“Lonnigan, Texas” (season 1, episode 8; originally aired 11/2/2003)
In which Ben and Justin get sidetracked
One of the hardest things for those writing a show like Carnivàle is the fact that much of the drama stems from how things are always about to happen, but never quite do. The trick to a show like that is building in release valves, places where the storyline gets a little room to let off some pressure, without ruining the whole darn thing by either giving too much information and forward momentum or by giving to little information and forward momentum. This is a constant struggle, too. Yes, there’s the question of when to reveal certain things in the overall season arc—here, clearly, the show decides to reveal to us that, yes, there is a Management (though we probably assumed that), and he/she sounds a lot like Linda Hunt—but there’s also the question of when to reveal stuff within given episodes or scenes or even dramatic beats. These release valves act as currency. Place them correctly, and you buy yourself passage for another stretch of the show. Place them incorrectly and the audience gets overwhelmed and doesn’t want to keep going or finds itself wishing you’d get to the damn point already.
All of which is a way of saying I like “Lonnigan, Texas” a lot, but it certainly has some release valve placement issues. There’s only so long a show like this can live off of vague intimations of potential creepiness before it needs to keep upping the ante. Take, for instance, the scene where Ben stops at the gas station to find out where to go and see about Scorpion Boy, only to learn about Lobster Gal instead. There’s literally no real dramatic reason for this scene to exist. Yes, it sets up some of the conflicts for later, but not in a way that could have been set up without the scene being present. Yes, it gives us another depiction of Great Depression misery, but in an episode where we’ve already got Ben’s visit to the house of Lobster Gal, we don’t really need another.
The reason the scene is here is because it’s a scene where it feels like something is about to happen. We see the gas station attendant—who’s a nothing of a character, just an excuse to have a stuttering albino guy wandering around because that might be sorta creepy—and we see the family struggling with its bum tire, but that’s all there for local color, as it were. Such scenes aren’t wholly unwelcome. I can’t say that the scene where Ben actually goes to visit Lobster Gal has much of a place in the story either, but it’s much more interesting and creepy, and it introduces us to the true allegiance of Phineas Boffo, who appears to have something to do with the Knights Templar. Yet it’s another scene that exists almost solely to tease us on possibilities that never arise.
That’s the problem with rewatching a show like this, as some of you talked about in comments last week. The show is so predicated on its revelations that once you know them, some of the fun is gone. I’ve been surprised by how much more I’m enjoying the stories of the carnival folk this time around than when I first watched, but that’s because now that I know the “answers,” such as they are, in the Ben and Justin storyline, there’s less there to drive me forward. Whole swathes of the two characters’ storylines exist solely to get them to the next portion of the mythology puzzle, like how Ben simply goes on this trip to see Lobster Gal so he can learn that there’s some sort of terrifying Knights Templar order out there. I love the storylines that are about the business of running a 1930s carnival, but this one really isn’t about that. It’s about maneuvering Ben into just the right place so he can shake Phineas’ hand. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s a lot harder to get invested in it the second time through when you know that him shaking the hand is going to lead to that set of revelations.
This is not to say that these “about to” scenes can’t be riveting television. Brother Justin’s story in this episode is the first of his that worked almost entirely for me and all it is is the guy being “cured” in a period-appropriate mental hospital, then slowly seeming to go off his nut, even though we know that he’s slowly figuring how to gain access to his power. When he commands the man shouting over and over to be still, it’s a perfect and chilling moment, no matter how goofily it’s filmed. The earlier scenes in which he’s “treated” are good as well, particularly at evoking horror at the methods used in those days. (One of my great grandparents was sent to a mental hospital in that time and came back and was “never the same.” Things like this are a good reminder why.)
But the real highlight here is Justin’s showdown with the man trying to have the interview with him. One of the things that makes this scene work is that it treats Justin as a character first and a vehicle for mythology second. He’s a guy realizing, abruptly, that he has access to almost limitless power and he can whatever he wants with that. Maybe he’ll snap the doctor’s neck, then put it right back. Maybe he’ll spy on what he’s writing on his pad. Or maybe he’ll just rant about being the left hand of God. I like how outside of the moment when Justin tells the doctor that he misspelled a word, you totally understand why this man would be confined to a mental hospital and essentially tortured. Yet it’s an awakening for Justin, the moment in the Christ story when he’s tempted and teased by the devil but emerges from the wilderness victorious.
I think this speaks, again, to the basic differences between Justin and Ben as protagonists. This is another theme that’s coming up in comments again and again: Ben just isn’t as interesting to watch as Justin, even if Nick Stahl does a fairly good job playing him. Ben’s arc runs so much toward inactivity that the writers have to keep contriving ways for him to bump into the people who will press him forward along his next step on the path. His refusal to speak to Lodz makes a certain amount of sense, but it also feels like a dramatic stall, like we're simply waiting for the point when he’s going to give up and give in. That it’s taken as long as it has—especially after he healed Gabriel last week in what felt like a breakthrough—is frustrating. It’s another case of Ben wandering around, while Justin gets stuff done.
Fortunately, the Ben storyline is a decided sideshow this week to Justin’s storyline and to what goes on back at the carnival in the complicated relationships between the Dreifusses, Sofie, and Jonesy. It’s sort of amazing to me that the Dreifuss family wasn’t added to the show until the second iteration of the pilot, as they’ve become the focal point of so much of the carnival drama at this point in the season, particularly seeing as how both Jonesy and Sofie’s stories run through the family and intersect there as well. I’ve always loved the sense that Jonesy isn’t quite sure where to put his feelings for Sofie, which were clearly more big-brother-ish at one time but have moved to something different with enough time. At the same time, Stumpy’s simply unable to be with his wife as much as she needs—or even at all—because his grief over his daughter’s death is so all-consuming. And at the same time, Rita Sue’s trying to fill the hole left by Dora Mae by recruiting Sofie into the cooch show. It’s partially to bring back revenues but it’s mostly about how she sees how happy Libby is about Sofie and wants her daughter to be happy again.
All of this culminates in a series of events that has Sofie’s first ill-fated foray into the world of dancing (one that turns out to be her only foray), Jonesy punching out a guy who tries to grab her robe, and Jonesy and Rita Sue having their first sexual encounter. Earlier in the episode, Stumpy proposed that what Jonesy needed more than anything was to get laid and, hey, who better to accomplish that for him than Rita Sue. It’s a crazy notion for a husband to tell another man to sleep with his wife, but I’m amazed that all actors involved give the whole idea a sort of dignity and common sense. Of course, you think, this really would work for these mixed up kids. The scene where Rita Sue kisses Jonesy’s damaged knee is a knockout as well. In general, these stories are pleasantly knotty and filled with real, human emotions, and that’s what I’m responding to.
In the end, that’s what a mystery show needs to survive beyond that first viewing: real people who have real human stories or mystical people who act like real people who gained mystic powers might actually act. It also needs something like forward momentum. Carnivàle hasn’t always had that, but it has just enough of all of those elements to keep from falling into its own worst habits. Just so long as it never stops to ask for directions.
- The final revelation of what the Templars have to do with everything reveals that whatever order Phin belongs to, it has something to do with Hack Scudder. That Hack Scudder gets around, no?
- The dream sequence that opens the episode is just tremendous stuff. It nicely sets things on a propulsive pace, and I also like the way it links Justin and Lodz, who are later linked by the same music playing underneath their scenes.
- Favorite trick: Justin seemingly fills an empty room with other patients at the mental hospital.
Next week: Ben battles sleep itself in “Insomnia.”