In the land of mysterious occurrences and motivations that is Welcome to Night Vale, few characters remain more inscrutable than Kevin. Each of his rare appearances raises as many questions as it answers, if not more, and when fans step into answer those questions their answers tend to be…less than favorable. A lot of that is well earned, given we’re talking about a character with a few directly attributable murders on his hands, promoting propaganda that led to the imprisonment of the majority of Night Vale’s population, and his relentless refusal to acknowledge emotions that aren’t “happiness and hard work.”
On the other hand, the character’s gained both a sympathetic backstory and some pretty strong positive character development (relatively speaking) in the last year, while fan perceptions seem to keep on defaulting back to “the manipulative psychotic eldritch abomination.” And that’s always struck me as a terrible shame. So in light of the precipice the Kevin’s been left on in light of the 3rd year anniversary, it struck me as a good time to see if there isn’t something a bit more ambiguous than evil on our hands.
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To be perfectly clear, I am NOT trying to insist that Kevin doesn’t still need to atone for his actions as the mouthpiece of StrexCorp and the Smiling God, that his behavior in 70A was acceptable, or that Carlos should’ve stayed in the Desert Otherworld (if anything, their tentatively positive relationship requires Carlos getting back to a healthier overall support system).
I AM interested in pointing out how far Kevin’s come since “Old Oak Doors,” that his interactions are rooted in trauma and his own self-harming coping mechanisms rather than malicious and manipulative intent, and that his behavior in “Taking Off” is more or less equivalent to Cecil’s during Year One.
Let’s get started, shall we?
Ascribed Meaning and Text (or, on the Accusation of Gaslighting)
Since “Old Oak Doors,” we’ve spent about half an hour with Kevin (in a roughly ten/twelve hour year of episodes), with a few outside mentions of him from Cecil and Carlos. That’s not a lot of time to form a thorough picture of how he’s changed. We don’t even know how long he and Carlos have been hanging out (though I would bet by “Monolith,” roughly, as that’s when Carlos obliquely mentions making friends). Between that and the fact that Kevin R. Free’s (delightful) performance always dances somewhere between manic and menace, it’s no wonder that the general reaction has been to ascribe Kevin’s old motives to his new behavior.
Here, for reference are a few things that Kevin concretely does (and doesn’t do) during “Taking Off”:
Does not mention StrexCorp or the Smiling God, obliquely or covertly – not only when Carlos is on the line with him but when he is in his studio alone, broadcasting to an audience of no one.
Talks about the citizens of Desert Bluffs outside of the context of being StrexCorp employees (similarly to how he spoke in “The Sandstorm”).
Supports Carlos in trying to leave a situation that is making him unhappy (“Perhaps your letter is the first step to choosing happiness, even while it makes someone else sad”), even though he doesn’t realize he is part of that situation.
Still believes that Vanessa (and her double) are with him in his new studio.
Displays active cognitive dissonance, saying that he enjoyed reporting sad things “Because by telling people about all that can make us unhappy, I prepare them to truly enjoy those happy moments when they come” and later telling Carlos that “No one should ever be sad.”
Freely admits that his studio is covered in blood, when he could have easily agreed to the “barbeque sauce” misconception in order to win Carlos’ trust.
Cuts Carlos off, but does not tell him his perceptions are wrong.
I bring up the last few because one of the most common readings of Carlos and Kevin’s relationship involves Kevin gaslighting Carlos or otherwise “forcing” him to stay in desert (and thus away from Cecil). Which…bothers me, as it rather reads as a quick fix meant to keep from accepting that Carlos is a human being who made mistakes and whose arc this year centered around feeling conflicted about his balancing his priorities re: scientific opportunity and his long-term commitment to Cecil, as well as what may or may not be a pattern of starting over when his surrounding situations become too much (see: “She shouted that she is from the University of What It Is, and that they have been looking for some time for a faculty member named Carlos, who is a professor of science. He has been missing for decades, and they were getting very worried” – 55, “The University of What It Is” and “Plus, the people are way friendlier here. People in Night Vale can be a little…” – 59, “Antiques”).
Carlos is a good man who made mistakes, among them the avoidance of direct conflict (shying away from discussing when he will return from the Otherworld, giving Kevin a letter rather than speaking to him directly) and a predisposition toward optimism that let him cope with his terribly frightening situation but also seems to have let him ignore Cecil’s increasingly crippling depression and convince himself that a room full of gore is, again, barbeque sauce.
But narrative agency aside, it’s even more to the point that “gaslighting” (a very real, very serious abuse tactic that the internet has a tendency to use to the point of meaninglessness) isn’t the right term for the situation at hand. “Gaslighting” is a term used to refer to a scenario in which one partner systematically denies reality or facts, causing the other person to begin doubting their sense of reality. It is a longterm process, requiring a very deliberate hand and an awareness of the other person’s perspective in order to manipulate them. Now, Kevin is all kinds of unhealthy in his attempts to be supportive of Carlos, focusing on the work and shutting out Carlos’ concerns as a result, and taking the tack of “choosing happiness” rather than offering to be a supportive listener. These are not the tools of a good friend, nor of a good relationship of any kind. But in truth, Kevin only has one line that could conceivably be considered a “denial or warping of reality:”
Kevin: So? I’m so excited to learn more about your research into the strange properties of this region. I think you once called this desert otherworld “the most scientifically interesting community in the U.S.”
Carlos: Well…no, my exact words were–
Kevin: So…when do you expect the results?
– 70A “Taking Off”
A few things here: one, this is the end of their close-to-a-year relationship together; had Kevin been effectively initiating a gaslighting campaign for that long, Carlos wouldn’t be able to jump so fast and confidently to contradicting him; two, we do have a visible instance of Carlos saying something similar to that back in “A Carnival Comes to Town.”
“I’m sorry I haven’t had time to go looking for the doorway back to your dimension. I’m learning so many things, though! I– I promise. I promise to return soon. This…desert Otherworld is just so scientifically interesting! Maybe it’s the most scientifically interesting community I’ve ever seen!”
That’s way back in episode 54, too, a good five episodes before our loose point of when he might’ve begun associating with Kevin. And while he likely would’ve had to say it again (unless Kevin could access Cecil’s show), it’s probably an equally fair guess to suggest that Kevin appended “in the U.S.” to make the Otherworld and himself sound comparable toward Carlos’ initial feelings toward Night Vale and Cecil (or perhaps that is truly how he remembers it). Regardless, the meat of the sentiment is true, which makes two very notable times within twenty minutes when Kevin could’ve lied to secure a hold over Carlos (the “most scientifically fascinating community” quote and the blood-spattered studio), and instead told the truth.
It’s notable as well that, as part of their ongoing narrative and technical mirroring, Cecil does his own small editing of Carlos’ statement.
“He feels like this desert – the most scientifically interesting place in the otherworld – is where he needs to be. For now.”
– 58, “Monolith”
It’s a very small clarification, in the same placement and basic nature as Kevin’s: an addendum to an unspecified statement that’s designed to make the current speaker feel more secure in their importance to Carlos. The kind that we know, at least in Cecil’s case, is done to comfort himself and not to distress Carlos.
But if Kevin is not a liar and yet is still a net negative person for Carlos to be around (at least in this place and time), then what do we make of him?
Even putting gaslighting to the side, it’s clear that Kevin is working with an entire caravan of baggage up to and including his time with Carlos. His attempts at emotional support predominantly include telling Carlos how to be happy or redirecting the conversation to things that he think will distract Carlos from his negative emotions (constantly redirecting Carlos to the test results when he picks up that Carlos is stressed), which isn’t coping so much as ignoring. And while it is not at all what Carlos needs, it strikes me as stemming more from Kevin applying his own coping mechanisms to an outside problem.
We know that Kevin has difficulty with the concept of empathy – there’s a lengthy conversation in “Old Oak Doors” that centers around Lauren blatantly wrongly defining the term and Kevin happily going along, and he’s had multiple interactions with others where he seems to think he’s saying something helpful but…really, really isn’t: telling Steve Strex can “fix” Janice, or insisting the Faceless Old Woman has a face; sentiments that seem encouraging if said from the toxic mindset that someone would want to fit in with Strex’s brand of homogenized, erasure-based normalcy (which, of course, Kevin himself has been broken into fitting – and internalized oppression can be the hardest to combat).
Kevin’s methods for coping with his Strex-related trauma is twofold: he embraces the performance of happiness as the ideal way of being (this is distinct from actual happiness, but more on that in a minute); and rather than deal with his unresolved emotional pain he dissociates from its existence. In fact, if I were to use an armchair psychology term for Kevin, it’d be “emotional detachment” – the distancing of the conscious mind from emotions in order to protect it.
While we can’t be entirely sure (given his conversation with the Faceless Old Woman) that Kevin isn’t in fact seeing a ghostly Vanessa follow him around, his reaction to the situation itself is not healthy coping.
“Oh, dear, I’m sorry, no. Vanessa died many years ago. We’re all still very upset about it. Very upset about what we saw. Some of us never came back to work again. Some of us never left our houses again. Most of us never woke up again.
I don’t like to talk about it much.”
– “The Debate”
Later, he comments that he can’t wait to “tell Vanessa what a great town [Night Vale] is,” implying that while he can acknowledge factual information he cannot deal with the emotional aspect of it – building (probably) an imaginary coping mechanism that allows him to continue functioning.
He puts his failed rebellion in the same light:
Cecil: And this is our town! And it is terrible. But it is ours. And we…we are fighting for it!
Kevin: I used to feel that way about Desert Bluffs.
So many secrets and conspiracies and darkness in our days. It all felt so important, so permanent!
But then we met the Smiling God! Oh, it was so wonderful! The sun stopped setting! Or– maybe there wasn’t a sun anymore. Maybe there was just that other…brighter light. Who knows? I do know that I couldn’t stop smiling. None of us could! And our smiles seemed better, fuller, wider.
Soon we had no need for government cover-ups, or secrets. Everything was transparent. Literally. You could see through everything and everyone. The bones, the blood, the scurrying insects inside every human body!
There was so much work to be done. And such a wonderful company to do it for! Even the ones that resisted the most at first soon found that they loved the Smiling God more than anyone. Even the most resistant of radio hosts soon found his way to productive work, happy songs, and a wide, gaping smile.
– 49, “Old Oak Doors”
He begins with the obvious intent of winning Cecil to his side, trying to play to their similar backgrounds in the hope that Cecil will join him. But though he begins with the personal and specific, he ends in the vaguest third person. He puts his trauma in terms of “us,” “we,” or “the most resistant of radio hosts,” unable to confront that event as a personal experience (and thus risk reliving it). Similarly, he constantly puts things in terms of the “now,” not just doing effective work for Strexcorp in their takeover strategies but protecting himself from having to potentially face the past.
Given all of that, let’s look at how Kevin interacts with Carlos (here’s a transcript for the episode, for reference). Kevin’s responses to Carlos mirror how Kevin himself would deal with “bad” emotions like stress or failure: by focusing on the results (of the experiment, of the work, of eventually becoming happy). As for “choose to be happy,” for Kevin at this point the act is the emotion – put on a smile and speak in upbeat patterns, and you are therefore happy (a state of acceptable behavior, not emotional contentment). Kevin’s actual emotions are considerably less healthy.
Lauren: It feels so good to redecorate.
Kevin: Does it? I rarely feel anything. I rarely feel anything at all.
– 48, “Renovations”
On its own that line is eerie, giving Kevin another layer of unfeeling creepiness as Strex’s pawn. But Cecil’s recent character arc (again with the doubling) adds a more painful layer to Kevin’s dialogue.
Janice gave me a feeling of family. I rarely feel anymore. Eh, it was a good feeling. I hope I will be able to visit Janice regularly.
– 69, “Fashion Week”
Numbness is given as a symptom of Cecil’s deepening depression, and given how often their lines and lives are paralleled I feel comfortable retroactively applying that state of mind to Kevin. Cripplingly, numbly depressed all the time then, internalizing harmful mindsets and behaviors and then projecting those out onto loved ones (i.e. Carlos) to potentially continue a chain of damaging behavior. Thankfully, Carlos doesn’t allow him to do that (wittingly or no), and has the strength and self-sufficiency to remove himself from the situation.
But for all of that? Kevin has actually come an amazing distance as far as far as trying to connect with others (if not empathize yet). While he’s working for Strex, he talks about sadness as a “lazy” emotion:
I would! Down markets mean people aren’t working hard, and if people aren’t working hard, that must mean they’re sad and lazy! And when people are sad and lazy, I become less kind.
That’s awful news! It’s a shame how people just don’t value hard work like they used to. You shouldn’t let your sadness and laziness destroy our economic future! Cheer up!
– 48 “Renovations”
While he might be telling Carlos to “choose” happiness, it’s almost more notable that he doesn’t say anything about “trying harder” etc. There are many, many nasty assumptions about depression that Fink and Cranor could’ve put into Kevin’s mouth during “Taking Off,” but they chose a very particular tambour – the words of someone who fully thinks that they’re helping but doesn’t really understand what the other person is going through.
All of this is graded on a curve, of course – Kevin’s attempts to support Carlos are neutral at best and harmful at worse to a case of depression, even if he means well by them; but damn are they leagues better than before by the very intent of pushing for individual happiness as opposed to subsuming oneself in work and the greater good of the hivemind (I did mention he doesn’t mention Strex or the Smiling God once during Year 3, didn’t I?). He’s even gotten as far as acknowledging sadness as semi-valid…if only because it then increases later happiness by virtue of contrast. Still, progress.
Cecil Then and Kevin Now
There is one more way that, with some rather overzealous comparison, Kevin’s growth can be measured. His status in “Taking Off” is extremely reminiscent of Cecil’s characterization before he began dating Carlos. Cecil, too, had a bad habit of stepping over Carlos’ words on account of being laser-focused on his own objectives:
We asked Carlos about our inability to experience tectonic shifts. Carlos, lovely Carlos, had previously recorded other massive tremor activity underneath our city.
His response was a few seconds of stammering followed by a sigh and slow head shake. His eyes were distant – distracted, yet beautiful.
I asked him where he got his shirt. It fit him so well. He said he would look at his notes and computer models and see if he could figure out what was going on.
I don’t know if he listens to me sometimes.
– 11, “Wheat and Wheat By-Products”
And had a habit of interpreting neutral statements in the light he wanted to hear them in:
Anyway, I need to meet you. Are you free tomorrow afternoon? You have a contact number for the mayor and someone with the police, right? It’s important that I find them. And again, can you get the word out on your radio show about the clocks?
End of message.
Did you hear that, listeners? A date! Let’s go to the weather!
– 16, “The Phone Call”
That was, in particular, after Carlos had just related a disorienting encounter with the Man in the Tan Jacket, something as normal to Cecil as bloody, limb-missing warriors in the kitchen would be to Kevin. Cecil, early on, even thinks of Carlos in the semi-condescending Night Valian way reserved for outsiders.
Carlos did want me to ask if anyone has ever actually seen the Night Vale Clock Tower. I told him that it was invisible, and always teleporting, and that’s why he can’t ever see it. I mean, that seems sort of obvious.
Okay. That was unfair. Carlos is a very smart man, and I shouldn’t roll my eyes just because he doesn’t comprehend basic architecture. He obviously has a lot of other intriguing interests, though…like clock making, and seismology. And who knows what else?
– 16, “The Phone Call”
He likes him but he doesn’t know him, is guilty of putting him on a pedestal (hence why “perfectly imperfect Carlos” was such a breakthrough in “Condos”), and…well, I don’t have to recount the Telly story, do I? We’re all aware that inciting a mob to drive a man out of town for cutting someone’s hair, especially if that person went willingly, is decidedly Cecil’s lowest moment (and if you’ve been in fandom long enough, I am sure you’re now remembering the fair cropping of “creepy stalker Cecil” headcanons from the time).
The main difference, aside of the fact that Kevin’s already starting at a deficit (Cecil’s happy participation in Night Vale society, which has definitely included various forms of sacrifice and probably horrible things happening to other outsiders, never happened to anyone we knew after all), is that Cecil has the benefit of hindsight. Cecil’s awkwardness can be simple awkwardness or well-intentioned fumbling, because Carlos has forgiven him and their relationship has clearly grown to be based on love and trust (…though I imagine this past year set them back a bit).
It helps Cecil as well that his voice was the only one we heard for a very long time, while Kevin and Carlos’ interaction happens in real time before our eyes. We’ll never know if Carlos considered skipping town to get away from That Weird Radio Guy (though Cecil does mention him “laying low” after the Telly incident), and the present makes it easy to let go of the past (unless we’re talking about Kevin, I guess). None of this is an attempt to demonize Cecil as a character – he is wonderful, lovable, and his character growth has been astonishing. It’s only that he’s not been perfect, a fact that merely makes him as human as his double.
Kevin and Cecil have always existed on a parallel track, from their initial pair of episodes to the current anniversary – which explicitly explored their respective loss and regaining of a sense of community and support. Though given that this episode also ended with each of them suffering the opposite emotion they’d started with, I’m now becoming increasingly worried that their stories might be heading for an inverted route.
Where Do We Go From Here?
The whole “two paths diverge” thing makes it anyone’s guess as to what might happen from here. On the one hand, Kevin’s final line is performed as a breakthrough, as he at last feels the sadness he’s been trying to escape.
Now, this could mean that he begins to recover his ability to empathize with others as he gains back a wider range of emotions; on the other hand, coping mechanisms exist to keep a damaged psyche functioning, so with Kevin having more or less no support network outside of the Masked Warriors (who currently seem too busy going to war to nurse someone through a potentially complete mental breakdown), he might relapse and double down on trying to block out his negative emotions (perhaps even harnessing the warriors’ conquering force); worse coming to worse, he might fixate on that letter as “the place things went wrong” (I do hope from the very deepest depths of my soul that Kevin’s future is not in playing the Dangerous Scorned Suitor – the writing on the series is better than that, if nothing else).
While Kevin has always used his name as a kind of totem for reality (in “Sandstorm,” “The Debate,” and his gloriously sassy protectiveness of it in “Company Picnic”) he’s also never really had to exist in a vacuum before. He was The Other Radio Host, The Strex Employee, Carlos’ Friend. Who is Kevin when he is alone? Was attempting to improve himself to win Carlos’ approval enough to allow him to continue recovering? When we see him again, will he be a threat or a broken man in need of help and the support network he hasn’t had since…well, since StrexCorp and their Smiling God came along. And if Carlos can decide he belongs in Night Vale, maybe Kevin can decide to be better than who he was. Whatever the case, I wanted to leave you with this. Perhaps we’ll see it in double sometime.
Carlos looked at the setting sun. “I used to think it was setting at the wrong time,” he said, “but then I realized that time doesn’t work in Night Vale, and that none of the clocks are real. Sometimes things seem so strange, or malevolent, and then you find that, underneath, it was something else altogether. Something pure, and innocent.”
“I know what you mean,” I replied.
– 25, “One Year Later”