Sunday, May 26, 2024

Top 10 Welcome to Night Vale Episodes

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With a bulk of over four years of bi-monthly episodes, Welcome to Night Vale can seem a little daunting to get (back) into. Even though the creators orient the podcast as a story you can hop into and hop off of as you want, keeping the events fresh in the listeners’ memory every so often, there’s nothing quite like delving back into the past episodes. As a long time fan, I’m tempted to recommend a full re-listen, but considering that represents dozens of hours, that’s not a recommendation one can follow in a heartbeat. Here is a list of my personal top 10 episodes of Welcome to Night Vale that I think either best portray a specific aspect of the podcast and its universe. Or, that I like to listen to when I feel like visiting Night Vale again but don’t necessarily have the time for a full-length re-listen.

As with all rankings: none of this is objective and your preferences may vary. In fact, I would love to hear what episodes particularly moved other listeners. This is just what did it for me. Note that although Welcome to Night Vale is rarely a plot driven story, this will contain spoilers for different narrative arcs, which may or may not ruin your listening experience if you do not wish to be spoiled by the events from later seasons.

10.) “Who’s A Good Boy?” (Eps. 89/90)

“Let’s have a look now at the Community Calendar. All events this week are canceled. This week is also canceled. You might be canceled, too.”

The two-part finale of the fourth year of episodes is certainly… something else. The first year culminated in Cecil and Carlos tacitly admitting to romantic feelings for one another. The second and third years’ finales also offer key advancement in their relationship (those episodes will be covered down below). In a sudden turn of events, the fourth year ends in, well, an evil puppy and his army of Strangers bringing wrath and destruction on the town of Night Vale.

I’ll skip through the description of world-ending puppy plight, although it is a very entertaining finale and I particularly appreciate the new OTP of former intern Maureen and Dark Owl Records employee Michelle Nguyen suggested by this episode. What I find so special about this episode is its resolution. Namely, we have no idea how it does get resolved. Did the chanting of the devotees of the Smiling God put an end to the Strangers army? Did Hiram McDaniel the five-headed dragon scare them with his fire and roar? Did Tamika Flynn’s book-loving child militia drive them away? Did Khoshekh the floating cat beat the puppy in single combat? All alternatives and more are brought up and considered, but the narrative never gives the precise answer as to how the evil was actually defeated, if it even was.

This two-parter fully dives into what makes Night Vale what it is: a story about bringing people together. More than any epic plot point, the feelings of love, trust, and community are what prevails over the fiends. This episode doesn’t even bother with pretending to give us a definite ending because it doesn’t matter. What matters is that the town of Night Vale stood against the oppressor, that it was united, and that they came out intact. Oh, and any time Cecil breaks the rule against acknowledging angels is always worth counting.

9.) “The September Monologues” / “The April Monologues” (Eps. 53/85)

“It is September, and something is different. It is September, and the days have gone sinister – from first eye’s open to last slow breathing. It is September, and so, listeners – dear listeners – Night Vale Public Radio is proud to introduce The September Monologues.”

“It is April, and something is different. It is April, and the days have depth and vibrance. It is April and so, dear listeners, Night Vale Community Radio is pleased to present The April Monologues.”

I put these two episodes together because, although they play a very different part in the story, their format is the same. Three monologues: the Faceless Old Woman who secretly lives in your home, Michelle from Dark Owl Records and Cecil’s brother-in-law Steve Carlsberg. The three characters couldn’t be more different. From the Faceless Old Woman who tells a story of being confused by the person whose house she lives in to the apathetic record hipster Michelle, and then Steve Carlsberg who we only ever heard from Cecil who is less than a fan of the man, the three monologues are completely unique. Yet, in a way that cannot be explained, they make perfect sense together. “The September Monologues” plays very much into the atmospheric side of Welcome to Night Vale. The creepy leads to the utter absurd, and then to the oddly, weirdly inspiring.

In particular, these episodes are a great way to show POV bias. As most episodes are only told through the voice of Cecil, the voice of Night Vale, his opinion on events and people is easily mistaken for objective reality. This episode completely breaks that illusion. Steve, who was always presented as a complete killjoy, a fool who didn’t know anything about anything, a “complete jerk”, is now given a voice and a personality.

This isn’t the first time we meet him (his first appearance was in “Old Oak Doors”, which finds its spot down below in this list), but the “Monologues” grant him his own space completely aside from Cecil’s biases. We know his thoughts about the world he lives in, how his circumstances have shaped how he interacts with the people around him. That’s something we would have never learned just from discussions between him and Cecil, who would never have granted him that much time and freedom to express himself.

The “April Monologues” are unique for a different reason in that they are much more integrated in a cohesive storyline that is the fourth season of Night Vale. In this episode just like many others in the fourth year, we feel a sense of doom and unease building around the characters of Chad, Maureen, and their puppy dog (who does end up being the villain of the season). This episode is particularly good in that it builds upon the format established by “The September Monologues” (a standalone episode) and uses that foundations to place the pieces of the puzzle of the season, linking atmosphere and plot development. For me, the unit formed by these two episodes is a must-listen.

8.) “Josefina” (Ep. 97)

“Thanks for sharing your life with Night Vale, Josie.”

This one is a little bit indulgent from me as a Parks and Recreation fan. This is the story of Josefina Ortiz, better known as Old Woman Josie, voiced by Retta (who plays Donna Meagle on Parks and Rec). This is one of the oldest characters on the podcast, not just due to her old age but also how long she’s been a part of the podcast. She was introduced in the very first episode. In fact, she’s the first character named. In this episode, Cecil interviews Old Woman Josie to share with the town of Night Vale the story of her life. We learn about her past with the angels, how they came to be her friends and protectors, her passion for opera, her family life… It’s a very emotional episode that shows so much sensitivity and respect for an old lady who we’ve come to know and love.

What makes this episode particularly bittersweet is that Old Woman Josie’s health has been slowly deteriorating, ultimately leading (spoiler alert) to her passing away a few episodes later. Learning everything about her, focusing solely on such a fascinating character, seems so much more essential on retrospective when you know you had so little time left with her. She was an outstanding character, and I’m happy that the show celebrated her before it was too late.

7.) “The Sandstorm” (Ep. 19)

“The future is what you make of it! Just know that your supplies are limited. Welcome to Desert Bluffs.”

This two-part episode truly introduces the town of Desert Bluffs, the rival and alter-ego of Night Vale. A sand storm is raging over Night Vale (and Desert Bluffs) and everyone now has a clone, which they must kill or be killed by them. Cecil sees his nemesis Kevin for the first time as he finds himself by accident in the radio booth of ‘Welcome to Desert Bluffs.’ Speaking of POV bias… The structure of this episode is probably the most interesting. It’s made of two very similar episodes, one from Cecil’s point of view, ending with Kevin taking over the booth just before the Weather and vice-versa for the other. Every aspect is made to mirror the other town, from the commercials to the special announcements and the listener messages, etc.

This episode is particularly interesting in that it is the first dedicated to showing just how different and also very similar Cecil and Kevin are. Both are goodhearted people devoted to their community. But where Night Vale is openly scary and weird, Desert Bluffs is an oppressive dictatorship hidden behind a big, big smile. Though life in both cities seems to be equally daunting, Kevin keeps a very optimistic heart. For two men who will remain two major foils for each other throughout the show, or at the very least the second and third seasons, this introduction serves the comparison extremely well. Two radio hosts with a lot of love and hope to give and the first episode of their dual narrative gives them perfect justice.

Note that “The Sandstorm” also introduces a big aspect of intern Dana’s character: the fact that she is not sure whether she’s the clone or if she killed her clone. This contributes to her being racked with self-doubt even later in her life and in the show.

6.) “Toast” (Ep. 100)

“I once described Night Vale as a friendly desert community, where the sun is hot, the moon is beautiful, and mysterious lights pass overhead while we all pretend to sleep. And it still is. I know nowhere friendlier. I know nowhere hotter. The moon is still beautiful. Mysterious lights still pass overhead, and Carlos, I can’t wait for every night I get to pretend to sleep next to you.”

I think all listeners expected the hundredth episode to be something special. And boy, was it worth the wait. The episode builds up a celebration happening in Night Vale. All characters seem to be present at the party, which is a delight because some of these voice actors are far too rarely heard from. I’m thinking of Josie again, but also other minor characters such as John Peters or Diane Crayton.

Throughout the episode we’re given more and more clues that this is not any random celebration, but rather a specific event, namely the wedding of Cecil and Carlos. This feels good. This just feels really good, as a gay person, to listen to a full episode of a town of characters I love celebrating the wedding of two men. Their love story has been a core part of Welcome to Night Vale from the very first episode where Cecil “fell in love instantly”. There’s been ups and downs in their relationship, of course, and there were moments when I feared for them, but this, actually hearing them married, this is beyond priceless. It’s the proof that the creators take us seriously, that they take the relationship they’ve built seriously and that they can be trusted. This episode is everything.

5.) “Taking Off” / “Review” (Ep. 70)

“Night Vale is just a name, Cecil. Night Vale is just the name for an area where everyone you love lives. Don’t worry about the name. Worry about the everyone.”

Speaking of episode meaning everything, here is the finale of the third year of Welcome to Night Vale episodes. After a year of Carlos being stuck in the desert otherworld of the Night Vale dog park, both of them are getting antsy and need the situation to change. Cecil has been feeling more and more disconnected from his own city, something not helped in the least by the fact that someone has been taking possession of him by buying him at an auction and using him to randomly save Mayor Cardinal without Cecil remembering the events. Carlos has been feeling lonely, and his work researching in the desert is amounting to nothing. It’s been a hard season for the both of them. They had to relearn how to live and work and exist separated from the other. Even though both Cecil and Carlos are very dedicated to their work as radio host and scientist, solitude hit them hard.

The double episode is built in a way that makes us believe Carlos is unhappy with the relationship, mirroring the way Cecil is unhappy with his city. We fear that Carlos might break up with Cecil just as Cecil is getting ready to make the big jump and move away from Night Vale to the desert otherworld, an idea he’d been toying with for quite some time, since he went on vacation to visit Carlos there. In the end, the truth was that Carlos was in fact unhappy with the distance between him and Cecil and that a mishap at his desert otherworldly lab made him reconsider the importance of his job compared to how much Cecil means to him.

It’s a beautiful parallel of these two men coming to the conclusion that, while they love their job, they love their boyfriend even more. Both of them were ready to make the move. In the end, Carlos was the one who did it first and left the desert otherworld, but there is no doubt that Cecil was just as ready. All of this is intercut with plot elements of Hiram McDaniel plotting against Mayor Cardinal, but even more than the action element, I think the romance jumps out the most during this finale. And after a year of Cecil and Carlos moping for one another, it feels great to hear them reunited. It’s a great moment of character growth for Carlos and an amazing punctuation mark to end a great, albeit angsty, season.

4.) “Flight” (Ep. 98)

“Those who remember history are also doomed to repeat it. Welcome to Night Vale.”

This episode managed to be both so political while also not being political at all. Not to delve into details of our real world, this is neither the time or the place, but let’s just say that this episode was the first episode released after the American election of 2016. I have no idea if it was written in advance of or in emergency for the occasion but one thing is certain. Tt was extremely on point. There weren’t any shoehorned or hamfisted comparisons with our real life circumstances. Rather, this episode was in complete continuity with a plot that had been developing for years, namely Hiram McDaniel’s plot against Dana Cardinal.

After attempting to kill her and being condemned to death for it, the day of execution has finally arrived. Considering Hiram McDaniel is a well beloved character within fandom, no one approached this episode with joy. The atmosphere is extremely thick and heavy all throughout, appropriately. Add to that the constant mentions of Old Woman Josie’s health deteriorating and the episode is filled with despair and the impression that there is no good outcome for this situation. Before his execution can be completed, Hiram escapes Night Vale, but one of his five heads gets shot and dies: Violet, the innocent one who never took part in the murder plot against Dana Cardinal.

The parallels with the real life situation are easy to draw, even if the episode is perfectly integrated in the Night Vale narrative and if it makes sense within the events already established. The sense of despair, the impression that something innocent and helpless has been harmed and hurt without reason, without justice. Those feelings were transmitted vividly. Even Cecil, who can often see the best in people and situations, was left completely dumbfounded by the death and couldn’t find a word of hope to share with the listeners. This episode was good in its narrative and outside of it. It told the listeners that we were understood, that we weren’t alone, and in perilous times, that’s a feeling many of us need.

3.) “Voicemail” (Ep. 65)

“You have reached the voicemail of Cecil Gershwin Palmer. That might seem like an easy thing to do, but think about how long you had to stay alive just to learn how a phone works and who I am. Congratulate yourself on that. Give yourself a vigorous pat on the back, and…don’t forget to leave a message after the heavily distorted sample of a man saying ‘I just couldn’t eat another bite.'”

I’ll admit: this episode’s ranking is probably even less objective than the rest. It’s one of those episodes that doesn’t really have a plot, but rather uses the atmosphere of Night Vale to leave you with a head full of possibilities but no real takeaway for the most part. The concept is clear just from the title. This is a series of Cecil’s voicemails.

What I love about this episode is how vividly you can imagine the life of Cecil Palmer. Throughout all the messages he gets, so many aspects of his personality are implied. From the caring boyfriend through Carlos’ excited voicemails about his latest scientific discoveries to the loving uncle through his brother-in-law Steve’s request for Cecil to babysit his niece Janice. We also learn that Cecil is a Woody Guthrie fan, that he is keeping in touch with his childhood friend Earl, that he plays bowling with Old Woman Josie, that he has been putting distance between himself and his former intern Dana, as well as many other things.

Though we learn a few details about the desert otherworld that is his interest later in the season and we get reminded that Cecil’s nemesis Kevin is still around, this episode is really not about moving forward. It’s about appreciating Cecil as a character, the many relationships he has formed with the people of his town and how they relate to him. It’s a slow, quiet episode and in a show that is so often narrated by just the one man, it feels nice from time to time to take a step back and enjoy the voice acting of such a wide cast of talented performers.

2.) “Triptych” (Ep. 73)

“You win, Kevin. Everything goes right. You and community radio prevail. And you are happier than ever. Desert Bluffs is a wonderful town, and you live happily in it.”

Man, is this episode deep. Short anecdote before I talk about it. When I first started to listen to Welcome to Night Vale, I reached “The Sandstorm” and immediately loved Kevin’s character. I found him to be so positive, cheerful, and adorable. I posted about it on my blog and was immediately met with “you sweet summer child” replies. Indeed, this was before I learned that Kevin turns out to be a major protagonist throughout the show. However, his cheerfulness is given a lot of depth and nuance; this episode is the backstory we deserved for such a key character.

Through some technical malfunction at the radio studio, Cecil accidentally crosses waves with three different versions of Kevin, three impromptu time travels of only a few minutes. One of them is from the past, long before the show begins, before the city of Desert Bluffs was overtaken by the megacorporation StrexCorp. One is from barely a few months before the episode, when StrexCorp was ruling over Night Vale. The last one is from the future, when Kevin has become an old man tired of a much-too-long life. He also briefly finds the first, earliest version of Kevin.

Through the encounter, we are witness to Kevin’s change of personality. We learn that his love for community radio and for his city is completely sincere, that he was initially against StrexCorp but was brainwashed into it when they bought his radio studio forcefully. We learn that in his old age, he has many regrets and that his cheerfulness, which was originally so sincere and tender, has become a meaningless shell. The episode gives a lot of nuance to Kevin’s character as well as insight as to his motivations and values. Knowing that even to this day he remains a character on the show is priceless.

1.) “Old Oak Doors” (Ep. 49)

“And what are we, Night Vale, without darkness? Without shadows? And without secrets?”

God, this episode has everything. It is the culmination of season two of Welcome to Night Vale where the main plot has revolved mostly around StrexCorp taking over the city of Night Vale to enslave them into being more productive. But it also brings together the plot point of intern Dana being stuck in a desert otherworld for many episodes now as well as old oak doors appearing over Night Vale. It also concludes the mayoral campaign that had started a long time ago, opposing five headed dragon Hiram McDaniel and the Faceless Old Woman who secretly lives in your home. It is a densely packed episode and even adding to that, it is a live recorded episode, cut with audience reactions and interactions.

What doesn’t this episode have? This may be very biased of me, as I am very partial to the characters of Dana and Kevin, and they have a lot of content in season 2, including this episode. At the same time, I find that there is simply nothing to complain about in this episode. It is one long ride of everything that makes up Welcome to Night Vale and the coming together of all plotlines is very satisfying. Who doesn’t want such a great season finale? The evil corporation is defeated out of Night Vale, Dana is not only saved from the desert otherworld but also elected mayor (?! a position she wasn’t even applying to?), an appearance from youth hero Tamika Flynn, the hilarious mayoral election. Even the plot point of Carlos being stuck in the desert otherworld was installed in this episode.

On top of it all, this being a live recorded episode is a reminder of the greatness of Night Vale live shows. If you’ve listened to an episode (which you probably have, if you’re reading this), then you’ve heard Joseph Fink tell you that if you have never been to a live show, you are missing out. From someone whose life has been changed by seeing a Night Vale live show last year, I can confirm that he has never spoken truer words. This aspect is just the final icing of the cake that is the episode “Old Oak Doors”.

The Last Word

This is it for my top ten Welcome to Night Vale episodes. Maybe you disagree with some of the episodes on this list, or their order. Hell, maybe you disagree with the whole list. Honestly, I believe that there are no WTNV episodes to throw away or skip. These are just my personal favorites that I privilege when I have few time to spare to listen to one of my favorite podcast. I would love to hear arguments in favor of others, so take it to the comments and we can gush about this amazing show!

Featured Image Courtesy of Night Vale Presents

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