“Alamogordo, N.M.” (season 2, episode 2; originally aired 1/16/2005)
In which momentum builds
I talked a bit last week about how Carnivàle traded atmosphere and weirdness for directness in season two, and that’s nowhere more apparent than in the season’s second episode, which takes the simmer that had built up last week, increases it to a boil, then doesn’t let up for the entirety of the hour. Some of this stuff feels a little ham-fisted—for example the way that the series keeps coming up with ways for Ben and Justin to meet in the dream-space—but it’s all of a piece with the sheer thrill of watching the storyline gallop forward, traversing leaps and bounds in single scenes. Where the status quo set up last week might have lasted five or six episodes last season, it’s already being blown up by the end of this episode. Remember how Management said Ben would have to communicate through Samson and wouldn’t be allowed back in the trailer? That’s already wiped out by the end of this episode, when Ben heads in to have a talk about the End of Days with Management. Things are progressing, and if the show has lost a bit, it’s gained plenty, too.
By and large, what seems to have been lost is texture and character complexity. It’s not that the characters aren’t complex or that the series doesn’t have wonderful moments of atmosphere and Depression-era scene-setting. But the primary focus now is moving the story forward, in bringing Ben and Justin toward Henry Scudder, whom they both continue to seek almost to a fault. If there are little character scenes and moments of historical detail here and there, they feel somewhat incidental, as if the show is tossing them in because it has the time to take a break from the relentless forward movement. Where that was a problem for me last week, though, it works better here, simply because Ben is fully on board with the program now. Where he spent last week dicking around and avoiding his destiny, this week he’s become the sympathetic man of action that Ben Hawkins is at his best.
The episode is also creepier. Again, the sense of unease that permeated season one’s best episodes is mostly gone, but it has been replaced by something that’s almost as good, but in a wholly different way: lots and lots of fucked-up imagery. Ben’s search for the old Templar priest in the mental hospital provides plenty of moments like this, such as the statue of the Christ child turning to look at him or the vision he gets when he clasps the old man’s hand. But we’ve also got the elegant pan the camera does over the desert near Alamogordo, where the bomb will go off in a little more than a decade, and Justin standing naked, staring into the mirror at the tattoo he’s had painted on him. These are some great freaky images, and if they don’t hang with you like the events of “Pick A Number” do, they’re still great in the moment.
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In fact, if I were to pin down what it is I think the second season of Carnivàle does that makes it work, it would be a sense of immediacy. The show is always building and building, constructing great little scenes that hook together into larger sequences that hook together into whole episodes. While I might miss, say, Justin’s agony over his true calling from season one, there’s still something thrilling to watch as the show so gleefully sends him tumbling end over end into a life of evil. Now that Justin has realized he is irredeemable, he’s having a good time breaking ground for his new church and trying to become the Usher and having far-off disciples kill prison guards to affect their escapes. There’s really nothing subtle about Justin causing a pretty young woman to have a vision of unbuttoning her dress and clawing at her skin, but he’s so damned pleased with everything he’s done that it’s hard to begrudge the show these moments.
And maybe it’s just as well that Justin is kind of a straightforward bad guy now, because this season is decidedly the season of Ben Hawkins. Ben was the thing I complained about last season the most—and even in the last episode! But I like the Ben we see in this episode, a guy who has got these inestimable powers but seems less interested in learning how to use them than in how he can use them to either save the world or help some of those around him. He’s genuinely kind to the old Templar, and he takes Sofie back in, even as his avatar subconscious tries to warn him what she might lead to. Ben’s a nice guy, and the magic powers don’t matter as much as that.
One of the issues that having Ben be like this neatly avoids is the fact that if this show were about Belyakov versus Scudder, it would be about two men who’ve embraced their non-humanness and given in to the sheer power coursing through their veins. And while that could be fun for a little while, it would also eventually grow isolating. Look, for instance, at how much more arresting Justin’s arc was in the first season, when he was struggling against what his own avataric nature was telling him to do. Ben’s the avatar of light, sure, but he’s also a genuinely good guy, and the show has built up some subtle stakes here. When Samson says in the last episode that Management doesn’t really care about people as people, we’re meant to contrast that with Ben, who clearly does. Is there the possibility that if he gives in to his avatar side, he’ll stop caring about anyone like he does right now? And should we mourn that? The show seems to want us to, and I think that’s the right choice.
The episode also works because it begins to get us back into one of the central tenets of the show, which is the idea of that traveling carnival, pulling up stakes and pressing on to another location after bleeding one town dry. After the premiére, I worried a bit that the show might not have as much to do with the carnival this season, because the stories about what it was like to run a traveling show like this in the ’30s were my favorite things about season one. And that’s still somewhat the case, as the scenes where, say, Samson bugs Stumpy about how he hasn’t fully paid up the cash he owes feel incredibly disconnected from everything else in the episode. When the carnival hits the road at episode’s end, however, it pulls everything that came before together in an elegant, understated way. Sofie looks back at the burned-out husk of her mother’s bus, and there’s a mournful quality to it that the season has been missing so far. So long as season two can capture some of this quality, even if it’s only on the edges of the episodes, then it’ll be just fine.
- I love the muttering about the “crone.” It’s understated, creepy, and just about perfect.
- Sofie finding a tarot card in the bed in Lodz’s old trailer is another note that works as a bit of eerie business. I also like how the rest of the carnival just seems to have forgotten about the old professor, even as Lila keeps insisting everybody look for him. It’s a subtle indication of just how little he meant to some of these people.
- I try not to complain about stuff like this in HBO shows, but I watched this episode at the TCA press tour in a room full of people, and I had to frequently click away due to all the random nudity. To be sure, some of it was necessary: It’s important for us to be reminded of just what it is the Dreifuss family does, since episode one was light on those characters. But I’m not entirely sure why the woman who tattooed Justin needed to be shirtless, other than the fact that, well, she could be.
- The figure the Usher reminds me of the most is BOB on Twin Peaks, and while I don’t think he’s as good at creating unease as that character was, he’s still a remarkably terrifying figure when used properly, as he is here.
- The episode attempts to deal with the “Why doesn’t Ben just heal Belyakov?” question here, but it kind of bungles the answer. “Because you just can’t!” is never all that satisfying, even though we know that’s the case.
Next week: I’m at the TCA press tour and pressed for the kinds of time I like to write these reviews, so I’m going to take next week off. I’ll return on August 8 with our promised visit to “Ingram, TX.”