Archives in Podcasts: The AM Archives
As part of a previous article I wrote about horror in audio dramas, I ended up listening to podcasts that I thought would fit the criteria, but ultimately decided they were farther afield of the original premise. Such is the case with The AM Archives.
Created by Lauren Shippen, The AM Archives is a single season spin-off of The Bright Sessions, taking place in the aftermath of the Season 4 finale with Dr. Joan Bright (Julia Morizawa), Sam Barnes (Lauren Shippen), and Agent Owen Green (Ian McQuown) attempting to reform the Atypical Monitors (AM). The season consists of sixteen episodes and three bonus episodes covering Joan, Sam, and Owen's efforts to make peace between the AM and Atypicals but also heal among themselves. But not every Atypical can let bygones be bygones. For some, revenge is the only way to heal.
Now I hear you asking, "Sam, what's an Atypical? What's the AM? Did you just skip over an entire series because this one season had Archives in the name?"
I'll just answer those in order: Atypicals are people with abilities and powers not unlike your average superhero or angst-ridden antihero - time travel, pyrokinesis, telepathy, speed, etc. The AM is essentially the government funded organization tasked with studying Atypicals and understanding their abilities - or utilizing them for less than altruistic purposes. In the Bright Sessions the organization defaulted to abusive practices and fearmongering, but the reformed version in The AM Archives tries to make amends and focus on healing, therapy, and community. But there are always kinks to work out. Sometimes a lot of kinks; kinks that can manipulate frequencies or need to be sedated so they don't explode, for example.
And yes, yes I skipped over The Bright Sessions and just listened to The AM Archives. There, are you happy?
To be fair, The AM Archives does a very good job of catching the audience up in case of this exact scenario. Even though I only had a rough idea of The Bright Sessions and its premise, The AM Archives made it easy to follow along and I never felt like I was missing any important bits of information as the story progressed. So well done to Lauren Shippen and co-writers Octavia Bray, Caitlin Schneiderhan, and Meghan Fitzmartin.
And with that out of the way, what does The AM Archives have to do with the archives?
Well, the name is a little misleading. The archival aspect isn't so much literal as it is figurative. The entire conceit of the season is about how past actions have far-reaching, unpredictable consequences, which is generally how history works. Archives are part of the contextualization of history, often revealing how decisions and events are products of their time and previous actions and not born in a vacuum. If one were to look at the entire season as the conceptual archives, then there is some merit to the title. The deeper the story goes, the more background is revealed about the AM as well as the primary antagonist of the season, which further expands the world built in The Bright Sessions.
There is a significant amount of focus placed on record keeping within the story, the catalyst for the events that take place being a full reevaluation of the paperwork and files for Atypicals and how they're classified by the AM. Specifically, the Atypicals in Tier 5 who're considered the most dangerous not only to society but themselves. At least that's the spin placed on Tier 5 by the AM. The sad reality is that the AM, in treating Tier 5 Atypicals as threats without proper help and support, created many of the threats they purported the Atypicals to be. This, in turn, creates a scenario in which the records are suspect, putting Joan at a disadvantage since she can't rely on the paperwork to help determine whether an Atypical was damaged by the AM or if they were just bad to begin with.
That disadvantage, as well as gaps in patient/client history, make it possible for Helen (Helen Highfield), the primary antagonist of the season, to manipulate Joan into letting her out of her cell in Tier 5. There's also some personal and emotional issues Joan's going through that Helen takes advantage of, but that's besides the point! It turns out, Helen has a murky history with the AM and an even more contentious past with the AM's former Director, Ellie Wadsworth (Alex Marshall-Brown). And she wants her revenge. But it's never as cut and dry as we want it to be, is it?
By episode nine we find out that Helen's records were wiped by Wadsworth, which already casts a suspicious light on her as the clear reason for Helen's trauma with the AM. But no, Helen isn't a perfect victim of the AM, she's an example that informed the institution's continued policy to imprison Atypicals in Tier 5. In episode ten, Sam travels back to Helen's past and watches as she uses her frequency manipulation powers to give Wadsworth a heart attack, effectively killing her before medics revive her. In retaliation, Wadsworth, someone who'd started out with good intentions to help Helen when they first met, deliberately wipes Helen's records from the AM as punishment with the hopes of her being "forgotten."
So yeah, institutional abuses of power, records deliberately deleted, and attempted murder. Two of those things are very reminiscent of issues within the archives and past practices, but I'm not going to tell you which of them is the outlier. That's for you to decide. Choose wisely.
I do love the pacing of the season as it slowly folds back the layers until the audience finally has the full picture of how Wadsworth and Helen's relationship dovetailed and spiraled and ultimately put the lives of everyone at the AM in jeopardy. It's a great example of how a story is pieced together from seemingly disparate sources and materials. I think Shippen and her co-writers had an interesting take on bringing the story together through Sam and her time traveling abilities. In an earlier episode, Sam and Joan were arguing about not having a full picture of Helen's past due to the gaps in her paperwork. Sam's solution? Time travel. Fill the gaps by observing the past as it's happening. It's worth noting that Sam's ability only allows her to observe. People in the past don't see or interact with her so she can't inadvertently change the timeline.
Sam's argument is that the past is objective for her, but the real flaw in her argument is that she can't know what people are thinking or what they're truly feeling in that moment or how they process the information afterwards. If she's just popping in to confirm information without context, then her approach is no more reliable than a typical research session in the archives or library. Plus there are the inherent biases of people. How Sam feels about a person could just as easily color her efforts in the same way historians have clear objectives when crafting their narrative or when archivists have biases towards a collection being processed. Our emotional state affects our actions no matter how clinical we proclaim the methodology. The truth is that there are always going to be unknowable elements when it comes to piecing the past together and while Sam's approach might be helpful in some ways it could be just as harmful.
Still, it was an interesting means of solving a record-keeping error. Points for creativity!
But, if we're talking about a literal archives, then the title is the equivalent of The Dresden Files or The Chronicles of St. Mary's. It's a collective term, but there's no physical archives within the narrative. Characters may reference case files or medical records, but the only time an actual archives is mentioned is when Agent Crawford (Dion Earl) says he read Joan's papers in the AM Headquarters' archives in preparation for his assignment at the Boston facility. It's his way of flirting, which ends up being successful, so that's something to keep in mind.