Never heard of “Within the Wires” before? The podcast’s latest episode will have you hooked in no more than 10 words: “Welcome to the Tate Modern, of the former United Kingdom.” Presented plainly, with a hint of warmth and a dollop of intrigue, “Within the Wires” is an audio fiction series that draws its power from phrases like “former United Kingdom.” To us, they feel like jarring glitches in reality, but within the world of the show they’re treated as mere fact.
The thrilling first season of “Within the Wires” (a production of the “Night Vale Presents” network) was told through a single narrator, taking the form of a series of relaxation tapes that, over time, revealed a world much more complex than a disembodied voice instructing you to pay attention to your breathing. Roping in themes of family and mental health, showing an otherworldly sense of memory loss, it took the simplest of premises and opened a portal to an incredibly dense world that took the very idea of imagination head-on.
Now, in Season 2, those relaxation tapes have been swapped out for a new story, a series of audio tours at world-renowned art museums. Rather than an unidentified narrator directly addressing the audience as the primary subject, this new series of episodes tells the story of an enigmatic painter named Claudia Atieno and her role in a strange alternate history where individuals are collected into an all-encompassing event referred to as “the Great Reckoning.”
Much as Season 1 asked listeners to question whether or not this narrator had benevolent motives or if their version of the past was unreliable, this new speaker Roimata Mangakāhia (played by Rima Te Wiata) tells of her personal interaction with Atieno. Rather than spend an introductory episode laying the foundation for how this version of society evolved from a fundamental change in social and governmental order, writers Jeffrey Cranor and Janina Matthewson (the latter served as Season 1’s hypnotic narrator) leave a trail of clues for the audience to decipher within each successive “tape.”
Te Wiata continues the tradition that Matthewson started of approaching this performance as a deceptively calming influence. Within an otherwise straightforward exercise, Te Wiata (whom audiences may know best as the foster mother in last year’s “Hunt for the Wilderpeople”) finds a tiny degree of temptation and mischief in these recordings, asking rhetorical questions designed to shake the listener from investing their sole energy in piecing together this mystery and engaging with the story on a thematic level, too.
With Mangakāhia serving as a museum tour guide of sorts, she explains the paintings at these theoretical exhibits, down to the brushstroke detail of a still life painting. Despite the occasional break in these descriptions to flip the experience back on the listener, Cranor and Matthewson take full advantage of the rhythms of a soothing performance. Sometimes the most relevant details are buried deep within a lengthy sentence or nestled in the titles of the paintings themselves.
Just as there’s an arc to the story that Mangakāhia is telling, unspooling Atieno’s fate, Cranor and Matthewson give this narrator character her own history. At times, she’s forthcoming with personal details. An instant later, she’s guarded. Navigating those constant shifts in perspective and attention isn’t an easy change to manage, but Te Wiata shades each new revelatory anecdote with another emotional layer, even within the calming range of an art docent.
While “the Great Reckoning” represents a giant change in the world being built out in these episodes, this season of “Within the Wires” benefits from setting each tour within a recognizable museum. Visualization was such a strong theme in Season 1, asking the listener to project their own fears and anxieties into the subconscious of a fictitious medical institute patient. Here, the audience is asked to not only imagine the paintings being described, but the strange world that helped give them life.
Using the restrictions of the medium to make something that works to their advantage is something that Cranor and his counterparts have done over the past five years of “Welcome to Night Vale.” Within the wires and outside the walls, this series (unconnected to “Night Vale” in story, but similar in care given to character and form) finds the perfect balance between withholding key information and having that mysterious unraveling inform the story itself. Engaging all of listeners’ senses through a fundamentally audio format is an impressive feat of storytelling, no matter if it involves paintings of houses, memories of waterfalls, or the basic questions of what it means to create something beautiful. It’s the kind of show that reminds you why podcasts exist in the first place.
“Within the Wires” Season 2 releases new episodes every Tuesday. You can find more information about the show here.