“Lincoln Highway” (season 2, episode 9; originally aired 3/6/2005)
In which getting tarred and feathered doesn’t look very fun
What is it about Carnivàle? What is it that prompts the show to build up momentum, then immediately follow that up with an episode that stalls and meanders, wandering around with no destination in particular? I’ll grant you that I praised an episode like that—“The Road To Damascus”—as one of the series’ very best a few weeks ago, but it’s still a curious storytelling decision. Here we are, with just four episodes left in this season, and we’re spending this one on wrapping up some not particularly vital conflicts from last week’s episode, more time with Burley, and several scenes of the carnival just sitting on the side of the highway while Samson warns, “Oh, you’d better not do that!” before various people, particularly Ben, head off to do just that. It’s not a bad episode, but it’s one that undercuts much of what the season was building.
What keeps it from completely falling apart is a surprisingly beautiful ending. The series has always been good at finding moments of transcendence and beauty amid the squalor of the show’s setting, but the sequences that close out the episode here take the cake. The first involves Jonesy and Ben’s return from their time out in the wastes. In general, the aftermath of Jonesy and Libby being carted out into the middle of nowhere so Jonesy can be tarred and feathered is my favorite thing about the episode. The fact that the tarring and feathering is performed by characters we’ve never seen before and will never see again undercuts the drama of the moment somewhat. (Was anybody who saw the death on the Ferris wheel last week thinking about how it would be good to see how the husband of that woman reacted?) But the sections where Jonesy lies quietly dying, and Libby slowly loses hope about keeping him alive are well done.
Naturally, Ben comes along to save the day, but in so doing, he lets Jonesy in on his little secret. (One presumes Jonesy will tell Libby about it eventually as well.) I like the majesty and awe in Jonesy’s eyes as he sees what Ben has done, particularly once he realizes that his knee is healed. This is a show rich with Biblical allusions, and Ben coming into his power reminds me of the difference between John the Baptist and Jesus. Where Management/Belyakov was closed off and preaching the beauty of things to come, Ben actually is those things to come. He might be a little awkward and confused, but he’s also approachable and doing his best to help those around him. He’s a good person who’s been given inestimable power, and he’s using that power to help, even when it means taking him away from his pursuit of Stroud to get Scudder back. Jonesy’s lope across the expanse to return to the arms of his wife is one of the most beautiful scenes this show ever did, with the cinematography and score adding perfectly to the raw emotion of the moment. A big reason it works as such a great payoff is because of how carefully the show has built to this moment in terms of Ben. Ben tells Jonesy that “everything’s impossible” until it isn’t, and it might work as a mission statement for this show: Have hope that something better is coming, because it almost has to.
The other beautiful scene closes out a storyline that’s less impressive, if only because it wanders all over the place. Sofie’s now the maid in Brother Justin’s home, and she’s learning the ropes. (Toast, dry! Coffee, black!) The show knows that we want her to confront head-on the mystery of who her father is, to answer once and for all if it’s Justin, and that we also want her to be this secret time bomb Justin doesn’t know is counting down to blowing up, living right in his own home. The problem with this is that we just learned that Sofie was taking up the job as the maid in the last episode, which vastly constrains the show’s ability to play around with this storyline. If the coupling of Sofie and Ben was so satisfying because the series took its time, then the moment when Sofie and Brother Justin pray together is less so because we’ve gotten very few scenes with her in his house before it happens. It’s, again, a very beautiful moment, rich in subtext and fraught with potential for what’s to come. But it’s also kind of tacked onto an episode where both Justin and those surrounding him don’t have a consistent throughline.
Let me ask you this: What’s Iris’ deal? Up until this point, her most salient characteristic has been her utter devotion to her brother, to the point where scenes shared between the two verged up to the edge of some serious, incestual creepiness. Yet this episode is meant to feature a moment wherein she praises Norman for making an attempt on Justin’s life, since such a thing might expose his true nature to the world. Only she and Norman know who Justin really is, and that is their curse, she says. And I’m left wondering what the hell is going on here. It’s one thing to play a long game with the audience, to make the audience think one thing, but drop in clues that don’t seem like clues, then yank the rug out from viewers, so they realize what the story was building toward all along. In some ways, there’s nothing more satisfying than when a narrative does something like that. It’s also totally fine to have a character behave one way for a long time, then gradually evolve them in a direction where they come to believe the polar opposite. That’s also fine, because it happens to all of us all the time. But the Iris storyline attempts to do both of these things, in the space of a single episode, more or less, and the final reveal just comes across as muddled. It might be necessary for what’s to come to have Justin isolated and alone, cut off from even the one person he thought he could count in, and Amy Madigan plays the hell out of the scene with Norman. But I’m not sure it makes, y’know, sense.
That’s just a typical problem with a serialized drama, though. When it comes down to it, the writers of these sorts of shows can’t perfectly develop every character, so they have to make certain narrative cheats here and there. This isn’t the most egregious example of Carnivàle doing so throughout its run, but it is up there, and it closes out an episode that was a little muddled in terms of Justin but at least had that scintillating scene in which he delivers his new Sermon On The Mount. If the show has been laying on the Jesus parallels a little thick over in the Ben storyline, then it’s been plastering on the Antichrist symbolism with Justin as thickly as it possibly can. In the hands of lesser actors, this probably wouldn’t work, but the Carnivàle writers have Clancy Brown in their corner, and he can make lines like, “Blessed are the meek! [Evil chuckle.] Can you imagine?” feel like the sort of thing you’d say in everyday conversation if you were an Avatar of pure darkness. Also very good in this storyline is Ralph Waite, who gets many pivotal moments and can do very little acting with anything but his eyes. That he manages to pull this off is a testament to his abilities, and the bit where Justin’s eyes go black and he performs a little psychic dentistry on Norman is another episode highlight.
One of the structural difficulties that Carnivàle has is that it’s effectively two shows in one. There’s the workplace drama about working at a carnival in the 1930s that Ben heads up, and then there’s the more political and spiritual horror drama that Justin heads up, something of a spin on the short-lived horror show American Gothic, but set in Depression-era California. The show has chosen to lavish most of its attention on the former, simply because that’s where most of the characters are. (It also might be an offshoot of when the show was originally going to keep Brother Justin as a recurring player that Ben would occasionally receive flashes of.) But the Brother Justin storyline is so much more complicated, with so many more moving parts, that the new Sermon On The Mount is a payoff to something that never really finishes getting built. It’s a good scene, but the storyline as a whole can’t help but feel a little undercooked. That applies to lots of things in “Lincoln Highway,” actually: They’re well done in the moment, but the more you think about them, the less the episode seems to have invested the time necessary to really build them up. It’s surprisingly fitting for an episode that starts out with shots of a bunch of cars parked on the edge of the road. The narrative momentum is still present, but it’s stalled, just a bit.
- The scene where Ben’s “spirit,” for lack of a better word, enters Stroud and Scudder’s Cheyenne hotel room is an effectively creepy bit of business, particularly once the camera cuts out of Ben’s point-of-view and goes to Stroud, who has no idea what’s going on but knows he doesn’t like it.
- The dried tar that Jonesy picks off of himself once he’s been healed isn’t the most convincing makeup effect in the world.
- After a whole review complaining about the suddenness of certain plot developments here, I’ll just say that I really like the way that Samson’s trust of Ben has gone from nonexistent to complete in just one episode. Last week, he was angry with the kid. This week, he’s turning to him on just about everything.
- Vote Democrat! Receive a shiny quarter! (Actually, my vote could totally be bought for a shiny quarter. Nothing better than a shiny quarter.)
- Ben utilizing the vultures to restore health and life to Jonesy was a clever touch, and one I honestly didn’t see coming the first time I watched this episode. He finds a way, even in the middle of a desert. (Possible parallels to Jesus’ time in the wilderness here? Eh, let’s not overthink it.)
- Justin using an attempt on his life to solidify his flock’s devotion to him is also fairly clever storytelling.
- Finally, the continuing adventures of Ruthie-as-possessed-by-Lodz results in her scrawling “SOFIE IS THE OMEGA” on her mirror in lipstick. Thanks for the message, Lodz! (In general, this whole storyline points to the show’s difficulties with integrating the supporting cast, but maybe we’ll get to that next week.)
Next week: Todd Field drops in to direct, as Ben finally heads after Stroud and Scudder in “Cheyenne, WY.”