Cheyenne, WY & Outside New Canaan (Carnivale S2, eps. 10 & 11)
Justin: “He gathered them together into a place called Armageddon.”
Hello darkness, our old friend. We’ve come to speak with you again.
Welcome back to Lost & Found, the column that resurrects and reevaluates the cancelled television shows of years past. This column has been unexpectedly absent for the past several weeks, due to a crushingly-heavy workload and to the fact that I’m going to be a proud Poppa very shortly. I’ve been running around like a chicken with my head cut off trying to prepare for the birth of my very own son/daughter-of-Brundlefly, while attempting to balance the rest of my not-inconsiderable responsibilities at the same time. I apologize as always for the delay. It’s not fair to you, the reader, and I fully recognize that. In my defense, I love writing these but I’m not paid for the pleasure and so from time to time I’m required to turn my attention elsewhere. That you continue to read my ramblings is a gift, and one I don’t take lightly, so thank you sincerely for your patience and for your readership. If you’d like to stay on top of the column’s schedule, shoot me questions or comments, and/or suggest ways to turn this into a gig that earns me some beer money you can join up with my Twitter account and you’ll be alerted whenever a new column posts. In addition, keep your eyes peeled for some DVD reviews from me in the near future, right here on Chud.com.
We’ve been watching and talking about Carnivale, HBO’s first experiment in televised fantasy. The show lasted just two seasons but it’s garnered quite a cult following, and no wonder. Ambitious, classily-crafted, commendably-acted and deeply weird, Carnivale offers up a pretty sumptuous feast for fans of the sort of dark phantasmagorias that Clive Barker used to churn out regularly.
This week’s double-dose of episodes continues to follow the show’s pattern of treating a literal struggle between Good and Evil like a game of chess with no time limitations where both players slooowly make a move, then keep a finger on the piece as they thoughtfully consider that move for a few minutes at a time. But if you can go with the sludgy flow there’s a lot to like about both Cheyenne, WY and Outside New Canaan, and judging from the way the various players have been moved into position here it feels as though the second season finale might function fairly well as a series finale. These two episodes spend their collective time walking the audience right up to the long-promised meeting between Ben Hawkins and Justin Crowe, but stopping short of having them come face-to-face. Scudder is dead at Justin’s hands, Justin has received his “boon,” Ben has found real purpose, Jonesy has found a rebirth of sorts, Sofie is feeling torn between the happiness she’s found with Justin and the ominous warnings she’s received from Ben, and the carnival has come to Jericho’s shantytown, setting up shop in the shadow of the Usher’s cracked and twisted tree. Will Justin and Ben actually confront each other in the final episode? Will that confrontation occur at the very end of the episode, leaving us forever wondering about the outcome? Or will they clash, leaving one of them dead? And if so, just what the heck did Daniel Knauf have planned for the seasons to follow? I’ll find out next week, when I watch and write up the season/series finale.
The following week I’ll offer up my thoughts on Carnivale’s “show bible” – the document that Daniel Knauf used to pitch the show to HBO, and which supposedly reveals more about the show’s characters, mythology, and themes. And then its time to get your vote on again, as I ask all of you to select the next show I’ll cover here. For now, and as usual, let’s talk about the various portents, ponderous ponderings and prophecies at work here in these two episodes. Let’s talk about what’s going on under Carnivale’s murky, forbidding surfaces and dig into the meat of this singular beast in some handy-dandy bullet points.
- While the central narrative appears to be coming to some sort of resolution, a lot of the extraneous side-plots and smaller mysteries will probably end up being entirely unresolved. As with Lost, this probably isn’t going to bother me very much. Unlike Lost, Carnivale has never managed to make me care overmuch about its side-characters. Whether Lila exacts revenge for the death of Lodz doesn’t move me much one way or the other, though I would be pretty upset if she killed Samson over it, since Samson is one of the side-characters on the show who’ve managed to acquire what feels like a real emotional life.
- Carnivale’s done a lot to collectively creep us all out over its abbreviated running time; Cheyenne Wy’s opening sequence ranks up there for me among its ookiest moments. Watching a naked Lodz crawl his way into Lila’s trailer, seeing Lila pull aside the covers to discover Ruthie there with those blank, unnerving eyes…well, it just plain spooked me in the best sense.
- I’m admittedly unclear on why Lodz has rejoined the plot here, as well as what his motivations might be. There’s nothing new about that, really; I spent the entire first season of Carnivale being unclear on Lodz’s motives, so it’s hardly surprising. It is, however, somewhat frustrating. Intentionally making a character ambiguous and hard to read can be enormous fun, for both writers and audience (see: Benjamin Linus), but I’d argue that it’s a difficult trick to successfully sustain both that ambiguity and the audience’s interest. At this point I just want some idea of what Lodz actually wants. To be fair, Lost had six seasons with which to unravel Ben’s motivations and character. Perhaps if Carnivale had been allowed to continue, Knauf and Co. would have done something similar with/for Lodz.
- I’m a big fan of the way that Jonesy essentially becomes Ben’s “Apostle” once his leg is healed. It’s a nice “mirroring” of the Justin/Varlyn Stroud relationship, illustrating again how the representatives of Light and Dark are living out lives on parallel thematic lines. Stroud was freed literally by Justin’s call – escaping from/being released from an actual prison to do Crowe’s handiwork. Jonesy is released from a less-literal, but no less confining, prison of his own when Ben heals his leg.
Justin: “”This is your prophet?”
- Varlyn the Apostle brings Henry Scudder to die at the hands of Justin Crowe, but matters are suddenly complicated by the addition of several new “rules.” Justin needs to kill Scudder when Scudder is lucid and free of the drugs that Varlyn has pumped into Scudder’s system. In addition, Justin must effectively take Scudder by surprise when he kills him in order to fully receive his “boon.” This is somewhat confusing, since Management plotted out his own death at Ben’s hands, and could therefore not have been surprised when Ben killed him. Are we meant to assume that the rules for receiving a boon differ between Creatures of Light and Creatures of Darkness? Are we meant to assume that Ben didn’t receive his full boon? Or are we meant not to think too much on this sort of thing? I suspect it’s the latter.
Justin: “”Vulgarity is not a sin against God, but against polite society. And between you and me, I don’t give a shit about polite society.”
- Clearly. Over the course of these episodes we get confirmation that Justin did in fact rape Sofie’s mother Iris’s conversation with Norman Balthus confirms that Justin is Sofie’s father. So of course Carnivale has to have a scene showing Justin kissing his own daughter in lust – because just panting after your sister isn’t pervy enough for the Crowester. There’s a strong vein of perversion running straight through Carnivale in general, and there may not be a single episode of the show that doesn’t feature some bizarre fetish or sex act or filthy fantasy. Sometimes it’s overt, as when Rita Sue and Stumpy taught us the meaning of the term “lunch counter.” Sometimes it’s subtler, as when Sofie beats Justin and Iris’s rug (literally, not figuratively) and we see Justin stop short and smile as though she were beating him with the whip we’ve seen him use on himself.
- Most every character on this show has a bizarre sexual peccadillo or taboo dalliance of some kind, be it the ugliness of rape, a lusty screw in an open, public shower stall with a married woman, a little person hiring out a prostitute who he humiliates, a spot of good ol’ fashioned incest, an attraction to a woman old enough to be your grandmother, or a compulsion to fondle some sweaters/make some fondue with cheddar, etc. etc. etc. It doesn’t matter if the character is “Good” or “Evil”; kinked-up sexuality seems to be a Great Equalizer in the land of Carnivale. It could be that Knauf and Co. are simply horndogs, or it could be that there’s a (murky) thematic point being made here about how most of humanity is flawed and prone to primal impulses, neither wholly “Good” nor wholly “Evil.”
- The problem with this idea is that Justin has emerged over the course of this season as a force of pure evil. Writing evil characters is a lot of fun, and I suspect that the writers of Carnivale probably had a blast crafting the sinister shenanigans that Crowe involves himself in over the course of season two; that said, I liked Justin a lot more as a character when I felt as though there was still conflict in him over what he was doing/becoming. First-season Justin felt like a good man discovering his own capacity for great Evil, and struggling with what he might become as a result of that knowledge. Second-season Justin has whole-heartedly embraced Evil with the zeal of a Born Again Christian, and I miss the sense of uncertainty that his character had previously generated.
Wilfred Talbot Smith: “”I spoke with Bennington. He says you have the Sauniere manuscript.”
- The concept of bloodlines has always been important on Carnivale. The Avatars pass their burdens and boons down through the generations, parent to child. Justin’s increasing anti-Semitism and the backdrop of a burgeoning Second World War also underlines the thematic importance of bloodlines (see: the divine, detergent-colored blood which both Ben and Justin now possess), and Justin’s place in the Avataric order explains why he might become obsessed with the notion of blood purity. This episode underlines the concepts’ importance yet again with a mention of the Sauniere manuscript – a bit of religious lore that also ties in neatly with the notion of “divine” bloodlines. The Sauniere manuscript isn’t an entirely fictional concept, although the manuscripts themselves may be. François Bérenger Sauniere was a Priest at Rennes-les-Chateau who, according to legend, unearthed ancient documents within the Chateau which contained the word “Scion,” and detailed the Merovingian line of Kings, revealing that they were descendants of Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene. You probably read about Sauniere and the Merovingians in a small cult novel: The Davinci Code.
- I’ve commented before that the show’s concept of “Avatars” – people in each generation who embody Light and Dark – could easily apply to the figure of Jesus Christ who, in Carnivale’s fictional universe, could easily have been a Creature of Light. The reference to the Sauniere manuscript arguably strengthens this idea, since that document purported to trace the lineage of the Merovingians back to Jesus Christ himself.
- And what group of men of significance to Carnivale were also supposedly involved in the Sauniere manuscript’s history? Why, that’d be the Priory of Scion, a group associated with the Knights Templar – an order that’s been prominently featured on this show from more-or-less the beginning. All of this makes me wonder whether Dan Knauf and Co. had planned at some point to introduce the concept of the Holy Grail to Carnivale’s narrative, and whether Knauf wanted to explore the idea of Christ-as-avatar.
Wilfred Talbot Smith: “All those years, running and hiding. All those years, you could have killed yourself. But didn’t quite have the guts to do it.”
- Well, I guess we have the answer to whether an Avatar can take their own life. Smith seems to be pretty up on his Avatar lore, so I assume that he knows what he’s talking about here. Could Scudder have killed himself if he’d really wanted to?
- We certainly know that he can kill other people. Before Justin takes Scudder’s life via what amounts to a piece of American folklore (he might as well have a hook for a hand when he pops up from the backseat of that car), Scudder manages to summon his powers, turn his eyes jet-black, and maul Wilfred Talbot Smith to death in what is one of the show’s most overtly Lynchian moments. It’s nifty and yet somehow simultaneously kind of hilarious, which is an odd fit.
- It seems we’re never going to learn what went on between Scudder and Smith – what the point of the ritual they performed was, why Wilfred was glimpsed chawin’ on a dead snake’s body – which is disappointing, but not really surprising.
- Sometimes a lack of clarity can be a wonderful thing. I still don’t really know what lies beneath Lost’s Island, and I sorta love that. I still don’t know Agent Dale Cooper’s ultimate fate on Twin Peaks, and I definitely love that. But sometimes a lack of clarity can be frustrating. There’s a fine line between pleasingly obfuscated and infuriatingly obtuse, and determining whether and when that line has been crossed is an entirely subjective thing. For me, having Ben’s axe burn Justin’s hand crosses that line. I thought an anointed dagger was needed to harm Justin Crowe, not any and all sharpened weapons.
- As we near the end of Carnivale I’m left worrying over where the show is going to leave us. Ben is closing the distance between Justin and himself. He’s finally identified Crowe as his opposite number, and the carnival itself has mobilized, with Samson bringing this band of snarky, flawed people toward a conflict most of them are completely unaware of. Certainly they haven’t signed up to be cannon fodder in a Cosmic Battle between Good and Evil.
- Am I going to reach the final episode of Season 2 and find that it ends with Ben and Justin finally coming face to face? After two seasons of slow build-up, that’d be kind of a letdown. When Twin Peaks ended on a cliffhanger (and what a cliffhanger!) it felt appropriate; Lynch’s show was as much about the subconscious as it was about the seedy underbelly of a small town, and Beyond Life & Death functioned as an episode-length fugue from which the audience awakens, unclear on the literal meaning of what we’ve seen, but shaken by the feeling that the meaning is right there just out of our grasp, as elusive as a dream in the morning light.
- At the same time, after two seasons of careful, patient, slooooow build-up, do I really want to see Ben and Justin clash decisively over the course of one episode? Their actual battle seems as though it ought to be epic – less a wrestling match than the pensive, careful game of moral chess that the show’s been kinda-sorta playing from the beginning.
- Now that we’re almost to the end of the show I feel comfortable reasserting that Carnivale’s most obvious flaw – the most likely overall reason for low ratings and subsequent cancellation – is its glacial pace. But perhaps more centrally and less obviously, one of Carnivale’s biggest handicaps might be its consistent withholding of anything like catharsis, joy or release in its storytelling. This show is grim; unrelentingly, sometimes near-oppressively. The fantasy series’ that HBO has aired since have fared far better with audiences, and both True Blood and Game of Thrones offer up a smorgasbord of violence, kink and darkness, but also offer up respites from those things – comedic or emotionally-stirring moments that give the audience an occasional occasion to breathe, to laugh, to turn away from the dark for a few moments. By and large, Carnivale does not offer us these things on anything close to approaching a regular basis, and that kind of constant discomfort isn’t the stuff that Big Hit TV Shows are typically made of.
- Twin Peaks, to whom Carnivale is obviously indebted, was similarly adept at laying out a thick, hovering atmosphere of grim unease, but I’d argue that the key to the show’s early mass success and popularity arguably had little to do with that atmosphere. It was the quirky, engaging and oddly-relatable characters, as well as the playful surreality on display, that kept people coming back to David Lynch’s spooky small town over the course of the first season. When Peaks returned for a second season it plunged deeper into its own darkness and had its characters do the same. It’s probably not a coincidence that the show’s viewership plummeted as Peaks began showcasing grimy, horrific visions of a demonic Laura Palmer. Most folks need a light at the end of dark tunnels if they’re going to feel safe in exploring. We go into Haunted Houses knowing that we’re able to exit them again. In its way, Carnivale give the impression of a Haunted House from which there is no escape.
Here’s hoping that Carnivale goes out offering up some measure of hope/joy/catharsis/release before it fades to black for the final time or, barring that, that the show goes out as strongly and as strangely as it began. Join me here next week (yes, next week, I give you my word) as we delve into the show’s final episode.