Within the Wires is a podcast production by Night Vale Presents, written by Jeffrey Cranor and Janina Matthewson. It features the voice work of Janina Matthewson and music by Mary Epworth. Set in a world with an alternate history from our own, each episode is presented as a cassette tape recording — divided by Side A and Side B — that plays instructions for visualization and relaxation exercises. These are dictated by a woman with a soothing voice coupled with ambient music. The intended listener of these tapes is a nameless medical inmate kept in a place referred to only as “The Institute.”
I love how narrative podcasts are exploring means of storytelling that are more unique to their medium. While in many ways similar to an epistolary novel, Within the Wires has the benefit of music and Matthewson’s performance to add dimension that could not exist in written form. For the first couple of episodes these cassettes more or less follow the intended structure of visualization and relaxation exercises. This was so effective that there were points I found myself influenced by the speaker’s soothing voice and cadence, catching myself following some of her instructions or having to stop myself from doing so.
The sound work is wonderfully done and Matthewson does a wonderful job with her voice acting along with their writing. She sounds official and instructive when needed, shows subtle or not-so-subtle cracks of emotion at affective moments, and breaks the façade almost entirely at times without stretching the believability of the context too far. The medium is narrow for painting a clear enough picture, but Cranor and Matthewson utilize it in just the right ways to create a rather vivid mental picture for the audience — another benefit from the pretense of it being a visualization exercise.
You catch a few hints early on, as I expected, to something more being conveyed that what these cassettes are supposed to be. I won’t go into much specific detail, but the speaker is someone who works at the institute, cares very much for the cassette listener’s well-being, and does not want them to be in such a place any longer. As the episodes progress we not only learn some details about who the listener and the speaker are, but also the dystopian world they inhabit (or perhaps utopian, so long as you tow a certain line).
The place the story is situated is clearly dystopic, but I was struck a little by how ideal some aspects of the world seemed despite this dark underbelly. Many classic dystopian stories like 1984 showcase a thoroughly oppressive world, where most people cannot live without actively feeling the heel of the figurative boot constantly holding them down. Other models of dystopia, like presented here, are the dark truths behind a utopian society. People in this world seem free to express themselves in a plethora of creative ways, travel where they’re capable, and pursue meaningful careers. It’s a subtle aspect, but I like how it’s done because it illustrates a more complicated form of dystopia — the cost of an ideal world — which often more painfully reflects our current reality than the more stark, oppressive models do.
The plot and details of the world, though uniquely told, I found to be rather predictable. They weren’t particularly clichéd, but were not vastly different from other dystopian fiction either. While haunting and poignant, I was never really surprised by anything. I’ve travelled similar paths before, as it were.
What I did find deeply compelling about this podcast was the one-sided nature of the relationship between the speaker and the listener throughout. While it is easy to romanticize the speaker’s passion for the listener’s well-being, wanting her feelings and desires to be requited and fulfilled, there was a fine line between loving dedication and obsession. This was made more impactful by the fact that the speaker holds all of the power in this situation, regardless of her good intentions. She may have the listener’s best interests at heart, but they’re still completely at her mercy. For all the talk of being free, the listener has little agency over the situation and is even chastised for moments of acting on their own. The one-sidedness of their relationship runs even deeper than this, but I will restrain myself from going into details to avoid spoiling things. If you give this podcast a listen, keep this in mind and take the greater details into account. It is a little troubling, when you think about it.
Within the Wires season one was a great dystopian story that is definitely worth checking out. While it still possesses some of the quirks familiar to Welcome to Night Vale I’m happy that Night Vale Presents was able to produce something very distinct in style and tone from their flagship series. By the release of the finale a second season was announced during a preamble segment and I do wonder at the longevity of a premise like this. Perhaps they’ll mix things up in a significant way, but I feel the way they presented this story lends itself better to being a self-contained little series. I am nevertheless interested in hearing more, even if I feel they could leave the story wrapped up as is.