Thursday, May 30, 2024

Alice Isn’t Dead: Taconic

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Review of Season 2, Episode 5 of Alice Isn’t Dead, “Taconic”

Finally, the murder mystery long due, the death of Sylvia Parker Sr. This intrigue was introduced as far back as last season, with Sylvia’s barging into the plot, little ball of energy, and her driving conflict being finding closure about her mother’s murder. It was reignited in episode 3 of this season with her return into Keisha’s storyline but put on the shelf for a while. And now that we’re getting to it (and learning her name), the details are not pretty.

After last episode’s pace slowing to a halt, exploring internal trauma and the ramifications of coping mechanisms, the plot picks up where it left off and takes us for a thrilling, terrifying ride. Note that while this review will try to give as few details as possible, the episode contains quite graphic descriptions of physical assault and gore.

Now onto the summary of what happened this episode, which was quite scattered.

So, the reason why Sylvia tracked down Keisha again was to ask for her help to solve the mystery of her mother’s death. We already knew she’d been killed by a Thistle Man, leaving Sylvia to fight for herself on the roads. What we now learn, as Keisha narrates the detailed story of what happened, is that there was another person present during the assault. There was a man being eaten by the Thistle Man, which is why Sylvia Sr intervened in the first place, leading to her demise, but there was someone else. A hooded person. Sylvia, through Keisha’s telling of it, reminisces how she escaped the scene at her mother’s request, but before running away clearly saw that hooded figure standing next to the Thistle Man, complicit. But when they ask the local police for details on the case, they find that the case has been closed for years and no suspect arrested. A tape carefully given to them in secret reveals footage of that night. Although heavily afflicted by what she sees, Sylvia still immediately notices that something’s wrong with the video: it doesn’t fit her memories of it. In this version, she doesn’t run away. In this version, the hooded figure is not helping the Thistle Man: they’re killing him and carrying Sylvia away, possibly to safety. Sylvia reaches the conclusion that she must find this hooded figure and apparently must do it on her own, as she shares heartbreaking goodbyes with Keisha.

So this is, pardon my language, the clusterfuck we’re dealing with. Let’s deal with the obvious: there is no narratively coherent way that the hooded person in this episode is anyone different than the one I previously dubbed Officer Thistle. That’s out of the way now. But harder to accept: there is also no narratively coherent way to accept Sylvia’s words describing her (“a powerful force of good”) as an accurate description of her.

Since the moment she was introduced, she’s been presented as violent-thirsty, craving power over weaker people, tracking Keisha down secretively, threatening to inflict brutal violence upon her within minutes of meeting her, buying dangerous weapons for her own pleasure… But she’s being presented as a savior through the footage tape. But she shows every sign of an evil antagonist.

Now, obviously, I know this was the point—making the listeners doubt everything they thought they knew. I can’t just go around losing my mind at every writing decision. I’m sure we’ll get more than enough explanations on the hooded figure as the episodes go. I’m fine with waiting. But I think that even broader than that particular mystery, this episode re-emphasizes what has always been true: all the characters of this story are unreliable narrators, aka characters presenting information based on their own perspective, which may or may not reflect the actual reality.

If this information we’ve been given all season is suggested (proven?) to be false, if the hooded figure is actually not evil, then what does this say about everything we know? And indeed, we know that we cannot trust characters, not completely. Even Keisha’s perspective is far from flawed. We’ve always known that and I have always praised Alice Isn’t Dead (as well as other Night Vale Presents podcasts) for binding the story so tightly with its narrator’s characterization. But episodes like this, just like the hooded figure’s introduction earlier this season, remind us that Keisha’s perspective only goes so far. For example, her reaction to the reveal at the end of the episode is quite telling.

“Whoever they were they were very, very strong.”

Says the woman who defeated a Thistle Man all on her own last season. But she can’t seem to remember that when she compares herself to Sylvia’s mom, resilient as she witnessed horrific violence.

“She did not wilt like I would have, or run like I once did”

Says the woman who defeated a Thistle Man all on her own last season.

If Keisha’s mental illness and low self esteem can influence her thinking in this way (as she has multiple times before), can make her forget her own achievements and lower herself, then what other doubts can we reasonably have on what she tells us? On what anybody tells us? But, more logically, there is a great upside to this. If we accept for sure that Keisha’s point of view is only just that, her own perspective, then it becomes quite easy to understand the ultimate decision of Sylvia and her going their separate ways again. Which I may or may not be totally not heartbroken with.

Yes, I’ll admit it, this decision saddened me a great deal. Of course, there is the Doylist explanation. An altercation between Keisha and the hooded figure is most likely coming up soon and the plot needs Keisha to be on her own for it. Or who knows what else is lurking for her on the roads.

But a Watsonian explanation can also make perfect sense. For one season and a half now, Keisha has deeply struggled with Alice’s abandon. Yet she has also chosen to respect Alice’s choice to remain hidden. She has chosen not to look for her anymore, per Alice’s request. With that character development in mind, I think it’s most probable that she’s applying that logic to Sylvia as well. If she values her own freedom to pick her battles and pursue her demons, then she’s most logically going to allow Sylvia the same liberty. It makes sense? But how much of this is implicit character growth and how much is my personal hypotheses, I cannot say.

Still, the fact remains, the elephant in the room is that Sylvia’s memories were plain wrong. The events she remembered happened differently, or the tape was faked. Either way, this episode is disturbing in so many ways. It shatters the illusions of what we thought we knew and the familiar seems to be able to turn into dangerous in a snap of the fingers, or the other way around. Keisha’s ponderings during the episode point that way as well.

Now, full disclosure, every time I review an episode, I listen to it several times before the connections between Keisha’s monologues and the actual action taking place jump to mind. Call me slow, whatever. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this episode’s descriptive parts were harder for me to tie back to the story than usual. The narrative is patched, as disturbing as the violence Keisha describes between two landscapes. The anecdotes don’t form a cohesive whole. We learn that Sylvia didn’t always like her actual name and went by Skip. We ponder upon the potential future flooding of the Earth and if the wine producing regions would change? What? And, per the episode’s name, we learn of the Taconic State Park, which is where Sylvia remembered hiding after she escaped the Thistle Man through which they drive on their way to the truth.

“The Taconic Parkway is beautiful. A road that meanders. It feels like taking a walk in the woods. But taking a walk in the woods is something you wanna do slowly, on foot, not speeding in a car. It is a dangerous road. No streetlights, sharp turns, long periods with no shoulder, just a rock face on one side and a thin barrier on the other side. If life is in many ways a balancing act between beauty and danger, then the Taconic is paved right down the middle.”

The first two anecdotes can thematically be connected with this episode’s emphasis that everything we know is resting on shaky foundations and victim to change. Sylvia’s name is only as important as she wants it to be and she can change it whenever she wants. The descriptions of what would occur to wine-producing regions is only an extension of that line of thought through geographical descriptions. And the third anecdote is only foreshadowing, eerily reminiscing the hooded person herself, the danger she represents that can apparently be used to protect the innocent in the person of Sylvia.

Another few interesting things to note in this episode:

  • Following this season’s pattern, this episode is incredibly political in dealing with extremely relevant themes in today’s society. A black woman murdered by a monster. The police won’t do anything. The case is closed and forgotten. Only other black women care about it. The monster runs free. This episode was deeply distressing, but with a point. Injustice is distressing. Black lives matter.
  • In this injustice, this show continues to portray small acts of resistance and solidarity. That employee at the police station didn’t have to provide the tape for Keisha and Sylvia. The officer from last season didn’t have to help out Sylvia. Lauren from episode 2 of this season didn’t have to help Keisha. Small gestures of people who are part of a bigger system of oppression but choosing to be better, choosing to go against the flow.
  • The female representation has always been outstanding and I hate that it’s taking me this long to point it out. Of course, all the major characters are female but even down to minor characters having an impact on the story such as this episode’s employee, Lauren, the commander at Bay and Creek, etc. So many of them are female. I don’t think I can think of many named male characters who helped the plot forward in such a way. It’s so frequent to read fiction where every minor character is male, this is a nice change of pace.
  • One question on my mind that hasn’t been evoked in the episode at all is what this all means for Alice. If this episode seemed to make a point of telling us that not everything we believe can be trusted, that clues can lead to a false conclusion, is it possible that what we know of Alice is also a distorted view of reality? That Keisha white-washed her despite herself? So far, we have assumed that she is part of Bay and Creek, but could she be a much more gray-area character than that? Are Bay and Creek the bad guys? Is this all predicting a plot twist revolving around her?

I’m sorry for this rather scattered review. If my thoughts seem all over the place, it’s because this episode also was. A lot happened and was revealed and though I tried to put some order into it, I fear that I wasn’t able to find the streamlined core of the episode like I’ve been able to with previous episodes. Which I believe may not be coincidental. A lot of what we were led to believe was shattered in this episode. Shattered to better be rebuilt in further episodes? I for one can’t wait to find out.

Image Courtesy of Night Vale Presents

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