The Road to Damascus & Damascus, NE (Carnivale, S2 eps. 6 & 7)

“As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything.”Acts 9:3-9

Sofie: “”If I met my father, I’d kill him dead.”

Carnivale’s second season, sixth episode title – The Road to Damascus – is a reference to the Biblical story of Saul of Tarsus, partially quoted above. Saul underwent a profound conversion experience on that road, going from an adversary of Christianity to a Christian himself. More colloquially, the phrase “a Road to Damascus moment” has come to be regarded as “a sudden turning point in a person’s life.”

Carnivale similarly reaches a sudden turning point in its abbreviated life during the course of these episodes, and just in time as far as I’m concerned. I continue to enjoy the show, but I continue to be dogged by the same impatience I felt during the second season of Twin Peaks. Carnivale all but lost the initial momentum it’d picked up in the first few episodes of this season and by the time The Road to Damascus ended I’d resigned myself to several more episodes-worth of the slow mosey the has all but perfected during its run. Imagine my surprise then, when Damascus, NE gave the show’s plot a swift, sharp kick in the keister. Stroud identifies Ben! Scudder, found! Sofie, set adrift! I think that the elements, as Dr. Watson said to Sherlock, are coming together, sir, to quote Corky St. Clair. By the end of the seventh episode there’s a sense that we’ve entered into the next phase of this story and the episode as a whole regains the energy and narrative drive that had begun leaking away once again.

It’s not just the show itself that reaches a turning point here – most of Carnivale’s main characters have their own individual “Road to Damascus” moments over the course of these two episodes. Let’s run through some of them.

The arrival of the Dailey Brothers carnival offers to provide the show with an infusion of new characters and new conflicts – something I’m very pleased about. This development gives Samson the chance to do something other than bark orders or hang around looking worried, and it sprinkles some intriguing unfamiliar faces among the all-too-familiar faces of the various Rousties and performers we’ve come to (sort of) know. The irritatingly two-dimensional character of Burley also pops up again during these episodes, and proves just as disposable and one-note as he’d seemed last week. I’m hoping that new faces like Samson’s former lover, Sabina, will help to deepen the show’s roster more and provide more variety to the B-plots we’re offered in each episode. It’s been a shame to see so many potential story kernals go untended.

Ruthie finds herself progressing from a seer of dead folks to a woman bodily possessed by the restless spirit of Lodz. Is her sudden, supernatural loss of sight meant to connect to the way in which Saul/Paul loses his sight after receiving a vision of Christ? What does it mean that Lodz has forced himself back into the Land of the Living via the medium of Ruthie’s body? I’m enjoying the way that Ruthie’s resurrection has backfired so severely, and I’m very interested to see whether the show goes anywhere substantive with the idea.

Supremely Creepy Lil’ Girl: “Every prophet in her house.”

There’s that phrase again – once again directed at Sofie. Something dark and terrible is on its way, and it has Sofie firmly in its sights. Will she be revealed as a fellow Prophet? Another Prince(ss)? Or something else entirely? Time will (possibly) tell, depending on where the show ends its second and final season. Conjecture aside, Sofie finally acts on the attraction between herself and Ben – something I’ve been waiting for since the beginning of the series. What does it mean that the sex she shares with Ben shatters the clouds and brings rain to the parched earth (the word Damascus, incidentally, has the following meaning in Aramaic: “a well-watered place.”)? By the end of The Road to Damascus Sofie makes her decision and leaves the carnival. Will Apollonia follow her? What sort of grimy, disreputable, likely-homicidal and/or deformed people will she be running into out there on the road? And just how much of The Church of The Air has Sofie been listening to? Will Sofie soon run into Justin Crowe? Once she discovers that he is her father will she live up to her own words and slay him? Magic Eightball says: “Signs point to boy, howdy! Will she ever!”

Ben finally finds Scudder; Management and Ben both learn the name of this generation’s creature of Darkness (but learn that it’s “Alexi,” which won’t be helpful at all until/unless they meet up with Iris) and, in order to protect his absentee Dad, Ben kills Management. Will Ben gain new power through this act of violence, the way that Justin is supposed to gain new power by killing Scudder, and find himself the proud owner of the same laundry-detergent-colored-blood that Management possessed, and that Justin covets?

One of the most viscerally exciting moments in Damascus, NE comes when Ben uses his power to heal Scudder’s self-inflicted acidface, and in the process not only kills the manager of the hotel where Scudder was staying, but comes close to killing Varlyn Stroud and a staggering number of innocent bystanders in the process. There’s something legitimately “mystical” about this scene – a feeling of watching something both frightening and miraculous. I admire that.

Justin uses his ooky-spooky mind powers to save Iris from the law by framing Tommy Dolan for the moral and legal crime of burning down the Dignity Ministry, and effectively renounces his own Methodist church by bucking the wishes of the church board and calling them out as Satan’s minions to his swiftly-swelling Church of the Air audience.

Justin: “You are here to listen to me – so that I am not alone in the garden.”

The garden that Justin refers to during his incendiary sermon is, assumedly, the garden of Gethsemane – the garden in which Jesus struggled alone with the terrible task that God had given him. It’s an interesting reference on a number of levels: for one, it clearly underlines Justin’s swiftly-growing Messianic fervor and his by-now-obvious status as an Antichrist figure. Justin consistently takes the words of Christ and the stories of Christ’s life and uses them for his own self-glorification (In a past episode Justin assured his listeners that there was no greater glory than a lamb laying down its life for The Shepherd – a complete reversal of Christ’s actual teaching, in which Christ asserted that there was no greater gift than a Shepherd who lays down his own life for the sheep. In this episode Justin proclaims that “Jesus had twelve at his side. I will have 12,000!”). Here, he somewhat inverts the story of Jesus’ time in the garden. In the Biblical accounting, Christ leaves his followers behind in the garden in order to pray in solitude and ask God to “take this cup from me”; to spare Jesus from the fated death ahead of him. Justin’s words instead call his disciples closer to him, and Justin seems to have no doubt about the cup he’s been given. Will these rapt followers serve to spread his gospel of selfishness and Dionysian abandon?

It’s a credit to the craft behind Damascus, NE that my desire to have these sorts of questions answered was refreshed and renewed by the end of the episode. I’m the sort of person who enjoys being strung along and kept in the dark when it comes to entertainment, but I’m not a total patsy. I need something other than continually-unanswered questions and a stalled central narrative to hold my interest on a week-to-week basis. Lost gave us a genuinely complicated and entertaining cast of characters, and juggled their interpersonal clashes and alliances with remarkable dexterity. Those relationships powered that show through some narrative rough spots and kept my attention when all we were getting from the larger story was “push the button! Don’t push the button!”

Carnivale hasn’t been as adept at keeping us focused by tending to its own sprawling cast. I’ve got no complaints about the quality of the acting in these episodes – there’s not a weak link in terms of talent, and each performer brings a realism and a set of quirks to their role that’s admirable and fun – but as I’d mentioned in the last column, the majority of the side stories and B-plots on this show suffer from one of two serious problems: (1) they aren’t nearly as interesting as the Ben/Justin narrative (see: Stumpy and Rita Sue’s still-continuing marital troubles) and/or (2) they get brought up then dropped completely (see: Jonsey’s back story, Sofie’s possible pregnancy and a small host of other examples).

Dream Tailor: “That’s how we dress a corpse. It’s a funeral suit.”

I’ll say this for Carnivale – no matter how frustrated I may get with its elliptical, molasses-paced mysteries I’m always excited for another one of their patented FreakyAss dream/vision sequences. All of them are terrifically imagined and satisfyingly creepy. This one’s no exception. The image of Iris, her face disfigured by one of Evander Geddes’ death masks, jamming a knife into Justin’s crotch is wonderfully disturbing. It’s the same knife, by the way, that Grandma Scudder gave to Ben and that Ben used to stab Justin in the chest during another of Justin’s ooky-spooky visions.

This vision also firmly reinforces Carnivale’s pathological fascination with mirrors both literal and figurative. Notice that in the vision Justin’s face is reflected back to him over and again and into infinity. Notice also that the dance Libby and Rita Sue practice together is known as a “mirror dance” – a dance in which both partners mirror the actions of the other. Throughout Carnivale, Ben and Justin’s lives have mirrored each other’s in this same mirror-dance way.

The question for me becomes, what’s the point of all this mirroring? Is it just a nifty narrative trick designed to make us aware of how similar-yet-different the two lead characters are? Is there deeper philosophical/psychological/theological/whathaveyouogical meaning behind it all? Lost’s consistent use of this “mirroring” trope had clear, definite purpose behind it. Carnivale’s purpose seems less defined overall.

Scudder: “I’m glad we had these hours, son.”

Argh. He’s glad? Why’s that? Near as I can tell, Scudder’s been avoiding his son from the get-go. He could have spent time with Ben at numerous points during the story so far, and yet each and every time Scudder has appeared to his son he’s up and vanished again just as quickly. Nonsensical sentiments aside, the idea of Scudder disfiguring his face in order to hide from Management is a gnarly, excellent one. Scudder looks as though he and Captain Amazing shared some serious time together under Casanova Frankenstein’s nefarious facemelting device. The fact of his disfigurement leaves me a little confuzzled on the timing however. Scudder needs to have just done this to himself fairly recently; otherwise he’d presumably have been disfigured previously when he appeared to Ben. Only, from the looks of it his face has had quite some time to heal over and now possesses the appearance of a candle half-melted in the sun.

As with the majority of these characters, Scudder can’t escape his fate; can’t elude the madness and the murder that seems to accompany his Avatar heritage. He’s a testament to the show’s intense surface-fatalism. Sure, he’s got enough free will to WANT to escape the avataric cycle of violence – but he’s essentially herded back toward a bloody outcome by forces both human and metaphysical. He has a choice, sure, but its more-or-less a useless choice, in that there’s no chance of him achieving what it is that he seems to want: peace and quiet. That inability to escape one’s fate is underlined by this dialogue exchange between Sofie and Ben:

Sofie: “You could come with me. I don’t care what you say; you don’t belong here, no more than I do.”
Ben: “It’s just my lot.”

That’s the way it seems to be in the universe of Carnivale. The people caught up in the struggle between Light and Dark have already had their fates decided for them, in that they can’t elect to escape from the struggle. To use a convenient and apt metaphor – they’ve got to play the hands of (Tarot) cards that they’ve been dealt. And they can’t walk away from the table.

Speaking of tables….


All screencaps courtesy of Magic-hours.

Follow that bird!