Lincoln Highway, UT (Carnivale, S2 ep. 9)

“I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.” – Revelation 22:13

Ben: “Everything’s impossible, till it ain’t.”

Another week, another hour’s worth of eerie imagery, sinister scenery and occasional awe. Welcome back to Lost & Found, where I’m resurrecting cancelled television shows for reevaluation. I’ve been picking my way through HBO’s Carnivale, and as of this week’s column we’re deliciously close to the second season (and, because it went and got itself cancelled, series) finale. Come along as I talk your figurative ears off about mysticism, free will and fate, faith, politickin’ and the perils of constructing a TV program that’s moved along with all the deliberate speed of a drunken gastropod.

I’ve given Carnivale a hard time about its pace and its tendency to focus in ad nauseum on a relative handful of its peripheral characters, but that’s only because otherwise there’s so much stuff I genuinely enjoy about the show. For me, Carnivale’s overall lugubriousness somewhat mars a crackin’ good yarn about clashing metaphysical forces in Depression-era America. There’s nothing wrong with taking time to reach a narrative destination, but if you’re going to choose to take that time you need to substitute some compelling distractions in place of your show’s momentum. Whether or not Carnivale succeeds in this is a matter of subjective personal opinion. The show’s efforts in this area have swung from satisfying to frustrating for me as a viewer, but your experience may (and probably will) differ. That’s cool. That’s arguably the point. We all approach art and entertainment with our own individual sets o’ baggage, and one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.

Luckily for me, Lincoln Highway is pretty much all treasure; a compelling, emotional, exciting hour of television, this episode satisfies like a Snickers while leaving me hungry for more. A good thing too, as there’s only three installments of the show left to go. Pretty soon it’ll be time to vote on the next show to be resuscitated and I hope you’ll invite friends to jump on board and participate in selecting the next candidate. Now, let’s talk about some of the details here. As usual, I’m sure I’ve missed some stuff and I invite you to point it out to me. You folks have been excellent about that, and I hope you’ll continue.

Justin: “”The laughter, the terror, and that wheel — spinning, endlessly spinning.”

“Whithersoever the spirit was to go, they went, thither was their spirit to go; and the wheels were lifted up over against them: for the spirit of the living creature was in the wheels.” – Ezekiel 1:20

Justin’s vision in the opening moments of this episode obviously features the Ferris Wheel of the show’s titular carnival, but it also brings to mind the Book of Ezekiel in the Bible, with its description of a wheel within a wheel in constant motion. It also features the Star of David/Seal of Solomon. I’ve been pointing out places where this symbol has popped up over the course of the show and now’s as good a time as any to talk just a little about what that symbol traditionally signifies/means/symbolizes/etc, and why Knauf and Co. might be employing it in the show. Strap in – its time for another edition of Too Much Information here on Lost & Found.

Alchemically, the Seal of Solomon is typically represented as two triangles – one pointing up and one pointing down. They symbolize “the combination of opposites and transmutation.” Notice that Carnivale’s carnival uses two triangles – one pointing up, one pointing down, as its logo. Notice also that these triangles contain symbols that are opposite each other – the sun and the moon. Transmutation, the process of changing from one “state” to another (lead to gold, for instance) fairly accurately describes the transformation both Ben and Justin continue to undergo – shifting from mortal men to blue-blooded avatars of Light n’ Dark. The two triangles represent the four elements – water, earth, air and fire – which when combined in this particular symbol form something referred to as “The Spirit Wheel.” It’s fitting that a FERRIS Wheel should carry this particular symbol, given that particular meaning.

The symbol on the wheel and in the spider’s web also evokes the Star of David, a well-known symbol in Judaism. Thought to have originated as a “protective shield” of sorts (fitting, given that the carnival itself more or less “protects” Ben as he travels toward his adversary), the symbol also represents God’s rule over the universe in six directions – north, south, east, west, up and down. In the practice known as Kabbalah, the Star of David functions to symbolize similar concepts to that of the alchemical Seal of Solomon, namely: the “dichotomies inherent in man. Good vs. evil, spiritual vs. physical.” One could also add Dionysian vs. Apollonian to that mix; two concepts that I’ve touched on before, and which have previously been invoked by the name of Sofie’s mother, Apollonia.

Next up: more mirrors! Yes, I’m arguably obsessed with mirrors, but it helps that Carnivale’s arguably obsessed with them as well. I’ve written a fair amount about how Justin and Ben’s experiences “mirror” one another in intentional and interesting ways, and I’ve pointed out moments where literal mirrors have been used to underline the thematic importance of them (see: Ben staring into a cracked mirror, Justin tearing his face off in a mirror and seeing Ben beneath, and here, Varlyn Stroud glimpsing Ben in his motel room mirror for just a few examples). Carnivale’s use of mirrors relates back, arguably, to its use of the Seal of Solomon/Star of David. Both emphasize the concept of opposites just as Ben and Justin are themselves opposites on either side of an ancient war.

But I don’t bring this concept up just to increase my word count in this column. I want to talk briefly about where Justin and Ben’s powers are coming from. I’ve been assuming this entire time that Hawkins and Crowe receive their respective Avatar abilities from (a) their own blood/bloodline, (b) their respective metaphysical patron (for Ben, God; for Justin, satan), or (c) both. But maybe that’s not entirely accurate, or at least not wholly accurate. Check out what happens to Justin in this episode as Ben flexes his healing muscles once again. Recall what happened to Justin when Ben healed Scudder, or when he gave a mother’s life to her son at the scene of the Ferris Wheel accident. In each case, Justin was immediately and painfully affected. Why should Ben’s use of his abilities affect Justin at all…..unless they’re both drawing from the same essential source? More than ever I’m looking forward to checking out Dan Knauf’s initial pitch document for the show once we’ve finished watching all the episodes. I’d love to know whether these sorts of details were thought through and accounted for, as well as whether I’m anywhere even close to being in the ballpark when it comes to crazed, rampant speculation (my favorite kind).

Justin: “Once you get past the striking repetition, it’s really quite banal. ‘Blessed are the meek.’ …Can you imagine?”

I can, actually. But that’s beside the point. In this episode, Justin holds his “Sermon on the Mount for a New America,” so its only fitting that we should hear him contemplating the actual Sermon on the Mount and completely rejecting Christ’s radical notions. Past columns have gone on at some length about the ways in which Justin has gone about perverting and/or reversing Christ’s teachings. The character’s blasphemy is at its most blatant here, and I continue to admire the ways in which the show’s writers have worked to cast Crowe as a dark mirror to Christ (Still more mirrors! Mmm-mm! Can’t get enough of those mirrors!).

Lodz continues to haunt Ruthie during this episode, and possesses her here in order to scrawl a semi-cryptic message on the mirror in lipstick. It reads “Sofie is the Omega – L.” So…what’s that all about?

Well, the term “Omega” is used Biblically to signify the end of things. When Jesus Christ says “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” he means that he is both the “beginning” and the “end” of all things. Applying that same interpretation to this show, and assuming there’s any truth to ghost-Lodz’s lipstick-scrawl, Sofie suddenly seems far more powerful and far more ominous than I’d imagined. Is she destined to become the next creature of Light (given that her daddy, Justin, is a creature of Darkness?) or something else completely? Whatever her Avataric designation, she seems destined to be the “end” – either of the Avataric line, or of the world itself. Will she bring about an end to the Age of Magic? Will she end the war between Light and Dark? Will she set out to destroy the world? Who knows! Not me! And I doubt we’ll discover the true meaning of this spooky phrase, given the time left to us with this show.

Hey, lookitthat! The man known only as “Burley” is back happily fulfilling his role as a total @$$hat. There are no shadings, ambiguities or nuances to good ol’ Burley. The man exists to get up close in other people’s faces and sneer. All he needs is a top hat and he could double for Snidely Whiplash – he’s even got the ridiculous (but awesome) mustache for it. I’ve gone on too long about how Burley is a stupid contrivance manufactured solely to create conflict/fear among the other Carnivaleians so I’ll spare you further grousing. I hope he’s gone and gone for good after this episode, especially since it makes perfect sense to have had Varlyn Stroud be the one to sabotage the Ferris Wheel.

Carnivale’s problem juggling its multitudinous supporting cast is neatly illustrated in what were for me the strongest sequences of the episode – the tarring and subsequent healing of Jonesy. I’m a total sucker for acts of kindness and the performance of miracles, and so I’m more-or-less hardwired to have loved Ben’s ingenious use of the vultures circling Jonesy’s tarred-n’-feathered body to restore him. Having Ben’s touch also heal Jonesy’s bum leg is quite clever, and though I should have seen it coming, I did not. In and of itself, watching Tim DeKay run around a’whoopin’ and a’hollerin’ with joy as he realizes his gimp leg is no longer gimpy is wonderful stuff. It’s also surprisingly emotional, due entirely to the strength of DeKay’s consistently excellent performance in the part. It’s certainly not due to the show’s plotting/writing, which introduced the briefest of snippets showing us how his knee was shattered by a guy in a baseball cap, and then dropped that thread entirely. Jonesy’s become one of my favorite characters based solely on DeKay’s considerable charisma and talent for mining pathos and joy out of wordless looks. I can only imagine how much more I’d enjoy his performance if the show had shifted focus away from he and Rita Mae screwing in the shower long enough to provide us a more substantive glimpse into the man’s past.

You can argue that such a look back is unnecessary, and I’d almost agree had the show not teased us with that brief glimpse or given us another flashback in this very episode – one that contributes nothing of real value whatsoever. We learn that…Jonesy used to pitch. And that he struck a guy out when it looked like he might not strike a guy out. It’s a painfully-unnecessary second glimpse at his past, and it only serves to make me wonder why in the hell the show bothered showing us that first glimpse in the first place. Arguably, that’s what’s ended up being unnecessary, given how thoroughly they’ve botched the follow-through. You might as well show off a gun in the first act and then never bother to shoot it in the second act. Me: “Hey! Why was that gun there?” Carnivale’s writers: “Seemed like a good idea at the time?”

Justin Crowe’s Sermon on the Mount for a New America finally takes place, and it’s as self-aggrandizing and despicable as you’d expect it to be. Val Templeton calls the President an agent of “the international Shylock,” which up and confirms completely my growing suspicion that Justin Crowe and his flock of damned and damnable toadies are feeding a swelling anti-Semitism with eager hands. I’m told that we don’t ever see Justin fully embrace this Nazi-esque rhetoric before the show comes to its untimely end, but there’s no doubt whatsoever that the show is headed firmly in a fascist direction with Crowe and his conniving cohorts. There’ve been a number of these scenes of late and Clancy Brown’s considerable charms have helped to make these speeches-doubling-as-scenes into compelling television each and every time,  but there’s only so many times the writers can return to this particular well before it starts to run dry without doing something new and different with the basic set up. Luckily, they do just that here, and have Norman Balthus straight-up try to murderize the man he’s always treated as a son.

Justin: “Blessed are those that understand and forgive.”

Norman Balthus’ attempt on Justin’s life is a great little scene. We’re not sure whether or not Justin can be killed by a gun (he’s yet to receive his version of the “boon” that Ben’s received, and so is presumably easier to kill than he would be if he manages to deep-six Henry Scudder), but we are fairly sure that shooting Justin would help to bring out some evidence of his demonic/antichrist nature for all to see. Norman fails in the task he’s set for himself, and in that moment we see the full power of Justin Crowe. The crowd turns on this frail old man and proceeds to beat him until Crowe commands them to stop. And stop they do, like rows of obedient puppets awaiting further instructions. While Justin’s forgiveness of Norman in that moment comes off, initially, as the act of a man filled with God’s grace, the reality is that his forgiveness of Norman serves one key purpose: it cements his “goodness” in the eyes of his loving flock, and ensures that his fame and reputation will spread wider now than before. It’s a troublingly effective, calculated move and it works perfectly.

Again I need to ask: did the bullet miss Justin because Norman suffers from the effects of his stroke? Or did it miss because an unseen force intervened to deflect the bullet?

Iris: “Only you and I know his true nature. Our knowledge is his weakness.”

I have to say that I don’t understand Iris at all. One minute she’s emphatically stating that she won’t be left behind by her brother, showing her apparent devotion to Justin’s cause beyond any real shadow of a doubt, and the next she’s telling Norman that she’s proud of his attempt on Justin’s life, and that she’s secretly in league with Balthus in desiring to expose Justin’s “true nature.” This is one confused sister, and I’m not just talking about the flashes of incestual desire we’ve seen in her face.

Amy Madigan is quite good in this role, but I can’t say that I love the character if only because I genuinely don’t get her. If she’s really aiming to expose Justin for who he truly is, why did she take Eleanor out to the lake and beat her to death with AN OAR? Why didn’t she steer Tommy Dolan toward Justin’s “true nature”? Is she simply self-serving, but now under the burden of a (semi)guilty conscience? Do any of you have a better idea of why Iris behaves the way that she does? I’d love to hear it.

Justin: “It is grace that makes us great.”

Sofie’s gig as the latest in a long line of ass-tractive maids employed by Brother Justin is either the most unbelievable narrative contrivance I’ve witnessed in a while, or further evidence of Fate’s hand guiding the show’s players into place. What are the odds of Sofie ending up working in the home of Justin and Iris Crowe absent some sort of Divine/Infernal intervention? They’re astronomical. So either the show’s writers simply don’t care about the lack of logic in this story decision, or we’re meant to see this as yet another manifestation of Fate in action.

Either way, I’m intrigued by Justin’s handling of Sofie in general. He seems taken with her in a way that goes beyond the frightening lust we saw him display earlier in the season, and the final scene of the episode featuring him instructing her in how to forgive one’s enemies succeeds admirably in making me wonder WTF is going on here. Is he simply trying a new tactic to seduce The Help? Is he sincerely attempting to help her? Or is he beginning a process of manipulation that will soon bear ripe, bitter fruit? I look forward to discovering the answer before this carnival ride comes to a halt.

Join me next Friday as we plunge into the last two episodes before the show’s finale. And if you’ve got friends who’re into the show why not let them know about this column? You’ll be doing me a solid.

‘til then, be good to one another.

All screencaps courtesy of fishstick theatre.