Los Moscos (Carnivale, S2 ep. 1)
“O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” – Luke 3:7
Management: “Then run, coward. Run as your father did before you.”
Welcome back to Lost & Found, where we’re just beginning Season 2 of HBO’s Carnivale. If you’d like to catch up with All That’s Come Before, you can click on this link. Today’s episode is pretty much jam-packed with stuff-I’d-like-to-talk-about, and I’m certain I’ll pass over aspects that you find interesting. Why not tell me about them in the comments section? You can also elect to follow me on Twitter, where my every boring-@$$ thought is broadcast through the ether and into your receptive brains to prepare you for eventual, inevitable conquest.
…But I’ve said too much.
There isn’t a wasted moment in Los Moscos, the excellent first episode of Carnivale’s second season. Every character beat feels meaningful to the larger story being told. Every story beat feels firmly purposeful in the same sense. Taken as a whole, this is an exciting installment of television, one that wrestles with some big ideas and advances its plot in ways big and small, and which excites the imagination and fires up my curiosity. After this episode first aired, many fans of the show expressed disappointment at the “info dump” that the audience receives here, and at the way the show seemed to be “dumbing itself down,” but I’m honestly pretty baffled by that response. There’s nothing “dumb” about Los Moscos. It’s simply a more direct hour of television, managing a potent mix of the atmospheric power Carnivale wielded so well in season one, along with a newfound sense of driving purpose.
The second season begins as the first did. Samson addresses the camera and offers us another bite of the show’s mythology explaining that in the wake of the First World War “the dark one” fled to America, hoping to live as a mortal and “elude his destiny.” This, one assumes based on the rest of the story told here, is Henry Scudder – now seemingly confirmed to be the last generation’s creature of Darkness. Which is interesting since Samson’s monologue also makes it (sorta) clear that Ben is this generation’s creature of Light, indicating that these respective avatars produce their opposite number when they have children. Also interesting: Scudder’s “mere presence” caused a cancer of the land itself, which may very well explain (in Carnivale’s world at least) the origins of the Dust Bowl that Ben Hawkins was living in when the series began. This opening monologue also lets us in on something that’ll be elaborated on (sorta) a little later in the episode – the creatures of Light are referred to as Prophets (recall the show’s most infamously ambiguous line, “Every prophet in his/her house”).
Carnivale then takes us back to the events that ended season one – Apollonia and Sofie trapped in a burning bus with Jonesy having gone in to save them, Ben’s strangling of the treacherous, newly-gimlet-eyed Lodz, Justin Crowe’s “countdown to Armageddon” speech still underway. And once we’ve gotten our bearings again the show takes off running and doesn’t stop ‘til the credits hit. It’s a shocking shift in the show, to go from bare hints to full-blown answers in the space of a single episode, but for me it worked like gangbusters. Los Moscos succeeds in reestablishing the atmosphere that so enriched the first season, and in upping the stakes and the tension simply by revealing to us a portion of just WTF might be going on here. So, WTF is going on here?
For one, Ben’s got a bomb to diffuse.
If we’re to believe Management, who passes a vision to Ben when he grabs Hawkins with his (freaky, raw hamburger-y) hand, Ben is destined to clash against the full force of human history in what’s almost certainly a fool’s errand. Ben’s vision and revealed mission – to stop the detonation of/creation of/use of the first atomic bomb (its unclear) – serves as what might be the show’s confirmation of its own Fatalism. After all, in the “real” world the first atomic test in Trinity, New Mexico was successful. You and I, denizens of the future that we are, have that knowledge firmly in our heads. According to established history, Ben is destined to fail. That’s a pretty interesting position for Carnivale to put itself in, and it suggests two interesting options for the show’s (sadly non-existent) future: (1) illustrate Ben’s struggle to prevent the Trinity detonation only to have him end in failure (depressing!), (2) explore an alternate history wherein Ben succeeds, altering future events so that the history of Carnivale’s world splits from our “real” history, continuing the “age of magic” indefinitely or ending that age through some other means.
Either way, it’s an iconic idea. Stop the atom bomb, and preserve the age of magic. The effects work in showing the bomb’s detonation is spectacular, and the whole thing has the quality and class of a motion picture.
Justin Crowe: “Ye offspring of serpents, who ordered you to flee from the wrath to come?”
But Ben’s not going to be unopposed in his appointed task. Justin Crowe appears in Hawkins’ vision as well, and his words indicate that he’ll be advocating for the bomb’s use. Justin’s words here originate from the Book of Luke, one of the synoptic Gospels detailing the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It’s fitting that it should arise in the same episode wherein we’ll discover another non-canonical Gospel with direct ties to the show’s mythology.
It also seems entirely appropriate that a show so interested in Biblical allusions/references/homages/whathaveyous would choose as its “defining” event the first successful atomic test in Trinity, New Mexico. One important aspect of the Christian Trinity is the notion of “God as man.” This concept is very similar to the idea of avatars, men (and presumably women) who embody “darkness” and “light,” “God” and “satan.” If you want to really fall down the rabbit hole after this show, you could note that passages from the Bible like “”all things have been handed over to me by my Father” could, in the world of Carnivale, be a reference to the idea of avatars passing their power to their children. All of Ben’s powers have, after all, been “handed over to him” by his actual father.
Lucius Belyakov: “He is to me what the preacher is to you: an enemy.”
Management’s Machiavellian machinations gain some much-appreciated context with the revelation of his true identity: the Russian soldier we’ve witnessed in Ben’s flashbacks, a man named Lucius Belyakov. Belyakov’s Russian heritage further shores up the idea that he’s Iris and Justin’s father. Presumably, any babymaking occurred prior to being ripped apart by a bear though on Carnivale you should never dismiss a really disturbing idea – it’ll most likely end up being valid. And is that why Management hides himself? Because he’s been hideously disfigured via bear attack? Magic 8-ball says: “Signs point to hell, yes.”
Management’s actions, which had been painted as the moves of a chessmaster without concern for his pawns, suddenly seem a lot more understandable if still the actiosn of a coldhearted sonofabitch. Belyakov believes that he is preparing Ben for a confrontation that will literally decide the fate of the world entire. What’s one traitorous, milky-eyed old man worth against that threat? But with that said, Ben shouldn’t be trusting Belyakov much further than he can throw him (granted, given Management’s condition, Ben might be able to chuck that f*cker pretty far). After Ben leaves the trailer in a huff, Belyakov tells Samson to keep Ben away from him because “he tempts me.”
Creeeeeeeeeeeeeeeepy. Tempts him in what way? Just what does that mean? I’m hoping we’ll find out, as well as why the trailer begins to shake when Belyakov and Ben quarrel.
Justin: “This will be my new Canaan. Here I will build a temple.”
While Ben’s trying to wrap his grubby arms around the idea that he’s some sort of chosen one, Justin’s getting busy getting the Word out and envisioning totally creepy temples constructed, in part, of radio towers. Despite Justin sliding further and further into the Darkness, he continues to act like, and receive visions like, a man of God. That’s an interesting (both visually and philosophically) notion. Just as Ben has a vision of the future at the beginning of the episode, so does Justin here. He sees the gnarled shape of the tree the tattooed man wears on his torso. He glimpses a church/temple that he will build. And then he confronts the tattooed man and learns his “name.”
Justin: “He is the Usher.”
And with that, another piece of the puzzle gains definition. The mysterious tattooed man is “the Usher.” And according to Wilfred Talbot Smith, weasely-looking religious cultist/scholar, Justin can become this figure by killing Henry Scudder. Justin must kill the Prophet (Scudder) in order to become him. And by becoming the Prophet, he becomes the usher, assumedly the usher of Armageddon. When that occurs Justin will no longer be human – he’ll possess “divine blood” that looks a lot like fabric softener and he’ll presumably be even more difficult to kill.
Wilfred Talbot Smith: “By the hand of the prince the prophet dies. Upon his death the prince shall rise.”
Wilfred T. Smith was an actual, historical, person – an occultist who followed the teachings of Aleister Crowley (Among other topics, Crowley wrote on the subject of “Baphomet,” something that I’ll bring up just a little further down in the column) and who helped to establish a “mystical” society in America known as the O.T.O, an order linked to the Rosicrucians (who are, in turn, linked historically to the Knights Templar). I’m not sure whether the Smith who shows his (weasel) face here is meant to be the historical Smith – although given his predilections I wouldn’t be at all surprised – but either way it’s a nifty allusion and a hint that while the show continues to mine Biblical symbolism it will also be delving into much more…esoteric waters.
I am an all-day sucker for this stuff – secret religions and hidden prophecies, all that glorious hokum – and so Wilfred Talbot Smith is more or less tailor-made to make me smile. His inclusion promises to help us understand more of what’s happening on this show and if this episode is any indication that doesn’t mean that things will be over-explained. We get just enough here to set up a definitive goal for both Justin and Ben – kill/find Scudder to end/save the world – without sacrificing anything in the way of general spookiness. We also get a brief introduction to what may be a kind of Rosetta Stone to Carnivale’s mythology – the Gospel of Matthias.
“And they appointed two, Joseph called Barsabas, who was surnamed Justus, and Matthias. And they prayed, and said, “Thou, Lord, which knowest the hearts of all men, shew whether of these two thou hast chosen, That he may take part of this ministry and apostleship, from which Judas by transgression fell, that he might go to his own place.”
And they gave forth their lots; and the lot fell upon Matthias; and he was numbered with the eleven apostles.” – Acts 1:23-26
The Apostle Matthias, chosen to replace Judas, immediately vanishes from the text of the New Testament. He is never mentioned again. Historians and Theologians have confirmed the existence of a “Gospel of Matthias” at some point in the past, but the Gospel itself has not been re-discovered in the present day. In effect, it is a “lost” Gospel.
“The earliest author to mention a Gospel of Matthias is Origen (hom. I. in Lc.), whose information is repeated by Ambrose and Jerome. Eusebius (Hist. Eccl. 3.25.6) mentions it together with gospels of Thomas and Peter. He describes them as works which were composed by heretics, but which nonetheless were known to most writers in the early Church. The Gospel of Matthias is also named in lists of heretical works: the Decretum Gelasianum, the Catalogue of the Sixty Canonical Books, and a list in the Samaritan Chronicle No. II of false books allegedly used by Nazarene Christians.” – John B. Daniels, the Anchor Bible Dictionary (v.4)
Carnivale’s Gospel of Matthias contains a reference to the Book of Revelation – specifically Revelation 12:7-12, a section of the Bible that contains the tale of satan’s fall from heaven: “Then war broke out in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.” This is probably meant to be a recounting of the war that Samson spoke of in the very first episode of the show and that interpretation makes sense, given that the rest of the Gospel of Matthias that we’re able to see onscreen talks extensively about avatars. The idea that the lost Gospel of Matthias contains the lore of the Avatars is a nifty one. It further suggests that in the world of Carnivale, either Christ or one of his apostles were avatars.
Why else might Matthias be important to Carnivale’s narrative? According to some accounts, Matthias was beheaded. In the records of the trial of the Knights Templar they are accused of “worshipping” a “pagan idol” named as Baphomet. In at least one accounting, this idol comes in the form of…wait for it…a severed head.
A stone engraving thought to relate to the Templars and to Baphomet is reproduced here below. Notice anything interesting? Like, say, the Sun and Moon symbols?
Why do those symbols look so familiar?…
Justin Crowe: “Stroud. You will be my apostle.”
I adore the concept of Crowe’s radio sermon not only boosting the station’s power levels so that Justin’s message stretches out to reach an assumedly vast swath of people, but also containing a hidden message for the man named as Stroud, a man who seems to be doing some hard time. I adore the idea of Justin gathering “dark apostles” to him like some kind of…well…Antichrist. Throughout the episode he’s surrounded himself in followers – from the people opening his mail to count the donations, to Tommy Dolan and his radio show, to his congregation both in the pews and over the air, to this new figure. And yet his closest companion and follower – his own sister – is suddenly and definitively betrayed by him here. There’s little doubt that Justin is setting Iris up to take the entirety of the fall for her actions in setting fire to the migrant ministry, and her apparent knowledge of this should make for some really, really good television in the near future.
Also in the “should make for great TV” department, but without enough meat to give it separate attention here: Norman Balthus has suffered a stroke in the wake of his attempted homicide. He’s immobile and unable to speak, which makes Justin’s visit with him into a surprisingly tense, terrifically uncertain affair made all the more so by the seemingly-sincere regret in Justin’s voice. I almost believe Justin when he says that “it never should have come to this.” Almost.
And, hey, one near-comatose character exits the stage (Adios, Apollonia!) only to be replaced by another (hello, Norman!).
Justin: “Who are you?”
Yeah, that was a pretty outstanding ending.
Like Lost, Carnivale is very, very fond of a technique that I’ve called “mirroring.” Mirroring means exactly what you’d think it means: the intentional creation of images, dialogue, characters or themes that act as reflections of other images/dialogue/characters/themes. On Carnivale Ben and Justin’s characters have been mirroring each other pretty much from the get-go.
Ben and Justin operate as intentional reflections of one another, as literally illustrated by the end of this episode. They’ve operated in this sense from the beginning (see: the two “services” they conduct in blank episode as example) and in the finale we watched as both men tried to commit suicide, then found a new and stronger connection to their respective powers as a result. In Los Moscos that pattern continues as both characters acquire possibly-unhinged mentors who teach them more about their heritage and abilities (for Ben its Belyakov, for Justin its Wilfred Smith).
This mirroring becomes literal as Justin peers into his bedroom mirror and sees himself become Ben through a grisly bout of skin shedding (my labored cocoon metaphor in this last column doesn’t seem so labored after this). Justin sees Ben reflected in the mirror and so the characters reflect literally and figuratively.
Ben and Justin’s reflectiveness functions as a way of showing us two men making differing decisions along their respective, mirrored paths – paths that seem to be studded with similar moments and events. As they continue to walk those paths I suspect they’ll find that they begin to merge, until they are all but forced into confrontation with one another. If the rest of season 2 is half as good as Los Moscos, I’m going to be champing at the bit to see that confrontation, and to share in it with all of you.
Thanks, as always, for reading and for your comments. Come on back next Friday as I tackle the next episode (or two). Leave your thoughts, comments, criticisms, and recipes for strudel in the comments below, or on Chud’s continually-venerable message boards. Have a great weekend. Be good to one another.
All screencaps courtesy of Magic-hours.