Carnivàle: “Hot And Bothered”
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Carnivàle: “Hot And Bothered”

“Hot And Bothered” (season 1, episode 10; originally aired 11/16/2003)

In which everybody gets lucky

Remember that stuff I said a couple of weeks ago about how one of the problems with Carnivàle on a rewatch is how the scenes where something’s about to happen play when you know what’s coming? Well, maybe you should forget I ever said that, because “Hot And Bothered” is an episode that’s nothing but scenes where it seems like something might happen, and then it doesn’t, and it’s awesome. This thing is packed with fun moments and great little details, and it feels like an episode the whole season has been building to, in a lot of ways. We get payoffs to a lot of big stories here, yet we get them in weirdly muted ways, and we get some larger answers about just what’s going on with the whole Management vs. Scudder angle that’s developing as the series goes on. Also, Ben finally goes to sleep, Jonesy implies Sofie ate a dog taco, and Stumpy sleeps with a hot, much younger woman. It’s an episode full of vague portents of doom, some coming from what appear to be public art projects, but it’s also an episode where those vague portents really seem to add up to something.

While watching this episode, it struck me just how oddly structured this season of television is. It’s neatly bifurcated between the first six episodes—which offer up four roughly standalone tales, then a two-parter that seems to have next to nothing to do with anything else—and the last six, which are a slow-boiling pot, the stories taking time to develop over those six episodes, and the standalone aspects either limited or completely missing. Is there a story in this episode that could function more or less on its own, without prior knowledge of the show? I suppose Samson and Ben’s adventure into the Templar lodge could conceivably work on this level, but it’s over fairly quickly, and the big payoff is something that only works if you’ve seen the episodes before. Hell, even the Sofie-Jonesy flirtation is something that plays better having seen the nine preceding episodes.

This is all a far cry from the character setting up a fake revival meeting to win over a town skeptical of carnivals, or a dust storm stranding everybody and forcing them to confront their deepest personal anxieties. In those first six episodes, Carnivàle was a show where the storytelling drove the mythology. We learned things about the secrets underpinning this universe, but they were almost always subservient to the latest wacky tale of being a superpowered being among carnival folk. Yet after the Babylon arc, the show made a subtle shift to the mythology driving the storytelling. Suddenly, it was much more important for us to get the tiny bits of information doled out about the back-story in the world than anything else, and even the non-mythology storylines were much more intricate and involved. It’s hard to imagine something like the intricate web of relationships that have developed between Stumpy, Rita Sue, Jonesy, and Sofie to have worked as well as it did back in the first half of the season.

Now, granted, that’s because it takes time to get to know these people. The kiss Jonesy and Sofie share in this episode is filled with longing and regret, and those emotions wouldn’t work without nine episodes behind them, building to the point they reach here. Yet at the same time, there’s a definite shift at episode seven from a show that wants to be a Great Depression-era compendium of standalone ghost stories and other spooky tales to one that wants to fill in its own, peculiar mythos. It’s like illuminating the back-story of Brother Justin in “The River” made everybody involved with the show realize that this series would move with more confidence if it fully embraced the weirdness that was always a part of its core being.

This is natural for shows with involved mythologies. Nearly all of them eventually find themselves forced to abandon standalone adventures because the audience wants to know what’s going on in the serialized aspects of the show. (The exception to this was The X-Files, where the constant fan complaint was that if Mulder and Scully knew the U.S. government was colluding with aliens to bring about an invasion of the Earth, they wouldn’t waste all of their time pursuing worm-men who lived in your toilet.) Carnivàle is no different from Lost or Fringe in this regard. Where it is different is in how quickly it realized that what it wanted to do was double down on the mythological storytelling. I’m not trying to say that the first and second halves of Carnivàle’s first season are two different shows, but when I think back on, say, that revival-meeting episode, it really does feel light years away from what we get here.

This transition isn’t without growing pains. I’d say the seventh through ninth episodes are this first season’s low point. The series clearly knew what it wanted to do, but it was having trouble figuring out a way to tell those stories in a way that moved. Also, one of the major plot points was about a character trying not to fall asleep, and that’s just hard to dramatize, no matter how you slice it. “Hot And Bothered” bears all the landmarks of those episodes—dreamy plotlines that seem nonsensical in the moment, complicated relationship strife back at the carnival, scenes where nothing happens but it sure feels like something might—but it’s better in a lot of ways and in a way that makes me greater appreciate what came before.

I think part of this stems from how the episode moves more swiftly and with greater confidence. Instead of drawing out the visit to the Templar Lounge, like Ben’s visit to find Lobster Boy, the show simply plows right on through it, with the major reveal (the tattooed figure from Ben’s dreams is in the mural on the Templars’ wall) coming at the episode’s midpoint, a perfect point to raise the stakes of whatever the hell it is Ben’s wrapped up in. The reveal is great—and creepy—and the scenes that follow it, with Boffo looking down at Ben from the top of the lodge and Samson talking with Ben about the history of the carnival, offer up some much needed history and context. It’s clear that whatever’s transpiring between Scudder and Management, it’s been going on for a long time, and it’s something that’s ensnared everybody else. When Samson angrily demands answers from the Templars, it becomes apparent just how little he knows about his own life and why he does what he does. Finally, he has a chance to get the answers that might illuminate why he does what he does, and all he gets are a bunch of old men playing gin rummy.

I also think one of the things that makes this episode work is that it fills the audience in on things the characters won’t necessarily know. In previous episodes—particularly in the last three—we had a tendency to learn things alongside the characters, which often nullified any suspense that was being built. Here, we get a number of major revelations—the mural, Boffo in the top window, Justin’s ability to see his parishioners’ sins—that aren’t dispensed to the other characters. Giving the audience answers while keeping the characters in the dark is a trick that works well on the show, and the use of dramatic irony keeps the episode from falling flat.

On another level, this is a strong episode for the interpersonal relationships. I do wish there’d been a little more context for why Catalina decides to sleep with Stumpy, but I’m willing to accept that she just wanted to join the carnival and get out of her dumpy little town. If that meant she had to sleep with a guy old enough to be her father, so be it. I also liked the way this plays off of the way that Rita Sue and Jonesy have become an item, with Stumpy finally emerging from the death of Dora Mae to want to be with his wife again, only to find she couldn’t be less interested. (When Stumpy says that some mornings, he doesn’t want to hear the sound of his wife’s voice, while other mornings… then trails off, it’s about the most accurate description of marriage ever.) Meanwhile, Jonesy and Sofie finally seem to be ready to consummate their long-simmering flirtation, only to have Jonesy pull back in consideration of not wanting to “ruin” what they have. (Here’s another moment that makes me say, “What?!” but Tim DeKay sells it well enough that I can overlook it.)

Everybody’s feeling a little hot and bothered in the scorching autumn heat, which leads to Ruthie and Ben finally hooking up as well. Truth be told, the desire to seemingly have all of the characters hook up (or come close to it) feels a little forced, and by the time we get to these last few sex scenes, it all feels a little rote. (This could just be my general antipathy for the Ruthie/Ben pairing speaking. I still don’t see what these two crazy kids see in each other.) Yet this one, at least, is just an excuse to get Ben asleep in a bed, so Lodz can step into Ben’s dreams and realize that Scudder realizes the carnival has the boy. Management and Lodz chuckle about how they’re going to find Scudder, and then the blood will flow, and even though I know what it means, I still want to know just what the hell is going on.

That’s the balance shows like this have to manage—the balance between being of interest to new viewers and still exciting those who want to watch time and time again. “Hot And Bothered” keeps the story moving, keeps the revelations coming, and offers some personal stories that have been a long time in coming. It feels almost like the show is figuring itself out, all over again, on the fly. In an oddly structured season, it’s an episode that suggests we’re about to head somewhere very exciting and plunge headfirst into a finale that finally goes somewhere. Will we? I won’t answer that, but “Hot And Bothered” renewed my faith that this can work for viewers more than just that first time.

Stray observations:

  • Hey, the readership numbers for this feature have plummeted, especially in recent weeks. This has surprised me, given how many of you voted for this show in the poll. I’d love to cover season two when the time comes, but it’ll be hard to justify doing it at the current readership level. Tell your friends! Get some discussion going! Etc.!
  • Oh, also, we got some intriguing business with Sofie. It seems Apollonia is more or less losing it, and she’s forcing Sofie to start telling customers all of the bad things that are about to happen to them. This might have done with a little more build-up—it mostly happens in the last episode and then hinges on Samson telling Sofie he’s got a problem with her act—but it’s a nice companion to when Sofie sees the Templar telling her cryptically that every prophet is in her house, suggesting Sofie’s tied to the main storyline in ways we haven’t guessed at yet.
  • I’ve barely touched on Justin, that’s how good this episode is. His return home is appropriately weighty, but it occupies less time than I thought it might. Still, I love the facial expressions of Norman, Iris, and Tommy in the scene where he returns to the church to begin preaching, and I like that cross of blood that takes up residence on his face. The way that his preaching is evolving to incorporate the idea of evil as being something essential to being human is fascinating, too.
  • C’mon, Ben. We’ve all dreamed of a man with a tree tattoo stalking us in the middle of the night! (I also like how obvious it is that Clancy Brown is providing the voice of Mr. Tree Tattoo.)
  • Potentially spoiler-y observation #1: Knowing a bit about Daniel Knauf’s plans for the show and knowing a bit about where the mythology is headed, I’ve always wondered if Ben’s dream in this episode is meant to presage World War II in some ways. The plants certainly look vaguely like something he might have seen in the Pacific theater.
  • Potentially spoiler-y observation #2: Knowing where Jonesy’s ultimately going to end up makes the storyline where Libby finds out her mom’s sleeping with him even more fascinating.
  • Potentially spoiler-y observation #3: Ben has a vision of Mr. Tree Tattoo (or, rather, the avatar of dark), but when he looks again, it’s just Sofie. Dun dun dun.

Next week: Don’t look now, carnival folk. It’s the “Day Of The Dead.”

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