Welcome to Lost & Found, a column dedicated to the resurrection and reappraisal of cancelled television shows. Why on earth would you want to read about a bunch of programs that were knocked off the air before their time? Because shows like Twin Peaks, Firefly, and Deadwood collectively represent some of the best television ever offered up to us, and because shows like Max Headroom, Pushing Daisies, and Profit offer us a chance to watch bold, iconoclastic, sometimes just-plain-weird experiments in what the medium of television is capable of. Our entertainment shouldn’t consist solely of reality TV and police procedurals. Someone’s gotta push those boundaries and challenge us as viewers and, more often than not, attempting to do those things results in a show’s early demise.
So come along and let’s celebrate the under-watched and the overlooked, the misfits and the underdogs, the beloved and the unappreciated. All were cancelled, but they don’t have to be forgotten. This week: Carnivale continues!
For Those Who Came in Late:
It is 1934. The Great Depression has clasped its cold, dry hands around America’s neck. The country waits listlessly in the eye of the hurricane between the two Great Wars of the 20th century. Against this backdrop, Ben Hawkins and Brother Justin Crowe are learning their true natures and destinies as creatures of Light and Dark – avatars of God and satan, born into each generation.
Crowe and his po-faced sister, Iris, are children of the Methodist church. Crowe, a minister with a seemingly-caring heart, has taken up the plight of the nation’s poor and migrant population and has amassed a small army’s worth of followers via the newfangled medium of radio. Oh, and he happens to be a creature of Darkness. Beneath his Man of God facade lies swiftly-growing evil.
Ben Hawkins, the son the previous generation’s creature of Darkness Henry Scudder, is a fugitive from a chain gang and an accused murderer. He’s surly, and unkempt. Oh, and he happens to be a creature of Light. He has found refuge with a traveling carnival owned by the last generation’s creature of Light.
Both Justin and Ben are seeking Henry Scudder – creature of Darkness and father of Ben Hawkins. Should Justin find and kill him, he will become the Usher – a figure who will “usher in” the Apocalypse.
On with Le Show!
Ingram, TX (Carnivale S2, ep 3)
Justin: “You look as if you’re about to pray. Your mother taught you how to pray, didn’t she? Oh, my dear, dear Celeste. I will show you things; wonderful, terrible things.”
There’s a moment in this week’s episode of Carnivale that, in conjunction with this posting by Roger Ebert, made me actively angry. It’s not difficult to see the parallels between the Great Depression-era America of Carnivale and America’s current, real-life economic troubles. Just like our 1930’s counterparts we live in an era of financial strip-mining where a miniscule percentage of the population (1%) controls a massive portion of the country’s wealth (40%) due in large part to illegal and/or unethical practices.
Nor is it difficult to listen to the words of Tommy Dolan as he complains to Justin about the people who’ve shown up to hear him speak as “looking for a hot meal,” and hear in them the echoes of present men and women all too comfortable with the suffering of others; men like Ryan Hargrave, a commenter on Ebert’s article who opines: “Writings such as these also contribute to the unfortunate trend of scientific ideas being inappropriately warped into moral issues without regard for cost or consequences.”
F*ck you, Mr. Hargrave. I don’t know you and I don’t wish you physical harm, but you can take your blatant lack of hu-mon emo-shun and stick it where the sun don’t shine. If you can’t see a “moral issue” in the sort of societal shift we’ve experienced then you don’t have much business calling yourself human. Science without morality is like religion without moderation: a dangerous combination. And f*ck you too, Tommy Dolan. It takes a shallow, petty man to make me side emotionally with a fictional antichrist. Congratulations?
What does it say about Carnivale and about our own real world when the loudest voices protesting this inequity are, respectively, a demonized Preacher and a Tea Party consisting of folks who are funded by the very billionaires whose interests they should be united against? It says that in times of trouble, people are likely to turn to those who offer up explanations for their suffering – people who offer a way and a means of channeling all that burgeoning anger and sorrow into something Greater Than Themselves. This is a story as old as human history. All too often we surrender ourselves to monsters who promise to protect us – monsters like Justin Crowe.
It’s a neat trick that Daniel Knauf and his writers have pulled off here. They’ve shaped for us an embodiment of evil who, thus far, hasn’t been demonstrably evil. Justin’s evolution from socially-conscious, rabblerousing Man of God into a sinister vessel for the devil’s mischief has been so finely shaded that we’re still watching him hand out free meals and words of solace even as we hear his radio rhetoric growing progressively darker and watch as his personal life becomes ever-more twisted. I’m not sure what it is that Justin needs his many followers for, but I’m beginning to suspect it might involve “White/Christian Power” in the vein of Nazism. I have no real basis for this suspicion, other than the reverent way that Justin emphasizes the words ‘pure and white’ in his sermon on salt, the knowledge that the America of Carnivale is perched on the brink of the Second World War, and Crowe’s now-unmistakable resemblance to a real-life historical figure.
Father Coughlin: “When we get through with the Jews in America, they’ll think the treatment they received in Germany was nothing.”
Those are the words of Father Charles Coughlin, a Priest who lived through the Great Depression, and who became (in)famous for his radio-broadcasted sermons. Those sermons, like the sermons of Brother Justin Crowe, urged compassion toward the migrant population – the farmers and workers who found themselves destitute and cast adrift in the nation’s stagnant economic and agricultural climate. Coughlin amassed what has been estimated to be “millions” of followers through his radio addresses, just as Crowe appears to be doing now.
But Coughlin, as nobly-intentioned as his initial sermons seem to have been, became possessed of a troublingly-darkening outlook as the years went on. His sermons shifted away from day-to-day life and religion and toward politics. His rhetoric became baldly anti-Semitic. He advocated for America to stay out of World War II, openly questioning why the plight of “600,000 Jews in Germany who are neither American, nor French, nor English citizens” should be America’s problem and blaming the First World War on the hoariest of bigoted clichés: international Jewish bankers.
Father Coughlin, like Brother Justin Crowe, was a man possessed by conflicting impulses, a man who began his radio ministry with seemingly-benign intentions, only to fall prey to a moral darkness. The similarities are so striking that if they were a snake they would’ve bit me. Apparently those similarities are absolutely intentional. Coughlin’s Wikipedia page indicates that Coughlin helped to inspire the character of Justin Crowe. I’d love to know more about this and about the extent to which Coughlin inspired them, but I’m afraid of spoiling the rest of Carnivale for myself so I’ll stick to historical sites for the time being and continue staying away from Carnivale-related material. That being said, I think this “Yahoo Answers” question is hilarious: “Is Glenn Beck a modern Father Charles Coughlin or the “Carnivale” Brother Justin Crowe?” (Short answer: “Yes” with an “if.” Long answer: “No” with a “but.”)
Its little revelations like this one that makes Carnivale truly interesting to me as a viewer. Knowing that Knauf & Co. are riffing on real-life historical figures like Coughlin and Wilfred Talbot Smith gives me added confidence that the show knows what its doing and why its doing what its doing. More than that, this kind of care and attention to detail marks shows like Carnivale as worthy of in-depth analysis and commentary. Past comments have indicated that some folks care less about whether Carnivale is riffing on Tolstoy (which it has – click here to find out how) than about the various plot holes or screw-ups that you can find throughout the show. Frankly, I can’t think of anything less interesting than cataloguing a show’s faults. I’m a much bigger fan of finding the ways in which a television show transcends itself as a purveyor of Soap and gains real narrative depth. Linking your allegorical tale of metaphysical conflict with the events and figures of actual history is one way to go about doing just that.
Another example of Carnivale’s potential narrative depth? Way back in the first column for this show I talked about Apollonia’s name, and it’s possible significance. If you’re a kook like me, you could opt to see Justin’s increasingly sexualized darkness as an expression of Dionysus, the Apollonian ideal’s opposite. There’s again a kind of savage delight in the way that Justin easily manipulates his maid into “serving” him, and it speaks to the ways in which Justin seems to be able to loosen the inhibitions of those around him – a very Dionysian trait.
One of Carnivale‘s strengths is that its mythology defies easy categorization. Maybe this kind of subtext is intentional, or maybe a cigar’s just a cigar. What’s important, I think, is that this nebulousness feels intentional – like Knauf et al are actively inviting us all to fill in these blanks. Lost was another show that did this to great effect, but that approach can be really frustrating to some. I’ll forgive a lot of free-floating, abstract oddness if I feel like there’s a defined purpose behind it all. Lost practically radiated an existentially-grounded philosophy of spiritual realism; a call for communal union in a fractured, fallen world. Carnivale‘s message thus far has been much more muddled, yet I can’t help feeling as though Knauf and his compatriots have a similarly-overarching philosophy in mind, albeit one that feels far darker.
So what goes down during Ingram TX? Well, Ben heads out to find “the crone” (or, as I’d suggested last week, “the Krohn”) and ends up tied, beaten and buried alive for his troubles. Justin continues to build his burgeoning flock, and moves Norman Balthus into a new house to live with Justin and Iris so that Norman can watch as Justin has graphic oral sex with The Help. Sofie spends some time moping about and trying to figure out what she’s going to do with herself now that Apollonia is dead and discovers that her apparently-predestined fate isn’t going to be easy to shake. And Ruthie learns that coming back from the dead has its problems. Let’s talk some about all of this.
Rita Sue douches with Moxie. I find this disturbing. But I love that the show goes into this sort of detail about the historical and cultural details of its chosen time period. Moxie was one of the first mass-produced soft drinks in American history. You’ve maybe heard the phrase “You’ve got moxie, kid” in old films and classic Warner Brothers cartoons. That phrase comes from the drink, which originated as a “pep tonic” designed to combat “”paralysis, softening of the brain, nervousness, and insomnia.” Moxie’s appearance in this episode also gives me another opportunity to talk about all the mirroring that’s going on in this show. Carnivale continues to have its main characters mirror each other in weird/interesting ways. Notice that, on the carnival side of the mirror, Rita Sue uses Moxie to….err…clean her lady parts and that, on the other side of the mirror Moxie is being advertised during one of Justin’s radio broadcasts. On one side of the mirror we see that Justin has spent time doodling disembodied eyes (and also ladyparts, which perversely mirrors the ladyparts that Rita Sue is cleaning); on the other we watch as Ben comes across a piece of paper with disembodied eyes drawn on it. Another way to look at this habit of “mirroring” the characters is to view them as “shadows” of one another. Shadows are reflections, in a sense, and this episode underlines that connection several times over.
We talked last week about the way Apollonia’s shadow was following Sofie around, and that one of the names of The Usher is apparently “Khaybet,” an Egyptian term that roughly translates to “shadow,” and equates to what we might consider the soul. This week we get Varlyn Stroud, dark apostle of Justin Crowe, singing “Me and my Shadow” as he continues tracking down Ben Hawkins. The camera then cuts to Brother Justin, also singing “Me and My Shadow.” Lodz as a ghost is essentially a shadow, and his literal shadow shows up several times. You can view Varlyn as Justin’s shadow, or Justin as Ben’s shadow, or note that Varlyn is essentially “shadowing” Ben in the colloquial sense of the word.
Lodz’s appearances in this episode succeeded in giving me the creeps. Last week we learned Ruthie is either going crazy or starting to see possible ghosts of the dead. Lodz’s appearances to her suggest it’s the latter. I’m assuming that Ruthie’s Spookavision is a result of having been resurrected by Ben, but I have no idea if it will tie into the plot in any real way. It’s starting to seem as though Ruthie’s resurrection has upset the natural order of things. First she sees the spirits of the dead, and now her own snakes have started to turn against her. Is this evidence of fate “Course-correcting” in a similar way to how Lost showed us fate “course-correcting” to kill Charlie Pace? Is Ruthie now the sort of “abomination” that Management referred to last week?
And speaking of Fate, poor Sofie appears to be a prisoner of her own predestined future. She has Ben burn her Tarot cards, but they’ve returned to her, whole and unharmed, by the episode’s end. Again I’m struck by how Fatalistic this show feels. I’ve heard that Knauf has insisted on the role of free will in Carnivale, but aside from Scudder trying to “elude his destiny” there’s really no evidence of that whatsoever, at least not thus far.
Ben: “Don’t do that no more.”
Ben doesn’t get to do a whole lot in this episode, outside of chit-chattin’ with Sofie and yet again roaming around a-lookin’ for his pappy. This will come as no surprise to anyone who’s seen an episode of this show before. But that said, Ben still feels more proactive here than he did throughout much of the first season, and his best moment in the episode comes when he encounters a crooked man (literally and figuratively) and his mentally-challenged young daughter. Carnivale never shies away from real, human horror, and real horror is what we get a look at here. There are no supernatural shenanigans, just human desperation and depravity – at least, there aren’t any shenanigans until Ben lays his hands on this man. With that, Hawkins appears to perform another of his “spiritual healing” tricks. I believe the crooked man when he tells Ben that he won’t ever do it again. He looks changed from the outside-in. Both Ben and Justin have the ability to confront a person with their sins, but where Justin’s ability seems to make men cower and submit to him (Norman excluded) Ben’s ability seems to help them.
Apropos of nothing in particular: I’m not sure that you can pull of this exchange without sounding terminally-goofy:
Ben: “Sometimes I wonder if all this ain’t a dream.”
Sofie: “If it is I’d like to wake up.”
Anyone notice the recurring motif of six-pointed stars and wheels in this episode? I’ve been meaning to point out that the carnival’s Ferris Wheel resembles a Star of David when its lit at night, and Ingram TX gives me the perfect opportunity to bring it up, since the darn thing pops up in two different forms here, and wheels in general feature prominently. When and if these symbols pop up again I’ll talk a little more about their possible significance.
Filthy Hillbilly: “She been waitin’ for you.”
Is this the “crone” that Father Kerrigan was speaking of? Judging from the way that the Hatfield Hillbilly Brigade reacted when they saw Scudder’s Templar crest the woman’s likely also a Krohn – a relative of Hawkins, whose middle name is Krohn. We can assume that this “she” is related to Henry Scudder, and we can hope that she’ll be able to shed a little more light on Ben’s father and his back story.
Justin: “The sheep are nothing without the shepherd but prey to the beasts of the night. When the sheep gives its life for the shepherd’s table, there is no greater honor.”
Ingram TX ends with the sight of Sofie dozing as a radio clicks on and the sound of Justin Crowe’s “Church of the Air” fills her room. Will Sofie find herself drawn to Justin as others who’ve heard his sermons have also been drawn? Will she discover that Crowe is her tree-tattoo-sporting babydaddy? I’m convinced that the answer is yes.
“I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd layeth down his life for the sheep.” – John 10:11
Justin’s final words in Ingram TX invert Christ’s words above, perverting the notion of Christian sacrifice and cementing Crowe as silver-tongued antichrist. I can’t over-praise Clancy Brown’s work here, and I admire the writing very much. Brown conveys a mixture of menace and avuncular sincerity with his voice that’s genuinely unsettling, and the writing evokes the sound of Biblical Scripture while smartly twisting the meaning so as to mirror Christ’s actual words. Appropriately enough for an episode focused on shadows and mirror images Ingram TX ends by giving us the shadow, or mirror-image, of the Gospel according to John. In the Gospel according to Crowe, the sheep are meant for slaughter.
The time has come, the Walrus said, to exercise your vote. Cast it below, or on Chud’s strikingly-handsome Message Boards. Will we continue watching Carnivale? Or will we switch things up and start a new show? The choice, as always, is yours: