“Outskirts, Damascus, NE” (season 2, episode 8; originally aired 2/27/2005)
In which Ben’s achievement is unlocked…
When I was a young teenager, my favorite thing to do was to play graphic adventure games. My favorites—King’s Quest VI, Gabriel Knight: Sins Of The Father, The Secret Of Monkey Island—were games that broke down into a series of smaller quests. The protagonist, controlled by the player, was given an overarching goal—rescue the princess or defeat the evil ghost pirates—but was also given a series of lesser goals that would eventually add up to the larger one. For instance, in Monkey Island, the game begins with the goal of becoming a pirate, which is broken down into finding a great treasure, becoming an expert at sword-fighting, and stealing an item from the governor’s mansion. These tasks then broke down into even smaller tasks. The governor’s mansion is guarded by a bunch of tiny, yapping dogs, which you have to put to sleep so you can get inside. Larger tasks constantly break down into smaller ones, which break down into even smaller ones. In the best of these games, the steps add up in such a logical way that the player and designer feel perfectly in tandem. In the worst, it can be like trying to read the mind of someone who’s going insane.
I occasionally feel this way about the overarching story of Carnivàle, particularly when it pertains to Ben Hawkins. To put it in the terms of video games more people than cultists play, Ben is constantly unlocking achievements, little bits and pieces that give him greater power, or just greater status within whatever the Avataric version of the Xbox Live achievements board is. Many of the scenes in “Outskirts, Damascus, NE” remind me of the cut-scenes in video games where non-player characters tell the player what his next goal needs to be, or fill in some of the game’s backstory. They’re much better written than the video game scenes. They’re much better acted, too. But in terms of their plot functions, they’re essentially the same things. They’re not info-dumps, precisely, even though they have some of the same functions as an info-dump. They’re scenes designed to shift the characters’ goals, to push on to new things, to re-clarify what the ultimate purpose of all of this is.
Just like in my favorite games, the smaller quests add up into a larger one in “Outskirts, Damascus, NE.” Take, for instance, that dagger Ben received from his grandmother back in “Old Cherry Blossom Road.” It’s the one he uses to stab Belyakov, thus receiving Belyakov’s full suite of powers, but it’s also revealed to him to be the one he must use to kill Brother Justin, now revealed fully as “the Usher.” To do that, he just needs to stab right into the center of the tree on Justin’s chest. The dagger then sucks up Belyakov’s blue blood, and Ben slowly begins to tune into his new powers. It’s the end of one section of the story and the start of another, and it feels full of possibilities. The goals shift; the new goals become apparent.
“Outskirts, Damascus, NE” isn’t my favorite episode of the season or series, but it moves with such purpose that it’s hard not to enjoy it all the same. There are shocking twists aplenty, both in the mythological backstory and in the story of the folks who work at the carnival. That’s probably no surprise, since this script is credited to creator Daniel Knauf, who has a sure hand with this sort of material. By the end of the episode, Ben’s mission is clear, but so is Justin’s mission. What’s more, many of the personal storylines have gained clarity and purpose, where they were struggling a bit last week. Think, for instance, of the tale of the Dreifuss family’s gambling woes and Jonesy’s seemingly ill-fated hook-up with Libby. Both get a nice kick in the pants in this episode, one that sends them sprawling in a new direction. I’ll probably get some shit for comparing this show to a video game, but I mean it in the best possible way: When the show is on, as it is here, everything is clarified in a way that rebuilds momentum that can occasionally be squandered in the episodes where the characters “solve puzzles.” Ben getting that dagger made for a fairly bland episode of the show, but now that we know what he needs it for, it retroactively gives the rest of the season a greater sense of purpose.
By far the best thing in this episode is the way that it takes Ben from the reluctant warrior he’s been most of this season and turns him into a man who would be a savior. The moment where he grants a woman death that her son might live is a beautiful one, and it shows that this battle between light and dark can have benefits for the people who are stranded at its sidelines. Ben’s desire to make sure that his powers don’t harm anybody else manifests in such a way as to show that he can both win this war and make a difference in the apocalyptic hellscape that is the rural backroads of the Great Depression. The more Ben tunes in to his powers, the more he’s able to understand just how much good he can do, and I love how the episode shows him understanding what he can do without overburdening us with exposition. Ben feels the wind blowing westward and knows that’s the way to pursue Stroud, who’s kidnapped his father. All he has to do is convince Samson to go along.
Yes, in some ways, I’m predisposed to like this episode because it’s by far the best Samson episode this whole season. Ben kills Belyakov to protect Scudder, and it seems like things are finally working out for the guy. He’s got all of these powers, and he’s come to realize that Belyakov orchestrated the whole thing that he might pass those powers on to his successor. What neither man counts on is that Belyakov was Samson’s friend, indeed, one of his best friends. Samson doesn’t want to move westward, just because Ben says to, and Ben’s the one who took his friend away from him. Samson’s present for the exposition scenes, but he’s also present for these scenes, in which his hurt is very real and very present. It’s an obstacle to Ben getting what he wants, and it’s far from an expected one. When Samson is finally given a chance to say goodbye to Belyakov by entering the suddenly appearing baggage trailer and clutching at a Shroud-of-Turin-esque image of Belyakov bled into a white sheet, it’s surprisingly moving, considering it’s centered on a relationship that mostly existed between a man and an unheard voice when the show began.
Things are also getting exciting over in Brother Justin’s encampment. Sure, there’s the final twist that Sofie is his new maid—a twist that all but confirms her importance within the show’s mythology, since there’s no good (or believable) reason for her to be there otherwise. But we’ve also got the bit where he’s preparing to deliver a new Sermon on the Mount, one that will sway the many who hang on his every word to vote for his political backers (who include Templeton, whom you may remember from season one). Justin’s growing hunger for not just power but utter dominance could threaten to turn him into a one-note cipher, a guy who hangs out around the edges of the show and growls a lot, but Clancy Brown’s performance always gives him a note of woundedness. There’s still some humanity inside of him. It might be buried down so deep that we can only see flashes of it in his eyes, but when it comes out in those moments, it works to keep Justin from flying off into one-note evilness. Brown is so good that he makes the scene where he realizes how little time he has to pull off his plan—something that should make the audience root for the hero—weirdly sympathetic. It’s all too easy to hope Justin can catch up, or even come from behind for the “win,” in this metaphysical battle.
It’s hard to do an episode like this, one that reshuffles the cards in the deck or moves the pieces on the board into an entirely new configuration. These kinds of episodes are necessary, but they very often fall apart into dry exposition, or into the writers making the characters believe out of character just to get them into the right places at the right times. “Outskirts” steps up to the edges of both issues several times, but it always pulls back at just the right moment. The smaller goals have been accomplished. The big puzzle of what to do next has been solved. Now, finally, the story can move into its endgame, and it can take its time moving through its new configurations. This might be a story like a video game, but I mean that in the best possible way.
- There are so many weird and entertaining scenes in this episode. In particular, I love the scene where Justin writhes in his chair as Ben receives his boon, then Norman starts shouting as well. When the maid comes in and screams, it’s all too easy to chuckle at the way Iris sits, ramrod straight and unflinching, through the whole thing.
- I’m almost sorry to relegate it to a stray observation, considering how much it kicks the Dreifuss story into gear, but Libby and Jonesy getting married is the best possible direction for that story to go. It’s sudden and perfect in a way where last week’s hook-up wasn’t. These are two impulsive people, trying to burn away the hurts of the past, and I totally buy that this is how they’d do so.
- Are those robbers supposed to be Bonnie and Clyde? I know those two were dead when these episodes take place, but the robbers are certainly… Bonnie and Clyde-esque.
- I loved Ruthie thinking that Scudder was dead when she saw him stumble through the carnival, particularly once she told Samson that they (the dead) “have cars!” Funny stuff.
- I loved seeing Wilfred Talbot Smith again. He might be an exposition machine, but he’s a weirdly amusing one. I like how cowed he is by Justin.
Next week: The season moves toward its endgame as everybody hits the “Lincoln Highway.”