C is for Carnivale

Remembered by Kerry E.B. Black


Daniel Knauf’s lavish HBO series “Carnivale” lasted two visually stunning seasons and 24 episodes from September, 2003 until March 2005. Transporting the viewer to the Dust Bowl and America’s Great Depression, the story line explored the ideas of free will as opposed to destiny, and it pitted good versus evil with ambiguity.

The action began with two major plot points headed by pivotal characters, the premise being a creature of light and one of darkness are born as avatars into each generation in preparation for a Biblical final battle.

Ben Hawkins (Nick Stahl) joined the traveling Carnivale after his home was devastated and his parents died. Intimations of a criminal past and a secret ability to heal the wounded and raise the dead add interest to the dirty-faced young man. After joining the travelers, visions of “Henry Scudder,” another healer associated with the carnival, intrigued Ben. Scudder was also a healer.

The opposing major storyline had at its center the menacing Preacher Justin Crow (Clancy Brown) who possessed powers to influence people and bring their sins to life. He shared Ben’s visions of Scudder.

The lives of these two couldn’t be more different. Ben lives a gritty, nomadic existence with a group of mysterious performers. Samson (Michael J. Anderson), the go-between for unseen and creepy Management and the group’s acting head, guided Ben with cryptic warnings. A family of “cootch” dancers, a snake charmer, a blind mentalist and his bearded lady lover, a lizard man, conjoined twins, and roustabouts headed by Jonesy (Tim DeKay) added atmosphere to the artificial lights of the carnival. A Ferris Wheel required maintenance. Animals and booths required tending. A half-man, half-woman shared pithy comments with a Scorpion Lady and a contortionist. A catatonic fortune teller (Diane Salinger) and her daughter, tarot reader Sofie (Lea DuVall) communicate telepathically.

Brother Justin lived a life of ease, sipping tea from china with his sister, Iris (Amy Madigan). He and his follower were convinced he’s doing God’s work. Reverend Norman Balthur (Ralph Waite) served as Brother Justin’s mentor. The radio personality Tommy Dolan hosted Brother Justin, spreading Brother Justin’s message. Witnesses to Brother Justin’s power such as Eleanor McGill proselytize. Desperate people followed the clean clothed preacher, searching for hope. His sister maintains the household, hiring fresh-faced young ladies for chores and to please her brother.

Atmospheric music factored heavily into the show, lending to the feel of each scene. Bluegrass and songs from the twenties and thirties provided a backdrop for the earthier, wilder scenes, while orchestral selections identified the stately façade of Brother Justin’s world. In the opening scene, tarot cards fall to the sand until a wind blew them away.

Subplots included surprising pedigrees, attempted murder, and spiritual warfare. Sex often factored into the action. A bedraggled town claimed a soul from the cast. A struggle for power ended unexpectedly. Ben learns more about his powers. For example, when he tried to bring Ruthie back after a snake attack/murder attempt, he finds he must take a life to give one. He kills her attempted murderer, but Ruthie thereafter experiences visions.

Once Ben arrived, Sofie began to distance herself from her mother. The catatonic medium psychically assailed her daughter to keep her close, yet her control slipped. She tried to cause a suicide, but Sofie was rescued from an inferno. She left the Carnivale and took a position as a maid at Brother Justin’s house, unaware that “The Usher” was her father.

Ben realized his goal and killed Brother Justin. Sofie found her father dead and Ben grievously wounded. Her eyes grow black, like her father’s when he enacts his powers. She laid her hands on his chest, and the corn in the surrounding fields darkened and died.

Historic research was evident in all aspects, from clothing to hairstyles, making “Carnivale” a confusing festival for the eyes and mind. It was nominated for and won awards. Its dreamlike approach dropped subtle clues to its unrealized conclusion. Although ambiguity marred the messages of this ambitious project, I wish it would have reached its conclusion.

carnivale (1)