The hit audio drama Within the Wires returns with a new story told through found audio from an alternate universe. Season two, “Museum Audio Tours,” tells its story in the guise of ten audio museum guides. Over the course of a decade of worldwide exhibitions, these walkthroughs unravel the complex story of a mysterious disappearance of an artist’s mentor.
Within the Wires season two is a fiction podcast produced by Night Vale Presents, written by Jeffrey Cranor and Janina Matthewson, and starring Rima Te Wiata as Roimata Mangakāhia. The first episode of this season released on September 5, 2017, and concluded with episode 10 on January 9, 2018. I may not write about fiction podcasts very often, but I continue to be a big fan of the medium. I love that audio-only storytelling is returning in such a way, distinct from audio books, their creators doing much more with the format to tell their stories.
The first season of Within the Wires was one I particularly liked of the new stable of podcasts from Night Vale Presents for its unique structure, frequently surreal subject matter, and subdued approach to building out a dystopian world. At its conclusion I did wonder how they could possibly create a second season from the structure of the first, however, as I think the setup of that story was too restrictive to allow a continuation in that vain. With the release of the second season my questions were quickly put to bed, as Cranor and Matthewson were able to follow the same structural conceit while also taking things in a fascinating new direction.
While evidently set in the same alternate universe as the first season, the direction taken is quite dramatically different from the relaxation tapes featured previously, which were intended for a specific listener. These tapes we listen to are museum audio guides for various exhibitions of the works of Claudia Atieno, a famous painter who at the beginning of the series has been missing from public life. These guides are narrated by her friend and peer Roimata Mangakāhia, who offers critical and personal insight into Atieno’s work.
Both narrator and the writers do a great job of describing art works that the listener does not have the benefit of beholding, literally painting pictures with words in your mind in great swathes, as well as small details zeroed-in on for effect. Speaking in depth about Atieno’s work and her motivations behind them help to flesh out the world’s history too. Certain pieces were made as commentary on or in response to the state of the world and the global tragedies that brought about the “Great Reckoning” that reshaped this world, such as her re-imaginings of famous works that were destroyed during that time in history. Other works are more subtle, which Roimata works out the meanings of for the benefit of the listener. I loved this as a means of shedding more light on a dramatically changed world, as we can often look to art for reflections of the society and circumstances that shaped their creator.
What becomes increasingly more interesting than the world itself as the season goes on is the mystery of Atieno’s disappearance; whether she is willingly choosing to be in hiding, who could be responsible if not, and how much Roimata herself may or may not have been involved. Our narrator frequently provides background information on Atieno as an artist and a public figure through her work, as some of it isn’t about anything political at all, prompting commentary on her as an artist instead and a figure instead. Much of it intimately experienced by Roimata herself, which helps to develop Atieno more as a character than simply a faceless artist. Clues start to come together through these details as the artist’s disappearance is something that trouble’s Roimata as well. While insightful, she is frequently tangential, her emotional investment in Atieno as a friend, mentor, and even rival running deep.
Within the Wires season two continues the first season’s obscure glimpse into a strange, alternate history through the intriguing lens of art, art critique, and living as a famous artist. There is a lot to unpack from the episodes, but my most favourite aspect of the series is Roimata’s complicated feelings about Atieno, whom she in equal parts seems to love, resent, respect, and admonish. Rima Te Wiata’s performance is strong throughout, capturing these complex feelings expertly. I highly recommend checking this season out. It’s a fantastic continuation of this strange world that for me surpasses the first season in many ways. There are a few nods to season one, but you don’t need to have heard it to appreciate the journey this season goes through.