Lonnigan, Texas: Carnivale, Season One ep. 8

Management: “Samson. Leave us.”

Welcome back to Lost & Found, your one-stop-shop for all your cancelled TV needs. If you’re just joining us we’re watching Carnivale, and we’re now more than halfway into the first season. If you’d like to catch up on past episodes just click this here link and you’ll be instantly transported to a treasure trove of overblown prose.

To remind you all: starting immediately this column will be going on hiatus for three weeks, during which time I’ll be basically hunkered in a bunker, taking food and water when reminded and sleeping rarely. Thanks, American economy. You’re the bestest.

Rest assured that I’ll return in three weeks’ time. I hope you’ll choose to return as well. If you’d like to receive 140-character dispatches from an increasingly-unhinged mind during the break you can follow me on Twitter. You’ll be notified when the column returns and you’ll probably get to see a grown man cry via text. Taste the excitement!

We’re back in World War I as Lonnigan, Texas, Carnivale’s eighth episode, begins. We watch as a young doctor enters a surgical tent, urged on by a nurse wearing a conspicuously MASSIVE red cross. The Red Cross is, of course, an international relief organization that operated during WWI. But the symbol of the red cross is also the symbol of the Knights Templar, whose crest we’ll see later on in the episode. As we enter and pass through the surgical tent along with the doctor we catch glimpses of Russian Orthodox priests (Russia playing a continually-conspicuous role on this show: Russia was involved in WWI, Justin and his sister are both Russian, Tolstoy has been referenced…. I wonder if its Knauf’s intent to use Russia and America as symbols of “light” and “dark”?) presumably administering Last Rites and we come upon a soldier grievously wounded by….wait for it…what looks to be a large animal. Say, a bear is a large animal, isn’t it? The soldier screams something unintelligible, and then Ben wakes up, emerging from another of his visions.

Except that he’s still in a vision. He pulls his blankets away to reveal that his body has been mauled in a mirror image of the soldier we just saw (and note that we saw this image once before, back in the first episode, during Ben’s initial bout of vision-fever). He looks up to see the figure of Brother Justin squatting low in the dust, looking ominously calm.

And then Ben wakes up. Again.

Hell of a way to begin the episode, really. It’s no surprise to see that Daniel Knauf penned Lonnigan, Texas himself. The majority of this installment of Carnivale is exciting, intriguing stuff. Nice job, Mr. Knauf.

Anywho, Ben wakes up again, to find Lodz waiting for him and ever-curious about Ben’s dreams. Interestingly, the show visually connects Justin and Lodz in this moment by having Lodz appear to Ben as soon as Ben awakes, positioned almost identically to Brother Crowe. This happens again later in the episode, as the music playing over Justin’s scene is revealed to be playing on Lodz’s phonograph. Is this meant to suggest that both Lodz and Crowe are aligned with “darkness”?

It’s unclear, which is how this show likes it. For now, Ben’s still uber-suspicious of ol’ Lodz, while Lodz remains creepily-confident that Ben will begin confiding in him soon. I’m interested to see how this plays out. I’ve talked a lot (a looooooooot) about the show’s seeming Fatalism; the sense that these characters are being acted on by forces unfathomable and all-but irresistible – that their “choices” are akin to struggling against a raging river. If that’s the case, if Fatalism rules Carnivale’s universe, then we’ll see Ben go to Lodz for information/guidance/advice/milk n’ cookies despite his resistance. Because he won’t have a real choice in the matter. He’ll be “directed” by larger outside forces. Consider: At one point in this episode, Ben literally has to choose between two paths. He instinctively chooses the “right” path, but gets turned around and set on the “wrong” path thanks to the ill-intended advice he receives along the way. Despite his choice, he’s thwarted.

Lonnigan, Texas resumes following Ben and Justin more-or-less equally, which pleases me. The show feels most balanced when we’re watching both stories unfold. Ben’s story here consists of being tasked to go and find “The Scorpion Boy,” a rumored “freak” living around the area where Carnivale has set up camp. Because it’s Ben we’re talking about he acts all surly about it, then agrees. Because that’s what Ben does. On his mission Ben runs into Phineas Boffo, a “freak finder” for a rival carnival played by John Doe, of the seminal punk band X (note that the institution’s doctor refers to Justin as “John Doe” during this episode, a fun reference to that fact, or maybe just a happy coincidence).

Boffo steals Ben’s freak out from under Ben’s nose (turns out it’s a lobster girl, not a scorpion boy, and in the process we catch sight of her “claws,” another image that’s appeared before in Ben’s dreams). In the process Ben receives a ring of the Knights Templar, an order that both Boffo and Henry Scudder belong to, as well as a set of sudden waking visions involving said-Knights and what look like heads mounted on pikes. Note that a choir of voices sings the inscription on the ring: “In Hoc Signo Vices.” Translated, roughly: “In this sign you will conquer.” What’s the role of the Knights Templar in Carnivale’s mythology? I hope to find out before the show ends.

Ben’s story ends here, essentially, with the doing of a good deed. He pays to fix the tire of a migrant family and refuses anything in return – an act of true altruism. What happens next left me genuinely intrigued: the migrant that Ben helps sees a “Wanted” poster up with Ben’s name on it and quickly tears it down. Does the migrant tear the flyer down because he intends to report Ben to the authorities? Or does he tear it down in a reciprocal act of kindness, so that no one else there will see Ben’s face? Either’s possible, and the former is more probable – after all, we’ve seen that this is a predatory, Darwinian environment – yet I can’t help hoping it’s the latter.

Justin’s story is darker and stranger (hard to believe, I know) and ultimately more interesting, if only because Clancy Brown possesses the same foreboding calm that he displayed in Ben’s earlier vision throughout most of his scenes. There’s the sense that Justin is coming more fully into power as he comes more fully into an understanding of his Self; whether that understanding is correct remains to be seen. Either way there’s something deeply, deeply unnerving about Brother Justin’s growing certainty here, and his assertions that he is God’s “Word, made flesh.” I suspect he’s right about that (“God made flesh” is, essentially, the definition of the word “Avatar,” which appeared during the events in Babylon) but that makes things no less creep-a-licious.

What does it mean to be “the left hand of God,” as Justin claims to be? If we believe various religious texts it means that Justin is equivalent to the archangel Gabriel, called “the left hand of God” in Jewish midrash. Significantly, Gabriel is listed as an angel of death. In some depictions of Gabriel he bears a golden wreath in his right hand (peace) and a whip in his let hand (destruction). I don’t mean to suggest that Justin is an angel; just that this is the association the show itself seems to be drawing, and that association makes sense. Angels, after all, are characterized by their lack of free will. They are, in a sense, “God’s word made flesh.” Carnivale’s mythology seems to be its own peculiar beast, but its drawing from a number of traditions and the choices are interesting. Also interesting: the left hand has historically been associated with evil and the devil. This is obviously ridiculous (or IS IT?) but the idea that Justin is God’s “sinestral” or “sinister” hand fits nicely.

Justin’s abilities also appear to be expanding in scope based on the evidence in this episode – he displays a kind of omniscience in his scene with his “interviewer,” and theirs the suggestion that Justin can now rewrite reality at a whim (thus Justin’s question to the doctor after the doctor tells Justin to try snapping his neck with his mind: “How do you know I haven’t already?”). It’s fascinating to see the show’s depiction of psychiatric treatment during this time in history. All of the techniques we see dramatized were actually deployed by institutions of the time, and the barbarism on display is shocking to the conscience.

Justin and Ben’s stories continue to mirror one another nicely. Ben spends this episode effortlessly and fruitlessly attempting to get what turns out to be a Lobster Girl to join him. Justin spends this episode effortlessly and fruitfully gathering converts, most memorably when he seems to summon an entire ward of loonies to him like acolytes, but again as his agent, Tommy Dolan, keeps his story alive via radio. Intentional mirroring? I have no idea. Nifty? Yes.

There’s also several smaller subplots playing out at the same time here, in and around those two tales. Stumpy and his wife continue to have problems in the wake of Dora Mae’s “death,” and for some reason Stumpy decides that the solution to his problems is to have Jonesy step up to bat for him, so to speak. Because this show doesn’t already have enough weird sexual pairings yet. The character work in these scenes is outstanding stuff, taking imagery that could be laughable or tawdry (like, say, Jonesy getting his knee licked) and transforming it into moving, emotional stuff.

This is presumably going to screw up any chance of a relationship between Jonesy and Sofie, who momentarily warms up to him after basically freezing him out for the entirety of the show so far. Watching Sofie and Jonesy play catch together, one gets the feeling that these two would be good for each other. Which is why it’s all-but-certain that it’ll never happen, never last. This is Carnivale, where Happy Endings exist in books, not in lives. When Jonesy suggests that he agrees with Appollonia about Sofie’s “friendship” with Libby (kiss or get off the pot, ladies) she storms off in a huff. Sofie does some time as a cooch dancer here also, but to be honest this aspect of the episode was the least interesting to me, save for the confirmation we get that Sofie doesn’t know who her father is. I get that it makes dramatic sense right now to focus in on Stumpy and the gals but the emphasis on that subplot has been dominating the proceedings for long enough, at least as far as I’m concerned.

And then there’s Samson’s story. Samson’s story is the shortest here, but it’s groovy sh*t, man. His discussion with Lodz about letting Ben leave for the day highlights why he’s the right man to be running the carnival, at least as far as I’m concerned. Samson knows full well that Ben’s a wanted man, a fugitive, but he still extends the boy a measure of trust. That trust might not be earned – good deed or not, Ben’s use of the money he was given in order to help another family out means that his carnival family is now ten bucks short in the kitty – but it’s necessary in a functional, open community.

And with Samson’s episode-ending scene Knauf demonstrates that he’s perfectly capable of crafting a stinger of an ending, and it leaves me hungry for more. First and most important, Knauf confirms the existence of Management to us. We don’t see the Carnivale’s owner, but we hear him/her/it, and he/she/it sounds a lot like Linda Hunt, which means that Management could well end up being a male dwarf Indonesian photographer for all we know.
Second, and only slightly less important: Samson, who we know assumed the role of Management’s intermediary from Lodz after an unclear event in St. Louis, discovers that Lodz and Management are communicating again. Management, taking a cue from Sofie, freezes Samson out and orders him to “Leave us” as Lodz and he/she/it discuss Ben Hawkins and Scudder. I’d love to know more about the secret history between Samson and Lodz. The shifting of power between them is intriguing to say the least.

Who/what is Management? What is his/her/its interest in Ben? And is Management “good” or “evil”? “Light” or “dark”? If the show surrounding this mysterious entity is any indication the answer is “both.”

With that, I take my temporary leave of you, much-appreciated readers. Follow me or just show up again in three weeks’ time. I’ll be here, eager to discuss Carnivale with all of you.

- MMorse