episode mirror those external observations. She reflects on the evolution of society towards a place where surviving the day to day is no longer as pressing as it was in more perilous times. Her train of thought is that progress brought better life conditions and therefore more people alive longer, but at the same time, progress made everything more efficient and reduced the number of jobs. As a result, in a society where surviving is no longer a sign of worth, we now judge people’s worth, among other factors, on their wealth and their ability to find a job.
Whether her observations are founded and accurate or not, it’s not for me to say, and I don’t think that the point is for us to agree with every hypothesis Keisha formulates in her own mind. Its significance is, you guessed it, thematic (not just for eighth grade essays!). Here as well, she highlights how this situation was also a disaster brought onto society by gradual changes, which she calls “an inevitable response”.
“Humanity’s drive toward betterment has resulted in two things: more people and less jobs. None of our choices were wrong, exactly. Each was made with good intentions, hell, maybe every choice was correct.”
However, unlike the disasters she imagines, this change is society is for her something that was self-brought onto ourselves. We strove towards progress and it resulted, accidentally or not, in a shift of values. We wanted more and had to suffer the consequences. Which finally brings us to the boat story.
“Forget you ever saw the black boat. Never ask about it again, it’s not a mystery to solve. It’s a depth to drown in.”
It’s hard to not draw comparisons between the story Laurel tells Keisha and Keisha’s own quest. The father and his son both driven to learn more about the mystery of the black boat and being punished for it, Alice and Keisha driven to learn more about the Thistle Men and… They may have been barely mentioned in this episode, just when Keisha suspected they had to do with the haunted boat, but the threat the Thistle Men represent for Keisha is very apparent in the way the boat story ended. The lost people were never found again, the boat was crushed and sunk, the end. Is this foreshadowing of what is bond to happen to Keisha on her quest to find out what exactly the Thistle Men are and do? Let’s just hope that it is subverted.
The structure of the episode reminds me a lot of season 1, episode 2 “Alice”. In that episode as well, Keisha passed by strange things on the road. Back then, it was a town that kept reappearing on her route even though it wasn’t on her map, here it’s a haunted boat that kidnaps anyone who tries to pierce its mystery. However, back in season one, Keisha’s initial gut reaction was to suspect Alice. This made sense within the narrative of season one, where Alice’s disappearance was an utter mystery and the Thistle Men were slowly being introduced. The story has grown since then, and with it the characters. Keisha doesn’t suspect Alice at all anymore. When she hears about a mystery, her conclusion that the Thistle Men must be behind it makes sense with what she has learned. Sylvia taught her that they are responsible for the disappearances and mysterious happenings on the roads.
“Strange visions out on the highway? The road takes weird turns for you, same as it does for me.” − Sylvia
When under closer study, she finds out that this mystery is unrelated to the Thistle Men, she makes the decision to simply leave it behind her. This is significantly different from a similar decision she made last season in episode 6 “Sylvia” when she was on her quest to find Alice and wanted to ignore this side mystery on the roads that Sylvia wanted to lead her into, but eventually gave in and helped Sylvia out. Maybe because she is alone this time, maybe because she has learned to be more focused, but this time, Keisha refuses to help this town.
I think that rather than a sign of selfishness, this is much more a sign that Keisha is more in control of her own doings and the path she wants to trace for herself.
“Can’t control feeling fear. Can control what you do when you’re feeling it.” − Sylvia
In an episode that is overwhelmingly dealing with how inevitable peril is, how inescapable the eventual disaster, Keisha takes a stance by showing every bit of agency she can. If she engaged herself in one quest, finding out more about the Thistle Men, hopefully defeating them, she’s going to choose to keep down that path and that path only. Her priority has shifted since last season, since she was briefly reunited with Alice, and she is now more determined than ever. It’s such a high contrast that she is so acutely aware of how dangerous the road she’s taking is, and yet so eager to still follow that road.
Her agency also shows up in her interactions with Laurel. It’s very brief, of course, just a little bit of flirting, but what a world of difference with any other interaction she’s had for a long time. Of course, she’s not fully back to normal, she’s still missing her wife, but this episode shows that she really is learning to make the best of her circumstances. She’s made peace with the path she’s drawn for herself, away from Alice for the time being. Does this mean she’s given up on being reunited with her wife? I don’t think so, definitely not. I just think that she’s come back to a place where she can sometimes, briefly feel lighthearted and enjoy a passing five-minute crush. Her morale is better than it was.
Similarly, and this ties up with last season’s conclusion, her anxiety is more under control. Of course, and every person who has a mental illness will probably know what I mean, her anxiety is not gone and never going to be gone. It’s a part of her that will always be there, somewhere. She gets scared, she gets anxious—just last episode, she ranted to the officer (someone on Tumblr suggested “Officer Thistle” for a nickname, which I love) about how scared she was all of the time. But this episode shows that she really has assimilated some techniques she was taught during therapy. Words like:
“Breathe. Your anxiety does not change your circumstances. You can get as anxious as you want, the world will stay the same.”
are so distinctly words that sound rehearsed, learned. I have similar words that I tell myself when I get very anxious to curb the anxiety attacks. This is representation well done, an illness that is both a core aspect of the character, and also something that they’ve learned to manage and live with and that is almost forgotten because it’s so innate.
I think it is worth mentioning again that Keisha’s reflections seem to be more veered towards politics this season than the last one. I’ve mentioned that in my review of the previous episode, “The Last Free Place”, and it’s coming up again in this one. Whether because of the current political climate influencing the writer and fueling his works or because Keisha is becoming more aware of how little society cares about her for the layers of oppression and marginalization she experiences, it’s unclear, but Keisha was bordering on criticizing the systems ruling society such as capitalism and classism.
This isn’t a complete 180, of course, as her identity as a mentally ill black lesbian has always been a filter through which she perceives society, but her observations have been increasingly leaning towards analyzing (and maybe criticizing) a whole system rather than cultural peculiarities.
Overall, “Mouth of the Water” is a very strong episode. It is incredibly thematically cohesive and a strong set-up for the rest of the season to come. With our antagonist introduced brilliantly last episode, this all promises a great rest of season to come. There are so many threads to pick up from already from last season, and also some created this new one already, but I trust Joseph Fink’s storytelling skills to give us exactly what we need.