Podcast, Recaps

Katie Hears Stuff: Alice Isn’t Dead, “Thistle”

alice

I’m not going to lie: for some reason, I found this episode to be the hardest to write about. It’s not a bad episode (far from it), but a lot actually happens in it. But hoo boy, is it one hell of an ending.

We begin with the following intro from our narrator:

Near the Nevada border, I pulled the truck to the side of the road, cut the engine left the AC on. It is so hot here! Opening the window feels like opening an oven to see if it’s ready for bread – how it feels like you’ve been slapped in the face? Like that. You know, Alice.

I’m staring at my hands. They’re just my hands, like I’ve always had, but…also there is something of Heaven to them, because not that long ago they were touching your hands. How could they be ordinary hands and also hold that memory at the same time? Doesn’t make sense.

I can’t drive while I tell this. Too much to say. I’m going to tell it all Alice. Even the parts you know. I’m going to describe the shape of the monster that is devouring me.

And then I’m going to start this engine, and leave that monster behind.

After the opening theme, the narrator then spends some time musing about the landscape that’s around her. At one point, she describes a series of towers, comparing them to Sauron’s tower from The Lord of the Rings, which tickled my little Tolkein-loving heart. She also describes a series of reflective discs around the towers, giving off

[l]ight so bright it’s almost heat. You feel warmed just looking at it. What is this thing? It goes on for miles! The towers and these fields of heat and light – it’s the kind of thing we always assume the government has stashed away somewhere in the great empty of the southwest, but here it is, right by the highway, for everyone going hopped-up and hopeful to Vegas (or returning, exhausted and disappointed) to see.

America has weird things in it. It has so many miles, so much space to put the weirdness in.

We then go back to the narrator re-encountering Alice, which is where the previous episode left off. Interestingly, this is also where we finally get the narrator’s name (which is good, because it means that I can stop referring to her just as “the narrator”):

“Alice, is that you?”

I don’t know why I asked that. But it was you. And the surprise of that seemed to justify the question.

You smiled. You looked like you always had, except a little older, like I looked a little older, incrementally, the way we never notice until we do.

“It’s me, Keisha,” you said.

“Keisha now, is it?” I said. “It was always nicknames before with you.”

“Who calls their wife by their actual name, right?” You smiled. “Boring people, that’s who.”

“Well, I guess, if nothing else, you weren’t boring,” I said.

Alice takes Keisha’s hand and the two sit in silence for a while. Alice apologizes to Keisha, calling her Chipmunk, to which she responds that Keisha is fine for now. Alice takes her wife’s hands and pulls her to face her:

“I’m sorry! This wasn’t about you at all, that’s not why I left.”

“A higher calling?” I asked.

“A lower one, I guess,” you said. “The lowest, darkest places. You know. You’ve seen them.”

“And you left to try to fix…whatever this all is?”

“To help fix it. Keisha, Chipmunk, the world is teetering. I’m trying to keep it sliding the right direction. Either way, a huge and terrible change is coming. But if it slides too far toward them…” you gestured with your eyes at the Thistle gates “…then it’s all over for people like us. People in love, people who feel.”

At this point, Keisha rather bluntly states that she’s crashing her truck through the front gates of the town. Alice points out that the Thistle men will kill her if she goes through with it, to which Keisha simply responds, “Maybe.” Alice says that they’ll “kill you to an extent you didn’t know a person could be killed,” and begs her again to not do it. She states that Keisha doesn’t know how dangerous the Thistle men really are, and Keisha says that she does know.

Alice says “OK then,” and pulls Keisha into a hug:

“Keisha, I love you. I am your wife, and you are my wife, and I want to be with you forever. But…”

You pulled yourself back up.

“…forever can’t start yet. And in the meantime, you can’t keep looking for me.”

“Can’t go home, either,” I said. “I tried that.”

“I know,” you said. “I know, and I don’t know what to do about that, but I need to be out where I am, doing what I am doing. I need to stay lost for a while. You have to respect that. You have to respect me enough not to look for me.”

My heart beat differently just being near you. Just touching. Just briefly.

Keisha begs Alice to take her with, insisting that she would be able to help. Alice shakes her head, and Keisha states that she doesn’t even feel disappointed by this. She tells Alice she’s right, she hasn’t been respecting Alice, and that while Alice’s leaving was inexcusable, so was Keisha’s search for her.

“Two inexcusable women,” you said. “That’s us.”

You were crying. I realized I was, too. Had been since I saw you.

“Someday I will come back, if you let me,” you said, “and we will live out the rest of our lives. I promise that. I promise that. In the meantime…”

“In the meantime?” I said, “stop looking.”

“Yeah,” you said. “Yes. I’m sorry.”

The two kiss, and Alice begs Keisha again to not go through with her plan. Keisha responds that as soon as Alice leaves, she’s crashing right into the town. Alice says she loves Keisha, and Keisha responds in kind.

Keisha hesitates after Alice leaves, and looks at the sign on the town.

I touched my foot to the gas, not pushing down yet. I reached into my bag, did the one bit of preparation I had had time to think about. I let myself breathe a few more times. Felt the air go in and out, enjoying those moments in which that was still possible.

My skin was damp now. I thought of what I would do once I had crashed through the gate and my mind was a blank. I had no plan at all.

I hit the gas.

We then have another monologue where Keisha muses about weirdness, and if it’s something that’s unique to the empty spaces of America, or if other remote areas have this kind of experience as well.

Do they see lights in the sky too, or just us? Do they drive that emptiness back and forth, like it was a page of words that could be deciphered if just gone over enough? Or do they leave that emptiness well enough alone?

She describes how the cars that she’s seen on the highway slow when they get to the expanse with the towers, and wonders if any of them have reached for their phones to try and see what’s going on with them. Keisha says that she’s not going to do that, since “[n]ot everything has to be known.” She then wishes that Alice could see the landscaping she’s seeing right now, and compares it “the set of a movie about the end of the world.” She closes out by saying that it’s not the end of the world, the world’s “just going through a transformation so fast and thorough that it is indistinguishable from ending to the humans living on it.”

Back at Thistle, Keisha has followed through and rammed her truck through the gates of the town.

She ends up surrounded by a mob of hundreds Thistle men, and one of the ones that she hit starts moving towards the cab of the truck. “The skin of his face had been torn off by the collision and underneath was a mealy yellow fat, dripping down over his chin. There was no sign of bone.”

Keisha then pauses for a moment, as

I considered my next move. My whole body glistened. I couldn’t smell the town, fortunately, but I could imagine a smell like tilled earth, like green things.

A whole glob of the yellow fat fell from the injured man’s face and landed on the ground, where he slipped on it. He laughed. A choked, broken sound.

All of the buildings in the town were covered with a thin film of oil. The whole town looked sticky to the touch.

Tied to a streetlight near the gas station was one of the men, like all the others. He leaned into the ropes that bound him.

“Get her!” he croaked. His whole body was covered in knife wounds, but his eyes were alive and focused. “Get her!

The crowd parts at this point to allow the Thistle man that she had encountered in the first episode through. He tells her that she can get out of the truck, since they’re not going to do anything right away and she’s not any safer there. She agrees, and moves to leave the truck. He says that she looks like a kid who’s lost his mother, and Keisha responds, “That’s a weird metaphor.” He points out she’s nervous, and she says she’s always nervous, and he welcomes her.

This next part of the  conversation I actually found really, really interesting, mostly because the Thistle man repeats a couple of statements Keisha made in earlier episodes.

“What is this place?” I asked. “Not that it matters. Not that it’s anything but a wound that must be sewn shut, but you know, the longer I keep talking, the longer before you attack me.”

“That’s a complicated story, and I’m not much for talking. Not like you. ‘Oh, Alice! Hi, Alice! It’s me, Alice!’

His voice was like the accidental hollowing of the wind.

The other Thistle men had backed up, formed a circle around us, leaving the two of us alone in the center. I was his mess to handle, and he was ready to clean me up.

“You’re serial killers,” I said.

“We’re freedom,” he said. “Freedom can be good or bad. There can be terrible freedom.” He grinned. His teeth were faintly green. “We are the terrible freedom.”

“You’re murderers,” I said.

“America,” he said. “A country defined as much by distance as culture. America embraces its distances. Empty spaces and road trips, but there is always a price. We are that price. We are creatures of the road. We feed on distance, on road trips, on emptiness, bodies by the side of the highway.”

There was a sound, like applause, but softer. The crowd of Thistle men sucking in and out on their cheeks, creating a faint sound of flesh.

“Don’t try to make poetry out of the blood on your hands,” I said.

The Thistle man then grabs Keisha by the arm and pushes her against the truck, with his arm at her throat. Amazingly, he doesn’t press his assault, instead wincing and looking at her with disgust. Keisha points out to him that she’s drenched herself with heater oil, on a “tip from a friend.”

Needless to say, the Thistle man isn’t too happy about this. He asks her if she thinks the heather oil will protect her, and then gives her a hard slap to the face. He then tells her “It will hurt me, but it will hurt you more.”

Keisha responds to this by grabbing a fistful of dried heather and shoving it into the Thistle man’s mouth. He starts choking and his skin takes on a purple tinge as he turns and runs away.

Keisha takes off after him, as the other Thistle men around her freeze. As she states, at this point “the only way out is through.” The other Thistle men start moving again after she goes after the original, but she breaks through and eventually corners him in a diner called Burgers & More.

The inside of the diner was full of rotting food. Milkshakes and hamburgers, covered in mold and maggots. I was glad for the heather oil all over my face, but still the smell was there. Only the glasses of soda, watery with melted ice, still looked like what they were, unable to age, unable to rot.

Keisha sees that the Thistle man is currently in the kitchen, and notices something she can use to her advantage: he’s standing near the walk in cooler. She sprints forward and crashes into him, forcing them both into the cooler. Keisha then slams the door and pushes a shelving unit in front of it. Eventually, the Thistle man manages to get up:

“Well,” he said. “Well, that bought you some time, didn’t it? I wasn’t expecting that. You got me to panic. Got me to run. But what now? What’s next?”

His skin blotched back from purple to the faint yellow. He stretched, and flexed, and I could see his strength returning.

The walk-in was smaller than it had originally looked. I could hear hands pawing on the outside of the door, and on the walls on both sides.

“You got me to run, but then what? What weapon do you have to finish the job?” he said.

He spread his hands expectantly.

“Nothing,” I said.

“Nothing?” he said.

“I brought nothing. I brought myself. I’m going to kill you.”

He laughed, the deep laugh at the end of a good joke.

“You’re going to kill me? Hahahahahahaha. Oh, Keisha. Let me explain death to you,” he said. And then he came at me.

Keisha says to Alice that she’d never been more afraid of anything than she had been at this point, which is impressive considering her own anxiety issues as well as all the weird shit she’d seen scouring the country for Alice. We then get to what is my favorite part of the episode: Keisha thinks of everything that’s happened to her, takes her fear, and weaponizes it:

I thought about you, Alice. About when I thought you were dead, and when I knew you weren’t.

I thought about Earl, dying alone as decent people ate waffles not ten feet away.

I thought of a father in a Target parking lot, calling the police under the belief that this would help.

I thought of a factory by the sea.

I thought of a line of names, a murderer’s legacy on an ugly stretch of highway.

I thought of a young girl doing her best, and just how good her best was.

I thought of a bus pulling out of Victorville in the middle of the night.

I thought of home.

I thought of Sylvia.

I thought of you.

And through all of these thoughts, a buzzing anxiety. Anxiety like electricity. And I knew, in that moment, that anxiety is just an energy. It is an uncontrollable near-infinite energy, surging within me. And for once I stopped trying to contain it.

I told my heart, beat faster. I told my panicked breath, become more difficult, and I told my fear to overtake me.

Make me more afraid. I am not afraid of feeling afraid. Make me more afraid!

All of that energy, I turned it outward. I pushed it into my arms, my legs, my teeth.

Fuck the Thistle man!

The two proceed to have a knockdown, drag-out fight. “When he hit me, I hit back. He was stronger than I remembered. It was like being hit by a car. Mass without pity, just brutal physics. But I was hitting, too. Pounding at his face, his chest, biting, throwing myself into him.”

The Thistle man starts laughing at Keisha, but stops as she eventually starts getting the upper hand. The laughs eventually turn to growls as he begins to throw himself at her wildly, but she eventually manages to pin him down with her knees on his chest and starts pounding him until he stops moving.

And then he was dead. He was dead! I had done it! I had won!

Adrenaline pounded through me. I couldn’t turn off the energy I had found in myself, and I was in pretty bad shape. Bruises, probably a broken rib, definitely broken teeth. But the Thistle man laid there, his head a pile of fat and pulp that smelled like mushrooms.

I threw up. Half on the floor, and half on his body. It was horrible.

But I felt victory like I hadn’t felt in years. With my own hands, I had ended this. I had fucking won!

This victory is, unfortunately, quite short-lived as Keisha had forgotten while she was fighting that she’s not alone there. She’s given a sharp reminder of that fact when she hears a tapping on the door to the freezer, and the other Thistle men saying, “Let us in!” as well what she describes as a spider-like skittering on the ceiling.

Then Keisha hears another noise that she hadn’t noticed before: car engines. The whispering noises stop, and then the door bursts open. Keisha sees the figure of a woman carrying a rifle and holding a battering ram.

I’d never seen this woman before.

She looked past me at the body on the floor.

“Holy shit!” she said.

She looked at me again, closely, with something between awe and suspicion. She clicked on her radio. “You’re not gonna believe this,” she said, “but Vector H is down.”

There was a general sound of disbelief or excitement from the radio, but she clicked it off before it could be understood as words.

“Come on out. Those things have run for now,” she said, gesturing but not touching me. She seemed to want to give me distance.

The woman escorts Keisha out of the diner, and back to her truck. While on the way out, she sees other people wearing similar uniforms to the woman as well as a series of armored vehicles. Keisha notes that the navy-blue uniforms don’t look like any kind of military uniform she’d ever seen before. Keisha asks who they are, and the woman responds with ‘“You did a very good thing today, Keisha. A very good thing.” She shook her head. “Maybe an amazing thing. But now it’s time for you to leave.”’

Keisha asks who they work for, and the woman responds by asking Keisha who she works for. Then she notices the logo on the soldiers’ uniforms, and it’s a very familiar one: Bay & Creek Shipping.

Keisha can only respond with “what?”, which is a pretty believable reaction. The woman then tells Keisha that she’s very lucky that Alice had called for them. She also tells her that she’ll be getting a new truck since her old one is basically totaled, “but we won’t take it from your paycheck.”

I didn’t know what to say to that. I stood there, feeling like a drained battery.

“Keisha, listen,” she said. “They ran when they saw us coming, but they won’t be gone for long. It’s truly incredible that you handled one of them, it really is, but you need to go before the rest come back.”

She was right. I let her lead me to the truck. It looked just like my old one – except, of course, none of my stuff was in it. All of my books lost in a wreck in a secret town on a U.S. government air base.

“Goodbye, Keisha,” the woman said as I climbed into the cab, slowly and with some difficulty because of the injuries. “You’ll hear from us again, I’m sure. Until then…” she thought for a moment, shrugged, and said, “I don’t know. I guess just keep doin’ what you been doin’. It’s kept you alive this far.”

Keisha receives another dispatch from Bay & Creek a few hours after her latest adventure:

A few hours later, got another dispatch from Bay & Creek. Like nothing had happened. Like they were just a trucking company, “going everywhere that good businesses need transportation services.” Driving over many creeks, not by that many bays. Mostly land. Mostly lots of land.

This time they’re sending her to Las Vegas to pick up some paper towels for her next delivery, which is what brought her to the area on the Nevada border with the strange towers. She notes that she’s going to stop looking for Alice, and instead is going to focus her efforts on who and what Bay & Creek Shipping really is.

And in the meantime, I’m going to pick up a load of paper towels, and I’m going to drive them somewhere else, and people are going to buy them, and put them out on the counter, and distractedly wipe one hand against a piece, and then throw it away.

Which is to say that I’m going to keep moving.

I’m pulling back onto the highway now, the field of light and the black towers receding in the mirrors, closer than they appear, but farther and farther away. The light from the panels as white as bone. White as heat.

It’s the height. None of us are used to being this height anymore. It’s the engine, the sound of it, the noise of a truck this size. It’s the height.

I love it. I love it so much.

What is Bay & Creek? I don’t know yet. Not yet. But I will.

All I know for now is that this isn’t the end of my story. This isn’t the end of my road trip.

And this is the part of the episode that blew my mind. It’s only one sentence long, but it’s also the only point where we’ve heard a voice besides Keisha’s. It’s another woman who says, “Right, right. I mean, you haven’t even heard from me yet.”

I am presuming that this voice belongs to Alice.

As I mentioned before, that was a hell of an ending to the first season. The part with Alice at the end also opens some other questions, particularly if we’re going to get another narrator in season 2.

Of course, to be sure, we’re actually going to have to wait until season two to find out for certain. And it hasn’t even been announced yet. They’re taking donations for it here, though, if you want to give them money.

As a whole, the first season of Alice Isn’t Dead is pretty much 100% brilliant. There’s enough of a mystery to keep me interested, and Jasika Nicole is an awesome performer, Joseph Fink is and awesome writer, and the music by Disparition is absolutely perfect. I honestly can’t wait to see what they have in store for season 2.

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