I often revisit old columns to get ideas for new posts, and Lady Geek Girl’s post on the magic in Welcome to Night Vale is one that’s stuck with me for a while. The strange and popular podcast Welcome to Night Vale makes the abnormal normal, and uses it to critique some of the ideas we have about our society. If you’ve heard any of the Night Vale episodes, you’ll know that Night Vale is the weirdest place ever, full of carnivorous librarians, dog parks with no dogs, and strange floating cats. (Also, actual diversity in its cast. Hah.) Possibly the only normal thing about Night Vale is Cecil and Carlos’s relationship, and the storytelling focuses on this more than it does the abnormal, things. The audience thus gets the reinforced message that yes, the entire world is crazy, but this gay relationship is normal, disabled people should be treated with respect, pronoun choice should be followed, and racism shouldn’t be tolerated. It’s really shockingly effective. And the interesting thing is, when you take this idea and turn it around—when you make the normal abnormal—you can teach lessons and explore characters just as effectively.
Spoilers for Supernatural and Doctor Who below.
Supernatural has fallen on hard times, story-wise, in its latest seasons, but its earlier seasons use this trope a lot. In the Season 2 episode “What Is and What Should Never Be”, Dean is captured by a djinn and made to experience his deepest fantasy. He wakes up in a dream world where his mother is still alive, Sam has married Jessica Moore, and Dean’s going out with a nurse who understands him well enough to know that he’ll pick at the food in the fancy restaurant his mother’s chosen to eat at, but would prefer to stop for cheeseburgers later. Dean is living the life. However, he soon finds out that he and Sam don’t share the close relationship that they do in their own reality—they don’t have much of a relationship at all.
The Season 6 episode “The French Mistake” reiterates the same point. In order to protect the Winchesters from an enemy, the angel Castiel sends Sam and Dean into an alternate reality—ours. Once the two of them crash-land, get up, and brush off their clothes, they quickly discover that they are actors called Jared and Jensen, Cas is some guy called Misha, and magic spells to return them to their reality don’t exist. Upon seeing Jensen’s fancy trailer and Jared’s over-the-top ornate house, the brothers start to think that this reality is pretty cool. However, everyone seems surprised when the two of them hang out together, and Sam and Dean find out that not only are they not brothers, Jared and Jensen don’t appear to have the greatest relationship, either.
Both of these scenarios place the Winchesters in normal, even desirable, situations. In the first one, Dean has a family again, seems to be making a living, and Sam is happily married. In the second one, Sam and Dean are rich, famous actors who can order anything they want to off the internet without suspicion or worries over money. You’d think they’d have everything they want. But instead of these situations being happy, they only serve to illustrate what’s most important to the brothers. At the end of “The French Mistake”, once they’ve gotten back to their own reality, they say:
Dean: Real, moldy, termite-eaten home sweet home. Chock full of crap that wants to skin you. Oh, and uh, we’re broke again.
Sam: Yeah. But, hey, at least we’re talking.
The most important thing to the brothers is that they’re together, which shouldn’t come as any surprise to anyone who has watched even one episode of Supernatural. But to know that they’d choose each other even over a seemingly perfect family life or the riches of television makes their relationship all the more meaningful.
Doctor Who does a similar thing when, in “Rise of the Cybermen”, the Doctor and companion Rose Tyler end up in an alternate reality where Rose’s father is still alive. Pete Tyler, who was a budding inventor in Rose’s world before his untimely death via a hit-and-run driver, is now a rich, successful businessman who can even invite the President of England to his wife’s birthday party—and the President will show up, too. (Yes, England has a President, not a Prime Minister, in the alternate reality.) Save for the attacking Cybermen, everything is very normal, and very desirable. But when Rose goes to check out her alternate family, she’s surprised and saddened—she doesn’t exist in this reality. “There’s no Rose Tyler,” she tells the Doctor. “I was never born. There’s Pete, my dad, and Jackie—he still married Mum, but they never had kids. They’re rich! They got a house and cars and everything they want. But they haven’t got me.”
Rose runs off to scope out the house, disguised as a serving girl, and the Doctor follows her. She talks to Pete and finds out that he always wanted kids, but they kept putting it off, and now he and Jackie are getting a divorce. Even Jackie isn’t the same caring mum that Rose knew in her world—she seems vain and too involved with her own hype, and when Rose tries to talk to her about Pete, Jackie angrily tells Rose off, using clearly classist words. “Are you commenting on my marriage?” she says. “Who the hell do you think you are? You’re staff! You’re nothing but staff!”
Each of these examples turns the world we thought we knew on its head. On the surface, it’s easy to see this as a moralistic lesson, telling the viewers that riches and fame aren’t all that. Which is true, but past that, every time the normal is made abnormal, we cut to the very heart of the characters. Jackie Tyler always wanted to be rich and famous, but when she is, the riches go to her head. Pete always wanted to succeed as an inventor, but once he is a successful one, he has to leave family behind. Similarly, having a family, being rich, living a safe life free from monsters—those are all things the average person would want. Yet Sam and Dean don’t want these things if it means that they don’t have the co-dependent relationship that they currently enjoy. It really drives home just how unhealthy their relationship is.
While Welcome to Night Vale is one of the few shows which uses incredibly fantastical worldbuilding to make incisive points about the non-fantastical world that we live in, shows like Supernatural and Doctor Who put abnormal (fantastical) characters in situations we’d call normal, and they do it to further explore the characters we thought we knew. It’s a story device that can be used for excellent character development, and should be used more often.