Episode 2: Within the Wires - Sometimes We Care Too Much (REmastered)
Episode 2: Within the Wires – Sometimes we care too much… (Remastered)
Sometimes, we care too much, like when we realize that we held back when making a second episode of a prematurely launched podcast. Back when we didn’t have all the details yet. This is a re-record of episode 2. Not just a re-edit to fix blatant editing mistakes, though this episode had plenty of them when it first went live because I didn’t fully understand how noise reduction works.
When writing the script the first time, I danced around something I wasn’t ready to admit aloud, never mind to a small audience. After a few weeks and a few other confessions, I think I can now say it, and instead of living in the regret of having a slightly restrained and almost dishonest episode in the feed, I decided to redo it. You’ll understand the changes a little more if you listen to the Within the Wires revisited episode, which will be the next one to go up as I record this. Just to give you a time line of what’s happening on my end
Rerecording like this might not be the best thing to do, but in light of the next episode it feels right. As for everything else in it, I kept it as much the same as I could, but without the terrible editing mistakes and with a few other things changes that would have been the case originally had this been anything but the second episode.
(Music fades out and new music fades in)
Hi. Welcome to the Second Episode of Miscellany Media Reviews. Today, we are going to talk about Within the Wires, a production of Night Vale Presents.
In writing this episode, I was originally planning for an introduction staked on the assumption that if you like podcasts you, dear listeners, likely got into them from Welcome to Night Vale, that—though this medium predates Night Vale—podcasts didn’t have the cultural presence before it, and that Night Vale is still very much a giant among men.
Now, that’s not a fair assumption but one based on my subjective experience of life and the world. A close friend—the kind that might as well be considered family up until organ donation comes up and blood type becomes an issue—recommended Welcome to Night Vale to me when we were in college. She said I would love the absurd and dark humor, which I do. It’s actually a perfect fit for me, but I went into it skeptical of the medium as a whole.
After a lot of persuading, I nervously peeked into the dark, bottomless pit of the podcast world and with no more than a slight tap, I was sent plummeting. There’s just so much to listen to, including backlogs of any show you discover and fall in love with. And, yeah, it can get overwhelming pretty quick, but I have no regrets.
However, this episode isn’t about Night Vale, so I won’t talk too much about that. Here’s the important information. Welcome to Night Vale’s success led to Within the Wires in two different ways beyond just converting people to the medium. One, it allowed its writers Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor to grow a full podcast network called Night Vale Presents, which included a new production for each of them. Within the Wires is Jeffrey Cranor’s new show co-written with Janina Matthewson. Joseph Fink’s podcast is Alice Isn’t Dead, which—no promises—may be the subject of a later episode. Though that new episode may be about the Alice Isn’t Dead novel coming out this fall.
Now, timeline. Alice Isn’t Dead came out first—in February of 2016—and I listened to it, enjoyed it, and even checked out some of the sponsors. But I wasn’t keeping on top of it as much as I would have liked. I was finishing up my master’s program which took up literally all my time and my entire soul. Podcasts made for a beautiful retreat from the brutality, but I didn’t have any time for retreats.
When Within the Wires dropped later that summer, I might have been free from my academic shackles, but I still didn’t get to it. Life happened. Life continued to happen. And this podcast wasn’t as much of a priority for me as it might have been if I actually understood the wonders that awaited me.
The teaser and premise just didn’t intrigue me enough, which is a unfortunate consequence of the attempts to preserve the artistic integrity of the show. I mean, in hindsight, there are some clear signs that something bigger was happening, but I didn’t catch it at the time.
As a whole, Within the Wires is a series of audio cassettes from another dimension, one that parallels our own in many ways, but its history diverts from our own profoundly during a major war. The resulting Society, the one that rises from the ashes of complete, global, mutual destruction seeks to preserve a certain type of order, and it has its own means of doing so.
The manufactured authenticity of those first tapes in season 1 is astounding. So astounding that it actually hurts the show. They’re supposed to be relaxation tapes for an institution of some sorts, and that’s exactly what they sound like. The genius of Within the Wires lies in the subtle revelations of the narrator’s world. This is an interesting, expansive universe with profound philosophical implications, but the subtle hints are easy to miss. The Institute exists in a perceived isolation until the instructor drops enough bombshells to thoroughly destroy the façade by making you realize that these are not (in quotes) standard issued tapes.
Not realizing any of this, I neglected this podcast for a while. I had enough faith to think that one day I would pick it up again, so I let all the episodes download on my computer where they sat for almost a year. I forgot about them until I was prepping for a big trip to the Philippines. Now, that’s about twenty hours in the air each way. Never mind all the waiting at airports. Even with my mom traveling with me, there was still going to plenty of downtime to fill with audio dramas.
Or so I thought. In reality, because my mom and I were blessed with an empty seat in our row on the flight there, we spent the flight sleeping, which wasn’t a bad way to spend a flight but wasn’t how I intended to.
Within the Wires continued to be neglected until halfway through the trip when there was some downtime between activities and get-togethers. In my experience, those moments can be few on far between. Which is great, in some ways, but even under best circumstances, it can be exhausting. Consequently, those moments can feel almost sacred and certainly need to be maximized.
So during one of those moments, I slipped into what was my room and lay on the bed. For a while, I tried to browse YouTube videos, but by then, the residence and all its frequent visitors had reached the data cap on our internet connection, and the resulting data throttling made any online activity impossible. It was frustrating, to be sure, and I lay there for a moment languishing in this frustration. Then I remembered that my phone and computer were already loaded up with all the podcasts I had planned to listen to on my flight. So I put aside the Youtube app and opened up Google Play on my phone. The deceptive nature of that first season is why I first selected Within the Wires. After all, I needed to relax. [Quick aside, though, there’s nothing relaxing about the end of season 1.]
But yeah, I fell in love at the third episode. I listened to the entire first season over the course of three frequently interrupted days. By the end, I was so desperate to hear that final episode that when my phone’s battery died at the start, I desperately turned to my computer. Now there’s a reason I say desperate. It doesn’t have a great battery itself, and I didn’t have long headphones. So for this to work, I had to make this rather clunky set up, and in the course of it, my laptop slipped off of my lap and fell onto the hard tile floor of my aunt’s house. The image—in the abstract—is probably horrifying for some, I’m sure. But it had been a risk I was willing to take and a small price to pay for this thing I was desperate to have.
(Music fades out and new music fades in)
This mirrors the sense of desperation and lingering hope that carries the season one narrative to its end in the place of traditional character struggles or development. Yes, these things happen in Within the Wires, but they aren’t at the forefront in the same way that they are in other stories.
Now listen, I am all up for artistic integrity, but I was ready to cast this belief and my own integrity aside and embrace the hypocrisy of silently hoping for an ending that didn’t line up with the story’s style as a whole but felt fulfilling and made the season feel complete. I didn’t demand it, per say, because I knew it didn’t fit. And—as someone who writes myself—I’m sympathetic to that. But I was desperate for an ending, one with a strong sense of certainty, and I wasn’t sure how I was going to go without it, and I was equally unsure that I was ever going to get that closure. I wasn’t sure if there was enough demand to warrant a second season.
Though I passionately tried to convince everyone around me to be a Within the Wires enthusiast, I wasn’t having any luck. It was disappointing to be sure, but I understood their skepticism. After all, it wasn’t until I already started the show that Within the Wires convinced me to care about it. All the emotions I had thought could only be evoked visually had slapped me roughly across the face during the beautiful narration. It turns out, I didn’t need to see something or someone to care about them, and I didn’t need hard visuals to keep me up at night.
Now, I’m a reasonable person, and once I had ranted and raved about this podcast to everyone in my life, I surrendered on that front. I sought out the comfort of the internet to help me cope, trying to find another community of people I could rave to about this. However, looking towards the internet, the sites I frequented had little more than radio silence on the topic. Which wasn’t good. It confirmed my fears that there was enough of a demand to warrant another season, and all these unresolved questions were just going to continue to gnaw at the back of my mind until the end of time.
It’s not painful or unbearable. I recognize that, and I don’t mean to be overly dramatic. It was still a mild discomfort, though, and there’s something innate to humans that hardwires us to avoid discomforts or to make them stop.
(Music fades out and new music fades in)
Then season two was announced the next summer, and while there was still a bit of a wait, this sense of dread and uncertainty became an excited anticipation. For a while, anyway. until the three trailers released throughout August 2017. They did not feature Season 1’s narrator or link to that storyline in any obvious way. But by then, I was ready to trust these two authors. No matter what lay on the surface, I knew there was something wonderful underneath if I could just wait for it.
It also helps that a different type of desperation was taking hold. Those episodes were the highlight of a brief segment of my life that was otherwise fairly horrible. I found myself counting down the days until the release of one, and on the day it would come, it would be the center of my day. I would play it on my morning commute, think about it all day, and listen to it again on my way home. If there was bad traffic, all the better, because then I could listen to it twice.
Sounds idyllic right? I’m fairly certain that it did. Particularly when you factor in that I was living in my dream city at the time. But that couldn’t be further from the truth.
At the time, I was working as a program administrator for a nonprofit. And for the sake of everyone involved, I’m keeping it vague. That’s largely for my protection too because I’m subtly confessing to not being the IDEAL employee. I mean, yeah, I coasted just like anyone else would or does when given the opportunity. But also, just because I think that in hindsight the person I worked for was an inconsiderate jerk that 1) doesn’t mean I’m right and 2) doesn’t mean that those people who disagree with me about this man are wrong or should be made to feel that they are wrong. They aren’t technically wrong, and that doesn’t mean I’m wrong either. Our opinions can peacefully co-exist. Just because someone is an entitled, self-righteous boss in the workplace doesn’t mean he’s a bad husband or father. I’m starting to think that we are different people in each of our relationships and to each person in our lives. But that’s a topic for another day.
My boss might have been a good husband, devoted father, attentive provider, or even a personable colleague to the people he deemed to be his peers. But as a boss, he was a nightmare to work with. His requests were frequent, at times tedious, usually impossible, and worst of all—vague. And on top of it all, he made it very clear that he’d rather have anyone else working under him but me, if only the higher forces at this office would let him swap me out for a candidate he preferred.
In some ways, it was almost like an abusive parental relationship where the parent resents the child for some perceived defect or just because the child exists as they are or even because of the circumstances that led to the child’s entrance in the world. These emotions aren’t really about the kid, but the child is a convenient focal point for these feelings or a physical representation of the events that lead to their birth or happened as a result. The irony is, even if these things are loosely connected to the child, the child isn’t in control of them. The kid is just a kid.
And the kid being a kid doesn’t understand that all this anger and frustration that is being released in their direction actually has very little to do with them. Rather than understanding nuance, they assume they have control and shape these circumstances through their actions. Specifically, their corrections. And let me tell you, when nothing changes, they take it pretty hard.
Now I’m not afraid to admit there is still something childish about me. And while that isn’t always a bad thing, it certainly was right then.
After all, there was no pleasing someone who has actively chosen to be discontent. There is no changing the mind of someone who has decided that they are happiest when they dislike you. There was no “job well done” from someone who has sworn against saying those words. But I didn’t see that. I didn’t see that there’s a time to shirk responsibilities for the sake of your own wellbeing or that there’s a time to be (in quotes) a lazy employee.
That fence post can be hard to see at times, even in the best circumstances. And this is especially true if that marker is already behind you and no one is there to tell you to turn around. But working in nonprofits is like trying to navigate these difficult roads in a thick fog with all the other cars on the road probably going in different directions.
I don’t doubt that in the abstract, my job sounded important, that there was something truly admirable in our mission statement, or that we probably had a positive impact on the world—or, at least, on people who were in need.
But when you get right down to it, sometimes nonprofit work is just an ego trip you can’t challenge in a socially acceptable way. I see that now. Not then. In all self-deprecating honestly, back then, which was not that long ago, I was young and naïve. I didn’t know anything about the duplicity possible with the good.
So what I wish I knew back them. “Nonprofit” doesn’t mean that an organization is completely good. It just means that they don’t look at their financial bottom line when making decisions. And a mission statement, however noble, will not weed out the worst of humanity. And the word certainly does not justify your martyrdom.
But these lessons only came in hindsight. There were opportunities in the course of my tenure that this epiphany could have been born. But there was something self-perpetuating about this horrible situation.
Other people might have noticed something was wrong. This just wasn’t a resource I had available to me at the time. I was much too tired to see my friends because—keep in mind—I was working myself to the bone to please someone who could not be pleased. I did not want to burden my mom or any of my family with my perpetual stress and anxiety about work, and I didn’t want them to tell me to quit the job and go home. Even talking to the clerks at the grocery store was hard with so much on my mind, all of it work related.
As for the more distant but still dear people in my life, conversations with them always started—as one would expect—with an explanation of what I’m doing for work and about the organization I’m a part of. My description was always met with cheers. Because, yes, in the abstract this was a great place doing great work. Instinctively, we cheer nonprofits as entities that have liberated themselves from financial restraints and human greed, and no thought is given to the chance that this noble idea could crash and burn due to someone’s arrogance. And while I could have easily crushed that illusion for them, there always seemed something malicious about the act. Like telling a child a certain truth about a much beloved figure. You know the information is important, but you also know their life will be a little less magical after they find out.
So yeah, in short, I’m stuck on this figurative island, suffering through this storm but unable to ask for help. Fill in the gaps of this metaphor as you see fit given all the knowledge I have offered you.
Season 2 of Within the Wires was the closest thing to human contact I was regularly getting. It’s just a podcast, I know. And that’s not being dismissive so much as it is being factual. You can’t talk back to a podcast. The narrator’s voice can’t ask you how your day was and then talk you through the problems you are experiencing like a physical person can. Well, they can utter words that seem to go along those lines, but it’s not reactive like another person would be.
But that potential to react can be a double-edged sword. After all, all the reactions in my life—few and far between but still enough to be relevant—seemed to be telling me to stay in this situation and work all the harder. Because it wasn’t about me but about the bigger picture. In those reactions, my boss found justification that he probably would have taken great pleasure in.
(Music fades out)
So no, podcasts aren’t the same as human beings, but all art has a touch of humanity within. And that touch was what I really needed.
(Music starts again)
To get back to the actual arch of this review, every release day, I eagerly downloaded the new episode and played it to soothe myself. And on other days, if work had been bad enough, I’d replay older episodes.
Like I’ve said before, season 2 doesn’t pick up where season 1 left off. Rather, it starts off with this new narrator Roimata Mangakahia making the first of several museum audio tapes that will guide us through the work of Claudia Atieno. Except the tapes, in my opinion aren’t entirely about Atieno, as Roimata may think they are.
(Music fade out and new music fades in)
Claudia Atieno’s work is prolific and her life, mysterious. Both things are clear in Roimata’s tapes, but there’s no solving this mystery, despite the breadcrumbs left around the tapes and because you can’t actually see Claudia’s work, some of the artistic exercises are useless—somewhat or very.
Rather, the story starts to become about Roimata and her feelings for Claudia as fan, contemporary, and friend, specifically how she is coping with Atieno’s disappearance. And while I’m trying to avoid spoilers, I hope that my ambiguity empowers me to make certain comments without breaking that vow. The only thing I may or have already given away is that something emotionally trying happens, and that’s just feels like a given for a Night Vale Presents production.
Getting to it, I was slightly confused about Roimata’s reaction to Claudia’s disappearance, the theories, and the not-quite theories. She was a fan, contemporary, and friend of Claudia Atieno’s, but the feelings she shows are incredibly intense, particularly in light of some of the more disparaging remarks that come later in the season. Well, maybe not disparaging. That might be too strong. Maybe realistic and humanizing is more accurate, particularly if your understanding of humanity bends a bit towards the negative.
That’s right. Roimata is very aware of some of the more deplorable actions and negative nature of Claudia Atieno, and still, she speaks about her with a very raw intensity that in my opinion does not balance against what her emotional investment should be.
The greatest comeback to that would be to say that the two of them were-slash-are lovers and Roimata for one reason or another just doesn’t admit that. Fair enough, though the Society—for all its problems—isn’t fixated on sexual orientation, removing a major issue in that equation. And if it were for Roimata’s safety, let me just say, a dear friend can be as good of a pawn as a lover if you try hard enough.
(Music fades out and new music fades in)
But honestly? That rebuttal only makes me worry about how well love can exist in a vacuum, without the air of affirmation, affection, or anything of the sort to sustain it. To have that, a relationship needs openness and availability, right? And I know all too well that those things don’t always come in spades. But that’s a conversation for another episodes.
Claudia, for all her charms, isn’t expressive. Okay she is in the way all artists are, but Roimata also told us that Claudia preferred superficial fame to making what Roimata would call meaningful art. And this is somewhat of an ongoing theme in her life. For one, she surrounded herself with people she wasn’t close to and never could be close to simply because they were important political figures. She had a string of lovers, which isn’t necessarily bad. But Roimata is the only person who ever seemed stay. Particularly in the end.
So there’s love of some sort there, isn’t there? Romantic, platonic, or any other adjective. Whatever. But what about healthy boundaries and self-care? As Roimata’s emotions get the best of her, she starts to toe the line too tightly with the society or as she stands on the brink on an endeavor of questionable merit or as she genuinely seem to have a mental breakdown on the tapes, I don’t think we would condemn her for disengagement, for pulling away each time Claudia disappointed her, or for—at the very least—not spending so much of her time and energy into tapes meant to keep someone else’s memory alive.
Or maybe that’s just something I worry about. Sometimes it feels like whatever payment or reimbursement Roimata gets for her devotion to Claudia is in a different currency. And when you convert currencies, there’s always a loss due to fees, shifting rates, or a loss of your time, but definitely a loss of your patience. Eventually, you run out of something or everything. When you consider the time span Within the Wires covers, it has to be closer than we think.
How has burning this candle for her friend helped Roimata? At the very least, the opportunity cost of trying to preserve Claudia’s relevance is keeping her from working on her own art, and if you go deeper into the details you’ll see smaller examples of how this detriments her or just reasons that Roimata needs to just move on with her life.
How can we be so emotionally invested in something deeply flawed, problematic, or destructive? There’s no algorithm or calculation that can justify it. There’s just something intrinsically irrational about caring. Very irrational, and though Roimata is a calm, collected person most of the time, but for better or worse, she cares about Claudia and her work.
Just like the rest of us who all care about things that hinder our progress in one way or another. And what Within the Wires made me realize is that there is something human about caring when it is not wise or in the absence of reason. Regardless of whether it was intended or not, part of the genius of Within the Wires is that it strikes at something that is fundamentally human but something we aren’t inclined to think about.
To say WTW hits at what it means to be human hits one major snag: we don’t know how to define the term “human” in the sense that I am using it here. We think we know until we are pressured to generate some sort of definition beyond the “if it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck” logic. And then our own ignorance strikes us in the face.
To avoid being pressured to do what I just described (and hinted at as impossible, by the way), I think whatever actually definition there is will be multifaceted. Within the Wires hits just one part of it.
While we’re capable of doing intense arithmetic and value equations to best allocate the mental energy that goes into all mental processes like—for example, the emotional investment that Roimata is putting into this relationship—most efficiently or most pleasurably, we don’t do it. The mechanism exists, but something deep within our core causes us to reject this result and live what some standards would call a subpar life. (Music ends) But it feels right, doesn’t it? It’s part of the human experience.
(New music starts)
It’s certainly part of mine as I find myself still occasionally over invested in my work. But I don’t work for that one guy anymore. My time there ended shortly after season 2 of WTW did. As the season ended, more of my mental energy was poured into that podcast and away from work. Away from the constant obsessing, worrying, and double checking that I used to always do. I just couldn’t maintain that intense work style and still being a Within the Wires fanatic. And logic may say that I should have focused more on work, you know on the thing that paid my bills and the thing that supposedly was saving the world, but I just couldn’t do it. I cared too much about this podcast, about the unresolved season one plot, and about the mystery of Claudia Atieno.
It let me connect to my friends again, or it gave me a reason. My campaign to convert all my friends started up again, on one hand. On the other, it also took mental energy away from the constant filtering I was doing to hide my discontent and keep the glowing and pristine image of nonprofits intact. Censorship—regardless of the source or standard—requires some energy and with scraps of information about the mystery to piece together and no large theorist community having beaten me to the punch, that I knew of, I was drowning in this story that had no actual barring on my life like my rent did or on my ability to buy food.
But while my job allowed me to have those things, Within the Wires allowed me to feel human. It evoked this irrational and intense outburst of emotion. It made me feel connected to others. And ironically, it seems like the very thing the Society in the Within the Wires universe wants to keep in check.
At work, I didn’t push myself to do the same impossible things anymore, and my boss didn’t notice. I didn’t undertake additional tasks or immediately admit that I had run out of things to do. Yeah, I coasted. I wasn’t really burnt out. But that fire was being used to keep me warm. It was a slow crawl out of a terrible situation. Through caring.
I’m sure there’s a similar argument to be made about fan fiction and fan culture in general. I’m just not an expert on these things. Not as much of some of you might be. So—in the show notes—you’ll find a link to a survey monkey that I hope will let you tell me about your experiences for a follow up episode or project from Miscellany Media Studios.
[Survey found here]
I know we need to care, and I think fandom gets to the heart of that. So let’s see.
(Music fades out and New music fades in)
This has been a production of Miscellany Media Studios. Thanks for listening. If you like what you heard, consider subscribing on Apple Podcasts or Google Play. And follow us on Twitter @miscellanymedia for updates on future projects.