Carnivàle: “Ingram, TX”
B+

Carnivàle: “Ingram, TX”

B+

Carnivàle

“Ingram, TX”

Season 2, Episode 3

“Ingram, TX” (season 2, episode 3; originally aired 1/23/2005)

In which there are shadows of things unseen

There’s not a lot to “Ingram, TX,” but it’s impressive the episode gets as far as it does on the pure application of mythological forward momentum and spooky images. There are a few scenes where we drop in on, say, the Dreifuss family, just to see how everything is going. (Rita Sue is tired of the hectic pace the family is following.) But for the most part, this is an episode dedicated to eeriness, to having the dead show up and wander the carnival grounds or sending Ben on a terrifying voyage into the woods in the middle of the night. The overall effect is pronounced and unsettling, but it also doesn’t leave much to say about the episode, particularly when you know where all of this is heading. That’s one of the risks with a series so heavily concentrated on its serialized backstory when revisiting it.

Still, there’s plenty to recommend here. The thing that strikes me the most favorably when going through this episode again is the rise of Brother Justin. One of the things that’s fascinating to me is the way that the series has created this figure of pure malevolence who actually doesn’t do anything all that bad. When Tommy Dolan tells him early in the episode that many who’ve come to New Canaan are just there for the free meal, Justin doesn’t seem too bothered by this. Of course they’d come for the free meal! They’re starving, and he can give them something to eat. Justin understands the most important and central tenet of any fledgling movement: If you’re going to get the people to stick around, you have to take care of their material needs somehow. Tommy, ensconced in his worldly ways, doesn’t seem as interested in such prosaic matters.

A couple of weeks ago, I criticized the show’s writers for making Justin a figure of such obvious evil this season, but a few of you suggested that the show was up to more than that, particularly when it came to Clancy Brown’s performance. I like this idea, so I’m going to return to it here. When we see Justin this season, yes, he’s got this sense of pure, brooding darkness going on behind his eyes, and the words he offers frequently pervert the Biblical texts they’re taken from. But he’s not so simple as “just” evil. As stated above, he’s frequently doing good things—or doing the right thing, even—even as he seems to be gathering this army of followers who will do anything he asks without question. Yes, he’s able to broadcast his voice to mass murderers (and Sofie) through the radio via whatever magical means he can muster, but he’s also concerned with keeping up appearances to some degree.

As some of you pointed out, this extends to his sense of righteous fury and rage at those who do not manage to live up to what they “should” be doing. When he sends the maid a vision of the two’s sexual desire for each other in the second episode, it feels almost as if his own rage at their inability to be chaste and pure is driving much of it. Yet Justin is already slipping. In this episode, he forces the maid into a sexual position, then makes Norman watch. This seems to be as much about how Norman was the one person he couldn’t best as anything else, but there’s real terror present in it, as if Justin is already losing the sense of his old, human self that was keeping him held together in season one and was at least providing that ready-made judgment in season two’s first two episodes. He’s a man increasingly without a code, yet also a man who’s essentially been given carte blanche to make up his own code. There’s a terrifying freedom in that, and Clancy Brown plays the moments when Justin lets go and lets in more of this demonic force that seems to be controlling him so well that I want to spot the show some of its less subtle moments with the character.

Ben, meanwhile, mostly spends the episode poking around, looking for the Crone. The series is fond of presenting situations in which Ben and Justin roughly mirror each other, and in addition to some fairly obvious ones—like Justin drawing images of human eyes and Ben looking over that diagram of artificial eyes—there’s an interesting disquisition here on what happens to sexual morality when you can essentially reshape the world in your own image. Justin, of course, avails himself of the maid, but when Ben comes upon an old, bent and stooped man in the middle of the dusty road near Ingram, he not only refuses to do anything with the man’s mentally handicapped daughter (whom the man is prostituting out) but also apparently touches the man in his soul, so he’ll no longer take part in such foul business. It’s a moving little moment, and it points to how the show is utilizing Ben much better in this season: He’s the avatar of light, sure, but he’s also a guy who’s wandered into a world that’s desperate for a buck or two, and he’s going to do his best to make that world a better place. The first season’s greatest failing was that it was never immediately clear why Ben was the hero of this particular story. This season has righted that ship remarkably quickly.

The business with Ben’s search for the Crone is also terrifying. Ben finds his way to the house where the Crone is said to be, but all he finds are the left-behinds of some particularly grisly carcasses (and what appears to be a human scalp at one point). This is straight-up small-town horror stuff, straight out of Texas Chainsaw Massacre (notice that title), and once he’s being chased through the woods by the cackling minions of the Crone, it gets much more disturbing that much more quickly. The shadowy figures stalking him through the treelines are straight out of a nightmare, and when he’s finally taken by them, robbed, beaten, hung upside down, and ultimately buried alive, it seems as if there’s no good way for him to get out of the situation.

As it turns out, there really isn’t. The minions recognize that Ben is carrying Scudder’s Templar pin, and they realize that they’ve captured—gasp—the wrong man. They dig up Ben before he can suffocate, and when he tells them that, sure, that Templar pin is his, they let him know that he’ll be moving on to the next step in his journey fairly quickly. It’s a disappointing ending to a story that had built up a nice veneer of terrifying menace. The show often falls into this storytelling rut, however, and this often leads to some of its weaker moments. Everything will build up to a huge moment, then someone will realize the true nature of Ben or Justin and the story will shift to them granting one of the two Avatars their way. Maybe that’s why Justin still commands such interest from me: He’s still essentially taking the bull by the horns and making his own destiny. Ben’s doing better on this front this season, but it’s too easy for the series to back itself into a corner, then have him be saved by a mythological contrivance. It’s not enough to drag down a frequently scary episode, but it does leave things on a disappointing note.

Stray observations:

  • Hey, that random hillbilly is Jimmi Simpson, better known as Liam McPoyle on It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. What a weird character actor to have pop up here, even if it seems completely appropriate.
  • Ruthie’s visions of Lodz are also fairly scary, but I’m surprised the series seems to be dragging out the inevitable reveal that she’s able to see the dead, thanks to her extended period of time on the other side.
  • On the other hand, I like the way that the reverberations of last season’s finale are still being felt. Ben doesn’t want to be near Ruthie at all, while the friendship between Jonesy and Sofie seems permanently sundered, even as she joins the roustabout crew.
  • The scene where Tommy Dolan talks about the deaths in Brother Justin’s old church that burned down (remember that?) is supremely creepy. I’ve genuinely forgotten what Tommy’s long game is here, and I’m excited to be reminded. (I particularly like the closeups of Tommy slicing through that egg. Great stuff.)
  • The final bit with Sofie’s radio turning itself toward Brother Justin’s address is a nice, creepy moment to end on, but I particularly like the look in Clea DuVall’s eyes, as if she knew this was coming and was just waiting for it.
  • Another great shot: Justin leaning over the prostrate form of Norman, from Norman’s point-of-view.
  • Hey, what’s up with secret history fantasy stories and Tarot cards? They seem to pop up all the time.

Next week: Ben finally finds what he’s been looking for in “Old Cherry Blossom Road.”