Day of the Dead: Carnivale, S1 ep. 11

Justin Crowe: “The body of Christ.”
Ben Hawkins: “No it ain’t.”

Ritual. That word lingers over the entirety of Day of the Dead, Carnivale’s 11th episode. During this installment we witness a perverse ritual of communion, observe an at-once-festive-yet-ominous set of rituals related to Dia De Los Muertos, the titular “Day of the Dead,” we watch as Ben participates in the ritual of confession, we listen as Norman and Iris discuss the baptism ritual performed on Brother Justin and as Tommy ponders the strangeness of the church-wide baptism ritual which follows, and we peer in as Stumpy participates in a ritual of Tarot divination.

And what is a ritual, really? Stripped to its essence, a ritual is an act or set of acts intended to convey a symbolic meaning. A ritual may be secular in nature (a handshake, as for instance) or it may be inherently religious (as in the giving of Communion or the taking of Confession). Either way, a ritual acts to summarize something larger than itself – it gives a graspable shape to esoteric and/or incorporeal ideas. Ritual transforms the ephemeral into something material, by infusing something lifeless and meaningless with external meaning – much like the way in which Ben takes external life force and redirects it, filling something formerly lifeless (like adorable widdle kittens!) with new life.

Ritual is also, practically-speaking, a means of control, a means by which unscrupulous people may direct the energies of others for their own ends, and by which the good-hearted may motivate and inspire others around them. It’s no coincidence that this view of ritual so closely mirrors the phrase that’s popped up several times during this season: “In this sign, you will conquer.” Ritual and symbolism can galvanize the human heart in profound and sometimes-inspiring, sometimes-frightening ways. Through the rituals of the church, Brother Justin can summon forth a possible army of followers, and it appears as though he has begun to do just that. What is Ben’s ritual? What is Ben’s “sign”? Who are Ben’s followers?

I suspect that’s a question reserved for Season 2 (if not for the non-existent-but-planned-for Seasons 3-6). Next week brings the Season 1 finale, and a chance for you folks to cast your votes again. Will we continue on with Carnivale, Season 2? Or will we switch things up and start a new series? The choice, as always, is yours.

Day of the Dead finally pulls the trigger (sorta) on the whole will-they-or-won’t-they sexual tension between Libby and Sophie, and I think we can all agree that watching watching the two of them enjoy some sweaty snugglebunnies makes for some pretty…er…compelling television. Sure, it’s a waking-dream/vision of some sort, but still. Also in the vision/waking-dream: sudden stigmata (ie: bodily marks, sores, or sensations of pain in locations corresponding to the crucifixion wounds of Jesus, someone who in Carnivale’s fictional world might have been considered an Avatar) which is pretty disturbing. Might be a waking-dream, might be evidence of Sofie’s Justin-esque abilities: the eerie movement of the worm in the bottle of tequila that Sofie and Libby share. After all, if Sofie is Justin’s girl (via rape which, again, YIKES) then she likely shares in his abilities. Justin’s shown no ability/inclination to heal the sick or raise the dead, but he has shown the ability to manipulate perception and to alter certain aspects of the physical world.

Sophie’s vision is the sort of thing that an Avatar experiences, judging by what we’ve seen of Ben and Justin’s respective flashes and this makes perfect sense now that we pretty much know Justin is her babydaddy. In the past these visions have functioned as a kind of precognition – brief glimpses of future events. Does this mean that we’re in for some seriously sweaty, real-life snugglebunnies between Libby and Sofie in the near future? Complete with some supersexy bleeding palms? And while we’re on the topic of visions and Avatars and whatnot, let’s talk about this line:

“Into each generation is born a creature of light and a creature of darkness.”

I’d interpreted that line in a Highlanderesque way to mean “there can be only one” – one creature of light and one creature of darkness for each generation. If that’s the case, and if Ben and Justin are the creatures of light and darkness for their generation then what exactly is Sophie? Did Carnivale change its collective mind following the pilot and decide that there’s more than one? Are the armies of light and dark composed of “lesser Avatars”? Are there multiple avatars in the same family line? Could I ask any more questions?

How about this one: Are you enjoying the whole Jonesy-Ma-Sophie-Caterina-Stumpy love pentagon? Because I’m really not, to be honest. The show’s focused in on this plot to the exclusion of, like, 90% of the rest of the carnival and at this point I’m jus’ plain bored, hoss. I’m confused also, which is a less than ideal combination. Why are we not getting to know the other performers/rousties/etc in any real way? What made the show’s writers decide to focus in so tightly on this randomized assemblage of yearning/broken/beating hearts to the exclusion of LizardMan, or the Siamese twins, or Lila’s background and motivations, or maybe that sword-swallowing guy, or the seemingly-neverending parade of rousties, or, or, or, or, or…? What is it about the love pentagon that the show’s writers remain fascinated by? Whatever it is, I ain’t seeing it. What I’m seeing is a lot of retreaded ground. I’d like it to stop.

Weird Old Stereotypical Spanish Lady: “Even the dead must eat.”

I’ll be completely honest with you folks: I found the whole segment set at the festival de dia de los muertos to be pretty silly stuff, even as I appreciated some of what was being implied. I laughed out loud several times at the Wise Random Spanish Lady and her group of Weeping Kids, and I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the effect that Knauf and Co. were going for. You folks know that I’m all about the mystical signs & siguls and whathaveyou, but having them all jostling for attention in this dusty Mexican border town and seeing them couched so firmly and so stereotypically in that setting just plain tickled my funnybone. Ben shouting “NO DINERO!” at a group of crying children was maybe Carnivale’s funniest moment thus far.

A few things worth noticing:

First, Stereotypical Spanish Woman’s statement, “Even the dead must eat,” implies that either she and the other townspeople are dead, or that Ben himself is dead. Neither of these implications make much “sense”. Is she simply referring to Ruthie, who’ll need a good meal of Pan De La Muerte when she rises from her snake-venom stupor? Or are they all staring ominously/meaningfully at Ben simply because they are Wise Spanish People Who Understand Rituals That We Do Not? As usual we’re given nothing to go on as far as explanations go so your guess is literally as good as mine.

Note also the young boy who literally almost runs into Ben, painted up to resemble the tattooed man we’ve come to know. The “tree tattoo” this boy sports is white, as opposed to black. Is there a symbolic component to this detail? Or did white simply show up better on camera? The symbolism of the townspeople chasing this boy on the Day of the Dead and then returning, bearing him up as a kind of king, suggests two things: (1) the fear of death and death’s inevitable triumph (death is “king”) and (2) the tattooed man represents/embodies death. Interested to see the show elaborate more on the tattooed dude and the tree he wears.

Scudder: “Kneel, my son.”

Get it?

Just in case you missed the symbolism here allow me to hit you over the head with it: Confession is presided over by Priests – or “Fathers,” if you will. Ben’s confession is presided over by his actual Father, pretending (?) to be a Priest. Scudder utters a most intriguing line over the course of their brief conversation: “Your mother chose to die.”

I have become increasingly convinced of Carnivale’s Fatalism over the course of the season, but this episode and last week’s episodes have me reconsidering that position. The emphasis on choice in these episodes – Ben’s choices and his mother’s choices – indicate that Fate and Free Will aren’t as easily divorced from one another as I’d initially thought. Given comments like these, I’m now more inclined to see Free Will in the context of Carnivale as something exercisable but ultimately subject to powerful outside influences.

Father Norman: “Perhaps he’s come under the influence of something – something dangerous.”

Father Norman’s conversation with Tommy Dolan in the Amazing Exploding Diner sets up some tantalizing story possibilities, not the least of which is the revelation that Justin’s car was seen parked outside of Mr. Chin’s shortly before the building was consumed by fire. This is addressed shortly, but the ramifications will presumably echo on into the second season. Even more interesting is Norman’s growing certainty that something is deeply wrong with Justin Crowe. He’s not willing to share that belief with Tommy Dolan, but maybe he should be reconsidering that stance. Tommy clearly senses a wrongness in the air as well, telling Norman that he saw the way the people came to Justin in the church, and that it was like no baptism he’d ever seen.

Iris: “They were sacrificed, like the lambs of Abraham.”

Yuck, on so many levels.

I mean, that about sums it up, right? After a whole season spent shifting uncomfortably in my seat over Justin’s barely-concealed sisterlust, Carnivale serves up a rotten, malevolent cherry atop its appalling incest sundae. It would be bad enough, certainly, if Justin and Iris had simply gone for the brother-sister make out session we see here (on Carnivale, you can never have enough incest with your apocalypse, apparently). Far worse is the confession that seems to ignite all the lust/rage in Justin’s heart: It was Iris who set the fire at Mr. Chin’s, Iris who is responsible for the deaths of the migrant children; It is Iris, responsible for pushing her brother to the breaking point and sending him out into the wilderness with his faith in tatters.

Assuming Iris is telling the truth here, she’s engaged in human sacrifice. And this abominable act speaks to something I find pretty fascinating about the show: the ways in which Justin and Iris’s conception of Divinity resembles the Old Testament portrayal of God as wrathful and demanding of blood sacrifice, as capricious and inexplicable. Further, Justin and Iris never stop invoking God’s name, discussing God’s plan. This stands in stark contrast to Ben Hawkins, who has informed Ruthie that he’s pretty much done with the Bible and who doesn’t seem to spend a lot of time contemplating much of anything, let alone God and God’s plan. Ben’s actions mark him as potentially representative of the New Testament conception of God-as-human-savior; at once reluctant, yet emotionally involved, with abilities that come at a cost, but that offer a positive result. I doubt this is the reading that Knauf intended, but it seems to me that the til-now-ongoing “Ben don’t wanna use his powers” plot is nicely analogous with the notion of faith only being as strong as your practice of said-faith. Blah. Blahblahblah. Pretentious enough for you?

The episode ends with Ben frantically attempting to use his powers in order to bring Ruthie back to life, thanks to the bite of a venomous snake provided by the ever-mysterious Lodz. Only, for some reason (one that I hope isn’t simply a matter of narrative convenience) his creepy superpowers won’t work on his grandmother/lover. Lodz is clearly trying to manipulate Ben here, but in what way and for what ultimate purpose? Did Lodz know that Ben’s powers would not work on Ruthie? Is Lodz attempting to get Ben to trust him? Is he looking to break Ben down? Arrange an indebtedness to Management? Simply get Ruthie – someone staunchly protective of Ben – out of his way? What’s the angle being played here?

No matter the angle, Carnivale’s habit of dealing in characters who are not conventionally “good” or “evil” continues here unabated. If Management is on the side of the “light,” then its safe to say that the side of the “light” plays by some pretty nasty rules. Assuming that Lodz did indeed want to push Ben into dealing directly with himself and with Management, I expect that we’ll get a little more detail on Management’s motivations. I’m looking forward to seeing who or what lies behind that curtain.

Join me here next week, where the answer to that question and others (sooooo many others) will hopefully be answered. As always I’m sure I’ve missed things that you’d like to point out or talk about. I encourage you to do so in the comments or on the message boards. Have a great weekend, and be good to one another.

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