The Day That Was The Day (Carnivale, S1 ep. 12)
Justin: “I’m reminded of the phrase ‘making a deal with the devil’.”
Tommy Dolan: “Oh, come on now – I’m not that bad.”
Justin: “No. You’re not.”
“But Jesus said unto them, ‘A prophet is not without honor, save in his own country, and in his own house.’” – Matthew 13:57 (Emphasis mine)
Throughout the majority of Carnivale‘s first season its chief strength, defining attribute and greatest weakness has been atmosphere. The show has trafficked largely in strikingly obtuse imagery, signs and symbols, shadows and light, encroaching dread. It’s done this powerfully, and remarkably well.
But for this viewer all that admirable atmosphere threatened to suffocate the show in its back half during the carnival segments – not because it lacked for intelligence, or beauty, but because it lacked momentum.
“Clive Barker’s The Grapes of Wrath.” that’s the phrase I used to sum up Carnivale‘s first episode and while I’ve genuinely enjoyed season 1, it’s fallen short of what I had imagined it could be and this lack of real momentum is, for me, the biggest culprit. It’s legitimate to speculate that its deliberate/plodding pacing was a factor in audience attrition. We got a lot of totally tantalizing hints and visions and darkly ominous apocalyptic fiddle faddle, a lot of atmosphere and intrigue, but precious little urgency or forward motion. To some extent, as far as Ben’s journey is concerned… well, it didn’t feel like much of a journey – more like a series of weird visions that Ben stumbles into over and over again; a long, patient, sometimes patience-testing table-setting for events as-yet-to-come. Hawkins is clearly set up over this season as a reluctant savior, but the trouble with that notion is that a reluctant savior can threaten to tip over from interesting to apathetic, depending on the viewer and on the way in which that particular character type is handled. For me Ben’s day-to-day story arc and the carnival segments overall tipped over in the wrong direction at some points along the way. It’s entirely subjective, but that’s my take.
What’s doubly frustrating about this: Carnivale is a darn good show. It’s creepy, and intriguing, and commendably well-acted. It has stunning production values, a thought-through mythology, and a firm sense of history as it relates to that mythology. It is, to employ a metaphor, one fine looking automobile. All it’s been missing is a gas pedal, and the willingness to step on it.
With that said, The Day That Was The Day is the sort of episode that makes Carnivale into a propulsive piece of entertainment – the sort of episode that proves there’s an engine under Carnivale’s hood, that revs said-engine and takes off for parts unknown like the proverbial bat outta hell. This is the speed that Carnivale should be traveling at. This is the kind of show I’d hoped Carnivale would be when I began watching. In the show’s first season finale, Things Fall Apart and there’s a good chance that The Center Will Not Hold. The rough beast of Carnivale is slouching toward Mintern, waiting to be born, and that sense of purposeful motion makes all the difference in the world.
But enough of my ponderous pontification. Lets tackle the episodes various and sundry revelations/advancements/developments, character by character.
Lodz: “How long have you known?”
Adios, Lodz. You’ve been a frustratingly vague presence in season 1 but a fascinating one nonetheless. I suspect that we’re not done with you – Samson’s told Ben that whatever happened in the Old Country involved Lodz, and we still don’t know what it was that happened there – but killing you off this way provides a genuine shock, and it raises a host of additional, troubling, questions about Management. Will Lodz be confined to flashbacks and visions next season? I sort of hope not. After all, this is a show where the lame may be healed and the dead may be raised. And besides, Lodz was easily the most intriguing carnival character for the vast majority of the season.
By the end of the episode Lodz has regained his sight. Can we infer that it was Management who initially took it from him? Or should we simply infer that Management used his/her power to heal in order to restore them?
Sofie: “You best be careful what you say to me, Momma. I’m not in a very forgiving mood today.”
I can honestly say I didn’t see that coming. Wounded by the perceived betrayals of Jonesy and Libby Sofie lashes out, humiliating Libby and once again pulling the football right out from under
Charlie Brown’s Jonesy’s bum leg. Then she heads home to an unexpected family-style barbeque, hosted by her possibly-insane, possibly-reluctantly-homicidal mother. We’ve established that Sofie is most likely the child of Justin Crowe, the apparent “creature of darkness” in the show’s struggle between (quasi) Good and (mostly) Evil. Are we watching Apollonia attempting to murder her daughter because of this? Apparently so. Early in the episiode, Apollonia seems to summon Lodz to her. He “reads” her and comes away protesting: “It can’t be her. This is madness!” And it might be, but it probably isn’t. The Sofie we watch over the course of this episode is cruel, and capable of inflicting real harm on the people around her. The way in which she plays both Jonesy and Libby, purporting to teach them a lesson of sorts but really intent on a form of revenge, makes it clear to me that her heart has a certain darkness in it that’s been tapped. If she survives the events of the finale – and I have no reason to doubt that she will, although I doubt Apollonia will be so lucky – then I expect to see her sporting some ebony eyeballs in the future.
Ben: “God takes what’s His. Man don’t take it back.”
Free will rears its head again in this episode (sort of, but not really) as Ben learns that in matters of resurrection, he must take another’s life in order to give new life to now-deceased Ruthie. This choice is pretty fascinating, and it seems to offer up some evidence of Ben’s free will, but in this instance that evidence is largely illusory. The choice Ben is presented with occurs as a result of his overall lack of choice. Ruthie was intentionally poisoned (seemingly with Management’s knowledge) in order to drive Ben to seek Lodz and Management’s help. He’s only in the position to make his “choice” because he’s been railroaded into position. This only serves to reaffirm my conviction that, despite intimations of Free Will, Ben and Justin and the rest of the lovable ol’ Carnivale gang are firmly strapped to the wheel of Fate. If “choice” exists in the world of Carnivale it’s the sort of choice given to rats in a maze. No matter which direction they choose, their actions are still hemmed in and predetermined by the walls built up around them.
On another note, I found Ben’s struggle with his conscience to be the most interesting plotline he’s been handed so far. Ben first seeks out someone who “won’t be missed,” but his essential decency prevents him from following through. When he enters the graveyard and decides to sacrifice himself it’s a genuinely shocking moment. It’s also pretty moving. Nice work by Nick Stahl (who, I’ve just learned, will be playing the role of Uncle Duncan in Locke & Key – a television pilot based upon a comic book that anyone who enjoys Carnivale should seriously check out. If it goes to series look for me to write about it). The graveyard scene also firmly confirms the notion of Ben (and Justin) as Avatar – something I’ve been picking and poking at since Babylon and Pick a Number:
The appearance of the word avatar and the suggestion that “in every generation exists a creature of light and a creature of darkness” suggests that what we’re watching may be a kind of monomyth – a root cause of/explanation for the world’s religions. Hinduism is generally considered one of the oldest organized religions in the world, and the concept of “avatars” originates with them. The concept of Hindu “avatars” involves the gods descending to earth and assuming human form – something we already suspect is the case on Carnivale thanks to Samson’s opening monologue (a creature of light and a creature of darkness, born to each generation, sounds a lot like “avatars” of Good and Evil). Note that this concept is similar to (but not the same as) the idea of Christ being both divine and human. Perhaps, in the world of Carnivale, the “avatars” of light and dark inspired the Hindu concept of avatar. Perhaps the existence of Hell and Heaven’s representatives on earth is meant to account for the stories of Vishnu and Christ and Mohammed and Buddha and on and on anon (Was Herod a “creature of Darkness”?).
That’s heretical, even blasphemous, but it also feels right. Ben is an avatar. Justin is an avatar. Just as Scudder is (was?) an avatar. This just makes sense.
Ben-related randomness to note:
1) Ben’s middle name is Krohn, German for Crane, which makes three different bird references thus far (HAWKins, CROWe, and Krohn). I look forward to meeting Eustace Owle and Alexandra Pigeon sometime down the line.
2) The gravestone that Ben kneels at during the episode has a Templar cross atop it. In this sign will he conquer?
3) Scudder’s appearance to Ben, and his healing of Ben’s wound, answers one question and raises another. It answers the question of whether Scudder is alive or merely a ghost/vision (he’s alive, or else he wouldn’t have been able to heal Ben – at least that’s my interpretation) and it raises the question of just how invulnerable these avatars are. Back at the beginning of the season, Lodz informs Ben and the audience that avatars are difficult to kill. So would Ben’s attempted taking of his own life have worked, even if Scudder hadn’t stepped in? Can avatars destroy themselves?
Norman: “”My greatest evil? Saving your life? Giving you refuge? Protecting and nurturing you?”
In an episode filled with great moments, the realization that Norman’s greatest sin was in saving Justin’s life is probably my favorite. It’s such a powerfully dark and hopeless place to go – a profoundly Fatalistic place implying as it does that Justin’s been a “demon” all along or, at the least, fated to succumb to darkness. Completely unrelated to the larger plot, but amusing and interesting to me, have been the comments by Justin and Iris regarding Norman’s “papist” silliness. Small touches like these – in which people of one faith look down their noses at the people of another faith with no awareness of irony or doubt in their own beliefs – add much to the feeling of Carnivale as a real world inhabited by real people with real prejudices. Its my hope that Season 2 will move faster, but will also continue to find the time for wry observations like this one.
And now for a quick digression…
We learn that In Justin’s vision from The River it was Norman who rescued them. Only, in The River, when Justin is seeing the encounter through Norman’s eyes, he gets his neck snapped by his telekinetic younger self.
Here’s where I float off to crazytown for a moment: are we meant to infer that Norman’s neck was snapped when he rescued Justin and Iris? Remember back to Justin’s chat with the psychiatrist. When Justin was asked whether he could snap the man’s neck with his mind, Justin responded: “how do you know I haven’t already?” with the implication being that he could do just that, and then more or less rewrite reality so that the man continues to live.
Brother Justin: “There is no demon in me. The demon IS me.”
As usual, Clancy Brown/Brother Justin steals the show out from under all the other characters. Brown plays each element of his character’s emotional journey, never allowing Crowe to slip into two-dimensionality. I believe Brother Justin has struggled with the “darkness” inside of himself for most of his life. I genuinely believed that Justin wanted Norman Balthus to kill him, even as I worried that this was some sort of Abrahamic test in which Norman might fail. What I enjoyed most about the moment was my uncertainty about it. Was Justin genuinely trying to destroy himself for a moment? Was he trying to get Norman to commit a mortal sin? Because if Justin isn’t traditionally possessed, and the demon is Justin himself, then why the season-long struggle with what he’s becoming? Why try to kill himself at all?
Then again, perhaps I’m looking at this in the wrong light – just because Justin “is” a demon doesn’t mean that he’d be aware of that fact, nor does it mean that upon becoming aware that he would immediately accept it. He might genuinely struggle with his heritage. This ambiguity is intriguing, but more than anything its just damned exciting to see that the prologue to Crowe’s story has officially ended, and the ramp-up to his assumed plans for Armageddon has begun.
Whether he’s sipping lemonade in eerie tandem with his incestuous sibling or pouring out fire and brimstone to his congregants, Brother Justin Crowe is the magnetic center of this show – a fact that (in this viewer’s opinion) has less to do with his role as “creature of darkness” (bad guys are always more fun to watch) than with the impressively-uncertain tenor of his overall journey. Brother Justin may be a wolf among the sheep of his flock, but he’s never less than sympathetic in his apparent struggles. That’s arguably not true of Ben Hawkins despite Nick Stahl’s solid performance in the role. Ben isn’t written as a particularly complicated character, nor as a particularly sympathetic one for most of the run of Season 1. He’s written as something of a cipher. This changes somewhat as the season goes on but discounting the mythology surrounding him, Ben is by far the least interesting character on this show as far as I’m concerned. Writing interesting protagonists is difficult under the best of circumstances, and while I’m genuinely appreciative of this, and of Knauf & Co’s decision to have Ben be surly, recalcitrant, and generally unwashed, I’m also slightly disappointed by how little I actually care about the character up until the moment he decides to take his own life. That’s the moment in which Hawkins became truly interesting to me, and it’s a shame that it’s taken 12 episodes to get him there.
Management: “You must choose the life you take. That is the way of our kind.”
If Scudder is the last generation’s creature of light/dark then presumably Management is the last generation’s creature of dark/light – and he/she is one coldhearted sonofabitch. Samson warns Ben about this, telling him that Management doesn’t think much of people, that he uses them like chess pieces. What kind of a person would restore a man’s sight only to orchestrate his murder minutes later?
The finale sets us up to feel as though Scudder is a creature of the light, with Management as creature of the dark. After all, Ben and Scudder both have the power to heal, Ben is Scudder’s descendant, and from what we’ve seen of Justin Crowe, well, he ain’t no creature of the light. Does this mean that Management is Justin’s father/mother? It certainly seems likely.
Other than learning that Management is/was an avatar, we don’t learn much else about the mysterious, Oz-like man/woman behind the curtain, but I hope that’ll change, and change soon, now that Ben and Management are communicating. It’s my hope that this’ll bring Samson firmly back into the fold as well, since that guy’s one of my favorite characters on the show. Although, given the spooky eagerness with which Management uses, then discards, his new buddy Lodz – well, here’s hoping Samson doesn’t get TOO close to Management again.
Justin: “The clock is ticking, brothers and sisters, counting down to Armageddon… The signs of the end times are all around us, etched in blood and fire by the left hand of god. You have but to open your eyes, brothers and sisters. The truth is that the Devil is here.”
The Day That Was The Day builds to a crescendo that is simultaneously harrowing and thrilling. A series of tumblers continue to clack into place – Fate rolling relentlessly forward and crushing or raising up the people in its path according to some unseen, unknown prerogative. Ben murders Lodz and enters Management’s sinister-seeming inner circle. Sofie is trapped by Apollonia aboard their burning bus and Jonesy’s gone in to save them, but hasn’t come out again. Brother Justin takes the next step toward the fulfillment of a larger plan and begins to preach a gospel of apocalypse through the radios of a new and sprawling congregation, his demon seemingly embraced, his rhetoric terrible and powerful (“For you shall be my scythe and your face shall shine like a thousand suns and the streets shall be sanctified by the steaming black blood of the heretics” That’s not Biblical scripture as far as I’m aware, but it’s a bloody good approximation of it). During his speech Justin speaks of the apocalypse being brought forth by “the left hand of God.” Recall that Justin refers to HIMSELF as the left hand of god earlier in the season. Notice as well that Justin’s speech indicts a host of people whom the current Evangelical church despises: the “intellectual elite” (in their Ivory tower colleges, presumably)It’s a massively spooky and unnerving ending to things, and it leaves me hungry to start season 2.
With that, the screen fades to black, lulling us into thinking that the episode has ended on this ominous note. But in the final lingering seconds we witness a resurrection, as Ruthie returns to life with a gasp.
Ben’s made his choice. Was it the right choice? Is Ben the son of a creature of light or a creature of darkness? And just how does Ruthie resurrect? Is Ben standing there, unseen? Or has his ability to give life to others expanded in the wake of his murderous act, allowing him to raise Ruthie from a distance? Guess we’ll have to wait and see…
Whether by design (it is the season finale, after all) by acquiescence to audience sentiment, or by HBO dictate you can feel Carnivale shifting itself in a new direction during the last two episodes of the season. By all accounts Season 2 is a modified beast – quicker, with sharper teeth – and the finale feels like the pupal stage of that evolution; the show’s burgeoning nastiness filling to the top of the cocoon and starting to bubble over as something vicious and unpleasant begins to wriggle free.
I’m genuinely excited to see what emerges.
The question is: Are YOU excited enough to want to continue on the journey? Do we keep truckin’ along with Carnivale? Or will you Cancel it all over again? Vote in the comments or on the message board!
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