“Damascus, NE” (season 2, episode 7; originally aired 2/20/2005)
In which everything changes
The old idea that there’s an episode where everything changes is one of the biggest tricks in the TV promotions book. If there’s any episode where there’s even a mildly exciting twist, then that’s a cue for the marketing department to haul out voiceover guy to say, “This week on Serialized Mayhem… everything. Changes.” And then you’ll see a series of disconnected images of, like, people fighting or characters staring angrily at each other or what-have-you. And that will all be there to make it feel like some super crazy stuff is about to go down, and, hey, maybe I’d better tune in and watch that episode live, right? The problem is that these episodes rarely live up to this sort of promotion. Almost always, the episodes where “everything changes” are the ones where one very small thing changes, and in the end, viewers are left wanting more clarification or plot momentum or… something. (Much as I loved that show, Lost was a frequent abuser of this technique in its promotional trailers.)
“Damascus, NE” is an episode where everything does, legitimately, change. There’s a major death, even if it’s the death of a character we only meet in the flesh in this episode. There’s Justin breaking with the church and charting his own course. There’s Jonesy and Libby finally hooking up. (I say “finally,” but, honestly, hasn’t their flirtation only played out for an episode or two?) There’s everybody trying to figure out where Sofie could have gotten off to and Lila and Ruthie briefly mentioning last week’s weirdness with Lodz. And there’s the culmination of the long search for Hack Scudder, which concludes with Ben finding his dad in the titular Nebraska town. There are also creepy images aplenty, a terrifying dream for Justin, a series of weird visions for Ben, and a moment when Ben and Belyakov finally learn the name of Ben’s opposite: Alexsei. This, of course, likely won’t help them when the man they’re going for has changed his name, but, hey. It’s a start.
I honestly don’t remember the fan reaction to this episode when it initially aired, nor my initial reaction. (Okay, I remember thinking that the final fight between Scudder and Belyakov was pretty great, all desperate and terrifying and dirty. It’s almost the perfect example of the series taking its grand, mystical portents and bringing them down to a human, more physical scale.) But my reaction to watching it now was one of strange apathy, followed almost immediately by weird glee. The series has spent so long seeming to build up to something that once it actually builds up to something, it feels like a downpour after several days of clouds building in the sky. It’s the storm you’ve long been promised that never actually came. It’s the story, which has moved forward barely at all (in season one) and at a wheezing plod (in season two), suddenly jolting to life. It’s a little thrilling to watch, even if not everything hangs together.
In particular, I’m not sure the episode quite works until Ben finally meets Scudder. (It’s on the rails from there.) Part of this just might be that the episode is taking its time making it seem like this is going to be just any other episode of the series. This means that there will be some weird, spooky dreams and some odd visions and some plotlines being set up that don’t amount to anything in the grand scheme of things. Thus, the scenes of, say, Justin meeting with the church official are bland and pleasant, masking that dark heart Justin tries so hard to keep hidden. The same goes for the scenes of Iris talking with Norman, or the scenes involving the weird love triangle between Samson and his old friends from the other carnival. The stuff as Ben enters Damascus is also fairly rote, at least in terms of the show’s increasing reliance on creepy images and weirdness to drive things forward this season. Sending Ben into a slaughterhouse, for instance, is just a little lazy, and there’s not a lot here that works as well as last week’s more lyrical hour, outside of Stroud and Ben breaking the prostitutes’ mirror and being told they’ll have to pay for that.
Yet it’s hard to hold all of this against the episode, because it’s almost as if the episode is trying to lull us into a false sense of security, so when the shit starts raining down, it’s that much more surprising. It’s one thing, for instance, to have Justin see the image of a Ferris wheel in his mirror, then turn around and no longer see it there. That’s the kind of hint the show has been teasing us with for too long, frankly. But it’s something else entirely to give Ben a substantial edge in the hunt for his opposite, even if it’s one that will require more investigation. (Granted, Stroud has now seen Ben and presumably identified him, at least somewhat, but Ben having a name will give him the greater gift of information.) It’s almost as if the episode cleaves neatly into two separate episodes, right around that scene where Ben finds his father—whose face has been ruined by acid scars—then heals him, causing the hotel’s patrons to drop, some presumably dead. (Stroud manages to crawl out somehow.)
One of the hardest things to portray in a story about people with magical powers is the idea of consequences, of the fact that when things happen, they actually matter. Season one got around this by having the story be as much about the carnival folk—and what might happen to them (as we saw in Babylon)—as it was about Ben and Justin’s respective journeys to their destinies. But once the show starts getting into the back-story and trying to explain just what transpired between Scudder and Belyakov, that’s when I start to mentally tune out, just a bit. It’s one of those things where it’s immensely hard to do this kind of material well enough to keep viewers engaged throughout, because it will always feel like the build-up to a prequel series that will never come. (One has to imagine that if this show had been a hit, a Scudder and Belyakov spinoff would have been at hand.) To compare to Lost again, that series’ conflict between Jacob and the Man in Black in its final season reminds me a lot of the conflict between Scudder and Belyakov: theoretically interesting, but driven by characters the audience has a less solid connection to than it does to the main characters.
That’s why it’s so surprising how moving the scenes with Scudder end up being. The show errs on the side of not having the conversation between father and son in the car be filled with mournful recriminations, and it’s just the right touch. Ben has so many questions he wants answered, and Scudder has so many things he wants to say, but neither of them can find the words to talk to each other. And when Scudder finally confronts his nemesis, it’s also subtly low-key. At one time, Scudder was the Avatar of Dark, but he’s apparently taken himself out of the game entirely (though he still knows who his successor is). Somewhere along the line, this whole thing got to be too much for him, and he removed himself from the game board entirely, even if that meant scarring himself with acid and removing himself from his son. That notion is inherently fascinating, and it’s one that I hope the show would have followed up on in future seasons. So far, everything has been so driven by fatalism that the notion of someone who’s removed himself becomes all the more powerful.
Yet Belyakov—the Avatar of Light, mind—is so single-minded in his pursuit of Scudder, which has been driving the series to this point, remember, that he can’t stop himself from lunging out, one arm around the neck of his rival, trying to kill him. It’s a pathetic scene. That it almost works is even more horrifying, particularly when we get a good look at the scarred, embittered visage of Belyakov. These don’t feel like two near-gods playing out a war on a cosmic scale. They feel like two old men having a brawl, their weakened states making it all but impossible to do anything but flail at each other. Once Ben stabs Belyakov to save his father, the one-armed man’s blue blood seeping into the floor, the whole thing becomes even more powerful. We’re seeing the end of a tragedy we’ll never see the first four acts for, the conclusion of something grand and epic that simply won’t play out for us otherwise.
It’s that sense that propels the episode toward something grander and greater than the show has been before. For as much as I’ve enjoyed other episodes of the show, this is the first that really earns the feeling of epic that the series has strived for to this point. This feels like the show doubling down both on its mythology and its characters. After all, this is also the episode that gives us one of Justin’s most terrifying speeches yet, in which he directly compares himself to Jesus, then seems to rip the speech the church elders have handed him into a thousand pieces, that they might rain down on his listeners, in a pale imitation of the miracle of the loaves and fishes. This is a darkly beautiful, troubling episode of television. It’s not perfect, but its imperfections make the moments that do work all the more powerful, reminding us that this is still a dangerous world and there are actual stakes.
- I do think the ending here—Belyakov lunges to life and grabs Ben around the throat, and the carnival’s rides jolt back to life as well, spinning much more quickly—is kind of a weak cliffhanger. But maybe that’s needed after all of the preceding craziness.
- Jonesy and Libby hooking up is surprisingly sweet and surprisingly sensual, even if it sort of feels like it happens a little too quickly. The show is artificially speeding through certain plots, and while that’s not always satisfying, it’s at least getting certain things in place for later.
- It’s still staggering to me that Ben and Justin haven’t even met at this point in the show. I don’t know what Daniel Knauf had over the HBO executives, but that took balls.
- Samson gets sidelined again, so Belyakov can orchestrate the death of Scudder or his own death or something, but at least Samson gets lucky in the process.
- Sofie sits this episode out, and it’s the right choice, I think. I don’t know that I’m spoiling anything to say she’ll be back eventually.
- I’m always amused when TV shows and movies want to show a small town in the Great Plains and come up with a town of 5,000 people or so. That would be a major commerce center in many of those states!
- One other demerit: The Dreifuss money plot drags along for yet another week. I guess they’re the characters who are hardest to work into the overarching plot at this point, but, man, they really do feel tangential, don’t they?
Next week: Things continue to speed along as we head into the “Outskirts, Damascus, NE.”