In Which Nobody Does Character Development like ‘Night Vale’ Does Character Development

Welcome_to_Night_Vale

If you’re involved in the Tumblr fan community in even the slightest capacity–or if you’ve ever looked at the Top 10 Podcasts list on iTunes–you’ve probably heard of the bi-monthly podcast Welcome to Night Vale. If you haven’t, here is a brief introduction. It’s not a radio show in the conventional sense. Conventional is probably not the best word to describe WTNV. Words I would use instead are unique, quirky, terrifying, and inspiring. If you’re looking for something to listen to, whether on a jog, on a long car ride, or just sitting in your room staring into the endless night you take as a metaphor for your uncertain future, I highly recommend it. It’s set in a fictional American town where nothing is ever as it seems, hosted by the town’s favorite radio personality, Cecil Palmer. It features a slew of strange yet strangely lovable humans, angels, a literal five-headed dragon, and perhaps most important to those of you interested in representation (hint: it should be all of you), a canonical and diverse queer couple. There is nothing not to love about this show.

Now. For those of you who skipped that semi-lengthy introduction for the good stuff, I’m going to talk about the honey-voiced-honey we all know and love, Cecil Palmer. He’s the character in Night Vale we know the most about (kind of. Sort of? “Cassettes” and “[Best of?]” messed me up, man), and is, as he himself put it, the listener’s “guide to the cosmos” (Episode 69, “Fashion Week”). What I discovered about his character lately won’t be news to you who listen, but to you who don’t, perhaps you’ll be inspired to have a listen afterward if only to satisfy your curiosity. Warning: spoilers ahead!

Upon seeing a live show when Night Vale was on tour, I became very aware of just how much the show has changed over the years. It’s still just as weird and mind-blowing as when I first started listening two summers ago. But we can see changes, and we can see them in Cecil. I decided, having absolutely nothing to do until I get a full-time job, that I’d go back and re-listen to some old episodes on my daily jog. It’s really interesting to go back and listen to very early Night Vale. The fact that neither the writers nor actors knew the direction in which they were taking the show at first, combined with the generally ominous feeling of first immersion into the town itself allows for a very eerie interpretation of Cecil’s low, almost growling “Good night, Night Vale, good night” by the average listener.

But think about how his voice has changed over the last three years of the show, especially in relation to the individual story arcs. By “voice” I don’t simply mean intonations and inflections, though that’s definitely part of it (kudos, Cecil Baldwin, you beautiful-cinnamon-roll-too-good-for-this-world. And yes, newbies, Cecil is played by Cecil). I also refer to Cecil as a character tonally; because WTNV is an auditory experience, Cecil’s voice is, arguably, in itself a character. Here we have a combination of the brilliant writing of Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, and Cecil Baldwin’s artistic choices in reading aloud what they wrote. Let’s take a look:

Year One Cecil is under the complete spell of the Vague Yet Menacing Government Agency–we hear it in his voice; a tone that wants to reach out and snatch you by the throat with every “Welcome…to Night Vale” at the start of each episode. In the beginning, Cecil is just a radio host and nothing more. He doesn’t even have a name for the first few episodes. And, the listener is disturbed enough to find, he seems totally cool with the fact that there is a dog park erected in Night Vale in which no dogs or people are allowed and ominous hooded figures lurk. As new audience members, we’re thinking, “What is this guy’s problem?” because clearly Night Vale is a bit not-normal, and maybe Cecil should high-tail it out of there. He speaks of really big existential crises and many probably life-threatening situations as if he’s discussing a promotional sale at Target:

“And now, a continuation of our previous investigation into whether I am literally the only person in the world, speaking to myself in a fit of madness caused by my inability to admit the tragedy of my own existence.” (5, “The Shape in Grove Park”)

Disturbing, right? So all we know thus far about Cecil is this: he’s a radio host, a lot of weird shit happens where he lives, but he seems to like where he lives…so it’s okay? But the end of that year into Year Two brings him closer to Carlos the Scientist, an outsider new to the town, and to members of his community who become just as aware of the strangeness and danger of Night Vale as we are (Tamika, Dana, etc). The connections he forges with others prompt the change in his willingness to be defiant in any capacity. For example Carlos, about whom Cecil cares dearly, is placed in mortal peril at the end of Year One, and his situation prompts Cecil to really question what exactly is happening around him:

“I fear, Night Vale. I fear for what we know. I fear for what we don’t know. I fear for what we don’t yet know that we don’t know.” (25, “One Year Later”)

His questioning of Night Vale becomes more apparent in year two. In “Missing,” he not-so-secretly attempts to aid “brilliant and bold” middle schooler Tamika Flynn in her open fight against the takeover of the town by the mysterious StrexCorp. He knows what he’s doing is wrong in the sense that it defies the powers-that-be which control him and the town–and we see that perhaps he’s willing to take the risk to allow Night Vale citizens to realize what he’s beginning to understand himself:

“I sometimes wish I could tell you more, but I cannot. I cannot tell you everything I think you should hear because it is…boring. Or, it is unnecessary. Or it is very necessary, but unapproved […] I just report the news. I just arrange it. You figure it out. You learn from it. You take action. You create the meaning. It is all up to you.” (36, “Missing”)

Cecil, we now understand, is not just a radio host or announcer of news for his town. He’s extremely invested in Night Vale and all the weird things it represents, and he wants the people who listen to him to become as engaged as he is, rather than blindly accept the danger they face daily as he was so willing to do in Year One. Now, just as often as he all but snarls  “Good night, Night Vale” (I think Year Two’s “The Woman from Italy” has to be the creepiest I’ve ever heard him), he signs off with the same words in uncertainty. Sometimes fear. What does Night Vale mean to him? What does his role as The Voice of Night Vale mean for him?

This transition culminates in Cecil’s attempts to start a revolution against StrexCorp. He is wary of how complacent the town is with having someone to tell them what to do, though, which is why he becomes openly adamant about the fight for independence:

“Today is the day. There is only one thing for today, and that is the destruction of the hated StrexCorp, and freeing our town of Night Vale. We will work no longer. We will worship a Smiling God no longer. We have failed before, we have failed so many times at so many tasks, but at this, we will not fail. I hope. I mean, I really, really, hope that we will not fail.” (49, “Old Oak Doors, Part A”)

In the end, they don’t fail. Night Vale “comes alive” (49, “Old Oak Doors, Part A”) to work with the (not?-)angels and save the town from the evil of StrexCorp. A huge component of the development from Year One to Year Two for Cecil is that he finally realizes there are things that exist outside his little town. That his little town is all he’s ever known. And the events that ensue throughout Year Two lead him to question: Does he really know the town at all?

Cecil’s views, too, become his own, as opposed to the views of the town and its citizens. We see how his interactions with others help shape his new opinions. For example, in the Pilot episode, Cecil is quick to question the presence of Carlos the Scientist upon his arrival: “A new man came into town today. Who is he? What does he want from us?” Despite “falling in love instantly” with him (I mean, who wouldn’t, with his perfect hair and all), Cecil is immediately distrustful of a new visitor to Night Vale–an outsider. By the third year, he is just as quick to tell us (and by extension, his fellow citizens) that “not all outsiders are bad” (55, “The University of What it Is”). He is also much more willing to state opinions like those on-air, and to act on those opinions as opposed to hiding under his desk and waiting for the threat to pass (3, “Station Management”).

In Year Three, the powers that be after the overthrow of StrexCorp have returned to some Vague Yet Menacing Government Agency that we still know very little about. But this time, Cecil isn’t so blind to its control–nor to the power the town itself has over its citizens. Feeling very isolated now that Carlos is stuck in a Desert Otherworld, combined with the fact that he’s occasionally being mind-controlled against his will (seriously, who owns Lot 37?!), Cecil is…lost. His “good night”s are subdued. Quiet. By this point, he just wants the town to “leave him out” of its strange happenings (68, “Faceless Old Women”). The June 1st episode, “Fashion Week,” found Cecil in the “clothes [he] slept in last night,” relaying the news in a tired tone. He ended the episode by announcing that he’s leaving Night Vale, to join Carlos in the Desert Otherworld. And what a journey, as an audience, we’ve traveled–for all our wariness of the scary little town at the beginning, we don’t want him to go!

This is where the brilliance of the writing lies. We started out with a Cecil who thought anything outside Night Vale was dangerous, uninteresting, unnecessary. We’re finishing off this year with a Cecil that desperately wants to leave. And in between, we have evidence of a transformation that led to his new understanding of the world around him. His story so far is one of disillusionment–one I’m sure we can all relate to. No matter where Night Vale is or what strange things happen there, the character whose story we’ve followed is just as human as we are; he’s come to know some life-altering truths that have been been hiding in plain sight all along. Indeed, coming to terms with what we know versus we thought we knew is scary, and exciting, and confusing, and depressing. We’ve all been Cecil at one point or another, haven’t we?

Last week’s episode ended with Cecil’s voice cracking as he said “Good night.” A far cry from the voice that made you shudder in the Pilot, isn’t it? I am so very, very interested to see where the Year Three finale takes Cecil next. As an aspiring writer, I view his arc as character development at its finest. I not-so-patiently await June 15th!

But in the meantime…good night, WordPress. Good night.

(For more info in WTNV and those involved in the project, check out their website! Episodes are released on the first and fifteenth of every month on iTunes for free. You can also check them out on YouTube.)

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