Things are not well in Night Vale, readers. But the town’s the same as it ever was – this year the unease is brewing in the audience. We’re reminded, not for the first time but perhaps not so openly, that our narrator is fallible and occasionally kind of a jerk; that Night Vale is a closed, fairly dystopian city; and that the easy answer is by far the more dangerous one. Change is coming to the little desert town, and it’s as of yet ambiguous if anyone will come out unscathed.
The way these burgeoning plot developments mirror and interact with Night Vale’s fanbase is almost as interesting as their narrative promise, so let’s break this down into sections.
I. Making Sinners and Saints
II. Progress in Night Vale vs Night Vale
III. So How About that Mob
There’s no official Night Vale art –
QUICK, WHAT’S THAT OTHER Twin Peaks INSPIRED SHOW YOU REALLY LIKE
I. Making Sinners and Saints
It’s been brewing for a while that Steve Carlsberg (a name that even now I reflexively desire to type in all caps) is probably not the jerk that Cecil made him out to be. From the relative pettiness of Cecil’s insults (dry scones and a battered tan Corolla) to the sheer affability of Steve’s brief live appearances (particularly in “The Librarian” and “Old Oak Doors”), Steve serves as an early reminder of how narrow our glimpse into Night Vale really is.
For those unused to doubting an untrustworthy (by bias if not malicious intent) narrator, it was easy to take Cecil at his word and go about painting Steve Carlsberg as The Worst. And if “Old Oak Doors” didn’t go a long way to changing peoples’ minds…then the first of the month rolled around.
I don’t know. Maybe he’s right. It’s not like knowing has made my life easier. Quite the opposite.
Quite the opposite.
But every time I look up, I see them. Glowing arrows in the sky, dotted lines and circles, a great chart that explains it all, and I ask you, how can I know all of this? How can I understand, and not try to explain? How can I see the dotted lines so bright and tangible, and deny them?
I have to try, even if it means that everyone – even my wife, or even Janice – grows to hate me. The truth is more important than all that. It has to be.
Or else, why would it shine so clear above?
- “The September Monologues”
It’s amazing how much power lies in allowing a character to represent themselves, and how much it tells us about their intentions if not the effects of their actions. The earnest, heartfelt sincerity of Steve’s viewpoint says a great deal, even if there turn out to be things he doesn’t understand after all. And lo, the fandom came to love Steve Carlsberg, the golden retriever in human form. But at the same time there came about a rather peculiar wave of hate against Cecil. It was almost as though, rather than gaining a fuller perspective of both characters as human beings, they had switched polarities as Best and Worst.
I presume that I don’t have to tell you what a Bad Thing this is. It’s a case of “Us vs Them” in microcosm, something that’s going to be very important indeed further on in this essay. Rather than merely coming to sympathize with Steve or recognize Cecil as flawed, it forces a scenario where there will always be a ‘villain’ to gang up against rather than layers of difficult, entrenched interpersonal problems.
There’s no question that Cecil can be brash and self-centered, and is very much a mouthpiece for Night Vale’s restrictive tenets (whether because he honestly believes them or because he’s a canny survivalist). But there’s also no question that he’s fiercely loyal, from his near-murderous rage over Khoshekh’s injury to his championing of Carlos’ beloved science in a town that doesn’t see much use for it to stepping up to help Janice’s Girl Scout troop – and so it makes sense that his behavior goes from theatrical but blandly pleasant to frothing rage when Steve’s conspiracy talk comes up. In Night Vale, to acknowledge the unknowable is to put oneself in serious danger, and Janice is young and impressionable (not to mention one of Cecil’s only family connections).
For that matter, though we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that Steve means well, is a powerful idealist who wants to change things for the better, we also aren’t empirically certain he’s right (and heck, it could be that Steve really does have some kind of gambling issue as Cecil alludes to, though I doubt it).
The point is that this shouldn’t be a question about which character is an asshole or a martyr. Rather, it’s about whether it’s ethical to put your loved ones in danger for the sake of your ideals, even if they are deeply important to the growth and survival of the communal whole. Like Dana and Tamika’s argument in “Old Oak Doors,” it presents us with two complicated and valid viewpoints. Steve might indeed see the truth in the sky, and his help might be indispensable to keeping Night Vale from stagnation or ruin, but it could also get him, Janice, and Cecil hurt. Cecil might be turning a blind eye to the problems of his community, but is it his prerogative if his actions are to protect his loved ones rather than actively hurting others?
And that conflict is ours, too. Night Vale is a strange and often deadly place, and for all that a story requires change and growth it pains us to see characters we’ve come to love suffer. Finding the balance may prove to be this year’s challenge, because it’s obvious that Night Vale can’t stay as it is.
I’m just saying, if this is the average Tuesday it’s probably time to reevaluate some things
II. Progress in Night Vale vs Night Vale
One of Welcome to Night Vale’s great claims to fame is how much inclusion it strives to have in its narrative: our narrator is openly and unashamedly queer (and never physically described, making it possible for him to be any race, gender, or ethnicity…even if fandom didn’t exactly do that, an old issue for another day); women and POC characters are given prominent and well characterized roles; trans, non-binary (that’s a individual who doesn’t identify as either male or female), and disabled characters all appear organically without feeling ‘token’ or Very Special Episode material, while the writing does its best to erase exclusionary language. All of this without ever feeling like it’s checking off a list or pulling some kind of ‘punches’ in terror. In this way, the show is a triumph that deserves every ounce of praise it gets.
What often gets lost is that Night Vale the town isn’t nearly as progressive as the narrative built around it. This can be difficult to pick out, simply because it does seem downright utopian in comparison to so much other media and the ‘real’ world both. But being progressive isn’t just about a set of agreed upon, static terms – remember, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was considered extremely progressive in the early 90s.
Rather, the (extremely difficult!) core of progressivism is a constant effort to be aware of your place in the grand narrative of cultural privilege, and attempting to open yourself to discussions with those who have less voice, less status, or fewer opportunities than you do. It’s the essence of being open to new ideas, and it is fucking hard – a lifelong growth process where all of us are constantly at different, ever-moving points on a spectrum.
If there’s one thing “A Carnival Comes to Town” highlights, it’s how far from this ideal Night Vale is. The townspeople are clannish, suspicious, and deeply devoted to the insider/outsider binary. They paint things that are not already part of their existing, static world as threatening, and Cecil does his part in making things worse.
These masked interlopers wish to sway you with broad toothy smiles, but they are nightmares, Night Vale. They are lies incarnate.
Remember that we are a great town. We are a great town that does not back down to grave danger. Are we not the same town that defeated a Smiling God, and a fascist corporatocracy, and once – once – survived a Street Cleaning Day?
- “A Carnival Comes to Town”
The description of the carnival workers is a knowing resurrection of the specter of Strex, using an emotionally reactive shorthand in place of actual details and information in order to stir the public to a desired action. It’s important to cling to the knowledge of Cecil’s good traits, because he’s this episode’s equivalent of Fox News.
III. So How About that Mob
It’s not difficult to draw parallels between the state of Night Vale and the state of the fandom. Indeed, the anti-carnival mob bears a striking similarity to the sodomquake situation, another case of overzealous gun-jumping having seriously ruinous effects on a person’s life. And it would be equally easy to read the situation as ‘don’t do that’ because seriously, don’t do that. But there’s something complex going on too, something there isn’t an easy answer for.
Way back at the end of the Strex arc I talked about the future potential of undermining the rah-rah regionalism that powered the revolution, and showing that Kevin, for all the terrible things he did (as a puppet of the Smiling God), was kind of right about Night Vale being a terrible dystopia – it looks like that might indeed be coming to pass, and I couldn’t be happier. Night Vale is in the process of becoming, and what the end result will be is not yet clear. But the need for change is.
When Cecil talks about Tamika, who he previously hailed as a hero when she was behind a cause he wanted to fight for, he now casts her as someone exceptional and different to the rest of Night Vale – someone they should respect but not follow, pay lip service to but safely ignore. Because the knowledge her books bring is uncomfortable, is complex. After all, it’s too pat to say that violence and revolution are never the answer – they demonstrably were during the fight against Strex, and organization that was never going to listen to opposing dialogue despite the lip service they paid to it (oh wait, there’s that phrase again).
But Strex was also an extreme situation, a vast mechanized organization determined to steamroll everyone into its safe, homogenous view of what the world ought to be (and if you don’t fit it, and you’re too loud, you’ll probably disappear). The carnival workers, by contrast, were individuals. Just people rolling in at the wrong time – and maybe there was something off about them, but we’ll never know! Because Night Vale brought out the full force of its animosity, on the one hand protecting itself from the threats of its past and on the other working on little-to-no information and protecting the closed borders of its internalized fears.
Welcome to Night Vale stands on the precipice of making a real writing coup this year. Already the show is interrogating difficult questions of self-preservation versus pursuit of ideals (from Cecil vs Steve all the way up to that mob conflict), and casting its youngest characters as potential instigators of change: Tamika wants to push for dialogue and education now that the revolution is over, Maureen is horrified by the mob Cecil whipped up, and Dana’s idealism for change is constantly being crushed by the entrenched system of the city council. They are working not just to protect this or that established cause, but to change old modes of thinking and put new ones in their place (I’m hedging my bets that Kevin’s potential return is being saved for such an occasion, to show how an individual wholly and forcibly taken in by a harmful system might be recovered from it, and how those efforts might evoke Cecil’s empathy rather than his disgust).
And perhaps that is the closest thing to an answer we’ll receive at this point: a case of macro versus micro. That systems are to be fought with full virulence, that sunk-in cultural norms are often best shaken by loud outcries that refuse to take that abuse any longer. While individuals can be questioned, can be investigated and educated and even changed (and once in a glorious while, that does indeed happen) – that on a one-to-one level people can influence each other for the better (and ideally feeds back into the process where we’re all striving to be more self-aware and open to empathizing with others and their problems)…and can equally create much larger strife by seeking out the individual and stringing them up for perceived crimes or as a representation to the frustratingly faceless macro problem.
And Cecil is the other side of it, the person we’ve come to know and love who has a troubling and problematic side to their mentality. And that perhaps rather than throwing him to the wolves, he might be able to change his mode of thinking. Without Carlos around there’s no one to push the boundaries of his opinions and biases, and so he’s been sinking back into a reactive and fearful mentality. I highly doubt all of this will be as simple as bringing Carlos back, but it’s a start.