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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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Analysis

Crazy Ex Girlfriend is Masterfully Deconstructing its Core

Kylie

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Here at The Fandomentals, it’s not hard to tell when we begin to fall in love with a show. You may recall the windfall of Black Sails articles surrounding its series finale, our rather overzealous coverage of Supergirl a year ago, or the way Steven Universe creeps into every podcast we record. We dig in and frenetically try to explain exactly the reasons why you should be so enthused as well.

Then there’s shows like Crazy Ex Girlfriend, where I find myself unable to say anything at all, since it’s more or less perfect.

I know what I’m setting myself up for when I say this, because I’ve felt the let-down quite keenly many times before. That’s part of why I’ve been so hesitant to write anything at all. The other part is that I truly feel my explanations won’t do anything justice; watch it yourself and you’ll see what I mean.

Is Rebecca Bunch’s character the answer to my prayers for jewish women in media? Absolutely. Do we all need Paula Proctors in our life? You bet we do. Is this finally the bridge between musical theater, sitcoms, and dramatic TV? Without a doubt. Hell, it’s a show whose entire premise involves calling attention to the tropes and storytelling conventions we bemoan, and then digging in and flipping them on their heads. All of this I could easily write dissertation-length papers on, while feeling that none of it is adequately explaining what is so great here.

So it’s only now that Crazy Ex Girlfriend is tackling one of the most important issues in our society, and doing it with a remarkably skillful hand, that I’m forcing myself to write out my thoughts. Because honestly? It’s a shondeh if I don’t at least try to spread the love at this point.

As a warning, there will be spoilers for major plot beats through the most recent episode, 3×06 “Josh is Irrelevant.” Which sure, may be a weird way to convince people into watching something, but as I’ve articulated a few times…knowing what’s coming and what a show explores actually makes me more prone to dig into it. If you disagree, let me just leave you with this before you bow out: the “crazy” in the title of the show is exactly why I didn’t watch it for a couple of years. And boy was that a mistake, because it is so intentional, and exactly what’s being explored now in one of the most nuanced and validating ways possible.

Yup, showrunners Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna are tackling mental health navigation and stigmatization. In the most recent episode, Rebecca Bunch receives a formal diagnosis (and even sings a song about getting one), and it’s made clear that all two and a half seasons were leading to this moment—not because of the diagnosis as an end in itself, but as a means to equip our character with the tools and understanding that empower her to push for a healthier state of mind. It is a show about a mentally ill woman lacking in traditional heroic qualities (dare I say antihero?). Yet instead of reveling in her moral greyness and watching her “oh my god” dissent, we are encouraged to actively empathize with her, and root for her to find balance. Because at its core, this show takes on a more positive view of humanity. We’re all just…trying to do okay with what we have, even if our weaknesses and anxieties can manifest in ways that hurt ourselves and those around us.

If that sounds interesting to you, watch the show. But for real now, explicit spoilers from here on out.

Rebecca Bunch was always meant to be a challenging character to the viewer. She makes an impulsive decision in the pilot episode to move to West Covina and pursue an old flame. Convinced this will make her instantly a happier person, she gleefully dumps her medicine down her garbage disposal (we’re unsure specifically what she took, though we do know anti-anxieties were in the mix) while whistling a merry tune. It’s clear this isn’t the healthiest thing you can do and she’s romanticizing the situation (and hilariously, the location as well).

This shot taken 2 seconds before the budget cuts claim the marching band’s instruments

At the same time, it’s also made clear that Rebecca truly was in an unhappy state in New York City, and her methods of coping through heavy medication and excessive work only fed into that. By midway through the first season, Rebecca tries to seek out a therapist to get new drugs, only to be told that she might actually need to explore her issues.

Rebecca: Those are the meds I was on in New York.

Dr. Akopian: Oh, my God. How did your body react to all this medication? You must not have been able to feel a thing.

Rebecca: Exactly. Numb as they come. So scribble scribble on your pizzle pad.

Dr. Akopian: Rebecca, your doctor in New York is a quack. He gave you a Band-Aid, not a cure. My method would be to do some digging and figure out what’s really going on inside your mind. And then we can discuss the appropriate medications.

Rebecca: So that’s great, but I need to be better by Monday.

The driving story continues to be about Rebecca’s quest for her fairy tale romance—a narrative that lives in her mind but not reality. Each romcom trope is broken down, from “unlikely suitor she actually falls for” (he turns out to be a fucking mess and leaves to be able to deal with his own issues in a healthy manner), to “the perfect prince who was always meant to be” (they both approach the relationship merely wanting to be in a relationship, without actually having a stable grasp on what they both need/want in life), to even the “screw men, we’ll just have a fun girl group and that’s enough” (Josh has a new girlfriend they need to stalk!).

However, it is always in the forefront that Rebecca is actively spinning the happenings in her life to fit whatever story she wants, all while resisting the core of what’s at her unhappiness.

Paula: Just let both of them go.

Rebecca: I don’t know who I am without them. I know that’s pathetic. I know it’s pathetic, but it’s true. Who am I supposed to be now?

Paula: Honey, be yourself.

Rebecca: What?! Who? No! Ew. Ugh! Who wants to be that?!

This becomes the most obvious when she enters into a relationship with Josh, but is not magically happier about everything. Rebecca very nearly has a breakthrough with Dr. Akopian to this point, only to be interrupted by Josh’s wedding proposal. Then from there, we get a tale as old as time: Rebecca stops feeling magical feelings about Josh, freaks out and kisses her boss in an elevator, freaks out from that and pushes their wedding date up to two weeks from that day, and then after not sleeping and going in full bridezilla mode, gets left at the altar because Josh begins to feel that he doesn’t truly know Rebecca. We also learn that Rebecca had previously wanted to marry another man in her past (Robert, a former professor of hers), but upon being broken up with by him, burned down his apartment and then was committed to a psychiatric institution for a time.

This is where Season 3 picks up, and in truth, I was very nervous about the Robert reveal. “Oh, so she really is ‘crazy’? That’s the point?” No. the point is that Rebecca is a troubled character who hasn’t received the help she’s needed. She has characteristics we all can relate to, from her self-deprecating thoughts to her struggle to feel ‘normal,’ even if we wouldn’t have necessarily made the same choices she did.

Season 3 shows her in crisis mode. Instead of confronting her insecurities, she lashes out at her friends, and even returns home to stay with her mother for a bit, despite their history with Naomi’s selfish and often inappropriate or harmful behavior. However, when her mom sneaks her anti-anxieties (out of fear of Rebecca wanting to commit suicide), Rebecca feels as though she has no one she can count on anymore, especially since she thinks she alienated everyone else. At the end of 3×05, Rebecca tries to commit suicide on a plane by taking a bottle full of anti-anxiety meds one a time, before telling the flight attendant that she needs help.

Other media has tried to depict suicide before, but it is so often done in a way that’s meant to shock, or even (distressingly) in a way that almost romanticizes the behavior. Hell, Life is Strange actually makes a student’s suicide a playable level, where if you’re just observant enough, you can stop it (for points!). Crazy Ex Girlfriend walked the impossible line of depicting the suicide attempt in a realistic manner—it was easy to track Rebecca’s feeling of hopelessness and isolation—without any sort of glamorization. She was in a rough, unhealthy state, and the audience was encouraged to root for that to change.

Better yet, Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna made themselves available on Twitter immediately afterwards. That, in addition to a suicide helpline message which appeared on the screen following the episode, demonstrated that they were being as thoughtful as possible when approaching such a potentially triggering subject. It was difficult to watch, no question. But shying away from these topics doesn’t give equip us with the tools to handle them. We’ve praised Jessica Jones for starkly examining rape and rape apology; Crazy Ex Girlfriend is a show that should receive similar acclaim, particularly given how usual portrayals of suicide and mental health tend towards victim blaming.

Even that aspect was highlighted in the newest episode; Rebecca continually apologizes for the “hassle” she’s caused, and how bad she feels that everyone’s normal routine has been interrupted since like…her friends want to make sure she’s okay. It’s just so true-to-life. Too often our media has something *happen* to a character, and then it disappears an episode later. Rebecca’s deeply-felt self-loathing and general unworthiness isn’t gone just because her stomach was pumped, however. And that kind of consistency is important. Life doesn’t make narrative sense, so even though there’s a clear story that’s being told, it’s told in way that feels refreshingly familiar. Because it mirrors life.

Add to this the diagnosis. Rachel Bloom has talked openly about her own mental health numerous times. She also said this last week:

It’s clear this was written from a place of understanding, and with an attempt to be as validating and healing as possible. Rebecca sings a boisterous song about getting a diagnosis that will be her golden ticket to happiness (she’ll finally fit in somewhere), which amazingly captures the awareness of stigmatization alongside the often unreasonable weight people attached to their diagnoses. I just say this as a woman with OCD and general anxiety disorder, and I don’t want to speak for everyone ‘neurodivergent’, for lack of a better umbrella term. But in my opinion, the episode’s greatest strength was the way in which both of Rebecca’s doctors talked about her diagnosis. It’s not an identity, nor is it a fix; it’s a tool of understanding behavior, and one that can help guide treatment in a way that makes the most sense for her.

At the same time, Rebecca possesses the traits which define Borderline Personality Disorder. This was something I’ve said (mostly to Julia) for a long time, and something I’ve been scared for the show to tackle. I have intimate experience with this disorder, and without sugarcoating anything, some hurt as well. I have never seen proper depiction of it before this show, and I never in a million years thought it would actually be labeled, then fully described in a way that’s so accessible to an uninformed audience.

“A person with BPD is essentially a person that has difficulty regulating their emotions. Someone that lacks the protective emotional skin to feel comfortable in the world.”

It’s clear that Rebecca’s world is one that’s scary to be in. She never feels she fits, she has a terror of abandonment, and her impulsive actions that she does in order to control situations or feel accepted (be it breaking into Josh’s house to delete an embarrassing text, rushing to a wedding because she had a moment of doubt, or even sleeping with her ex’s dad because he was the only person being nice to her) have outcomes that usually result in more unhappiness. To be able to know that she’s not alone in this struggle is validating.

Also her friends work overtime to be there for her, even if in slightly flawed ways

Though of course, and again realistically, the show doesn’t make the BPD simple or straightforward. Rebecca immediately Googles BPD and hates what she reads: that treatment can be lifelong, that there’s no “cure”, and even that 10% of people with BPD do kill themselves. She pushes against this diagnosis, even telling Dr. Akopian that she was bullied by the other doctor into agreeing with him on it, until Akopian whips out the DSM and goes through the checklist to see if Rebecca matches the criteria. Every point applies, and the show brilliantly provides flashbacks as these are read off. Rebecca sinks into despair, calling herself “certifiably crazy,”

Like…yeah. This is it. This is what happens. I was watching, half wanting to cry because of how easy it is to feel for Rebecca in that moment, and half wanting to laugh because finally what I’ve seen and experienced (second-handedly)—what I’ve even questioned and doubted—is on my screen for the first time, ever. We talk a lot about why fiction and representation matters, yet it’s almost unthinkable that the diagnostic process has been rarely been shown on our screens. Certainly not in this much detail.

The episode does end on a hopeful note, with Rebecca saying that she doesn’t want to ever feel like she did on the plane again. She goes to a group therapy, and gets a book to read afterwards. It’s not the end, nor was it ever meant to be. But it’s the means of getting her to a healthy place, and in that process, we see a lot of our own realities, from the hilarious to the uncomfortable.

That’s the story that matters, and that’s the story that was always being told. We’re just finally at the place where the characters see it too.


Images courtesy of the CW

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Analysis

A Bride’s Story is the Women’s Story You Were Waiting For

Annedey

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A Bride’s Story is a manga by Kaoru Mori (also responsible for Emma). Started in 2008, the series is still running and counts 9 volumes. It takes place in 19th century central Asia and follows several characters in their daily lives. The story is mainly focused on women of the region, but there is also the point of view Henry Smith, an English researcher. Anything else notable? Oh, I just remembered: it is really good.

Talking about a really good manga series could be enough on its own. But you know what’s even better? It is focused on women and their lives. Different women, with different lives, their work, their achievements, their pains. And it is written in a total love of all women. A good manga series, written by a woman about women? What else could we be asking for?

The Story of A Bride’s Story:

I am starting to not like this choice of title very much. But anyway, the manga opens on Amir and Karluk’s wedding. Amir is twenty whereas her husband is twelve (don’t worry there is no weird sexual content between the two). It is not the only thing that separates them. Karluk comes from a mainly sedentary village. Amir’s tribe still has a pretty nomadic way of life. Both spouses are pretty different so the first chapters of the manga follow their adaptation to each other (and to her in-laws in the case of Amir). The presence of Smith also allows the point of view of an outsider into the family.

The story then expands to other members of the family, friends, and neighbors, as well as people Smith will meet during his travels. Yet the story isn’t all over the place. We follow their lives and emotional development. And when Kaoru Mori focuses on one character she takes the time to tell their story. Even if she has to leave aside other characters for some time. But this is not a problem, as it is crystal clear she loves all her characters and will do them justice in time.

Good guy Kaoru Mori by herself.

A Bride’s Story is going to focus on every aspect of the characters’ lives. There is high drama(military attack of one family on another) but also daily life (learning how to sew, finding your vocation).

In short A Bride’s Story is a really good read. But it is not the only thing that draws you in the narrative.

Art so gorgeous it sucks you in the story:

Another strings to Kaoru Mori’s bow which help you being completely absorbed in her world is that…

…her art…

…is…

…gorgeous.

Which, considering the time we spend speaking about craftsmanship, is important. Having a visual representation worthy of the script is only doing it justice. If you don’t want to travel to central Asia to discover their handicraft after reading A Bride’s Story you are a liar, and that’s all there is to it. The characters and the details are insanely comprehensive. But we are also given amazing and dynamic action scenes.

This incredible art and interesting story combine to give us a narrative uplifting women at every turn.

An Hymn to women’s lives:

A Bride’s Story focuses, as its name clearly spells out, on brides. Sometimes young brides, sometimes bride-to-be, sometimes widows, but always women facing married life. And no it is not reductive. During the 19th century, marriage was (and still is in some cultures) one of the main events of a woman’s life. It was a literal change of family, of environment, and the real beginning of her adult life. So focusing around this event is not reductive. Quite the contrary. It reminds us that, as long as she is a good person, every woman’s life is worth telling.

Kaoru Mori spends a lot of time on women’s daily activity. Sewing of course (if the manga doesn’t give you a mighty need to start sewing you are a liar), but also cooking, taking care of the herd etc. Everything is worth the author’s attention, and ours. Do you know why? Because it is important work done with care. And this ask for our interest and respect.

Another thing which is incredibly well done in A Bride’s Story is the relationship between this women. They are supportive of each other. There is a mother-in-law ready to sacrifice herself to save her daughter-in-law. When Amir learns that she should go back to her family to marry another man because all the brides they have sent are dead (killed by their husband) she is not only crying because she is terrified. She is crying because she knew both of this girls and is devastated by their death. And the person reassuring her and saying that she is « not going anywhere » is her husband’s grandmother.

There are as many positive women relationship in there as there is stars in the sky. And not always just filial relationship. But also mentorship, friendship and emh…

I am sorry but there is no heterosexual explanation to this and yes Kaoru Mori acknowledges it in the author’s notes.

And the icing on the cake is that every single one of these women is different from the others.

No wrong way of being a woman:

Truly it is refreshing to read about women helping each other. It is even better when they are allowed to be different. Because let’s be real, often in fiction women are created to oppose each other. The “good” kind of woman opposing the “wrong” kind of women. Just look at The White Queen and The White Princess, in which motherhood is glorified and “good” women are rewarded with it whereas “bad” women, women having a “man’s” ambition, became sterile and loveless.

Well, in A Bride’s Story we have traditionally feminine women who are soft gentle and love sewing. We have unconventional women who like to hunt and ride but are still good at feminine tasks (but let’s be real Amir is an amazement in universe too) and others which are not. We also have what other media often depicts as “failing” women, but are just unsure of who they are.

Let’s be real we all want to be Amir but we are Pariya who, conveniently, wants to be Amir.

In short, Kaoru Mori is standing on her mountain screaming “They are all my daughters and I love them all!”. And trust me ,it feels good to be, as a reader, welcomed into this story.

Conclusion:

To the surprise of no one, I heartily recommend reading A Bride’s Story. As a first manga, if it is your first, it might be putting the bar a bit high for future dives into the medium. But there are worse problems to have. Just to add to all I’ve said above, we also have good and interesting siblings relationships (my passion), making this manga almost without fault. It is worth a try. It really is.


All images courtesy of Yen Press.

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Analysis

Wolfenstein: The New Colossus Excels Because It Knows Its History

Griffin

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Wolfenstein: The New Colossus is a phenomenal game. It has an inordinate amount to say about racism, anti semitism, the cycle of abuse, ableism, eugenics, homophobia, fat shaming, PTSD, war, violence, and just about everything else under the sun. And developer MachineGames does all of that with this wonderfully strange combination of hyper-meticulous tact, high production values, and auteur confidence. Of course, none of that would have been possible if the setting surrounding the narrative didn’t work, and holy shit does it ever.

The newest iterations of the Wolfenstein franchise take place in an alternate 1960—leading into ‘61 for the second game—where the Nazis won the war. 2014’s Wolfenstein: The New Order was a game framed around the “how” of the world. How did the Nazis win? How do they keep their conquered states in check? How have things changed in this reality? How do we stop them from gaining more power? How do we fight back against a near global, yet also interplanetary, regime?

Throughout the game, you come across newspaper clippings and records (The Beatles sort of still exist) that fill the gaps between 1946 and 1960. The result is a fully realized world that isn’t just a horrifying coat of paint over reality; it’s how things would have happened…with a few super-science-y liberties thrown in because why wouldn’t the Nazis a moon base or fire breathing robot dogs? And, of course, the greatest twist of all: the Nazis’ inexplicable sci-fi advancement, the whole reason they won the war, was built on the backs of stolen technology from a secret society of Jewish science wizards. There’s even a sequence where the protagonist, William Joseph “B.J.” Blazkowicz, breaks into a high security compound and finds ancient schematics written in Hebrew, which he knows how to read.

We also knew, in broad strokes, what had happened to the other parts of the world. America had surrendered completely after Manhattan was obliterated by an atomic bomb, mirroring the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Nazis had yet to conquer the vast majority of Africa, as organized resistance was proving far more effective than they were willing to recognize. London was kept in line by a skyscraper-sized robot called the London Monitor, which you get to blow up.

Wolfenstein: The New Order took place almost entirely in western Europe (with a brief sojourn to the moon, of course) and exploring how the one region of the world that was, at one time, actually conquered by the Nazis, ended up being just familiar enough to what it was back then to what it became in their alternate history. It’s this foundation, this deep uprooting and deconstruction of history, that allows its sequel, The New Colossus, to head straight into the United States. We were shown what was comfortably familiar to us, so it was time to show what was uncomfortably familiar.

An America subjugated and ruled by the Nazis.

Enemy Of The State Of Affairs

Wolfenstein: The New Colossus is a game about “why”. Why do we fight against oppression when society around us punishes those who do? Why do we push back against systemic hatred, even when it has no bearing on us? Why does a man like William Joseph “B.J.” Blazkowicz, the perfect aesthetic poster boy for Aryan supremacy, reject those who would treat him like a king?

Why has America submitted to Nazi rule? The short answer is: giant airship. The long answer? Well, that one’s not so complicated.

Relatively early in the game, you meet up with a New York City resistance cell lead by a black woman named Grace, a survivor of the Manhattan bombing. In fact, all but one of her members are black with the exception of her partner Super Spesh. Their character designs explicitly invoke imagery of the Black Panthers and the overall Black Power movement.

The first game had you run around helping the Kreisau Circle, the Berlin-based Nazi resistance group that eventually cut the head off the Nazi war machine and stopping them from developing new weapons. This cell was lead by Caroline Decker, a paraplegic veteran. But, in the opening of this game, Caroline is executed by the main antagonist, Frau Engel, leaving a gaping hole in leadership that Grace fits perfectly. Who better to represent a 1960s violent uprising of the oppressed than a black woman in America?

She even goes so far as to move into Caroline’s old cabin in their captured Super U-Boat. From the start of the narrative, Wolfenstein is showing us that America is very different from a conquered Europe. For one, the English language is being banned, hearkening back to that old adage of “If the Nazis won, we’d all be speaking German”.

The largest among the differences though is that, just as Grace says above, America never stopped fighting the Nazis. The military did, yes, and the vast majority of the white population, including a South-governed KKK, but the fact that there is a dedicated anti-gravity airship, the Ausmerzer, whose sole role is to travel the country and crush resistance factions for the past decade tells us in no uncertain terms that the hold the Nazis have over America isn’t as ironclad as they believe it to be.

Even if they are able to put on one hell of a show.

We find newspaper clippings within the game describing resistance cells crushed by the Ausmerzer, and there’s even a moment during a trip to Roswell where you’re recognized (you’re the Reich’s most wanted, after all) by a local resident who, in a terrified act of defiance, whispers that he believes in what you’re doing when just seconds prior he was selling newspaper propaganda with glee.

The cap to this, however, is the final scene of the final mission of the game where you ambush Frau Engel’s live appearance on a talk show. You sneak through the bleachers and into the rafters, noting that every single person in the audience is a cardboard cutout. The show may be being broadcasted to every living room in the world, but it stands to reason that if people aren’t going to the live show…they’re not buying into the lies.

America is being crushed under the heel of the Nazis, yes, but it has yet to be crushed. Good people are still out there in the world, but they’ve forgotten how to resist. Those who were already filled with hate jumped on board, the minority, while everyone else is either putting their head in the sand or just trying to survive.

On the other side of the table, though, is how white America perceives the Nazis. I’ve already mentioned that the KKK controls the south, but it goes a whole lot deeper than that. Slavery has been legalized once more, and auctions are the talk of the town. We find out that, in true Nazi form, they rounded up the country’s degenerates—Jews, queer folk and people of color—and either purged them or sent them off to die in New Orleans…which is now a massive ghetto, Escape from New York style.

And if you “named names”, you were rewarded with what those same people left behind. Land rights, mansions, savings; everything they owned was either seized by the state or given as a gift to those who betrayed their friends and neighbors. This is not something we discover on a broad scale; it’s personal to B.J.

He visits his childhood home after nuking Area 52 (it wasn’t aliens, just ancient Jewish Techno Wizard secrets) and finds his abusive father, Rip, waiting for him, having heard he was in the area and assumed he’d come around. Rip, as we learned from flashbacks, was physically and emotionally abusive to both his son and his wife Zofia, a Jewish Polish immigrant. That, and he was a hardcore White Supremacist, having only married Zofia because he believed her father would be a business asset. He bemoans that no one knows what it is like to suffer as he does, thinking that everyone is trying to steal everything from the White Man.

In short, he represents everything that B.J. has spent his entire adult life fighting against.

When asked what happened to his mother, Rip admits that he sold her out to the Nazis and they took her away. The confrontation ends with B.J. killing his father after he presses a shotgun to his son’s forehead, but through their entire conversation he’d been on the phone with the Nazis. He’d sold out his son, too.

That’s the state of the world in Wolfenstein, and in The New Colossus you blow it the fuck up.

Terror-Billy Goes America All Over Everybody’s Ass

While the game’s marketing may have been pointing towards a parallel with the American Revolution as for how the country ousts the Nazis, I posit that the historical context is far more evocative of our 1960s.

Grace’s existence and design are already evidence of this, but it’s the rest of the resistance that makes this all the more clear. The second big group you recruit, aptly enough from the New Orleans ghetto itself, is lead by a man named Horton. He organizes a group of communists, socialists and anarchists who you’d think wouldn’t fit in with Grace and her people. These are the people that dodged the draft, even if they did push the concept of equal rights earlier than most. Horton even flat out cites their attempted push for a civil rights movement in an argument with B.J.

Of course, there’s a key difference between refusing to fight on foreign soil in a war that benefits the military industrial complex and what’s happening to them now. Horton’s group draws upon sentiment from both the end of the Great War and the counterculture movements of the 1960s.

Again, many of them were draft dodging pacifists, but that goes right out the window when it comes to Nazis. It’s one thing to refuse to fight a foreign enemy on foreign lands when victory would have only spread what you’re rebelling against. It’s quite another to sit by and accept fascism in the very country that allowed, though not always encouraged, you to believe what you saw in your heart as just.

It’s at the end of the game, however, in the ending cinematic, that this entire idea solidifies. That this historical context isn’t an accident, and the frankly unbelievable amount of homework MachineGames must have done paid off in spades. Mere moments after B.J. kills Frau Engel on live television, Grace and Horton speak directly into the cameras and ignite a violent revolution. The Kreisau Circle may be organized like a guerilla military operation, but the American people aren’t. They don’t need to be.

It’s an angry, raw, improvised and imperfect call to arms, but that’s what makes it perfect. Violent uprisings don’t start with eloquence or deep debating over the justification to fight against those who oppress you. They start with whatever you’ve got on hand. The Civil Rights movement, the Stonewall Riots and the general counterculture protests that dominated the 60s are clear influences on Wolfenstein’s depiction of “retaking America”. Seriously, if it didn’t sink in already, they blast a heavy metal cover of Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” over the end credits coupled with imagery of violent rioting and uprisings across the nation.

Wolfenstein does not attempt to hold a mirror to our world today, even if it does so inadvertently. It tries to make us look back, so that we remember how to keep moving forward. It’s message is clear because it knows what it’s talking about, no matter how over-the-top the presentation:

Equality is not a debate; it’s a right. Those without it won’t stop until they have it, because for them it’s literally “Fight, or Die”.  So the best thing you can do, if you’ve already got it, is to pick them up with you. And if you don’t? If you keep trying to push others down? It’s gonna get bloody, just like it always does, and chances are it won’t be them who’s dying.


Images courtesy of MachineGames

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