We’re literally seven seasons into Welcome to Night Vale, now, and writers Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor are still finding ways to change up the formula of the show and wow the audience, including a gimmick in this week’s episode that pushes the format of podcasting into a bold, interesting direction. This episode features the residents of the town of Night Vale experiencing the same day over and over again, but each time experiencing those events slightly differently. The fracturing timeline all seems to revolve around one particular citizen – someone dressed in a black satin mask. Who are they and how are they involved with the fracturing timelines? The answer just might surprise you. (Spoilers follow!)
Welcome to Night Vale, Episode 133 – Are You Sure?: Is this the first time you’ve heard me say this? Are you sure?
Throughout its 6+ years of existence, Welcome to Night Vale has often experimented with the format of its storytelling. Whether it’s telling the story from an entirely second-person perspective (A Story About You.); telling complex, season-long storylines; telling multi-part, serialized stories; doing entire episodes where it’s just a collection of clips from unaired episodes; or a variety of other format changes, Night Vale is frequently messing around with its format. This episode is, perhaps, the biggest format tweak they’ve done so far: there are actually three different endings to the episode.
I don’t really understand, from a technical standpoint, how Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor have managed to pull this off, but depending on where you listen to the episode (or how often you refresh that site/app), you will get one of three different endings. All three versions are the same up until the weather starts, then each alternate version has a different weather song (all from Caged Animals’ new album Escape Artist) and a different ending where a different person is revealed to be the person in the satin mask who is causing all of these timeline anomalies. One ending features Earl Harlan as the culprit, one ending features Telly the Barber, and the final ending features Leann Hart.
In the ending where Earl Harlan, sous chef of the restaurant Tourniquet, is the figure in the satin mask, we learn that Earl has started wearing a satin mask because he’s terrified of making decisions and doesn’t want anyone to be able to recognize him. We’re left to infer that the timeline anomalies are somehow being caused by his refusal to make decisions anymore, but it’s not really elaborated on any further. In the ending where Telly the Barber is the figure in the satin mask, we learn that Telly has been trying to change the past so that he never gave Carlos that awful haircut which led to Telly being ostracized from the town, but instead of succeeding in altering that, he just keeps altering other events. It’s at that moment that Carlos comes in and says that he had tracked the timeline divergence to around the time he came to town and feared he was the cause of the anomalies. Upon learning the cause of the anomalies is just Telly trying to change the past so that he never gave Carlos that haircut, Carlos reassures him that he really loved the haircut Telly had given him, even though Cecil (and everyone else) hated it. It’s a sweet resolution to that storyline that’s existed since early in the first season. And, lastly, in the ending where Leanne Hart, the editor of the Night Vale Daily Journal, is the figure in the satin mask, we learn that, in order to sell more papers and compete with online journalists, Leann has taken to time traveling over and over again to the same day and writing new newspapers for each version of events that happens and selling them to that reality. After a while, she ended up influencing those events and making the changes more drastic with each new timeline she visited/created. In the end, she decides to stop traveling through time as her various travels through time have given her enough data on her customers to realize that a better way of selling more newspapers is to make them all fear-based editorials.
The whole concept of having three different endings for this episode is brilliant. It’s something that’s almost never done outside of the medium of choose-your-own-adventure books and DVD extras of movies. But it’s just so clever and it really allows Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor to play around with the world of Night Vale some and also with the way they tell stories in that world. A big theme of the episode is how Cecil (and the rest of the town) don’t know which timeline is the correct timeline or how many different versions of this day, and the events of it, they’ve lived. Every episode ends with Cecil deciding to do the broadcast again and see if it’s different the next time. It’s a narratively brilliant way of letting the three different versions of the episode all exist within the same continuity. They’re all simultaneously canon and non-canon, depending on which timeline is the true one. Fink and Cranor don’t give us an answer as to which version is the “true” version, and I hope they never do. Personally, I’m fond of the Leann Hart ending, mostly because it’s the one that makes the most logical sense from a purely technical standpoint (of course she’d go back in time and manipulate events to sell more papers, and of course her doing that would have these effects on the town). But from an emotional standpoint, the ending with Telly the Barber is really nice. It’s nice for that character’s year-long arc to finally have a resolution and I really like that Carlos loved the haircut. The ending that doesn’t really work for me is the one with Earl Harlan, so I think I’m just gonna pretend that that one is always the incorrect one while either of the other two ones could be the “real” one. But, again, I love that there’s no clear answer.
I love that after all these years of writing Welcome to Night Vale, Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor are still able and willing to experiment with the show. They constantly keep changing things up to keep it from getting stale. Sure, most of the episodes still follow a similar format, but there’s the occasional one that doesn’t, and those are the ones that really stick out in your memory. The concept of having multiple endings to an episode that the listeners can randomly get is a brilliant one. It’s amazing that they were able to achieve it so flawlessly. It was immense fun watching as the fandom slowly realized that some of them had heard a different ending than their friends had and then scrambling to try and find all the endings. It’s an innovation for podcasting as a formula and a really fun way to do an episode of Welcome to Night Vale. This episode, and its multiple endings, really reminded me just how much I adore this weird podcast.
5 out of 5 wands