Carnivàle: “The Day That Was The Day”
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Carnivàle: “The Day That Was The Day”

“The Day That Was The Day” (season 1, episode 12; originally aired 11/30/2003)

In which you trade one life for another

Say what you will, but Carnivàle knows how to close off a story arc. “The Day That Was The Day” has both the greatest title in the show’s run and the most propulsive story since “Pick A Number.” There’s a steadily mounting sense of both awe and horror as the episode goes on, and it all culminates in a montage that’s nearly 10 minutes long, in which everything that’s been slowly simmering explodes. Justin gives a speech that marks him as the harbinger of the apocalypse. Management tells Ben Lodz killed Ruthie, and Ben finally reacts in a way that solidifies his acceptance of his destiny. Apollonia traps her daughter inside the truck with her and sets it on fire. Ruthie, dead for nearly 24 hours, jolts to life with a gasping breath. Everything descends into chaos, and the episode keeps a steady eye on all of it. We’ve been headed here for a long time, and if the journey there had its trying moments, the show is to be commended for taking its time with the climax.

But let’s start somewhere else. Let’s start in Management’s trailer.

Ben Hawkins has been brought here by Lodz, who wishes for Ben to meet the literal man behind the curtain. Ben’s trying to figure out a way to resurrect Ruthie, after he was unable to do so at the end of last week’s episode. (He’s posted Gabriel as a lonely sentry outside of Ruthie’s trailer, and the episode keeps cutting to the image of Gabriel, forlorn, to remind us of what exactly the stakes are here.) Management says a bunch of stuff to Ben: He and Ben are cut from the same cloth. If Ben wants to resurrect Ruthie, he’s going to have to take someone else’s life. Management has the answers Ben wants, even if he’s not yet ready to hand them over. It’s a good scene, but it’s made great by the way director Rodrigo Garcia suggests Management’s physicality. It would be easy to leave Management as the eerie voice of Linda Hunt, echoing through that trailer. But Ronald Moore’s script indicates that, yes, there’s a physical being back there, and that’s shown through the tip of a cigarette, orange amid the darkness.

It’s a great image, both because it solidifies something that seemed fantastical and because it suggests a little something of where we’re going from here. We may think we’re getting the answers, but we’re only getting the very slightest glimpse of them, the end of a cigarette burning amid utter blackness. We see Management’s hand—in shadow, again—stub out that cigarette, and it’s a visual way of showing that we—and Ben—aren’t quite ready for all Management has to tell us. We know a little bit, but we also know that there’s even more we don’t know. The series has had trouble with managing these sorts of expectations when it comes to information, but it doesn’t in this episode. It’s thrilling to know we don’t know everything here, because it very much feels like we will know everything once the series is done. There’s a sense of promise fulfilled—and extended—in this scene.

It’s moments like this that make a show like this run. You can have lots of mystery and vague portent, sure, but you also have to have the occasional payoff. Carnivàle has been great at the former, but it’s had some problems with the latter this season. That’s not the case here, as “Day” packs in enough payoff to hopefully carry everything since “Pick A Number.” I don’t know if it quite earns the meandering that got us here, but just watching it try is rather thrilling. Every scene in this episode matters; every scene feels packed with meaning and character detail. It’s all guiding us along a path where Ben Hawkins will finally become the “man” Management says he must, by taking Lodz’s life to restore the life of the woman Lodz killed. On one level, Carnivàle is a show about humans who are, essentially, gods, but it’s always at its best when it shows just how horrifying it might be to realize that you had the power to rearrange reality itself. “Day” works because it backs both Ben and Justin into a corner, then listens to them howl.

For much of the back half of this season, the show’s mythology has been disconnected from its character stories, which resulted in the odd phenomenon of the Dreifuss family’s romantic entanglements powering almost all of the character drama, while the main storyline was preoccupied with, say, Ben trying his best not to sleep. There were good moments in all of these episodes—and I liked the Dreifuss plot, on the whole—but it created a curiously disconnected feel, where it seemed almost as if the show was splitting into a bunch of different parts, and the part it wanted me to be most interested in just wasn’t as compelling as the others. “Day” works as well as it does because it ties the character stories and mythological stories together.

Let’s face it: Ben hasn’t been the most interesting of protagonists this season. The show has struggled valiantly with how to write a main character whose primary trait is his refusal to act. At times, it’s succeeded far more than I’d ever have hoped it might. At other times, it’s turned him into a colossal bore. Yes, it’s realistic that Ben would try to shirk his powers in favor of a more normal life, especially with the way his mother raised him. But it’s often just not all that interesting. In “Day,” Ben woozily gets the first taste of what it would be like to be a god among men, as he realizes the power of resurrection lies within his grasp, if only he’ll reach up and take it. The moments when he silently looks over the carnival folk or the patrons of the bar, trying to decide who deserves to die so that Ruthie might live, are among the episode’s best, and when he finally selects an old wino to kill but can’t go through with it, there’s a weird triumph to it: He’s not going to be jerked around like a piece on a board, dammit. He’s a human being.

The best scene in the whole season for Ben occurs shortly after. He goes to the cemetery in the little town, and he kneels beside a grave. He produces a pocketknife and flicks it open. Then, almost casually, he lifts it to his neck and slashes his own jugular. It’s a massively powerful moment, one in which the protagonist of the series decides that rather than take part in the games he’s been forced into, he’ll opt out entirely, especially if it accomplishes his goal of resurrecting Ruthie. It’s not going to be that easy, though. He and Justin—who just got done begging Norman to murder him—might wish to be released from the terrible burden of being an Avatar (a term that gets its more proper introduction in this episode, scrawled in blood on a tomb), but ditching responsibility is something you can’t do forever. “Day” cleverly maneuvers both men into places where they’d rather die than do what they were born to do, then doesn’t let them die. There’s no way out of this. This is their life. (That it’s Scudder who steps in and saves Ben—apparently via some sort of dream travel—is even more appropriate. He didn’t get to leave this life behind either.)

The Justin story cannily plays off of this idea as well. The pinnacle of the whole episode just might be that scene where Norman is sitting in the church, researching how to perform an exorcism, and Justin sits down beside him. The conviviality between the two is strained now, and it wouldn’t be shocking if either produced a gun and simply unloaded on the other. Instead, the two share a tense conversation about the seductive nature of evil before Justin decides to give Norman a taste of his own worst deed. That Norman’s greatest sin turns out to be taking in the young Brother Justin is a masterstroke, and the scene that follows—in which Justin realizes there is no demon in him because he is the demon—is just terrific. Justin begs Norman to put him out of his misery, but that’s not how this works. He’s got a responsibility to wage destruction upon the Earth. Norman runs out of the church. Justin snarls his name, eyes black as pitch. Later, he’ll give a sermon about how Armageddon will arrive at the “left hand of God.” Guess who was calling himself the left hand of God earlier this season?

There’s also the curious matter of Sofie. We’ve seen that the girl has a cruel streak earlier this season—witness the majority of her storyline way back in “Black Blizzard”—but we’ve never seen her orchestrate something quite like what happens when she lures Libby and Jonesy to the same spot, only to wreck both of them by hooking up with Libby, then having Jonesy interrupt the moment, so Sofie can provide a little object lesson about what it’s like to be betrayed by someone you love. (Cold.) Now, granted, it feels a little strange that Jonesy would just pull the blanket off of what’s obviously two people fooling around, but the sum effect is to suggest that Sofie has certain depths of cruelty she’s only now learning how to plumb.

Or maybe we just think that because Lodz and Apollonia are worried about a “her,” and it sure seems like Apollonia is willing to go to the grave herself if she can drag her daughter with her. I don’t know if it would have messed with the season’s structure too much to do, but I almost wish the show had figured out a way to get Lodz and Apollonia in the same conversation earlier. The moment when the record flips off the record player and shatters against the wall, only to be replaced by another, endlessly repeating, “I want you,” is a lot of fun, and the way Lodz says, “Apollonia” provides a nice jolt. But we only get to see these two interacting for such a short time before at least one is dead and the other sure seems to be on her way there. What is it about Sofie that causes these two to lose their heads? That’s the cliffhanger that works best here, I think.

“Day” only works, however, if all of this is solidly grounded in character. We’ve talked about how Ben and Justin’s storylines provide strong character moments to help propel the weirder mythology storylines, but there is great material scattered throughout here, from the little touches—like Justin and Iris drinking lemonade in unison—to the big, sweeping gestures—like Jonesy rushing into the fire to save the girl he loves, the girl who just went out of her way to show him how little regard she has for him. Stumpy and Rita Sue make up. Samson wakes up in the truck. The conjoined twins dance and flip around the bar. These are all tiny moments, but they add up to a larger tapestry of both the episode and the world, and that’s what makes “Day” work where some other episodes didn’t. With that firm focus on these people, the fantastical stuff goes down that much more easily.

And isn’t that what this show should be about anyway? Samson mentions at one point that Management doesn’t have much regard for people. He views them as pieces on a board, things he can push around and manipulate. When he restores Lodz’s sight, only to tell Ben that Lodz killed Ruthie, we get a huge, glaring example of this. Ben plays right into Management’s hands by killing Lodz to bring back Ruthie, but we’re also getting a sense of the stakes of the whole series. When you’re a god among men, it’s easy to forget that you’re also a man. When that happens, it leads to death and destruction and suffering. The question is whether Ben can hang on where Management fell off, or whether he’s doomed to sink deeper and deeper into a life he didn’t want, but a life he can’t escape.

Stray observations:

  • Thanks for hanging out for season one of this show, guys! It’s been great fun, and we’ll return for season two a little later on in the year. (My preliminary count suggests it will be July 25, but it could get pushed to August, thanks to other events.) In two weeks, however, I’m finally getting back to The Sopranos and will be happy to do so.
  • Au revoir, Lizard Man. I think I’ll miss you most of all.
  • I haven’t said a lot about Jeff Beal’s score this season, but it’s really a wonderful thing. The piece of music that closes out the episode (which I believe is a Beal original, though I could be wrong about that) is absolutely perfect for everything that’s happening.
  • Spoiler/speculation alert: When Management discusses how being a “man” involves choosing who gets to live and who gets to die, I flashed on the way the series was going to move forward into the World War II years in seasons three and four (or so my understanding goes). If ever there was a time when people were deciding who gets to live and who gets to die, it was in those terrible years. I wonder if we weren’t heading toward some sort of examination of the bankruptcy of that whole particular line of thought, at least morally.
  • Hmmm… I remember having absolutely no idea about the ultimate secret behind who Sofie is on my first watch, but it strikes me as blindingly obvious when watching this episode now that I know it. That’s probably the mark of a good reveal.
  • Biggest problem with this finale: too little Samson. The guy is the most humane of the characters, and it’s always nice when he’s at the center of a scene or two.
  • I’ve seen this episode before, and I still half-expected Ben to either kill the cop that comes looking for him (a throwaway plot here) and Management to send a snake shooting out at Lodz’s nose.

Next week: I’m taking next week off. We’ll resume The Sopranos with “Join The Club” on April 18. Carnivàle will return with the second season première in late July or early August.

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