“New Canaan, CA” (season 2, episode 12; originally aired 3/27/2005)
In which Ben and Justin finally have it out…
“When it comes to livin’, dyin’ is the easy part.”—Samson
When HBO canceled Carnivàle back in 2005, it was reported that Chris Albrecht—who ultimately made the call—felt that the show had run its course, that the second season finale functioned well as a series finale. Now, obviously, the fan outcry that followed the cancellation, and all of the cliffhangers the episode ends with, would give the lie to this notion, but at the same time, as I watch “New Canaan, CA” again, I can’t help but feel that I see where Albrecht was coming from. This finale is terrific, but it’s also filled with the kinds of moments more common to series finales than season finales. It doesn’t just feel like an ending; it feels like the ending. I almost wonder if this show would have gotten its full run if this finale didn’t feel so, well, final.
What I’m talking about here isn’t just the showdown between Ben and Justin. Yes, that contributes to this feeling like it’s the end of the story, but it’s not the sole reason for that sense. The episode is filled with tons of little moments and grace notes that might only pop up in a series finale, like Sofie looking out over the carnival she once called home (in what I think is the best overview the show ever gave of the whole enterprise), or Jonesy telling Libby he loves her now and is no longer interested in Sofie, or even poor Norman getting to stand from his chair for a few moments and pick up his exorcism right where he left off, only to get a sickle in his side. These are the sorts of things that might pop up in an episode meant to tie up far more of the story than just one or two seasons, and the episode almost works as an unintentional series finale.
I say “almost” because of Sofie.
Now, I don’t entirely buy Sofie’s transition in this episode. Justin has her locked up in the out-of-the-way shack where he kept Scudder, and while inside, her mind gets to roving and realizes that she’s his daughter and that she’s a next generation Avatar. (In the parlance of the series, she’s the “Omega,” which would imply the final Avatar.) This is a huge revelation to drop on one of the characters in this show, and if it had come a few episodes ago, I might have bought her turn to the dark side more readily. Instead, she just gets all of this information—from a version of herself dressed as Apollonia—and then she decides, hey, might as well try being evil for a while. When she shoots Jonesy, leaving him for dead, and when she resurrects Brother Justin by taking his life force out of the surrounding corn, those are legitimately awesome moments, but they’re also a touch baffling. That’s not to say the show couldn’t have answered those questions later, but, well, that’s what makes the whole thing just a touch unsatisfying. She’s not evil until she is, and then she gives in with gusto.
But even if I don’t buy that transition, I still sort of like where the show leaves the character. Sofie now feels like a completely free agent, like someone who’s capable of playing both sides of this current battle and very likely will. Yeah, shooting Jonesy indicates she’s on Justin’s side for now, but it’s also clear there’s no love lost between the two, particularly once he goes all black-eyed on her. Sofie is the master of her own fate in the way lots of characters on this show never are, and she seems uniquely suited to being the one person on the series that seizes control of her destiny with both hands. Where Ben and Justin came to their positions with some degree of reluctance, Sofie is a woman who seems ready to bring about the end of the Age of Magic or end the world or whatever it is she’s meant to do. (Actually, I know the answer to this question, and you don’t, so there.)
Outside of Sofie, though, this is a finale that works as almost a perfect capper to the first two seasons. Yes, there are cliffhangers, but they’re primarily of the “what will happen to this series regular” variety, which would indicate that nearly all of the characters will survive. (I remember the first time I saw this episode, and I was pretty sure only Norman was actually dead. I’d stand by that today.) The real meat of the story—the battle between Justin and Ben—is mostly contained within this episode and ended here. The episode does a lot of work to tie in everything we see to stuff that’s happened before, including several rapid flashes of old images, and I’m not sure all of this is strictly necessary, but it reinforces even more that this is the end of the story, what everything has been building toward, even as that’s far from the image the show wants to convey.
One thing I will say for Carnivàle is that when it wants to build, it’s great at doing so. The back half of this second season has had some missteps here and there, but it has largely pushed everything forward at breakneck speed (well, for this show, at least), and has been great at building out its world and building to this final conflict. The sheer amount of balls the show has in the air by the time this episode is reaching its final moments is impressive, but it manages to keep juggling nearly all of them, to the point where when Ben and Justin’s fight is over, and you see there are still around 10 minutes of the episode left, it only takes the cut to Stroud to remind yourself that, right, Sofie’s still out there and apparently making some very big decisions. There’s a suitably epic feel to this episode, a climactic sense of purpose, and it really draws the season together in a big way.
On a purely gut level, I prefer season one’s finale ever-so-slightly, but that’s more for personal reasons than anything else. I preferred season one’s strange sense of place and pacing, and I liked the way that it built to a moment where both characters finally took charge of their own destinies, rather than a more archetypal battle. But that doesn’t mean I think “New Canaan, CA” is bad. Indeed, it’s probably the best episode of the second season, and sits comfortably with the very best episodes the show ever produced. It’s a kinetic hour of the show, and when the series began, I don’t know that anyone would have suggested it would end with an hour that almost played like an episode of an action-drama at times, right down to the hatching of a completely insane, yet dastardly, plan.
It’s that plan that sells me on this episode every time. The second that Ben tells Samson how his power over life and death works, shortly after Samson got done reaming him out about how Jesus shouldn’t have died on the cross (thus confirming Christ as another Avatar, something I had forgotten this episode did), the episode hits some other level that it doesn’t come down from until the closing credits. The plan—to trap Justin on the Ferris wheel and injure him by having Ben heal the sick—is perfect, the execution involves nearly every character in the show (save perhaps Ruthie, who gets nothing to do in this episode), and the way it falls apart is thrilling. Jonesy breaking the Ferris wheel so it will keep on spinning is one of my favorite moments in the show, as is the moment where Justin hurls himself into the revival tent, intent on destroying Ben.
And, of course, it all goes to hell, and Ben decides to take a chance on living and escape into—of course—a cornfield. The phantasmagoric moments in the field sometimes verge on being inscrutable (it’s tough to convey the geography of a cornfield, particularly with flashes to another cornfield in a dream popping up all over), but the final kill, which involves Ben disguising himself as a scarecrow, then literally coming down off the cross to strike down his enemy, ties together so many of the other things the episode does so perfectly that I can’t be too upset. Plus, the sequence is nicely creepy, with Justin’s cackling, evil laughter floating over the tops of the plants. It’s an effective conclusion to the Ben vs. Justin storyline, and even if that story was to go on, it’s a place where I’m essentially comfortable leaving it. Whether Daniel Knauf and his fellow writers knew it or not, they somehow made a perfect series finale that, nevertheless, makes you want to see the nonexistent next episode right now.
What really seals this episode, though, is the final montage, scored to a particularly great piece of music from composer Jeff Beal. The carnival folk, now converted to followers of Ben, find his broken body in the cornfield, lying atop Brother Justin, then bear him back to the trucks. Jonesy, shot by Sofie, is nowhere to be found. The mournful music kicks in even more, as the carnival heads off to parts unknown, to whatever’s coming next, the broken Ben lying in the niche Belyakov used to occupy. Then Sofie wanders between the corn plants, there to resurrect Brother Justin, and the episode ends with pleasing circularity, as her act causes the corn to die, just as Ben’s healing of the little girl in the pilot caused those plants to die.
If there’s an ultimate message to Carnivàle, it’s that: No matter what you do, life is going to keep going on, and you have a part to play in it. Or maybe it’s better expressed by Samson in the quote above. Dying is the easiest part of living, because you essentially have no hand in it, if it comes via natural causes or an accident or the hand of another. Walking blindly into your own death isn’t worth it, because it cuts you off from the potential richness of life, from the way that things turn out unexpectedly. I wouldn’t call this an exceptionally optimistic series, but I do think that it has a certain faith in humanity and things eventually working out. Even if it didn’t get to run its full, planned six years, it did get the chance to express those ideals, and that makes it, in its own way, a deeply beautiful show. You don’t need the whole picture to realize that what you’re looking at is wonderful, sometimes, and that describes this finale to a T.
- After so much focus on her in previous episodes, Iris isn’t particularly important to the finale, which is too bad. Her weird “afraid of heights” freakout felt a little forced, but I suppose that was more about being locked in a small space with her brother than anything else.
- The sequence where Ben heals the carnival attendees is oddly striking and beautiful. One quibble: I’m not sure we needed to see Justin writhing around in pain with every new “patient.”
- This may be the sweatiest episode of television ever made. Everybody in it looks like they’ve just arrived from running a marathon in 100-degree heat.
- Even Stroud’s destruction of the Daily Bros. Circus comes back in this episode, neatly tying together even more season two threads.
- The image of Apollonia inside Justin’s house is another nicely creepy moment. Watching Sofie chase her through the house ratchets up the tension effectively.
- That said, I’m not sure the “Sofie contemplates cutting Justin’s neck while cutting a loose thread from his collar” sequence is the strongest thing the show has ever done.
- Thanks for coming along on this ride through the two seasons of this show. There may have been far too few of you, but I like to think we had some fun. Look for the interview with Daniel Knauf in a couple of weeks, and I’m hoping I’ll see you around some of my other reviews.
Next week: There are no more episodes, but look for that interview! Returning next week will be my reviews of The Sopranos, with the start of the series’ final stretch of episodes, “Sopranos Home Movies.”