It’s happening, guys! I’ve been vibrating with excitement since they announced it. Earlier this month, Alice Isn’t Dead, sister podcast of the more famous, long lasting Welcome to Night Vale, and most importantly my favorite podcast in the world, has started broadcasting its second season! We listeners have already been blessed with two episodes so far and before that, we were even lucky enough to get three small teasers, constructed as short episodes, released at the end of WTNV episodes. For this piece, I will review these three mini episodes as well as the first released episode, “The Last Free Place”. A lot of great things in these, folks. Night Vale Presents continues to provide consistent, high quality content year after year.
The three tidbit episodes were the first taste we got of this new season and this short triptych serves a point of establishing what seem to be the premises of the story we’re going to get. Each of them is only a couple minutes long, short enough to be shoved at the end of a Night Vale episode, so there isn’t much to summarize, but the atmosphere and worldbuilding is on point, as always.
Arizona, Washington, Montana
“North Rim, Arizona” is the first we hear of Keisha since last season ended, and in this first preview teaser, she visits the Grand Canyon and ponders its emptiness. She seems to still be taking in what happened last season, and mentions she’s not talking as much as she used to for fear of being spied on. She reminds Alice that though she is hurt, she still loves her. Keisha also introduces us to an important bit of information: she senses that she’s being followed. “Fremont, Washington” confirms that suspicion. Keisha visits the Fremont troll, and as she’s telling Alice about the odd stories around the structure and catching her up on what is happening to Sylvia, she notices a hooded figure near the troll statue that she instantly feels distrust towards.
The hooded figure mysteriously disappears. “Haugen, Montana” is the real game changer of this small little triple theater before the season begins for real. A new voice is introduced: the hooded figure who has been following Keisha. She’s the first character important enough in this story to have a voice of her own. She visits a gift shop and mocks the futility of all the articles on sale. Listening to this, everyone got their hopes up as to who this mysterious person would be, but of course:
“If Alice was here, maybe Alice could warn her. But of course, Alice isn’t here. I am.”
Alice isn’t dead, but she’s still missing. This isn’t her.
So, what do we make of these teasers? The real star of these mini-episodes is, of course, the new character, who I’ll call ‘the officer’ for sake of clarity, as we have not yet heard her name. (Despite how blessed we are that all characters thus far are female characters, it does makes for confusing pronouns.) Anyway, I cannot express how much I wanted this new voice to be Alice. Roberta Colindrez voiced one line last season and people had naturally assumed she was playing Alice. I, for one, desperately wished my previous assumption would be proven right. The officer even calls Keisha “my girl”! We all want Keisha to be followed by someone who wishes her good; we want her to be reunited with her wife, to have someone who has her back. Unfortunately, that is not what the officer is about.
Now, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I’ll try to keep assumptions at a minimum and keep the analysis to strictly what we already know for sure. Even this early on, though, I think it’s easy to assume that the officer is going to be this season’s antagonist. Her introduction as someone who follows Keisha mirrors the Thistle Man from season one. Keisha perceives her as a danger already, and her thoughts are violent, cynical. This trio of episodes offers us a strong set up of a character that is further explored in her actual introduction in episode one.
Episode One: The Last Free Place
“The Last Free Place” starts with a short recap of last season, which initially made me wonder if the writer planned to make Alice Isn’t Dead be like Night Vale, in that you can hop onto the train whenever you want and the episode will catch you up to what you need. Then I remembered that probably not every fan has been listening to season 1 as obsessively as yours truly and that a little bit of refreshing was probably needed for some people after a year with no new episodes. Ahem. My bad.
The action starts up very slowly, with Keisha deciding to follow a commander of Bay and Creek she found on the roads. For those who may not remember, Bay and Creek is the shipping company Keisha works for as a truck driver who are somehow linked to chasing and fighting the Thistle Men. The first part of the episode re-establishes the atmosphere that made Alice Isn’t Dead so good even in season 1. With a lot of time on her hands on the roads, Keisha observes the landscape around her, comments on it, and her observations, while very smart, are rather critical.
She arrives in Slab City during her quiet, subtle chase after the commander but is immediately pulled over by a police officer. Surprise surprise, this is where I got the shorthand for ‘this woman is indeed the same person who was following Keisha’ although Keisha does not know that at the point. The officer, who Keisha soon finds out is not even a real officer but a dangerous killer wearing a uniform, threatens and warns Keisha of what’s coming for her, then lets her go. End of episode.
Now, this may seem like little action took place and truthfully, this wasn’t the most packed episode as far as Alice Isn’t Dead goes. Still so early on in the season, the episode is much more focused on character building while also offering a strong basis for comparison. Indeed, we now have a new character in the person of the police officer and, rather than describing the shape of the monster, I think it’s just as interesting to draw a picture of what we know from season 1 and compare it to the new elements.
The easiest comparison, which I think is barely a comparison at all, is the officer and the Thistle Men. The link between them may well be openly proclaimed, but as it is not explicit, it still counts as a comparison between them. Now, throughout the episode and the mini-episode from her point of view, the officer expresses violent thoughts. She continually threatens physical violence without reason. Violence for no purpose was the very core of the Thistle Men, who ate people without even needing to feed.
She mentions “us” a lot, presenting herself as part of an entity (organization? community?) that sent her to chase Keisha specifically. The way she talks to Keisha also reminds me of the last discussion between Keisha and the first Thistle Man, when he used her own words against her to justify his violent impulses. Similarly, the officer uses Keisha’s speech patterns and tries to imitate her philosophical ponderings, only to follow these words with the threat of ripping her arms off. I think the way the officer’s character is presented is meant to remind of the Thistle Men, but whereas they were mindless and brutal without purpose or reflection, she is smart and cunning.
“Oh, Alice. This is much worse than the Thistle Men, I think. They were hungry but she… She was smart. She was very smart.”
But try as she might to use Keisha’s methods to manipulate her, introducing this character does wonders in exploring Keisha’s character in more depth than before. It also show how very different they are. Of course, this is a huge deal. The entirety of season 1, with the exception of the last throwaway line, was told entirely from Keisha’s perspective. It’s easy to get lost and think that her view on the world is somehow objective truth. But, having a whole new character who is so drastically different highlights who Keisha is as a person in a way that can’t be as in your face when it’s just Keisha doing Keisha things.
Not only is the new character interesting in her own right, but she also brings light to who our protagonist really is. Where the officer is cunning and manipulative, Keisha is honest, upfront, direct. While the officer is violent, Keisha is non-confrontational. Where the officer’s observations on the world are distanced, with a strong “us vs. them” mindset of disdain for humanity, Keisha always includes herself in her observations on humankind and expresses her thoughts more out of gentle disbelief at the silly or superficial aspects of American behavior. While the officer is cruel and proud, Keisha is kind and humble.
Of course, all these observations could have been made from last season, from hearing Keisha talk, but it’s the whole principle of literary foils. Traits are better defined when there’s a contrast with a character possessing the opposite traits. Keisha and the officer are opposites in many ways and the episode really underlines those features in each of them.
Meanwhile, two other entities worthy of comparison in this first episode are Bay and Creek and the Thistle Men (assuming that the officer is related to them in some way, which both Keisha’s opinion and the narrative seem to support). Now, of course, I don’t mean to say that just because the two entities are completely shrouded with mystery it means they are one and the same and necessarily linked together. Bay and Creek, as far as we know, opposes the Thistle Men, fighting them under the cover of being a simple shipping company. We know, for example, that Alice works for Bay and Creek and that she’s fighting against the Thistle Men.
However, the episode starts with Keisha deciding to follow the commander of Bay and Creek she happened to spot. Later in the episode, said commander disappears without a trace somewhere in Slab City. Disappearing out of sight is a trait that’s been underlined as something the officer does in the second mini-episode. We hear no more of the commander just as the officer appears. In a tight narrative such as a ten-episode season, I doubt that coincidences of that kind just happen. If not the same person under disguise, there is at least a significant chance that the officer was involved one way or another in the commander’s disappearing.
This episode also emphasizes Keisha’s vulnerability as a gay black woman in America, something highlighted last season as well. I don’t think it is a coincidence that the antagonist is portrayed as a monster in a police uniform. Just as the officer makes her way towards her, Keisha keeps the radio recorder running. She’s thinking ahead about the possibility of something happening to her, and she plans to keep the officer liable for whatever she does or says. Her life is by default in danger, as she tells the officer.
“Now your turn to listen. I’ve faced fiercer dangers and walked out alive. I’ve seen things that I could never explain, not if I spent 100 more years talking into this radio. You want me scared? Officer, you have no idea. I’m always scared. You think fear is new to me, you think fear is the novelty that will change my behavior? For me, fear is living.”
Once again, her position of vulnerability in society and her mental illness of living with anxiety are tightly linked together. Already last season there were a few altercations with police where she knew that she had no chance of them being on her side. Her whole existence is made political, and I feel like this episode showcased a level of criticism on a political level that went beyond her personal fears.
Keisha’s reflections on American values and landscapes are a tad more politicized than they were last season. She’s not just seeing the green of the fields in the desert, but is noting that this is due to wasteful policies. She visits Salton Lake and criticizes what it has become, the actions of agricultural run-off that led to it. Of course, if I were to say that Keisha is becoming even more politically critical in this new season, people would probably not assume that I came to this conclusion based on her criticizing the farming industry. But I think that there is a trend that may also be due to the Doylist reasons. The author may feel more inclined to criticize the American system on multiple levels based on the real life events that occurred between season 1 last year and this new season.
Overall, this first episode is already very promising and heralds a great season to come. It builds upon what the show has achieved last season and, without a discordance in tone or themes, manages to evolve with the character. Keisha has learned from her experiences and though she retains all her kindness, her soft heart, she’s also more mature and more critical.
Next week, I’ll explore the ways she has grown in the review of episode two, “Mouth of the Water”.