Carnivàle: “Old Cherry Blossom Road”
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Carnivàle: “Old Cherry Blossom Road”

“Old Cherry Blossom Road” (season 2, episode 4; originally aired 1/30/2005)

In which the Crone knows

One of the things I’ve been somewhat puzzled by in this second season of Carnivàle is just what the show’s formula is meant to be. Now, I’m not saying that I want the show to be formulaic, nor am I saying that I want it to start telling the same story every week. What I am looking for is what some writers would call the show’s “franchise,” the weekly engine that’s supposed to make the series go. On most shows, the franchise is, say, the dead body that the cops find every week or the sick patient the doctors must tend to. It’s the weekly story that all of the ongoing, serialized stories can revolve around, and it’s fairly important in the world of television. (To give you an example from a serialized show, the “franchise” on Breaking Bad is Walter’s plans to expand and/or protect his drug empire.) There are shows that don’t immediately seem to have this driving engine, but then when you look a little closer, they’re there. To take a roughly contemporaneous example, Deadwood’s engine was that each episode took place on a long, event-filled day. It was how the story kept moving forward.

In the first season of Carnivàle, the franchise mostly arose from the premise. The show was one part period ­X-Files, with the characters wandering the American Southwest in search of oddities and their own destinies; one part Twin Peaks, with the overarching mysteries garnering our interest; and one part workplace drama, with each new town filling the function of a dead body or a patient. The towns provided challenges, and that allowed the show to remain somewhat grounded while all of the other stuff was going on. Think, for instance, of that episode with the Fireball Show. There were plenty of weird, mythology side-trips in that episode, but the Fireball Show provided a way for the series to keep everybody in the same car as it traveled down the tracks. It was the grounding element that kept everybody else from sailing off into space.

Here’s the part where you likely expect me to say that the show has completely abandoned episodic storytelling and gone entirely serialized, and the part where you’ll likely tell me that I’m wrong, that I’ve missed the point of the show, and that I’m a Philistine who should just go back to Law & Order. And it’s fine if you want to launch into that argument once I’m done, but what I’m saying here is something very different: In its second season, Carnivàle has switched up its franchise. It still has one. It still has a weekly engine that makes the story go. It’s just not the best engine for keeping everybody on the train, and that means that when we do things like delve into the personal stresses of being a stripper in the 1930s, it feels much more tangential than it should. I’m not saying that Carnivàle needs to be more episodic; I’m saying that at this point, it needs a more satisfying reason for episodes to exist.

Here’s the franchise for season two, as near as I can figure: Ben Hawkins finds another clue in his search for Henry Scudder. Then, he wanders into a new, spooky situation that seems like it will end in his death, until his mystical nature—or some force beyond him—spares his life. Usually, the only action he has to take is to show up at the right place. The guest characters will take it from there, and the series will often obey dream logic, where it seems like certain things should happen, but instead, other, completely different things do. It all makes sense, sort of, if you don’t think about it too hard, and it certainly gives the show the feeling of being lost inside of a hazy hallucination. But it hinders the series when it tries to step too far away from the ongoing struggle of Ben and Brother Justin.

This is too bad, from my point of view. One of the things I loved about season one was the way that the show gradually filled us in on nearly all of the characters in the carnival’s entourage. Samson might have been the show’s most fascinating character, while characters like Jonesy had intriguing, tortured backstories that it was fun to watch the show tease out. For the most part, the series has eschewed all of this for no real reason in this season. To be sure, there are scenes at the carnival that work. I mostly liked Sofie’s attempts to work so hard that only her labor would remain in this episode, and I enjoy the way Lila keeps trying to get other people interested in just where Lodz got off to. But the sense of the carnival as a living, breathing place, a traveling show that plopped down in a new town every few days, that’s mostly been sent to the wayside in the first third of season two.

Some of this is probably budgetary. The show has noticeably less money to spend this season, and one of the things that money can buy is lots and lots of extras for big carnival scenes. The series will do the occasional performance scene this season—like the Dreifuss striptease in this episode—but it doesn’t offer the real sense of a full night at the carnival that season one did. To that end, some of this is probably just the show choosing to spend its budget where it counts, which tends to be the mythological plot points. (It’s almost certainly what the fans were most into.)

It’s also not as if this new episodic structure has been all for naught. For one thing, it’s spurred both Nick Stahl and Clancy Brown to some considerable acting heights. Brown seems to be finding the non-evil notes in Justin almost singlehandedly, and it’s cool that the writers could trust him enough to continue to let the small pieces of Justin that are still human shine through. The new structure also allows for plenty of great, creepy sequences, both at the carnival and away from it. Ben’s visit with the Crone—who turns out to be his grandmother, the mother of Scudder—is just one such sequence, provoking an increasing sense of dread as you realize just how messed up this woman is, how she killed everybody else in her family once Hack was born. It certainly doesn’t hurt that it’s the great Ellen Geer playing the part, or that the makeup used to make her eyes seemingly disappear is very well done. But the episode is filled with other sequences like this, from a paralyzed Norman lying in bed and staring up at the ceiling above him, where Justin is having his way with the maid, his growls growing increasingly animal-like, to the look in the maid’s eyes when Iris collects her. This is all great, creepy stuff, and even when the story doesn’t hang together—or there’s no story to speak of—it keeps me intrigued.

The problem, then, is that the show seems to work best when it’s a smorgasbord of weirdness, but it also seems to remember that it has some characters back at the carnival that it had better service from time to time. This leads to unfortunate things like tonight’s Dreifuss storyline, which isn’t bad exactly—well, the incursion of the one-note and rather uninteresting Burley is—but certainly feels unnecessary. The problem with putting all of your chips down on the serialized side of the storytelling ledger is that it makes everything else feel a little inconsequential.

Or, put another way, one of the most common complaints about Carnivàle is that is “moves slowly.” What I’d argue this actually means is that the show, at a structural level, too often focuses on the serialized, mythological storytelling, to the detriment of everything else. That side of the story is important to the show, to be sure, but it also has a tendency to be about Ben finding his way along a popcorn chain of people who can tell him weirder and weirder stuff. There’s a lot of slack in that particular storytelling method, because it rarely involves Ben actually doing anything. In season one, the show could fill that slack with fun stories about how Samson and the carnies would hoodwink small towns. In season two, there’s really nowhere else to turn, which leads to personal stories about the carnies that feel utterly disconnected and whatever that thing with Iris and Tommy Dolan is supposed to be. (No, I know what it is. It’s just boring.) I remember this season snapping out of this funk at some point, but “Old Cherry Blossom Road” is a new low point for the show.

Stray observations:

  • One thing that’s unquestionably working: the build of the relationship between Ben and Sofie, which feels beautifully paced and exquisitely felt. The final moments between the two in this episode are among the best scenes of the show, and the sandstorm of Tarot cards was good, too. It also helps that Clea DuVall is doing some stunning work here, as a girl who’s trying to figure out why her mother wanted her dead.
  • Another great, spooky image: Jimmi Simpson with his mouth sewed shut. Creepy.
  • Grammy’s whole compound is a triumph of production design. I love the little samplers hanging on the walls, and the way the show gradually ramps up her racism, until she’s in that weeded over cemetery, talking about being there on the ground floor for the Klan, and you’re saying, “Of course.”
  • Another familiar face pops up this week: Mark Boone Junior, who plays Bobby Munson on Sons Of Anarchy is among those in Grammy’s entourage.
  • Lila correctly fingers the one who killed Lodz, but she can’t get anybody else to believe her. To be fair, Ben doesn’t look like he could kill a large enough beetle if he had to.
  • The writers keep giving Clancy Brown these giant sermons, and he keeps knocking them out of the park. And the fact that this episode’s ended with Ben falling upon Justin and stabbing him in the heart—something both Ben and Justin saw but no one else did (instead seeing Justin collapse to the stage)—was an even better surprise. The fates are drawing these two together, like it or not.
  • Okay, that living death mask was pretty cool and unexpected. As was Ruthie seeing Apollonia standing off by herself in the field.

Next week: Ben follows the next clue on the clue trail to “Creed, OK.”

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