“Milfay” (season 1, episode 1; originally aired 9/14/2003)
In which we learn the secret origins of the world and a long journey begins
Carnivàle is the ultimate hangout drama. It occasionally feels like it has basically no real desire to do much of anything other than hang out in a cool setting (especially in its first season), but, man, is that setting cool. The show’s mythology has some interesting ideas buried deep within it, but at the same time, it often seems like the show is all mythology, that all it is is unraveling a long series of portentous threads in the middle of nowhere in the 1930s. There are so many characters that most of them can’t help but be poorly developed, the plot momentum is often virtually non-existent, and the show is often convinced of its own profundity in a way that only an HBO drama can be, even though it’s not particularly profound.
Yet I still really like this show. There are episodes—particularly in the first season—I really love, and there are moments here that have hung with me as long as other moments on much better shows. Carnivàle, in some ways, represents a turning point show for HBO, from when it was making shows that were basically TV shows—even if they were much better than regular TV shows—to a point where it was making what I like to describe as novels for TV, shows where every episode is a singular chapter that’s adding up to something else. Though this approach doesn’t always work for Carnivàle, it’s gotten too little respect within the HBO canon for being the series that showed the network that a certain amount of the audience would stick with something that moved super slowly if the setting was rich and detailed enough. (Watch this pilot and see the seeds being planted for the likes of Rome, Game Of Thrones, and Boardwalk Empire.)
It sounds like I’m damning with faint praise above, and I guess I kind of am. But I don’t want to give that impression all the same. I haven’t seen this series in a few years, and I’m hopeful that on this journey through, I’ll find reason to love it as much as so many others do, that after years of watching HBO shows inspired by the pacing of this one—even if they’d never admit it—I’ll be ready to sink into the weird luxuriousness of this show’s world. And yet the show never quite coheres for me the way that the big three HBO dramas—The Sopranos, The Wire, and Deadwood—do, or even in the way that some of the dramas on the next tier down, like Rome and the early years of Big Love, do.
Part of that may stem from—and we might as well get this out of the way now—how the show is frustratingly incomplete. Ideas launched by creator Daniel Knauf in this episode and the 23 to follow didn’t have their ideal resolution because, well, HBO decided it didn’t need this show on its airwaves anymore after season two. Considering the process of building a mystery show like this often involves building a world slowly and letting detail pile on top of detail at a snail’s pace, there’s nothing saying that if Knauf hadn’t gotten the six seasons (and a movie) he wanted, this show wouldn’t have sat shoulder to shoulder with the three greats. As it is, we have to wonder what might have been, but it’s not like what’s here isn’t without merit.
I’m dodging the events of “Milfay” because on some level, there isn’t much going on here, in terms of plot or even character. We get a few key signifiers here. Samson tells us the story of how the world has one creature of light and one creature of dark in it. We meet Ben Hawkins and Brother Justin, the two men who will be our “protagonists” (if this series can be said to have such a thing). We learn about how Ben came to join the traveling carnival that is the series’ setting and how he lost the family farm to the bank in the depths of the Depression. We learn a little about his gift—especially in that magnificent image that closes the episode of a young girl (Jenna Boyd, who would go on to have something of a solid career as “the kid” in movies before disappearing) loping along through fields that die all around her, Ben’s gift to her having brought death to the plants surrounding her. And we see a host of weird images and symbols. But in terms of plot it, boils down to “A boy who’s lost everything joins a carnival, and his secret is revealed.”
On most networks, that wouldn’t be much of a pilot. On HBO, it’s almost too much for a pilot. Remember how the Game Of Thrones pilot was pretty much just exposition, with a few small plot moments tossed in? This is a lot like that, though I guess there’s the little throughline of whether Ben will stay with the carnival, a throughline that doesn’t really take off because, c’mon, take a look at the title of the show. The bit where Ben wanders into town and takes a dead baby from Jane Adams—and if you’re someone who’s already seen the pilot, you wonder here if he’s tempted to resurrect the child and he must be—is a nice way of texturing the world. The bit where Sofie is almost raped is fairly standard “There are dangers out there!” stuff that doesn’t add much of anything other than accomplishing the up-and-back of getting Ben right back where he started from.
No, “Milfay” is just an excuse to hang out in a neatly conceived world. On most other shows, this would be a fatal flaw in a pilot. (Indeed, in this show, plenty of viewers tuned out after episode one, still wondering when the story was going to begin, perhaps.) But in Carnivàle, it’s a weird plus. Everything Knauf, director Rodrigo Garcia, and the actors do to build out this strange land of carnival folk and extreme poverty creates something unlike anything seen on television before or since. The easy go-to here, of course, is Twin Peaks because that’s the show people always go to when they want to talk about weird stuff on TV. And, yes, there are similarities between that show and this one, particularly in the mythology of the series as it’s laid out for us here by Samson. But I’ve always found the Twin Peaks comparisons to be a little reductive, as if those who watched the show could only think of it in terms of other television series, when clearly its aspirations are slightly more literary than that.
Carnivàle strikes me as a fusion series. Like Lost (another series that earned its fair share of comparisons to Twin Peaks), Carnivàle often seems to have as its primary goal to blend together a long series of literary and fictional traditions into one heady stew. But where Lost set its sights on American pulp and science fiction, Carnivàle was interested in folk tales and weird legends of the people who immigrated to America, then lost those stories down deep in the melting pot, where they got added to the nation’s collective unconscious. Knauf’s ultimate story and setting here feels at once wildly original and wholly familiar, which strikes me as the show’s ultimate success. When we walk along the dusty streets of the carnival with Ben in one of the episode’s finest moments, we’re seeing an unlikely world through virgin eyes. This is a place that is unlike any other television setting, but we feel at once at home. “Milfay” has its problems, but its greatest triumph is that it orients the carnival as a place that feels at once like a uniquely American fever dream and a good setting for a television series.
I’m less enamored of the scenes with Brother Justin, who, at present, feels like your standard vaguely threatening preacher. The episode is quite canny in not suggesting who in the cast will be the one of the “light” and the one of the “dark,” but most savvy viewers will pick up on the fact that Justin and Ben are set up here as rough counterparts, both in Garcia’s choices of framing the shots and in the fact that, well, both display weird magical powers. (Ben has the healing thing going on, while Justin experiences weird visions and makes an old woman, uh, vomit coins.) Brother Justin seems like he might be trying his best to walk the straight and narrow, which would make him a more interesting guy than just your standard hypocrite preacher, but he gets so little screentime here that it’s often bizarre to have the show keep cutting to him, especially when the carnival is such a fully realized world from the very first.
Of course, none of this would work without characters. If I have an overriding criticism of the show, it would be that the characters often prove more functional than anything else. Too many of them are there to serve particular purposes and aren’t given the sorts of rich, inner lives you might see on a great television drama. (For those of you who’ve seen the series or don’t mind some spoilers, my friend Wally Holland gets at some of these problems in his retrospective review of much of the series. I’ll caution that I don’t feel as vociferously as he does, but it makes for a good read, nonetheless.) In the pilot, we get hints that some of these people are going to be more than just their immediately obvious roles—particularly Samson and Jonesy, I would say—but then we also get characters who seem to just be there to add weird texture to the background of scenes, to build out the setting, before anything else.
But, again, it’s a pilot, so there’s no need to fill in everybody all at once. What we need to do is get our story rolling, and even if the story gets started very slowly, it’s headed down the road all the same, loping along after our weird little caravan and hopping on the back. “Milfay” isn’t a perfect pilot, but it’s a great example of the HBO pilot, and, indeed, it might be the very first one. The pilots for Oz andThe Sopranos and Six Feet Under all told mostly complete stories. Even the pilot for The Wire sets a goal for its hero—convince the judge to let him open up a special investigation—that he follows through on within the hour. In contrast, Carnivàle is all about setting the table for things to come. “You know this world,” it says. “Your grandparents lived in this world, and you’re not so far removed from it yourself. Don’t you want to hang out here for a while?” For some viewers, the lack of forward momentum will prove ultimately too much after this hour. For others—like me—the idea of Samson shaking dust and heading off down the road to hang out in more weird hideaways will prove irresistible.
- A few notes: It’s been long enough since I’ve seen the show that I don’t remember everything about it, so I’m loathe to do a spoilers only section, though I will if you guys want it. I will ask that you clearly mark spoilers in comments, so those who are watching for the first time are properly warned. We’ll be doing one episode per week, and I’m happy to focus on whatever you guys want in future episodes. We’ll figure out how to cover this one together. (I'll also be giving grades. The quality of the episodes is variable enough that I think it will be useful.)
- I realized I said the term “mystery show” above without really defining it. By that, I mean any show where a big impetus for watching is unraveling a central mystery that defies explanation. In Twin Peaks, that was “Who killed Laura Palmer?” and also “What the fuck is going on in Twin Peaks?” On Lost, it was, “What’s the Island?” along with about a million other questions. And on Carnivàle, the question is, “What the hell is going on?” much of the time. Writers of these sorts of shows will say, “It’s all about the characters,” and they’re right. These shows don’t work without appealing characters. But a large enjoyment for the audience, particularly in the Internet era, comes from discussing just what the hell might be going on and trying to piece it all together.
- The credits for this show aren’t my favorite ever, but I have to admit they’ve grown on me over the years. I love the meshing of Great Depression images with Tarot card motifs.
- If there’s a character in the many, many carnival supporting players I’m instantly drawn to, it’s Lodz, the old blind dude who has crazy visions and can read Ben’s dreams (which include a bear… awesome). As portrayed by Patrick Bauchau, Lodz is a great blend of vague menace and inviting personality. You half expect him to have you sit down for coffee, then slit your throat.
- The executive producer and showrunner for this season was Ron Moore, who’d later work on another series with strong mystery-show elements, Battlestar Galactica. We’ll talk a bit more about his influence on the series in weeks to come.
- The show’s producers listed the films of John Ford as an influence, and that’s evident, particularly in that weird, mythic opening sequence at the Hawkins farm, as Ben tries to bury his mother, while the bank comes to tear down the property. You can also catch a bit of Ford’s influence in the scene where the young Ben resurrects that poor cat.
- The Great Depression is one of my favorite eras of American history, so I may try to provide some historical notes here and there, if such a thing interests all of you. And if any of you know more about it than I do (which wouldn’t be hard), I’d love to hear your thoughts on the period as well.
Next week: We dig ever deeper into Ben Hawkins and Brother Justin in “After The Ball Is Over.”