Carnivale S1, ep 1: Milfay

“Before I knowed it, I was sayin’ out loud, ‘The hell with it! There ain’t no sin and there ain’t no virtue. There’s just stuff people do. It’s all part of the same thing.’ . . . . I says, ‘What’s this call, this sperit?’ An’ I says, ‘It’s love. I love people so much I’m fit to bust, sometimes.’ . . . . I figgered, ‘Why do we got to hang it on God or Jesus? Maybe,’ I figgered, ‘maybe it’s all men an’ all women we love; maybe that’s the Holy Sperit-the human sperit-the whole shebang. Maybe all men got one big soul ever’body’s a part of.’ Now I sat there thinkin’ it, an’ all of a suddent-I knew it. I knew it so deep down that it was true, and I still know it.” – John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

“Clive Barker’s The Grapes of Wrath” – that’s about as succinct a summation of Carnivale’s first episode as I can summon. 1934, the year in which Carnivale begins its story, America was firmly in the grip of the Great Depression that Steinbeck dramatized in his classic novel. It was a time in which rampant over farming had created a hellhole out of the Oklahoma landscape called “the Dust Bowl,” which in 1934 apparently caused storms powerful enough to create red snow over New England (an image that’s linked to during the course of the episode in Brother Justin’s waking vision), and which provided a reason for the migrants in Mintern California referenced later in the episode. In 1934, Karl Barth and likeminded theologians crafted the Barmen Declaration – a paper which rejected absolutely the influence of Nazism on German Christianity and insisted that German Christians reject the influence of other “lords” such as Adolph Hitler. Barth mailed the Barmen declaration directly to Hitler himself, which should give you some idea of how ballsy the man was. Barth’s courageous act has nothing to do with Carnivale, but I suspect that the notion/danger of following other “lords” may be a major theme of this show. The story of two men from vastly disparate backgrounds living vastly different lives during one of America’s most trying times, Carnivale is also, apparently, a story of conflict between Good and Evil, God and the devil, although you wouldn’t know that from this first episode if the character of Samson (played by Michael Anderson – aka the Little Man From Another Place in Twin Peaks) didn’t pop up immediately and explain that to us. Sort of:

Samson: “Before the beginning, after the Great War between Heaven and Hell, God created the Earth and gave dominion over it to the crafty ape he called Man; and to each generation was born a creature of light and a creature of darkness; and great armies clashed by night in the ancient war between Good and Evil. There was magic then, nobility, and unimaginable cruelty; and so it was until the day that a false sun exploded over Trinity, and Man forever traded away wonder for reason.”

That’s a nice lil’ speech. I enjoy the fact that I’m unsure, based on how Samson describes the age of magic, of whether or not the triumph of the age of reason is a good thing or a bad thing. I especially enjoy the way that “false sun” can be heard as “false son,” hinting toward the emergence of an Antichrist figure. As if to make sure we’re reeeeeally paying attention, the show underlines the notion of a clash between “light” and “dark” in the final moments of its opening credits sequence:

Two cards – one depicting God and one depicting the devil – face opposite each other “divided” by the tarot card beneath them. It’s striking, relatively subtle stuff, and it lets us know immediately that this is a show with cosmic concerns and metaphysical aspirations. By the evidence presented to us in this episode we can assume that we’ve met God and the devil’s respective representatives, but any assumptions beyond that are probably wasted. Here’s what we know about Carnivale’s main plot, based on the first episode:

Milfay tells the story of Ben Hawkins, dutiful son and apparent escaped convict, as he’s driven from his hellhole of a home in Oklahoma’s Dust Bowl and into the strangely-shaped arms of Carnivale – an Old Timey traveling carnival that harbors men and women with eerie, supernatural abilities. Hawkins has more than one secret to his name. Not only is he a refugee from what I assume is a chain gang, he’s also the bearer of his own superpowers; he can heal the lame and raise the dead by laying his hands on them. This ability appears to come at a steep price. Milfay also tells the story of Brother Justin Crowe, a Methodist Preacher from Mintern California with a po-faced sister and what’s either a serious psychiatric problem or a superpower of his own; he can create and/or receive (this isn’t clear) “waking visions” that seem utterly real to both himself and others. Both Hawkins and Crowe also receive a set of “shared visions” over the course of Milfay’s running time.

The strange flashes that Ben and Justin receive during the episode suggest that Carnivale‘s story has it’s roots sunk into the past – into a secret history involving what seems like World War I, a corn field, two unknown men, maybe a third man with an elaborate tree tattoo, the body of our lead character looking like he’s been torn apart by wild dogs, and something horrible-yet-unseen that appears to enjoy munching on the dead bodies of soldiers.

This is some admirably weird sh*t. Carnivale‘s dream sequences are reminiscent of Lynch’s nightmare flashes on Twin Peaks, unsettling, unexplained, uncanny. Are Ben and Justin somehow reincarnations of these men? Are these images going to remain abstracted? Or are we going to learn their meaning? I’m looking forward to finding out. For now let’s tackle the one image that I can offer some immediate, partial context to – the ring:

This is a signet ring bearing the symbol of the Knights Templar, an ancient brotherhood and division of the York Rite branch of Freemasonry that you’re probably familiar with from countless stories/comic books/films/etc et al ad nauseum. The symbol illustrates a clean divide between white and black, “light” and “dark,” with the cross straddling the divide between them. This division between light and dark is symbolized in many ways over the course of the episode, most notably in the artwork for the Carnivale truck itself (see: the sun and moon imagery). The ring is also notable for the motto inscribed around the symbol: “In Hoc Signo Vinces.” This is the Latin version of an earlier Greek motto, “En Toutoi Nika,” adopted by Constantine I after a “divine” vision of the early Christian symbol “Chi Ro.” Both Greek and Latin versions of the motto translate to mean  “In this sign you shall conquer.” Will the Knights Templar or the visions of Constantine play a part in this show’s mythology? Will the sign of the cross be used for good or ill? I have no idea. For now, it’s an abstract image.

Like Lost, Carnivale is a beautifully-constructed puzzle box filled with the kinds of abstract imagery that makes obsessives out of viewers. Every other moment of the show presents us with something to ponder and puzzle, or to scratch our heads at. Even the episode’s title (“Milfay,” after a real town in Oklahoma) is an anagram – one that when rearranged creates the word “family.” Carnivale also has a good deal in common with its spiritual predecessor, Twin Peaks. Both feature Michael Anderson in key roles, both concern cosmologies and visions/dreams that are as intriguing as they are unexplained. Like Twin Peaks, Carnivale appears less interested in presenting clear-cut stand-ins for “Good” and “Evil” than in examining the murky, shifting waters of the human soul and the initial ambiguity of its characters may be the most interesting thing about the show so far. The opening narration explicitly paints the larger narrative as a clash between Manichaen forces, yet the characters themselves are in no way Manichaen. They are shot through with both dark and light, impulse and consideration, cruelty and compassion. Brother Justin vocalizes this fact in his speech to the migrant woman who steals from his church’s collection plate, stating baldly that “We all, each of us, carry within us the seeds of our own salvation, and our own damnation,” setting up what I assume will be one of the defining thematic threads of the show. And speaking of both Twin Peaks and ambiguity…

“Fans of ambient, symbol-laden television will recognize Anderson [Samson] as The Man From Another Place (aka the “dream dwarf”) from David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. This time around Anderson doesn’t speak backwards, but I found myself desperately wishing that he would, partly out of a sense of nostalgia and partly because then at least something in Carnivàle would make a little sense.”Dennis Cass, Slate

This excerpt from Dennis Cass’ review of Carnivale’s first two episodes kinda p*sses me off. How on earth would Michael Anderson talking backward introduce any more “sense” to the show? And how do you sleep at night as a critic making implicit statements like “nothing in Carnivale makes sense” when the story told over the course of the show’s first hour is easily followed and understood? But Cass’ remarks also give me a perfect introduction to discussing what’s probably Carnivale’s biggest “problem” – one that’s evident straightaway.

Over the course of Carnivale’s first hour we’re thrust into a story that’s clearly much, much larger than the events presented on screen, and while the events of Milfay are easily understood, the mythology and history that surrounds those events are determinedly opaque. In a real sense, Carnivale’s first episode is a slowly-unfolding “chapter” that may (or may not) lead to a satisfying conclusion down the line. For those unable or unwilling to commit themselves to a show that may or may not pay off years down the line (again, shades of Lost), Carnivale is an inherently unwelcoming entertainment. Compounding the problem for Cass and Co: you can’t summarize Carnivale’s first episode with a pithy soundbite, the way that critics could summarize, say, Lost’s premiere (“Strangers crash on a mysterious Island”). The closest you can truly come to summarizing Carnivale on the evidence of Milfay is something along the lines of “A mysterious young man joins a mysterious carnival and has visions. Also, a mysterious preacher experiences visions too.” That doesn’t exactly come trippingly off the tongue, and without this kind of easy summation I suspect that a fair number of people were confused as to what Carnivale was really “about.”

Cass clumsily acknowledges this further along in his review, saying “Everything in Carnivàle is mysterious, yet there is no mystery, and if ever there were a story in need of a murder this is it. Twin Peaks could afford to be as strange as it pleased because at its heart it was a simple whodunit.” Once again Cass’ opinion is curiously vacant. Twin Peaks was never a simple whodunit – it merely posed as one during the first season, giving it a pithy, one-sentence soundbite that folks like Cass could glom on to. In point of fact, Lynch and Frost made it clear during the first season that they did not wish to solve Laura’s murder. A whodunit without any interest in the question “who done it?” isn’t much of a whodunit. At all.

Cass Translated: “I don’t understand what Carnivale is about. Events are occurring on screen, yes, but to what purpose?”

I understand this line of thinking, even if I’m unable to relate to it. For some people, a novelistic approach to storytelling on television is boring/confusing/unconscionable. As for me, I’m innately wired to love shows like Carnivale. What some folks see as “slow” or “unclear,” I see as “patient” or “intriguingly opaque.” I’m in no rush to see how the larger storyline knits together here so long as the goings on at the Carnival and in the little town of Mintern California remain interesting to me and there’s no shortage of interesting stuff thus far – the show’s setting alone makes for fascinating viewing. I’m a total sucker for immersive, meticulous depictions of the past (see: Deadwood, Mad Men) and Carnivale scratches that itch like a puppy in a flea circus. HBO spent a ton of money on this episode and it shows. Every inch of the screen is decorated with striking and convincing props/vehicles/clothing and detritus that successfully evokes the grimy desolation of the Depression era without glamorizing it. The sight of dirt and grit making its ceaseless, poisonous way into the Hawkins family home is one of those shots that ends up somehow summarizing the entire mood of a people/an era. In fact there’s something queasily familiar in watching folks struggle to survive in the midst of a devastating financial crisis. Hearing one of Justin’s flock speak about how she’s living in a tent city by the freeway brings to mind stories like this one. It emphasizes civilization’s circularity. It’s clear from the get-go that Carnivale has ambition to spare, and a surfeit of ambition is never something to grumble about as far as I’m concerned.

Milfay sets up a bakers dozen-worth of characters that could end up being fascinating, or that could end up being agonizingly aggravating, depending on how the series chooses to explore them.  There’s Lodz, the sightless mystic who appears able to “see” regardless, and who can read the dreams of others. There’s Jonesy, the baseball-tinged Carny with a gimpy leg and an obvious thing for Sofie. There’s Apollonia, the catatonic mother of Sofie. There’s Samson, the seeming-head of the Carnivale, a man who’s all angles and who seems to answer to someone (something?) called “Management.” There’s Justin and his creepy, po-faced sister. There’s even Sofie, who is sort of a bore in this episode, but who also possesses an acid tongue and some real grit, and who promises to provide a potentially-intriguing love interest for Hawkins. Like Lost, Carnivale saddles it’s characters with Very Important Names: The show’s two apparent leads, Ben Hawkins and Justin Crowe, have seemingly-weighty surnames referencing birds traditionally associated, respectively, with light/new dawn/divinity, and with darkness/death/decay. Supporting characters bear monikers that drip with potential spiritual significance: Samson, Gabriel, Sofie (a form of Sophia, the name of the Greek goddess of wisdom), Apollonia (a reference, perhaps, to Saint Apollonia, a virgin martyr who sacrificed her life to preserve her chastity, and potentially to Apollonian and Dionysian concepts in philosophy – another instance of “light” and “dark” sides/civilization vs. savagery) , Ruthie (or Ruth, as in Abraham’s wife and/or the Steinbeck character from Grapes of Wrath, a novel set during the Great Depression and focusing on a family who make their way from the Dust Bowl to California), Lila (a form of Delilah, the Biblical lover of Samson and the one who cuts his hair) and of course, Jonesy. Well, not Jonesy, but you get the idea. My hope is that Carnivale will delve into the backgrounds and emotional lives of these people. My fear is that the show will use them simply for window-dressing and/or plot advancement, or will take the easy road of melodrama over the harder, more rewarding road of believable character development in an unreal setting.

Notice that I didn’t include Ben Hawkins in the list of interesting characters. That’s because, mysterious abilities and Nick Stahl’s solid work aside, Hawkins is kind of a cipher here. He’s not especially funny, or strange, or intriguing, or exciting. He’s just kind of…there. I’m not a fan of the reluctant savior trope unless it’s handled in a way that feels different and/or skillfully executed. Stahl is a capable actor, but he’s not exactly a compelling or proactive lead thus far, and that seems like it might be a problem going forward.

That said, I love the way in which Ben’s ability is made both gift and curse, the way this is so vividly illustrated at episode’s end through the withering of the grass around him, and the way in which this aspect of his “power” both reflects the desolation of the Depression and the dust bowl around him, as well as hints at the promise of an eventual healing of the land. More on this below.

Brother Justin: “Titanic sandstorms, the likes of which man has not seen since the days of theprophets. And I ask myself, what are these things? What are they if not evidence of God’s fury? What are they if not harbingers of the Apocalypse? And yet… and yet… as I walked to church today, these troubled thoughts were soothed by a balmy wind. And as I looked out upon the endless acres of rich, untilled earth, I realized brothers and sisters, that this is truly the Promised Land, and that we are indeed blessed. But let us not forget the less fortunate. Let us not forget that they too were once blessed. And let us not forget that the Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away.”

As for Brother Justin….well, he’s so darned interesting that he gets his own section in this column. Brother Justin Crowe is intriguing for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that he appears torn by warring impulses within. On the one hand he is clearly of the Old School, Fundamentalist persuasion, judging by the way his sermon begins in fire and brimstone. On the other hand, that apocalyptic fervor is quickly replaced by words of reassurance and of love for the world and compassion for his fellow man. Of all of Carnivale‘s elements, it’s Justin’s bifurcated faith that interests me most but I’m not convinced that Justin’s internal struggle will last long. He seems destined from square one to go to the Dark Side. After all, as a general rule you don’t hire Clancy Brown to star in your TV show unless you expect him to kick ass or chew bubble gum.

Carnivale is all outta bubble gum.

Then there’s the fact that 9 out of 10 men of the cloth on television are pedophiles, murderers, occult-y fiends, servants of The First, reckless drivers, and/or haters of fuzzy ducklings and baby rabbits. The likelihood of Brown’s Brother Justin turning out to be the “good” guy (whatever that ends up meaning) on this show is only slightly better than the likelihood of my wallet suddenly and regularly filling itself with hundred-dollar bills. That’s something of a shame from my perspective, since a vast majority of the men and women who choose a life of service and devotion to their idea of Divinity are fallible, yes, but also decent, upstanding, and well-intentioned. Whatever you believe regarding the “veracity” or “reality” of the Bible, the Torah, the Q’uran, etc., a large number of human beings live dramatically-compelling lives devoted to doing Good; clothing the poor, feeding the hungry, tending to the lame and the sick. There was a time when the Goodhearted Pastor was a tired cliché, but we’ve gone so far in the other direction culturally that the opposite is now true: the “man of God” who is secretly or not-so-secretly a walking example of human depravity is now the cliché.

That probably comes across as kind of whiney, but it’s not meant to be anything other than an observation. Like most of you I’m a fan of Clancy Brown. Getting him to play an apocalyptic preacher with magical powers is something of a genius casting move, given how talented he is and how often those talents are relegated to less-than-A-list projects. I look forward to watching him work but I do hope that Justin’s seemingly-sincere desire to help the poor and reach out to the less fortunate is not revealed to be some already-hatched Master Plan on the part of an already “evil” man. I hope to see Justin’s choices, his apparent willingness to accept his visions as “good” and “Godly,” condemn him to the Dark Side slowly (if that is indeed what happens in the end). In the meantime, I’m more than happy to lap up scenes like his final vision – snow turning to blood and the sign of a curious establishment called “Mr. Chins” exploding with light to reveal a sinister-seeming cross.

Brother Justin’s apocalypse talk during this episode reminds me of the simple truth that we are always living in the End Times. Every generation seems convinced that they’re the last. You need only look around you to find evidence of that conviction – that strange hope – in books like the Left Behind series, in the rhetoric of men like Tim LaHaye, one of that series’ authors. This peculiar longing is a kind of hope, a wish for Meaning that is in itself apocalyptic. A longing for apocalypse is a common theme of Fundamentalism, be it of the religious, political or secular stripe. Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins don’t see the apocalypse as something to fear or to avoid. They see it as something to rejoice in, and that is precisely why they want to see it occur. Well, that and apocalyptic literature has been very, very lucrative for them. To date they’ve churned out a sixteen-book “adult” series on the supposed Rapture and apocalypse and a FORTY-BOOK SERIES for KIDS(!!!) on the same topic. Clearly the longing for an End isn’t confined to a few screwy sandwich board-wearing zealots. It’s either that, or there’s a LOT of sandwich board-wearing zealots out there.

I can’t resist a small(?) aside here:

LaHaye and Jenkins have created a multimedia empire based on a highly-questionable, frighteningly uncompassionate “mythology” that’s stitched together by treating the Bible like a secret codebook out of a Dan Brown novel. Fred Clark, the proprietor of one of my favorite websites, has spent a staggering amount of time and energy dissecting and discussing these books. He systematically lays out a strong case against Left Behind both as a form of entertainment (they are not well-written books) and as a form of professed theology (relying as it does on a convoluted interpretation of already-obtuse texts/imagery while simultaneously professing to be a “literal” reading of the text). It’s fascinating stuff if you’re into critical deconstructions of apocalyptic fantasies (like all the cool kids are these days) and you can check it out by visiting Fred’s site, Slacktivist.

Sidenote II: Brother Justin’s initials are “J.C.” – a literary trick typically reserved for heroes and misunderstood saviors (see: John Coffey of The Green Mile, Jesse Custer of Preacher as example). Here, that particular signifier/arguable cliché gets inverted (assuming, of course, that I’m right about Crowe’s journey to the Dark Side).

Milfay’s final sequence is both troubling and wondrous, a potent combination to an overthinker like myself. Ben uses his strange gift to heal the legs of a child, and as he does so the crops around them wither and die. In order to give the gift of life/healing to one being, Ben must apparently take life from something else. This is an affirmation of balance both mythological and scientific. Energy, after all, can neither be created nor destroyed. It can only be redirected, repurposed, repositioned. Ben appears to have the power to direct a “positive” energy, but that energy needs to come from somewhere after all, and this visual illustration of that concept is just plain terrific.

But the final shot of the episode also raises a dreadful further question to my mind: once Ben has used his gift, does the process cease, or does it continue so long as the person who has been gifted continues to live? As Ben and the Carnival leave town we watch the newly-healed little girl run back to her home – and the crops around her continue to wither and die. What is the price that will be paid for Ben’s gift? Will the wilting cease once the girl’s legs are fully healed? Is that why it continues? Because they are, in fact, still healing as she makes her way back? Or will it continue so long as she continues to use her legs – sucking more and more “life force” from the healthy people/flora/fauna around her in order to sustain what God has perhaps ordained?

By healing the little girl Ben Hawkins has helped her. That’s an inarguable “good.” But what if we pull the lens back a little farther? If her healing comes at the expense of the family’s food and source of income – if the rest of the family, perhaps the rest of the community, loses its means of feeding itself and earning money – then won’t Ben’s gift turn out to be more a curse than a blessing?

Ben and Justin’s experiences indicate a sharp divide in their abilities. Ben manipulates life force; he affects the physical world in a real and quantifiable way. By contrast, Justin’s abilities are mostly self-directed. They consist, or so it seems, of the ability to construct elaborate illusions. These illusions are apparently so convincing as to make a woman physically feel like she’s vomiting coins. But they are psychological abilities, and they induce no physical change in the world (that we know about) the way that Ben’s do. Can Ben gain the ability to choose where he’ll draw life from? Those sorts of questions offer up more evidence of Carnivale‘s commitment to a thorny, unpredictable morality. This is not a place of gee-whiz, coffee-adoring FBI agents. This is a place of endless, varying shades of grey. Or at least, that’s the impression one gets from Milfay. Gorgeous and opaque; those two words sum up Carnivale’s first episode succinctly and accurately. We may not understand what this show is “about” as yet, but Daniel Knauf and his very-talented, possibly-insane collaborators have me wanting to understand it – and that’s a small-but-important victory. Milfay wasn’t easy to write about, but I like that about the show. I’m sure I’ve left out many things worth discussing, and so I encourage you to discuss them and to point out things I’ve missed. But please: NO SPOILERS. Those of you who’ve seen the show before, kindly limit your comments to this episode only. Your discretion is greatly appreciated. See you next week!