Carnivale, S1 ep. 2: After The Ball Is Over
“And you say that a man cannot, of himself, understand what is good and evil; that it is all environment, that the environment swamps the man. But I believe it is all chance. Take my own case . . .” -Tolstoy, After the Ball
“The gospel, too, is carnival.” – Mikhail Bakhtin
Merry Christmas/Happy Hannukah/Joyous Kwanzaa/Rockin’ Solstice/Stellar “This Is Just Another Day For Us Atheists” Day, everyone. Whether you’re sneaking a read of this while Aunt Beth stumbles drunkenly into the tree, or gathering ‘round the monitor with steaming cups of eggnog, or ordering Chinese food and kicking back for a Clint Eastwood marathon or whatever the heck you people do at this time of the year, thanks, and welcome back to Lost & Found. We’re on episode 2 of HBO’s departed Carnivale (you can catch up by clicking here), and it’s a good ‘un. Typically this is the point during Lost & Found where you vote to determine whether to renew this show and keep me watching it and writing about it, or cancel it and move on to something else (click here for a refresher on the rules, such as they are). But it’s the Christmas season and even a cancelled TV show deserves a little mercy at this time of the year. So. We’ll pick up again next Friday with the third episode, Tinton, and at that point I’ll ask you guys to cast your vote: Cancel or Renew? And speaking of which…
…It’s not hard to see why this was cancelled, to be honest. As I wrote many years ago, this thing has commercial failure written all over it. Carnivale is deeply weird. It doesn’t help that it (so far) lacks the coiled tension or the sudden violence of a Deadwood or a Sopranos; that it is the opposite of ‘action-packed,’ that it is neither especially romantic or especially sexy (unless you find mentions of Incest – twice, I think- to be romantic/sexy in which case please back away from the computer slowly and do not return).
What it is is a strange strange slow burn. To make an unfair comparison, Carnivale feels a lot like AMC’s just-cancelled Rubicon in a number of ways; an ambitious, glacially-paced mystery that is all about what we’re not being told while simultaneously refusing to tell us much of anything. Rubicon failed in one season because it had nothing but it’s own molasses-paced conspiracy to hold the audience’s attention and that kind of demand invites the sort of viewership that’s, shall we say, teeny in size. Carnivale failed in two seasons, and I’m betting that’s because the unusual setting and unusual characters encouraged people to stick around a little longer. But I’m also betting early out of the gate that this back story, when revealed, is going to be some ugly, difficult stuff, with more horror than wonder in store.
But that doesn’t mean that I’m not thoroughly enjoying it. Carnivale peddles in saturated atmosphere, a magical realism that’s grounded in a keen eye for realistic details. It creates an illusion of time and place that’s a magic trick in and of itself – a real one. Many shows set in past historical periods feels stagey and vaguely-to-seriously unreal. Carnivale convinces. I enjoyed Milfay, Carnivale‘s first episode. I found it intriguingly puzzling, gratifyingly strange, appealingly obscure in its mythology and its morality. But I can’t say as I loved it. After the Ball is Over, Carnivale‘s second installment, remedies that somewhat. Like Milfay, After the Ball doesn’t exactly hurtle the plot forward or provide much in the way of real momentum – more or less crawling along the floor like a legless freak at a sideshow. But After the Ball takes what worked in ep 1 and adds what feel like central questions/mysteries to the mix: what is Ben Hawkins’ background? How does it tie in to Henry Scudder and the Carnivale he’s traveling with? And what is the purpose of Brother Crowe’s newly established migrant ministry? Just why does God/the devil/Justin himself want to found this ministry? After the Ball also made clear to me as a viewer that Carnivale may be playing its game on a whole other televisual level. If what’s buried between the lines here was intentionally buried by Carnivale’s writers and creators than we’re looking at what promises to be a quasi-Lost-ian feast of literature, philosophy and an increasingly-insane part-time Chud columnist.
Carnivale is also much funnier here than its premiere suggested. Granted, that humor is of the warped, black-as-pitch variety, but still. There’s something awful and hilarious about the way Justin and Templeton’s mid-episode vision is interrupted by Iris and some “nice cool lemonade,” with Justin accepting his drink as though he and Templeton had just been discussing the marvelous weather. There’s likewise something patently hilarious in how the show shoots Apollonia during one of her “conversations” with Sofie:
The show keeps cutting back to that unchanging, wide-eyed face over and over….
And over….and over…
It ends up provoking a really weird laugh. Which brings me to the first Art project assignment for Lost & Found: Those of you with the skills on photoshop, etc. with the time and the inclination, please feel free to photoshop Apollonia’s freaky/hilarious expression into a variety of locales/situations. Send your expressions of artistic individuality to WhatIsWater@gmail.com and I’ll share them with Chud’s readers in a future column. Fun!
As for what actually happens in After the Ball, its easily summarized: Ben Hawkins is assigned by Jonesy to clean out a nonexistent baggage trailer (the carny equivalent of a Snipe Hunt) but discovers a terminally-spooky baggage trailer anyway, along with some evidence that suggests Ben is connected to the Carnivale, and to the mysterious tuxedoed stranger of his visions, in previously-unknown ways (the baggage car and Management’s trailer seem remarkably similar. Are they one and the same? And will Management turn out to be a pickled fetus in a jar? Because that would be really, really, really (really) odd). Meanwhile, over in Mintern California, Brother Justin conceives a plan to found a church for the migrant population in the building that houses Mr. Chin’s and immediately runs into opposition from member of his congregation and owner-of-Chin’s, the unfortunately-named Caroll Templeton. But Justin’s ooky-spooky superpowers give him the leverage to force Templeton into donating the building by playing the creepiest Ghost of Christmas Past ever and revealing Templeton’s icky sins. In and around these major events, we learn more about the Carnivale and its troupe of kooks, about Justin and his po-faced sister (who has a name now: Iris) as well as the socio-political atmosphere of the time in somewhat ham-handed but not-uninteresting ways. Oh, and both Ben and Justin spend time watching women shower in this episode, indicating either that they’re living a kind of mirrored, dual existence, reflecting each other in their daily actions, or that writers Daniel Knauf and Ronald D. Moore are total horndogs. Or both.
What’s not so easily summarized/analyzed/whathaveyousized are the small moments, atmospheric elements, and supernatural happenstances that make this episode worth watching: the dream sequence that opens the episode and introduces a phrase that I presume will become important to the show – “Every prophet in his house”; the parallels drawn between cultural heroes like Babe Ruth and Biblical heroes like David; the suicide/homicide of Caroll Templeton; the suddenly-apparent possible allusions to literature and philosophy.
So let’s talk about some of this stuff, because it’s fun, and because I’m all hopped up on whiskey. First up, I’ve been wondering why the titular carnival of Carnivale sports that pretentious “e” in its name. It’s possible that I’ve stumbled onto an answer to that question…
“Each moment of mystery — the birth and the death — was preceded by a long period of contemplative spiritual preparation: Advent in the winter and Lent in the spring. These preparatory seasons featured the denial of physical pleasures in eating, drinking, and sex, as a means to purge and purify the body to receive Christ (the Eucharist was normally received by commoners only at Christmas and Easter). Unsurprisingly, most people tended to begin and end these solemn periods by ‘storing up’ such pleasures in binges of excessive eating and drinking, and the medieval Church gradually decided to make a virtue of necessity by licensing such overindulgences in rituals of festive celebration. Such seasons became known as Carnivale…” – Kristin McDermott, Carnivale on Shakespeare’s Stage
“‘Carnival’ is that dialogic form by which rigid, tyrannical hierarchies become mirrored, distorted, and overthrown. And liturgy can indeed be seen as ‘carnival’. Liturgy is, in effect, a celebration of the gospel whereby we partake in a divine carnival, a divine irony whereby we overthrow the kingdom of this world.” – Fr Anthony Ugolnik
“The holy fool refuses to accept the structures by which the world forms judgments. He reminds the people of God that the structures by which the princes of this world prevail are less than ‘transitory’—they are signs of liberation in God, showing us in the narrowness and cramped insistence of worldly power what God will never be. The gospel’s clown is, like the monk or nun, ‘apophatic’—that is, he or she shows us not what God is, but rather what God is not. The holy fool mimics the standard by which the cross is seen as ‘tragic’, for the gospel is the very antithesis of tragedy.”- Fr Anthony Ugolnik
“In the carnival, as we have seen, social hierarchies of everyday life—their solemnities and pieties and etiquettes, as well as all ready-made truths—are profaned and overturned by normally suppressed voices and energies. Thus, fools become wise, kings become beggars; opposites are mingled (fact and fantasy, heaven and hell).” – Wikipedia on Carnivalesque
I’m sure I’m not the first person to link the show with the religio-philosophical concept of carnival/e and the “carnivalesque.” But it was still a nice little thrill to put two and two together here, connecting some interesting dots. Carnivale and the carnivalesque, near as I can tell, describe both/either (1) the ritualized releasing of carnal energy (ie: gorging, screwing, drinking, dancing, drinking, drinking, gorging…) before the holy times of Lent and Passover or (2) the act of playing the fool in the King’s court; undermining and overthrowing established tyrannies with humor, chaos and affirmation of life. Suddenly that annoying extra “e” at the end of the title makes a bit more sense.
The carnival of Carnivale, in the Bakhtinian sense of the word, stands in diametric opposition to the piety and apparent repression of the sort of Christianity which Brother Justin practices. Justin flays himself in penance at the end of After the Ball perhaps in part because he has no ritual with which to cut loose in a carnivalesque release of passion and base urges. His ritual is one of solitude and punishment. Justin’s current arc suggests that his migrant church will become a powerful force in California – a man commanding the hearts of thousands of migrants and who knows who else. A man in such a position is a kind of king, and the fact that Justin is a man of Christian faith, this gives his church the status of a “kingdom of this world” to be overthrown, a “structure by which the princes of this world prevail.” Perhaps it is this Carnivale’s task to metaphorically show us, the viewers, what God is not.
That is, if any of that is remotely close to sort of being near the writers’ intent. I’m whistling Dixie here for all I know, but there’s something about the fit between intellectual concept and story here that makes me wonder whether all of this is intentional. If any of that malarkey above is even close to on-point then that’s pretty f*cking nifty, and Carnivale’s writers are wicked smaht in a quiet, bookish sorta way. It remains to be seen whether they have the chops to get me emotionally as well as intellectually involved, but y’know, color me impressed.
The vision that opens the episode features a real-world location, visited by Justin, Iris and their irascible mentor/father-figure Norman something-or-other (we don’t hear his last name) later in the hour. This is the second vision that’s featured a place Justin then visits, and it raises the question of whether someone or something is directing these visions – signposting certain locations along the way. Justin clearly believes that it’s God – a belief that’s made utter and certain during this episode – but we as viewers have cause to doubt. There’s a creature of Light and a creature of Darkness inhabiting America in Carnivale, and Brother Justin seems like a shoe-in for the role of creature of Darkness.
On the other hand, the God of the Bible isn’t a Tickle Me Elmo doll. The God of the Bible may have sent Jesus Christ to die for our sins and to teach us How Not To Be An @$$hole, but God also sent the angels to seriously punish those @$$holes in Sodom & Gomorrah. This dichotomy is all over the Bible. Over here God is saying “I’m all-loving! All-forgiving!” and over there God is smiting people willy-nilly and making bets with the devil/Adversary over how miserable they can make a dude’s life. You’ll see this in the Q’uran and in the Torah as well. You could call this schizophrenic, or you could call it reflective of life’s/nature’s/humanity’s capacity for infinite cruelty and infinite kindness, a reflection that’s reflected again in Carnivale’s morally-grey characters. We all have within us the capacity for salvation and for damnation. In After the Ball, Justin again moves to do something positive through the use of his ooky-spooky superpowers. By starting a church for the migrants, Crowe gives them a place to go and by claiming Mr. Chin’s as his proposed place of worship, he shuts down a “den of sin.” The God of the Bible has a way of directing His chosen ones to do some mighty questionable things, like hang out with tax collectors and prostitutes while shunning the religious elite. Or giving Peter a vision which communicates to him that “God hath told me I should not call any man common or unclean.” But the sight of Mr. Chin’s stage, draped in crimson – the tassles a matching crimson – give the picture of a man surrounded in blood as he claims his “new temple.” The vision that Crowe visits on Templeton gives Brother Justin a sinister aura just when it should be revealing him as righteous. And a place like Mr. Chin’s seems rather like unconsecrated ground.
Getting back to a few details from that opening scene and how they might relate to the show as a whole: Notice that darkness falls over Templeton and Justin just as Justin says “How dare you take the Lord’s name in this house.” A connection, maybe, to the phrase “Every prophet in his house?” Justin’s in his house at that moment. Does that make Justin a prophet? …And can a carnival be considered a house? Not literally obviously, but the titular Carnivale is a home for many. It’s now Hawkin’s home, at least temporarily. And if you consider your home to be your metaphorical “house,” then Ben’s in his “house” as well. Metaphorically, both Justin and Ben have begun to use their abilities, and the expression may refer to that – to a “prophet” discovering his power and choosing/being fated to reside in either the “house of Light” or the “house of Darkness.” And am I still making sense at this point? Or is it the equivalent of me typing “banana rock bingo!”?
Of the men that appear to Crowe and Hawkins in their visions, one is now identified as Henry “Hack” Scudder, former Gentleman Geek of the Carnivale, and most likely Ben Hawkins’ babydaddy. In case you’re wondering, a Geek is “a carnival performer who performs sensationally morbid or disgusting acts, as biting off the head of a live chicken.” Note the chickens in Scudder’s grip. Note also that Scudder’s dressed similarly to a Magician in his photo, making the photo a kind of mirror of the Magician Tarot card. Oh, hey, by the way…
After the Ball also introduces us to Management’s trailer, to the Great and Powerful Oz-esque curtain hanging ominously inside, and to a Priest/Deity relationship between Samson and Management that feels a little like the Richard/Jacob relationship on Lost. Like Lost, will there be a man behind the curtain? Or are we dealing with something lesser/greater than man? Is this Carnivale under the Management of God or the devil? The intrigue deepens as Samson and Lodz discuss Ben. Both men seem familiar with Management – whoever/whatever that is – and Lodz seems to think that Hawkins is valuable, though he doesn’t say why, or indicate how he knows this. We’re also told that one of the men in Ben’s visions is named Scudder, and both Lodz and Samson seem to know who Scudder is. Samson thinks Scudder is dead, but Lodz disagrees, and wants Samson to tell Management. Finally, maybe most importantly, we learn that Lodz used to communicate with Management, but Management isn’t listening anymore. “Ever since St Louis,” apparently. I immediately want to know what happened in St. Louis. I also want to know why Lodz wants to head south, and why Samson seems determined not to do so, until he suddenly changes his mind and orders the carnival to do just that at episode’s end. What lies south?
Ben experiences another vision, maybe more disturbing than before. A man (Scudder?) makes his way through trenches and comes upon an unseen thing eating the body of a dead soldier. Another man (Scudder?) takes aim (at the other man? At the bear?) The bear rears up, wearing a ridiculous Russian hat, maw smeared red, and attacks.
But things get weirder. Formerly-catatonic Apollonia appears to Ben, walks to him in the night, and tells him that he’s “the one” before abruptly collapsing. In the aftermath, Sofie can no longer “hear” her mother. What the hell just happened? Some folks in the carnival seem to know what’s going on here, to one extent or another. Others, like Jonesy, not so much.
Further questions brought up by this episode: How did Apollonia become a catatonic? Was Lodz involved? It’s clear she doesn’t want to “let him in,” based on the seismic warning she delivers, and the way that Sofie reacts to seeing him in their trailer is telling. Just what does Lodz mean when he says “You leave me no choice”? And how does a catatonic woman get up in the middle of the night like that? Does Sofie’s presence somehow “make” her catatonic? Tell me, Carnivale!
The episode ends with the sight of what might be the Russian hat that the bear was wearing tacked to the side of Management’s trailer. I took a look at a screencap of the nightmarebear’s hat and made an attempt at trying to figure out what it says. Here’s the screencap:
Utilizing the internet’s might (questionable) resources, the closest I was able to come to a sensical translation was “Bear! Oh no!” which I hope is accurate, because it is totally hilarious.
Something Random I Noticed And Can’t Work Into A Paragraph: The Merry-Go-Round plays the theme song to “Animaniacs” as it goes around.
Here’s the second bit of potentially-intentional buried treasure in this episode of Carnivale: “After the Ball is Over” shares it’s title more or less with the Tolstoy story “After the Ball.” Tolstoy was a Russian author who wrote After the Ball before the advent of the First World War. The episode features an inexplicable nightmarebear in a ludicrous Russian hat (And we wonder why it was cancelled!) along with flashbacks to the first World War, a conflict with Russia (note that the bear is a symbol for Russia just as the Bald Eagle is a symbol for America, or the Lion is a symbol for Britain). After the Ball concerns a man whose life changes overnight forever because of what he sees as chance. But Tolstoy gives the reader the last word in the story, with his last words: “And you say…” inviting the reader to offer a counterargument or an agreement. Carnivale concerns two men seeming picked at random, their lives changed overnight, but discovering a connection to each other and something larger than either of them. Justin thinks God is talking to him, but it’s left to us to decide if we’ll make that leap with him or offer a counterargument. Was Justin chosen? Or is this simple chance? The result, so After the Ball suggests, of a long-abandoned love affair or two? Tolstoy’s story also deals in it’d way with signs and symbols emphasizing light and dark, the glamour of life and the cruelty of it, a sharp division between the grand illusion of the ball and the cold reality of life outside it.
Are Carnivale‘s writers really this crazily oblique-yet-specific? Am I off my rocker?
And with that, I’m outta here. Happy Holidays, everyone. Enjoy yourselves, be good to one another, and I’ll see you next week – same Chud-time, same Chud-channel.