New Canaan, CA (Carnivale, S2 ep. 12)

“What is in opposition is in concert and from what differs comes the most beautiful harmony.” – Heraclitus

Sofie: “This is your House.”

This is the way the world of Carnivale ends: not with a bang, but a wither(ing). The final moments of the final episode function like a warped Möbius Strip, connecting the show’s last episode with the show’s first episode elegantly and relatively subtly. Both Milfay, OK and New Canaan, CA end with the sight of crops wilting away as a result of supernatural healing, and both episodes end with the sight of an exhausted Ben Hawkins being carried away to a new, as-yet-unknown destination. Carnivale completes itself through a final act of reflection – fitting for a show that’s spent so much time reflecting events, themes and main characters back at each other.

Brother Justin: Pain is an unavoidable side effect.

See what I mean? This is the case throughout New Canaan, CA, as characters repeat phrases heard much earlier in the show and remember events that function to more-or-less bring the narrative full-circle. It’s a neat trick that the show pulls off well.

Most of Carnivale’s running time has been devoted to stories of grim desolation and desperation, which is only fitting for a show set firmly during the Great Depression. The unrelentingly bleak atmosphere, however, began to take its toll on me as a viewer; it was only with the healing of Jonesy and the acceleration of Ben’s quest to destroy Brother Justin that something like Hope began to enter into the show’s dusty, dim-lit world. For all the darkness Carnivale wields so deftly, New Canaan, CA finally opens the figurative doors to let in the Light at last, at least temporarily. I’m grateful for that, since the glimpses of honor, sacrifice and righteous purpose we’re shown in this final hour serve the show magnificently. I can’t help but regret that these characters didn’t find common ground earlier in the season(s), if only for a little while, because watching them work together toward a common Good is exciting, interesting, occasionally laugh-out-loud funny stuff. Who among us didn’t feel a sense of excitement as Samson and Stumpy coordinated a final performance from Benjamin St. John? It’s one thing to watch this troupe fleece innocent, Depression-ravaged people. It’s quite another to watch them pool their collective talents to put one over on the man who proposes to create hell on earth. It’s pretty darned satisfying – like watching Robin Hood and his Merry Men stick it to a satanic Prince John. When is that not worth watching?

While New Canaan, CA is not a perfect episode of television (what is?), it succeeds handily where it matters. It gives us the confrontation we’ve been waiting for this entire time, it gives us (again, at least temporarily) definitive endings for many of the characters’ individual storylines, and it does these things with style and a kind of dark grace. I have absolutely no idea whether or not Knauf and Co. knew that this would be the last episode; if not, it’s remarkable how well New Canaan functions as a premature coda for the show. Sure, many questions are left up in the air (Why is Ben a wanted man? What are Lodz’ motivations? Why is Ruthie seeing dead people? Has her resurrection left her open to possession from any spirit that happens to wander by? Why? Sofie’s Eeeeeevil now?! WTF!?), and there are moments here that feel unnecessarily rushed and/or questionable (see below), but New Canaan, CA still manages to be an effective and moving episode. I especially enjoyed the way that Sofie’s healing of Brother Justin in the episode’s closing moments serves as a potent metaphor for the endless struggle between “Light” and “Dark,” with neither side ever truly winning, so much as momentarily gaining an upper hand.

Let’s talk semi-briefly about what didn’t work for me in this episode, because frankly most of it did:

In the column for Carnivale‘s first episode I wrote: “My hope is that Carnivale will delve into the backgrounds and emotional lives of these people. My fear is that the show will use them simply for window-dressing and/or plot advancement, or will take the easy road of melodrama over the harder, more rewarding road of believable character development in an unreal setting.”

On one level, my hopes for the show were realized. Carnivale delved into the lives of a few of its supporting characters and painted affecting, intimate portraits. On another level, my hopes in this regard were also dashed, as many of those storylines ended up feeling far less interesting and consequential than they might have been, or as  some of the people featured in the first season either disappeared completely (I’m looking at you, Lizard Man and the Siamese Twins) or faded further into the background. I cannot begin to fathom the degree of difficulty inherent in juggling a multitude of supporting characters while attempting to service both their stories and the larger, show-defining stories of Carnivale’s main characters. That said, I have to admit to some disappointment over, say, the disappearance of the Daily Brothers carnies (who reappear again in this episode) after the show devoted an entire episode to their joining Carnivale. These supporting characters were never quite as three-dimensional as I wanted them to be, but they were also never as two-dimensional as they could have been, and each and every actor/actress involved gave wonderfully well-realized performances in which they fully inhabited these contradictory, charismatic characters.

I had also had issues with the way that Sofie’s storyline resolved here. For one, it’s abrupt to say the least. Sofie’s sudden transformation into what seems like another Creature of Darkness is swift enough that it doesn’t quite make logical sense to me – unless her fate/dark heritage has overwhelmed her free will and/or driven her mad. Sofie goes from telling Justin off to shooting Jonesy in cold blood over the course of one (admittedly and admirably superfreakincreepy) hallucinatory encounter. This only makes sense if we give free will the boot more or less completely and accept profound fatalism as this fictional universe’s driving force. The Sofie that Jonesy knew and that we knew just a little earlier in this episode wasn’t capable of this. Yes, she’d hurt both Jonesy and Libby rather cruelly, but that doesn’t mean she’s a murderer.

All of which makes me wonder why the writers had Sofie reject Justin at all to begin with. It’s far more believable that she’d shoot a guy like Jonesy if she’d truly drunk Justin’s Kool-Aid – if her power began to manifest because she was drawing closer to the darkness itself. As it stands, Sofie is essentially attacked by her mother (who is most likely just a manifestation of “Dark Sofie,” since Apollonia seemed sincere in wanting to take protect her daughter and/or take her out) and that attack/confrontation seems to basically rewire Sofie’s brain so that now she’s Eeeeeeeevil.

That’s less interesting to me than, say, Justin’s path – in which he found himself becoming a harder, darker man even as he struggled with that part of himself.

I do like the misdirection that Carnivale has apparently employed all along. We’ve assumed that The Usher would be the person directly responsible for destroying the world/bringing hell to earth/otherwise f*cking sh*t up in a major way. As it turns out, though, The Usher’s role may end up being literal father to the End Times. Justin Crowe “ushers in” the end of the world not through his own (in retrospect rather petty) machinations, but through conceiving a daughter destined to be “The Omega” – Greek for “The End.” Crowe “ushers” Sofie into the world, into her fated role. I’ve no idea if this is the intended interpretation, but it’s a nifty one nonetheless.

Iris: “When I die, I’m going to Hell. And if I’m very, very fortunate, my brother will be waiting for me with an embrace.”

I’ve enjoyed Amy Madigan’s performance throughout the show, but by turning Iris into a secret opponent to her brother the show’s writers muddled her character and made it difficult to believe that the same woman who willingly sacrificed innocent children for her brother’s sake would have a change of heart the way that she has. I suppose you can argue that once she realized Justin had a sinister agenda she turned away from him, but a God who’d welcome a sacrifice of children seems like a pretty sinister God, no? I suppose you could rationalize this by saying that even homicidal fanatics can grow frightened of un-distilled evil, but her regrets here still don’t make any real emotional sense. given how religious she claims to be, she had to know that for her, hell’s gate was open  for her the moment she set that fire.

Amy Madigan deserves a lot of credit for making this feel emotionally believable anyway. She sells her change of heart well. I may not understand why Iris is in this place, but I buy it because Madigan is achingly sincere.

Lastly: New Canaan is very satisfying, given that it’s all we’re gonna get, and I’m grateful for a quasi/pseudo/sorta “ending” that the episode provides. But I can’t help thinking that the show lost some strong storytelling possibilities by choosing to stretch out the mysteries, favoring them over what could have and probably should have been a more extended, unnerving encounter between the tent city and the Carnivale; between Justin and Ben. There’s something semi-anticlimactic to the sight of these two avatars stabbing each other in a cornfield with barely a word spoken between them. Those moments don’t hold a dramatic candle to the scenes of Justin interacting with the Carnivale. The show devoted more airtime to the town of Babylon than it did to Ben and Justin’s confrontation. Does that seem right to you?

Me either.

All of that said, I kind of loved what we did get – from the pensive scenes of Ben, Jonesy and Samson powwowing in Management’s trailer to the funky/creepy hallucinations in Sofie’s shack, to the plan to drain Justin of his lifeforce by sticking him on a Ferris Wheel (Clancy Brown’s acting in these scenes is wonderfully BIG and BROAD and straddles the line between blackly funny and frightening in just the right way), to the sight of Ben Hawkins healing men, women and children in rapturous succession, pulling life in seemingly-endless supply from Justin’s writhing, tattooed body, to the shock of seeing Jonesy shot so callously….this episode is chock-a-block with excellence. I’ve genuinely enjoyed the way that Knauf has more-or-less naturalistically let the “mythology” dribble out over the course of the show, never spoonfeeding the audience. It feels like he was consciously trying to make a show where both the characters and the viewers have to work at the meaning behind things, as opposed to having answers dropped into their laps. I really respect that approach. I also respect the show’s firm refusal to cater to simple/simplistic notions of Black & White, capital-G Good and capital-E Evil by illustrating for us that good men can be cruel and petty, and that evil men can be kind and compassionate.

And as always, I loved the references to religious practice and spiritual figures. At this point the sight of a hero being carried in a Christ-like pose is a total cliché, but Carnivale really pulls this particular cliché off with panache. It helps that Ben really is a Christ-like figure outside of this particular moment. Even better, for this particular viewer, was the final scene between  Justin and Ben in which Justin, the Reverse Christ, mangles the words of the Bible a final time as he gets ready to do hisself some slaughterin': “My will be done,” he says, not “Thy will be done.” I’ve really loved the ways in which Carnivale’s writers fashioned Justin into the negative image of Jesus, and I love the consistency with which they’ve done so.

So here we are, at the end of the road. It’s been six years since Carnivale was cancelled, and it doesn’t appear as though we’re going to get any more of the story anytime soon. In the wake of the cancellation, Knauf apparently approached Marvel Comics about continuing his saga with them, but HBO has held fast to the rights, and there’s been no indication that they’re willing to let Knauf take his odd opus elsewhere so that he can complete it.

Knauf set out to craft a televisual novel – a sprawling, idiosyncratic opus. Instead Carnivale became a novella, and an unfinished one at that. It’s strange and imperfect and incomplete, but those things aren’t as important as the fact of its existence. It is a marvelous thing to have a show like Carnivale out in the world, offering up its thick, partially obscured mysteries and gasping, sunbleached landscapes to unsuspecting viewers. Saying that Carnivale isn’t for everyone is something of a massive understatement. But since when do we care whether art/entertainment is for everyone? I prefer art that doesn’t attempt to appeal to the greatest possible demographic. I like my entertainment idiosyncratic; crafted with undeniable heart and irrepressible quirk.

I shouldn’t have to say that there’s a vast difference between commercial success and artistic failure, but there is, and that distinction matters. Carnivale may not have succeeded as product, but it does succeed artistically, on its own terms.

As I was writing this column I reached out to Daniel Knauf to request an email interview. There are a lot of fans of Carnivale out there, and I suspect they’d love to hear his thoughts on the show he’s created – not about the future plans for the show, but about the care and effort and thought that went into creating the episodes that exist. Knauf declined, preferring not to look back, and I fully respect that position even as I regret the loss of an opportunity to ask him whether, for instance, Tolstoy’s “After the Ball” was an actual influence on the episode of the same name, or whether that’s an instance where an overzealous interpreter (me) sees things that aren’t really there. In the course of responding to me, Knauf added this, for which I am very, very grateful:

“Read your stuff, as have a # of cast-members. We all think you’re the beez-knees. Thx for ‘getting it.’”

That more-or-less blew my mind.

I have a lot of respect for men and women who can create something as imaginative and intricate as Carnivale and whatever the show’s flaws, it is owed attention and intelligent analysis. I can’t claim to have provided the latter, but I have certainly given it my full attention, and I’m glad that was noticed and appreciated. In return I feel the need to congratulate all the people responsible for bringing this show to life – from the writers to the actors to the composer to the location scouts, set designers, lighting technicians, best boys and key grips and on and on anon. Carnivale is undeniably imperfect, but to expect otherwise is to profoundly misunderstand the creative process. You don’t make omelets without breaking a few eggs, and you don’t construct dreamy/nightmarish dark fantasy without making some missteps. Do I wish Carnivale had made some different decisions? Yes. Does that wish in any way negate the beauty, the strangeness, the ambition and the craft that Carnivale brought to the table, week after week? No, it does not.

Carnivale is a ride well worth taking. I’m glad that you good folks chose it, and I’m glad to have had a chance to think and write about it. I’ve little doubt that this show will live on for a long time to come in the hearts and in the media collections of folks like you and me – folks who love it when a show shoots for the moon, regardless of whether it hits that target. It deserves the cult it’s acquired.

Join me here next week as I examine Daniel Knauf’s initial “pitch document” and delve into his comments on what the future of Carnivale might have entailed. Then join me here in two weeks’ time to cast your vote and determine which show I’ll resurrect and reappraise next.

‘til then…? Let’s shake some dust, children.

All screencaps courtesy of Magic Hours