articles/milfay,67824/“Tipton” (season 1, episode 3; originally aired 9/28/2003)
In which Benjamin St. John comes to town
One of the things Carnivàle struggles with in these early episodes is a question of just how “realistic” it wants to be. On the one hand, it’s a secret history fantasy about the eternal struggle between light and darkness, featuring two men with mystical powers. On the other hand, it’s a deeply researched and intricately written tale of what it would be like to live in the Great Depression. The problem with these two impulses is that they don’t always work together. Now, honestly, if you’re going to set a tale of strange magic at any point in U.S. history, it’s gotta be the Great Depression, I think, but the desire to portray this life as it was really lived sometimes bumps up against the fact that the characters—Ben and Justin, especially—have to act at the behest of grand forces they can’t really comprehend, about which, information is only dealt out to them piecemeal.
An example: I’m not sure I really buy that there would be this intense crush of people around Ben every time he emerges in public. I get that the show tries to massage it by having the mother of the child he healed in the pilot (and the child herself) pop up here but… haven’t they traveled quite a ways? If we were still back in Milfay, sure, I’d buy that everyone knew the little girl who couldn’t walk was walking thanks to a mysterious stranger, but here, it often just seems like people are willing to believe in miracles because the script needs them to. Or, more specifically, this particular genre needs them to. But in a realistic Depression-era world, that becomes a bigger problem than it’s probably worth. Also troubling is the way that both Ben and Justin’s congregations are presented as a giant collection of faceless rubes, there to be huckstered. The series already has a problem with the characters disappearing into a faceless mass, so it doesn’t really need more faceless masses around to draw attention to this fact.
But that relationship between performer and audience is also one of the things that fascinates me about this episode—which I quite like, even if it feels like a weird attempt to do a “standalone” episode of the show (whatever that means). In particular, I want to talk about ideas of light and dark, and how the show is toying with us as to whether Justin or Ben are the “light” or “dark” warriors we were promised in the Samson prologue back in the pilot. Think about it this way: Justin’s powers apparently manifest themselves in ways he can’t entirely control, and they tend to result in terrifying things (a woman vomiting coins) or, well, death (as we see in this episode). Ben’s powers are ones he can control—he doesn’t automatically heal every little ailment when he touches someone—but they’re ones that have such great cost that he’s been unwilling to use them, even if they, ultimately, bring life. Just looking at those two setups, it would seem like we have a pretty basic template. Justin is the bad guy, bringing about death and destruction by accident (at least until he can get these things under control). Ben is the good guy, but wary of using his life-giving powers for fear of taking life from the wrong individual.
As we see in “Tipton,” however, that relationship is all mixed around when you consider what both men are trying to do. It’s not immediately obvious what Ben is trying to do, beyond get some answers about his parentage. Mostly, he just seems to be trying to avoid whatever his destiny is, even as he wants to figure it out. He’s a man racing away from what the grand forces that control this world want him to do, and when we see, say, Lodz put him in the tuxedo of Scudder, it really feels like everybody involved is trying to push Ben to a centerstage he doesn’t want to be a part of. (This idea of assuming roles or preparing “characters” to step into those roles is a big tenet of secret-history fantasy.) The people Ben hangs out with? Their main goal is to make a quick buck, so if that means peddling skin and oddities, they’ll do that. But if that means taking advantage of faith-filled folk who just want to see some miracles to point them through the darkness of the Depression, well, they’ll do that, too. There’s something impressively cynical about the way Samson gets everyone in the carnival to pivot on a dime to pretending to be revivalists. They’re all very good at playing whatever roles will make them the most cash.
Meanwhile, look at Brother Justin. He’s actively trying to push forward his main goal: building a community and church for the migrant workers no one else wants to pay attention to. In a more traditional Hollywood narrative, he’d be the protagonist. He’s the guy on the side of the angels, working to make a better life for people. He’s the guy who’s taking care of the downtrodden. And he’s the guy who’s actually reaching up to achieve something, instead of running from things he doesn’t quite understand. In pure narrative terms, secret histories can be frustrating because they tend to consist of characters who are acted upon, instead of characters who take action. What we see are forces from beyond the edges of the cosmos reaching down to push people into the right places, and when they try to fight back, there’s little they can do. Ben fits this perfectly, so manipulated is he by everybody around him at this point. Justin—whatever role he has to play in this story—is taking action and doing unambiguously good things.
It’s a complicated dynamic, and it’s one that the show navigates ably in “Tipton,” which boasts a teleplay by creator Daniel Knauf and TV-writer hero Henry Bromell. (This was the only script Bromell would write for the show, but the staff Knauf and Ron Moore assembled in this first season was incredible, filled with people who would go on to write lots and lots of good TV and people who already had.) If all we’re going to do is hang out at the carnival while Ben has strange dreams, then we’re going to get a good, hard look at both the good and bad sides of what it’s like to be in that carnival. (The supporting characters are still lacking dimension a bit, but we’re getting a better sense of what the carnival is like as a unit, at least.) And if Justin is going to be a guy who can kill people with undefined mind powers, he’s also going to be a guy who kills people who are getting in the way of him helping out an emerging minority community within his larger community, one that definitely needs the help. If we look purely at aims in “Tipton,” we see that the carnival is taking advantage of people, while Justin is trying to help them. It’s an uneasy balance, and it’s better than just having one or both of these men be unambiguously good or bad.
One thing I find curious about the episode is that in some ways, it represents a bit of a failure of nerve. Knauf, Moore, and their writers have been laying out the series’ mythology so perfectly through visuals that I’m not entirely sure why there needed to be the infodump about Ben’s powers from the dying woman in this episode. I mean, yes, sometimes things need to be explained, and she’s mostly there to get us even more invested in Scudder and introduce the idea of a hellish town known as Babylon (where we are apparently headed), but the pilot so beautifully laid out that when Ben heals, he also takes life from elsewhere that having someone come in and underline that point feels unnecessary. HBO shows are known for their extreme trust of the audience, but Carnivàle is still feeling that out.
In some ways, “Tipton” is yet another elaborate stall, but I think there’s plenty here to recommend, particularly in how the show treats the complicated relationship between Ben and Justin, especially with regard to performing. There’s a rich sense of stagy artifice to the whole show. (It’s not for nothing that the series opens with a man speaking directly to the camera and telling us what we’re going to see.) That artifice is in keeping with the show’s setting, but it’s also in keeping with the way the series shows organized religion. I’m not the biggest fan of the scenes where the audiences ooh and ah over Benjamin St. John or where Brother Justin riles up the crowd at his own church (though I love the turns of phrase in the sermon in this episode), but I like the way the episode presents trying to bring people to a closer relationship with God as just another side of the same coin the carnival folk are playing on. It’s all about fakery, ultimately, and it’s all about theatricality. Maybe the reason Justin can’t control his powers is because he hasn’t yet realized this?
It all ends with some fascinating malarkey. Where the earlier revival meeting—the one in which Ben performed a “successful” healing—was a nice, slow way to lay out just how thoroughly the carnival was taking advantage of its audience (and also a pretty bravura sequence in terms of just letting us immerse ourselves in this world), this later one has an air of desperation to it. Ben has disappeared—off with Sofie to meet the old woman. There’s an impostor in his chair, and he can’t quite fill the role like Ben filled the role of Scudder (again, people stepping into clothes they aren’t ready to wear). And just as the group is about to pull off the ruse… in comes the sheriff, cradling the old woman (to whom he’s related). And he’s followed by Ben, finally, reluctantly, choosing to live up to his destiny, even if it’s a sham one, foisted on him by people who don’t know his secret. (What would have happened if he had laid hands on the woman, Samson asks later, and he seems honestly puzzled as to the story he’s wandered into.)
What makes the sequence work, of course, is that Ben chooses not to heal the woman. It’s how he hears about Babylon, and it’s how we move on to the next chapter in the story. But it’s also an interesting conundrum the series has set for itself: This is a show where the best possible choice is almost always not to act but, instead, to let others act upon you. In some ways, the central conflict of this series is between the writers and the material, as they try to find a way to take that idea and turn it into satisfying television. It works here, but only just.
- I love that funeral that opens the episode. The texture of it is really lovely, and it gives us a good sense of the world the carnival folk live in and the situations they keep wandering into.
- Just how many Templetons are there, and how many does Brother Justin have to kill before he gets what he wants?
- On this rewatch, I’m surprised by how frustrated I am with Sofie. I like Clea DuVall a lot, and I think there’s potential for a really fascinating character here, but I’m surprised at how little the show is using her (or the other carnival people, actually). This is very much a show driven by its two leads at this point, and I don’t remember exactly when that begins to shift.
- Interesting: The song from last week’s dream recurs in the weird little dreamlet Ben has around the episode’s midpoint.
- This episode is remarkably short for an HBO episode, at just under 50 minutes. It’s rare to see episodes from the network that drop below that mark.
- I like Samson’s line about how Ben only needs to sit in a chair and look cryptic, which should come naturally.
- I like the way the show teases out mysteries so much—like with Scudder here—that it makes the moments when it underlines stuff the audience has already figured out that much more clumsy.
Next week: It’s a dust storm of apocalyptic proportions in “Black Blizzard.”