Outskirts, Damascus, NE (Carnivale S2, ep. 8)

“Is this a dagger which I see before me, the handle toward my hand?”
Management: “Accept your fate”

Hola, everyone. Welcome to another scintillating installment of Lost & Found, where we revive the cancelled television shows of years past and view them anew. For the past few months we’ve been watching HBO’s Carnivale. If you’d like to catch up with us you can click on my name above to reach an archive of the columns.

This week’s episode – Outskirts, Damascus, NE – is a good’un, with much appreciated chunks of plot and character development and a fine streak of spookiness that runs the length of the episode. It’s here that the endgame between Ben and Brother Justin is seemingly outlined and while that endgame is somewhat disappointingly simplistic as presented it’s also both appropriately mythic and likely to be stranger and more twisted/unexpected than I’m expecting it to be.

Management: “Behold the Usher – a dark heart dwells where branches meet. Anointed dagger, plunge thee deep.”

That’s it!

…That’s it? The past few episodes have made it increasingly clear that Ben is going to use the WWI-era knife he received from Granny No-Eyes to do a little stabbin’ in Brother Justin Crowe’s general direction. This episode makes that growing certainty into concrete reality, as Management gives Ben a vision instructing him to plunge his anointed dagger into Justin’s increasingly-dark heart. Considering how enigmatic and convoluted Carnivale’s mythology seems throughout the show this method of dispatching Ben’s adversary could seem a little mundane, but I sort of like it. I like that Carnivale’s obsession with generations and with mystical bloodlines has been incorporated here. The power of the avatars – of each generation’s “creature of Light” and “creature of Darkness” – is passed from father to son, and it makes solid thematic sense that their bloodline would also offer up the means to destroy each other. As it’s presented to us, Ben’ll be using the blood of Justin’s own father to destroy him just as Justin is seeking to use the blood of Ben’s father in order to fully come into his own dark powers. Besides, how neat was it to watch as Ben’s knife slowly absorded Lucius’s blue blood? And do you find it as nifty as I do that this blue blood is essentially symbolic of the “Blue Blood” of medieval royalty?

By killing Justin’s father, the man who held the title of the last generation’s “Creature of Light,” Ben appears to come fully into his own Jesus-y abilities, and watching Nick Stahl convey Ben’s sudden “enlightenment” was perhaps the most enjoyable part of this episode for me. Ben Hawkins hasn’t had a whole lot to DO during Carnivale’s runtime. Over the course of almost 20 episodes we’ve watched him wander, grubby and cranky and a little slow on the uptake, through visions and dreams, meeting a coterie of gruesome grotesques and generally just sorta reacting to it all. Sure, the guy had a tendency to get hot under the collar and yell at people for bothering him, but overall Hawkins has been one of the most passive lead characters I’ve ever seen (keep in mind that unlike many of my illustrious internet brethren I’ve not watched a ton of television – can you name some lead TV characters who are just as/more passive than Ben’s been thus far?). Stahl shifts into another gear during Outskirts, Damascus, NE, and it ramped up my enjoyment of the character considerably.

Ben goes from reluctant observer to awakening savior over the course of this episode, and that transformation is downright thrilling to me. Suddenly this sullen, withdrawn guy is acting all proactive. This is more shocking than a guy who makes infant death masks in his spare time.

Toward the end of the episode, one of the Ferris Wheel’s carriages comes crashing to the ground just as Varlyn Stroud had suggested it might (did Stroud sabotage the Wheel while he was hanging around the carnival? Seems likely to me, especially given the pointed speech he gave Jonesy about just that very idea), Ben’s face shows no sign of the wounded, self-protective simpleton he’s sometimes seemed to be. In his place is a young man of quiet, righteous determination and compassion. A man who doesn’t hesitate upon hearing a mother’s dying prayer to “take me, not my son.” Ben gives the dying woman her last wish, and that moment gave me a nice shiver of joy. Terrible things happen all the time in the Depression-ravaged world of this show, but that doesn’t mean that people must turn themselves terrible in order to deal with the chaos. There’s another way, another choice – a more rewarding choice – and Ben finally, whole-heartedly embraces it here.

Ben: “He had to die. And he had to make sure I was the one to kill him.”

I’m still not entirely clear on the “why” of all this – why will Lucius’s blood kill his own son? Isn’t that same blood running through Justin’s veins? And is there any significance to the dagger that Ben uses? Did he need that specific dagger to anoint? Or would any dagger have done the trick?

These questions don’t really matter when it comes to stories that deal in myth and magic, but they’re still interesting questions (to me at any rate – you’re probably already rolling your eyes). I’m looking forward to finally checking out Carnivale creator Daniel Knauf’s “show bible” once I’m done watching the last episode and discovering a little more about his intentions regarding the mythology and the history of the show. I’m a firm believer that a viewer should only need to watch the show itself in order to enjoy it. You shouldn’t have to consult outside sources just to understand and enjoy an hour of entertainment, but for a show like Carnivale which was cancelled before completion, and which heavily relies on a hidden, secret history/mythology that we’re only getting peeks of in the show itself, I’m more than willing to dive into the supplementary stuff to see what Knauf’s plans were, and what his overarching mythos boils down to. Look for me to post a post-finale L&F column on all of that stuff once I’ve worked through the last episode.

One question that has continued to matter to me throughout the show is the question of whether “Fate” is an irresistible force in the world of Carnivale. Outskirts, Damascus, NE further cements for me that Ben, Justin and co. are strapped to God’s cosmic Ferris Wheel, forced to ride around until God, the devil or Bob Fate itself decrees that they may depart. Authorial intent aside, there’s no denying the strong streak of Fatalism running through the heart of the show, lending all of these strange happenings a kind of tragic inevitability. “Accept your fate” is both a benediction and a curse, and I enjoy that ambivalence.

I also enjoy the consistently evocative way in which this show handles its supernatural shenanigans. Most of the time its very understated stuff – no elaborate CGI, no energy bolts shooting out of people’s hands, no flashy tricks. As a result, much of the magic on Carnivale actually feels magical. A perfect example of this: Ben’s swiftly-growing abilities apparently give him a kind of inner compass that he can use to track down Varlyn Stroud. When Ben faces west – in the direction that Stroud has headed with Scudder – he hears a howling wind and the buzzing of flies. When he turns away those sounds fade. It’s a simple effect using nothing but the camera angle and some choice sound effects, and it works like gangbusters.

Maybe my favorite example of this restraint involves the Baggage Trailer – a place we’ve not seen since waaaaaaaaaay back at the beginning of Season 1. Near the end of the episode Samson discovers it for what might be the first time (its not clear) and makes his way inside to sit there a moment with the only thing that remains of Management following his death – a sheet which has taken on a stain that resembles the legendary Shroud of Turin, popularly speculated to be Christ’s burial shroud. I’ve talked before about the possibility that, in the world of Carnivale, Christ might have been an avatar like Ben. This suspicion gets another boost of credibility by the association between Management dying, then disappearing (just as Christ died, then rose three days later according to the Bible – and note that Ben tells Samson that Management has “ascended” when Samson discovers that Lucius’ body is missing). I still don’t know what the point of the Baggage Trailer is, or why its only visible for one episode per season, but I like the way that its deployed in this episode especially – as a private place where Samson can grieve for a moment and say goodbye to his friend.

Wilfred T. Smith: “Your enemy has received his boon.”

Meanwhile, in New Canaan, California, Justin Crowe continues to expand his malevolent influence under the auspices of the church. Justin continues to embrace his role as the show’s antichrist – arranging to “forgive” his enemies by inviting councilman Val templeton – who’d previously tried to run Justin’s Dignity Ministry out of town – to his home in order to convince Templeton to run for election against a “socialist degenerate” (again, the influence of Father Coughlin lays pretty heavily over Justin’s character in terms of comments like these). And in order to drum up votes for Templeton, Justin offers to host a “Sermon on the Mount for a new America.” For those of you who don’t know, The Sermon on the Mount was the speech delivered by Jesus Christ in which he reassured the people that “blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth,” that “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.” The Sermon on the Mount is the place in the Bible where Jesus emphasizes that his followers must “turn the other cheek,” a sentiment that Justin would likely laugh at. The notion of the meek inheriting the earth would be similarly hilarious to the “new and improved” Brother Justin, and his labeling of what amounts to a political rally as a “Sermon on the Mount” is arguably tantamount to blasphemy while at the same time being a very canny idea. It also offers Justin a further chance to stoke his flock with anger and with resentment. Its no coincidence, I don’t think, that a newspaper shown during this episode reads “Jews not wanted.” I expect Justin’s increasingly enflamed rhetoric to target the Jewish people directly, and I expect we’ll see that soon. We’d better! Only four more episodes left to go…

For the first time since the season premiere Justin also takes time to speak with Wilfred Talbot Smith, the occultist and real life historical figure who first opened Crowe’s ebony eyes to the fact of his avataric heritage. Crowe seeks Smith out after experiencing a supernatural seizure caused by the death of his father at Ben Hawkins’ hands and shows him that the tattoo of the Usher’s tree has turned to burnt and painful-looking scar tissue. This, understandably, freaks them both right the f*ck out, and Smith explains that Justin’s enemy has received his boon, which means that Ben now has the strength and the means by which to kill good ol’ demon-eyed, sister-lovin’, serial maid enthusiast Brother Justin. We already knew this, but we also get one teasing piece of new information that I hope will bear fruit soon: Wilfred and Scudder have “some unfinished business.” I’d love to know what that is, and whether it involves Smith huddling naked in a corner while gnawing on a beheaded snake. Or something.

The episode ends with the titular Carnivale following Ben’s lead and heading west, both to catch up to Scudder and to avoid the angry mob that they’re  expecting in the wake of the Ferris Wheel accident. There’s a real sense of coiled tension and tremulous hope as these people pack their things and drive off into the night, and I’m genuinely excited to see what happens now. But that isn’t the end of the episode – the end of the episode consists of Justin openly ogling the @$$ of his latest maid and then heading upstairs. The maid turns around, and we see that its Sofie. It seems someone’s troubles are just beginning – but whether that someone is Sofie or Justin, only time will tell. After all, Sofie did say that she’d kill her father if she ever met him.

Other stuff:

  • Does it seem like Balthus improves as Justin suffers his lil seizure? Are we meant to think that Justin’s ooky-spooky mind powers are keeping Balthus in a state of speechlessness? If Justin were to be destroyed would Balthus be restored?
  • What happened the Stroud’s hand? And cripes – why is he pouring what amounts to drano on it? Does punching a mirror usually lead to puncturing your entire hand?
  • Are the two crooks at the gas station meant to be Bonnie and Clyde? Historically, Bonnie and Clyde were D.E.A.D. at this point in time, but there’s such a strong resemblance that I’d be shocked if Knauf and/or the writers and/or the director didn’t intend us viewers to make that connection. Either way, I flat-out adored watching Stroud casually shoot them both, and then take out the gas station attendant for good measure – seemingly just because he’d thanked God for Stroud’s intervention.
  • Libby married Jonesy! And suddenly I give a sh*t! In fact, I was pretty engaged by most of the cooch family’s problems this week – a nice change of pace for me as a viewer. I especially enjoyed seeing Kurt Fuller pop up to collect the money that Stumpy owes. His scene with Rita Sue was wonderfully acted, and for all of its soap opera-ishness, it felt somehow more grounded and more emotionally involving than most of the rest of their storyline so far. In point of fact, all of their business in this episode was more interesting than what’s come before; “families rise up together and they fall down together” is one seriously sad line masquerading as a proud one.

Great, Sly Dialogue:

Rita Mae (referring to Libby’s marriage): “Well, get it annulled.”
Libby: “We ain’t catholic mama.”

  • I like that Ruthie sees Scudder out in the carnival but likely can’t be sure if he’s living or dead, given that she’s seeing things in Spookovision these days. I’m less fond of the way Scudder almost literally falls into Varlyn Stroud’s lap, though I sure am excited to feel like this story’s picking up steam again.
  • WTF? Why does the fetus in the jar disappear?
  • As always, I’m sure I’ve missed a bunch o’ stuff. Let me know what it is in the comments!

Follow that bird!