Warning: Spoilers a-comin’
Right, so this review’s a few weeks late, but I had other commitments.
I’ve been watching both seasons of Carnivàle since the beginning, and I’m here to say it’s been a hell of a show. The story—taking place in 1934 in the American Southwest—focuses on two characters: first, Ben Hawkins, a troubled young man picked up by a traveling carnival; he has the power to heal and even raise the dead, but only by taking energy from other living beings. Second, Brother Justin Crowe, a California preacher who can look into people’s souls and make them face their greatest sins. Though they don’t know it at first they are nemeses, destined to meet and fight to the death—which they end up doing in the second season finale.
But there’s a lot more to Carnivàle than a plain old good-vs-evil story. It’s a fascinating glimpse into Depression-era America. To be honest, I don’t know how historically accurate it really is, but I appreciate that there was no attempt to sanitize or romanticize the era. These are not the Good Old Days. There’s dust and dirt everywhere (with a few exceptions, the carnival people rarely wash much). There’s bigotry and segregation. There’s poverty and fear, with Communists, Jews and atheists blamed for the nation’s problems. (Good thing that doesn’t happens anymore, right?) It was a different world, a bigger world with no television or internet, where news and people travelled slowly, and to many of these people, the big cities of the East Coast might as well be on the Moon. And in this world, it was okay to pay money to gawk at bearded ladies or Siamese twins or midget strongmen or some guy in a tux biting the head off a chicken. Nowadays people gawk at white trash losers on Jerry Springer or deluded famewhores on American Idol. I’ll leave it up to you to decide if we’ve changed all that much.
The show has both a great cast and great characters: there’s the very fey Lizard Man (played by the equally fey John Fleck, who sadly didn’t stay on for season two). The Cootch dancers (i.e.: strippers), a mother-and-daughters team that take their clothes off on stage and turn tricks for the patrons, with the father as barker and pimp. Interestingly, two of the strippers are pretty large and curvy women, quite unlike today’s stick-thin performers. Samson, the Carnivàle’s assistant manager, funny and sometimes tender yet taking no bullshit from anyone. Far creepier is Apollonia, the Carnivàle’s extremely accurate Tarot reader, completely paralyzed for years and only able to speak through her daughter. Kudos to Diane Salinger for her performance. I imagine the role probably wasn’t very tempting—she only moved twice in the entire first season, and spoke a total of five or six words—but she managed to bring Apollonia to life with tiny, subtle facial expressions. Also, Tim DeKay’s biceps? Whoof.
The story moved along slowly for the first season, revealing this fantasy world little by little, taking its time, always leaving the viewers hungry for more. Visions and vague hints gradually fleshed out the truth about Ben’s past, Justin’s past, their future together, and their ties to other characters: the enigmatic leader of the Carnivàle known only as “Management;” Henry Scudder, a “gentleman geek” who worked with the Carnivàle many years ago, and has powers similar to Ben’s; Professor Lodz, the resident mentalist who can actually read minds; Sofie, daughter of Apollonia. It was a rich history and mythology that was not spoonfed to the audience, and that’s the way I like it. This is a show that forces you to pay attention.
The problem is that there’s such a thing as too much mystery. It’s fine to tease and slowly reveal a world, but eventually you need to deliver. And now that Ben and Justin have had their confrontation, too many questions are still left unanswered. First of all, what was at stake? Why exactly were they fighting? It was never revealed why Belyakov tried to kill Scudder a generation ago or why he kept looking for him for twenty years. Hints from Management and some of Ben’s visions suggest that Justin’s victory (especially now that he’s received his boon) would lead to the Trinity site bomb test—and thus a nuclear holocaust? I don’t know. Does this mean we’re living in a world where the Creature of Darkness won? That would explain a lot, even though Ben did kill Justin. Maybe fighting each other is just something that Avatars do, which makes the conflict a lot less interesting. What does it mean that Sofie is “the Omega,” as Lodz’s spirit wrote? Samson’s opening monologue in the series premiere says that the Age of Magic will end with Trinity. So, does that mean she’s the last Avatar? Will she have to face Ben someday (in the series finale)? Sofie seems to be neither Light nor Dark: though she rejected Justin, she later on apparently tried to resurrect him. There had been some previous hints that she had a dark side, especially the visions about her mother being raped by the Usher but this “Omega” business basically came out of left field and was never explained. And yes, it’s fun to speculate, but that can only carry me so far.
Maybe all of this will be explained in later seasons (if they’re ever produced), and Dan Knauf has apparently clarified some aspects of the background and mythology in online chats and such, but I haven’t read them and I shouldn’t need to. The show should stand on its own. All this, and the many season two sub-plots that went nowhere (Lila’s quest for revenge, Lodz possessing Ruthie, Stumpy’s money troubles, Iris and Norman plotting against Justin) make me feel that they’re winging it, and it’s not a good feeling.
Finally, I really wish they hadn’t turned Brother Justin into a gloating villain.
Really, that’s my biggest disappointment with the finale. It was only halfway through the first season that viewers were sure he even was the villain. Yes, he was a religious fanatic, who preached a lot about God’s wrath and smiting and not so much about love and giving (one big reason, for me, to see him as evil. The atheist in me does not react well to hellfire preaching). Yet, at the same time, he was the only one of his congregation to welcome the Okie migrants, those who had lost everything to the Depression and the Dust Bowl. While the rest of his prim-and-proper California church (seemingly untouched by the Depression) tried to ignore the migrants’ dirty, off-key-singing selves or made veiled complaints about the church being “too crowded”, he pushed for a proper church in which the Okies could pray. The place he had in mind was Chin’s, a local Chinese brothel which he planned to convert to a mission after using his mojo to convince its owner to donate it to his church. It was a nasty scene that showed Justin’s ruthlessness and total conviction in his own rightness, but I couldn’t feel too sorry for the brothel owner even when he later committed suicide, because he was a massively hypocritical, bigoted pedophile.
It seems on some level Justin was aware of his evil side, and his powers, but tried to repress them, or saw them as a test from God. After a particularly intense vision (lasting most of an episode), he began accepting that this was his nature, and referring to himself as the “Left Hand of God”—the hand that deals out wrath and smiting, as opposed to the right hand, that deals out mercy. Yet even that was interesting, because, really, he was still a man of God. Just a somewhat different god.
Now, Ben seemed like a nicer guy, but he was wanted for murder—the details never known, unfortunately, and that fact seemed only there to drive a couple of subplots along—and his powers were definitely a double-edged sword. The series premiere showed that clearly, as he healed a crippled little girl and killed her family’s crops at the same time. Sure, she can walk now, but they will probably either starve or have to move, and it’s doubtful whether they’re any better off. Also, let’s be honest: Ben wasn’t all that bright, so it was hard to see him as any kind of hero. He was essentially a passive creature, led by Management’s advice or commands and whatever clues he picked up along the way in his quest to find Henry Scudder, rarely trying to take control of his life.
The main characters lost most of their nuances in season 2, and the main plot simplified. After killing Management and receiving his full powers, Ben grew a few brain cells but no extra depth. Justin didn’t get any more nuanced either: he reveled in his dark powers and the control he had over his flock, delighted in mentally torturing Iris and Norman, and… well, the less said about what he did to his maids, the better. But the worst part was his final confrontation with Ben in the finale. At the end Ben was helpless, his father’s special trench knife snapped off at the hilt, and what does Justin do? Does he immediately kill his nemesis with that nasty-looking sickle he’s been waving around for the last ten minutes? No. To quote Frozone, “He starts monologuing!” Yep, Brother Justin takes a moment to gloat, giving the boy enough time to grab the knife blade and skewer the evil preacher. Two years just to get to this? Blah. Justin deserved much better.
Don’t get me wrong: it may sound like I didn’t enjoy the later episodes, but the good definitely outweighed the bad. I loved the show, and will definitely be tuning in if a third season is produced. For all its flaws, Carnivàle stands heads and shoulders above most of what’s on TV these days. If you like your TV literate and pretentious, if you like your heroes dirty, if you like your freaks freaky, if you like your magic down-to-earth, if you like your fiction historical, if you like your story arcs long, then this just may be the show for you.