“After The Ball Is Over” (season 1, episode 2; originally aired 9/14/2003)
In which Brother Justin will get what he wants by any means necessary
Two men walk into a diner. Period music croons on the radio. They’re intimately aware of each other’s presence, yet it seems as if they refuse to look at each other. A waitress stands over them, intoning cryptically about how “every prophet is in his house.” Two men come in the door and sit behind them. The first two men watch the second two men in a mirror, and we get the sense that they just might have an inkling of who this second pair—new to us—consists of. And then, before anything can really happen, the back window shatters in a giant blast, and both men wake up, hundreds of miles apart, having somehow shared a vision of what is to come, if only they could interpret it.
One of the reasons Carnivàle failed to garner a larger audience has basically nothing to do with its quality, I think. Indeed, this is one of the things I like most about the show, even as I can see why it drove more casual viewers of the program up the wall. The show seems to have one central question: When are Ben and Brother Justin, who are obviously linked in some way, going to meet? But instead of providing steps forward on that path, we can already tell in episode two that in the grand tradition of mystery shows, these two aren’t going to meet any time soon. The show’s already pulling out the old “They meet in a dream!” workaround, and no matter how intriguing and full of mystery that dream is, there’s still a sense that these two need to just get up in each other’s faces already.
But I love the elliptical nature of this relationship, and “After The Ball Is Over” is a good example of why. It’s hard to do a second episode of any show, but it must have been murderous to figure out what the second episode of this one was. So rather than try to introduce too many new plot elements, the show mostly stays still. The carnival folk don’t do a lot of traveling. Brother Justin sets a goal for himself and accomplishes it. The show takes its time helping us get to know many of the characters we either didn’t meet or didn’t get enough time with last week. And all along, it’s teasing that the two men it follows—the two men who seem to occupy entirely different shows in many ways—are linked in ways that neither they nor the audience are meant to fully understand.
This is the foremost problem with the mystery show. How long can you string out the central question of the series without having the audience lose patience? Most mystery shows try to distract from the central question by tossing lots of new information at the audience, as when Twin Peaks started delving into the private lives of the town’s citizens or when Lost introduced The Others. (Remember how on Battlestar Galactica, the series Ron Moore left this one to do, the question of who the Final Five Cylons were didn’t really become a thing until late season three?) The thing Carnivàle struggles with is that its central question isn’t a mystery at all; it’s a plot point, and to resolve it would seemingly take something as simple as the writers sitting down and saying, “Hey, these two guys should meet up and punch each other.” If you watch TV for plot—as most TV viewers do—this refusal to do this seems maddening. If you watch it for character and/or atmospherics (as I do), it seems both perverse and ballsy.
Take this episode. After learning that Ben can heal people, but only by taking the life-force out of other living things around them, at the conclusion of the pilot, this episode promptly does absolutely nothing with that little character detail. In a second episode, a show usually declares what it’s going to be, and in this second episode, Carnivàle basically says that what it’s going to be is a travelogue of an imaginary 1930s, the televised equivalent of an especially long and decentralized Tim Powers novel. It’s a secret history that doesn’t feel particularly interested in telling us who all of the players are just yet, so we should probably settle in and relax. (The show lost nearly 2 million viewers between its pilot and second episode, a number that’s huge on TV, particularly in cable.) Instead, Ben stumbles around and has a few visions, we learn some things about the carnival folk, and we spend a lot of time with Justin. Oh, and at one point, Lodz is all, “Not since St. Louis,” and he and Samson gravely nod at each other about Whatever Went Down There, and we’re expected to be really excited to find out.
If you’re a first time viewer of this show, I don’t blame you if you want to bail at this point. (I didn’t see many of you in comments last week, so I may start making these more spoiler-heavy if you don’t pop your heads up.) What’s interesting to me is that I enjoy this much more on a rewatch. There’s something about the show’s texture that lends itself to watching it all over again and figuring out where all of the puzzle pieces fit within the master narrative. There’s a lot of significant information dropped in this episode, but episode writers Ron Moore and Daniel Knauf and director Jeremy Podeswa don’t really bother calling all that much attention to it. About the only plot point that’s hammered home to us in that traditional TV fashion where we’re told something two or three times to make sure we get it is that the mysterious Scudder’s old flame was Ben’s mom. (Scudder, for those of you new to all of this, was the top-hatted man in Ben and Justin’s dream, and he was the guy who was a part of the carnival’s old geek show.)
Carnivàle, then, is a show for people who not only pay attention but take notes. It’s a show that was ahead of its time in some ways, because it probably needed a real Internet community to help suss out its minutiae, but such things didn’t really exist at the time the show aired. The constant push and pull of a show like this is figuring out just how much ambiguity an audience can take and how much will make it rebel. I’m not sure Carnivàle ever figured out how to walk that line in a satisfying fashion, but for people who are either willing to sit down and carefully sketch out just what they think everything means in detail or simply let all of it wash over themselves (because it’s damn pretty to look at), this hangs together better than it does for more casual fans. The show keeps teasing that it’s heading somewhere, but instead, it lays more and more groundwork. It’s a ballsy move, and I’m not sure why it works as well as it does.
Oh, no, I do. It’s because the show makes sure to tell really strong episode-to-episode stories. While Ben is learning more about the carnival folk and we’re seeing that Sofie’s mom, Apollonia, will get up out of bed to talk to him in the middle of the night (those older ladies love them some Ben Hawkins), we’re getting a really tight story about how Brother Justin finds a way to convince one of the local business leaders in his town to hand over the gambling parlor and strip club that is Mr. Chin’s, that Brother Justin might make it a church. Now, some of this is a little heavy-handed. Having the pillar of the community turn out to be a child molester is the sort of thing that long ago waved goodbye as it left cliché in the dust, but there’s a beautiful wondrousness to this story all the same, in particular that closing montage where Justin strolls through his new digs then gives a bit of a sermon, while our businessman sits atop a hill during Golden Hour and blows his brains out. What does it all mean? We still don’t know, and we’re still not meant to know. But it feels momentous, and it looks amazing.
Carnivàle was at its best when it could walk that line between artfully dodging straightforward plot mechanics and creating a sense that this was all heading somewhere, even as it was mostly sitting and idling, giving us new clues we didn’t even realize were clues. There were times when the show utterly misjudged how best to accomplish that task, but there were also times when everything added up to something that felt right, as it all does here. I can quibble here and there—I still don’t understand why this damn carnival has so many psychics, and the speech the preacher gives about Babe Ruth might as well have a neon sign saying, “THIS IS ACTUALLY ABOUT THE PROTAGONIST, BROTHER JUSTIN”—but when the episodic stories were as good as this episode’s is, I could have spent years learning absolutely nothing about the world of the show.
Or, put another way, that opening dream may as well stand in for everything the series was doing or wanted to do. Justin and Ben keep looking into the past, rather than turning and facing their present. This was always a show more concerned with unearthing the secret history that laid beneath its feet, buried in the dust, even as it seemed like there was so much potential in just having everything rattle forward. And yet there is something fascinating about that secret history, about the idea that the hat the bear in Ben’s dream was wearing could turn up on Management’s trailer or that a dwarf could be the mentee of a bunch of curtains. There’s always a point where a mystery show reaches a point of diminishing returns, and it just needs to start answering things already. I’m not sure Carnivàle ever really reached that point for me. It’s at its best when the characters keep glancing in mirrors and piling on the oddities.
- I normally quite like the music on this show, but some of the weird music that plays when Brother Justin walks around Chin’s sounds too much like Vangelis broke into the recording studio. It doesn’t fit with the show’s usual instrumentation.
- I love the way World War I hangs over this show like a dark cloud. Every character is affected by it, even if they can’t quite verbalize why.
- Jonesy doesn’t think much of that Babe Ruth. You know he totally would have been the Babe if he’d just been able to stay in the game.
- I really enjoyed Sofie’s scenes with her mom in this episode, particularly the one where Apollonia is just refusing to tell her daughter what the cards mean and Sofie has to improvise her way through things.
- Your assignment for the week: Work “dance the cooch” into polite conversation at any and all opportunities.
- Though the “he’s a pedophile!” reveal is too obvious, I liked that the show didn’t shy away from showing just how monstrous that act was. The moment when the businessman crosses to the child and sits down next to him is one that’s sure to make any viewer’s skin crawl.
- Nick Stahl still feels like he’s settling into his role here, and his performance feels just a touch uncomfortable. (I suspect much of this is intentional, as this is a guy who’s spent his whole life being chased around by supernatural portents.) Clancy Brown, however, is already pretty much just delivering a titanic performance as Brother Justin.
- Okay, I give up: Anybody know how to make the little a with the accent mark over it, going the right way, in MS Word? Without having to copy-paste it or find it in the lengthy symbols sub-menu? This show is going to be the end of me if I have to re-figure that out every week.
- Characters I am still largely indifferent to: Gecko (though I like his look). Ruthie. Iris.
One ultra-spoiler-y observation:
- I had forgotten just how thoroughly the show works to suggest that Brother Justin might be the “child of light,” while Ben might be the “child of dark.” Now, it was pretty obvious to all who was who (at least from reading contemporary reviews of the show), but there’s definitely a hint here that both guys could be free agents. Honestly, I kind of wonder how the show would have played out with Justin as the avatar of light and Ben as the avatar of dark. It could have been great. (More likely, it would have been foolish.)
Next week: Ben’s big secret gets out as the carnival makes its way to “Tipton.”