“Black Blizzard” (season 1, episode 4; originally aired 10/5/2003)
In which the dust covers everything
The central problem with a mystery show—both in terms of commercial prospects and long-term artistic viability—is that once everybody knows the solution to the mystery, there’s not really a good plot reason to go back and rewatch the show. I’ve seen Carnivàle before, so I know where all of this is headed. This means that the many, many hints dropped about what’s actually going on have less interest for me than they did the first time around, because I already know the big answers, for the most part. (At least at this stage of the game; when we get to the end of the show, I’m going to be as blind as the rest of you.) This means that the focus necessarily shifts to the other stuff: the character stories, the day-to-day life of the carnival, the standalone plots about life on the road, the Great Depression milieu. Yes, the mysteries are still interesting, but mostly intellectually, as I get to watch the way the show is putting puzzle pieces together in ways that new viewers don’t even realize yet. It’s the other stuff that has to grab me.
All of which is to say that I didn’t really like “Black Blizzard” the first time I watched it, way back when, and was kind of dreading rewatching it. But on this second time through, I really loved it. Some of that may be the intervening years and my shifting ideas of what I like about TV. But I suspect a lot of it is that the pressure is now off the mysteries of the show, and I can appreciate some of the other things it’s doing. When I watched it at the age of 22, I was upset that Ben and Lodz were locked up in that house, surrounded by dust, and all we got were more vague intimations of the scope of Ben’s power and the things Lodz had done in his past. (And even now that I know these answers—mostly—I still find mystery-show moments when one character refuses to be straight with another mostly to preserve mysteries a little annoying, no matter how good of a motivation that character has.) But now, I’m impressed by how elegantly this episode is structured and how well it starts to tell us who some of the other people in the carnival are.
I talked a bit last week about how the people of the carnival were sort of a faceless mob, when it came right down to it. Really, which of them stood out had more to do with the actor’s raw charisma than with anything else. Michael J. Anderson is a fun actor to watch, so Samson is already becoming a fun character, even though the most that he’s been differentiated as a character is “not exactly ethical in all things.” (Honestly, on most TV shows, this would count as good character development. Is it unfair that we tend to hold cable dramas to higher standards? I don’t know.) The same goes for Tim DeKay, and Jonesy has gotten even less definition beyond “loyal sidekick.” My consternation with Sofie this time through has a lot to do with remembering her as one of my favorites and being a big Clea DuVall fan, then finding that she was less of a presence in the first three episodes than I remembered. Once you’ve seen a series in its entirety, your brain fills in gaps you didn’t know were there in the first place.
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“Black Blizzard” is absolutely essential to starting to differentiate these people. We get some really good character development of Samson, Jonesy, Sofie, and Lodz. Yeah, we don’t really have much of an idea who, say, Gecko or the Siamese twins are as people, beyond as background color for the carnival scenes, but the ensemble’s so big that there’s no way we could know, even at this early date. My rule of thumb for this sort of thing has evolved in recent years, but I’ve always felt that if in the pilot at least one character shows intriguing dimensions, then a show gets the benefit of the doubt and time to try to fill in everybody else in the cast. Sometimes, this doesn’t happen, but Carnivàle is making good on the promise it showed with Brother Justin and Ben in those first three episodes by expanding its scope. Yes, it’s still primarily a show about two men fighting out a mystical battle on the edges of the Great Depression. But it’s now also a show about a carnival boss who can turn prickly at the slightest provocation, a loyal sidekick who’s finding himself growing tired of the lack of solid answers, a young woman trapped in an unhealthy symbiosis with her mother and yearning to break free, and an old man who’s chased something his whole life and now finds it close at hand.
Let’s start with Sofie, as it’s her character that really snaps into place in this episode. She’s a woman who’s been trapped in a desperate relationship with her bed-ridden mother since she can remember, and that’s necessarily created someone who needs to escape, who’s plenty happy to take the truck and just drive to a nearby town, where she’ll flirt with a local and invent a new story about who she is—here, the widow of Jonesy (whose back-story gets filled in by another character, often a good approach). When she’s in town, she immediately turns to lying because she can. She doesn’t have her mother literally invading her mind, so the ultimate freedom becomes evading the truth. Yet then the dust storm comes, trapping her together with the local guy, and things go too far, particularly once she realizes that he’s married. She wants freedom, but she’s also not always sure how far she can take it, which leaves her running back to her home and the strangely codependent parent-child relationship that imprisons her. (Notice how the framing makes her look like her mother, somewhat, when she gets done having sex, as seen above.) Her mother lays into her psychically, but as always, we only get to hear Sofie’s half of the conversation, and it’s a wonderful little scene, the daughter, chastened, having to put up with her mother’s anger.
The reason this sort of purely character-driven exposition works, I think, is that we’re not impatient once the dust storm settles in. It’s an exotic enough way to trap these people, and it nicely enhances the episode’s apocalyptic bona fides. When I said last week that the ’30s were a good time to set a secret-history fantasy series, one of the big points in the decade’s favor are those dust storms, which provide for the vaguely unusual feeling of something huge and terrifying that you don’t see every day. Plus, they’re a largely man-made disaster, thanks to over-farming and poor farming techniques, so there’s a sense of mankind reaping what it has sown, adding to the way the ’30s feel like a sort of judgment passed on an entire species for fucking everything up. Yeah, our current economic woes are pretty bad, but at least the Earth hasn’t gotten it in its mind to swallow us whole.
This sense of being “trapped” enhances all of the little vignettes we see. If there’s one that gets short shrift, it’s probably Jonesy trying to make sure everybody’s safe back at the carnival, racing from tent to tent and trailer to trailer. Apollonia nearly dies, covered in dust that also winds its way down her throat (a positively eerie image that’s hard to shake). Jonesy makes sure everybody’s somewhere out of the wind and swirling dust, then waits out the storm. The vision of the storm swallowing the carnival whole is one of the best in the episode, and it contributes to the feeling we’re supposed to get from Jonesy, I think: the most normal guy in the world, who’s become trapped by all of these things beyond his ability to understand. Finally, he goes to check on Management in its trailer, and he discovers what most of the audience likely suspected from the first: There’s no one behind the curtain. His boss has been lying to him, and the whole carnival is run on a sort of faith-based shell game. It’s a notion that destroys him, and even Samson understands something has shifted between the two of them when he returns at episode’s end.
Speaking of Samson, he’s the guy who gets the least flattering portrayal here. Because Anderson’s still a good actor, Samson’s petty jealousy over having the fact that his prostitute lady friend takes lovers other than him—including Osgood, who pays but $2—seems more charming than as curdled and bitter as it should, but that scene where he keeps pulling money out until she’ll sleep with Osgood again to see if she can make her performance more efficient is a touch horrifying. He’s a man who’s used to getting what he wants, but he’s also a man warped and made bitter by how the world perceives him outwardly, by how he’ll always be conscious of the fact that he’ll stand out in any situation, whether that’s strolling down a street or paying for sex. Much of the time, he’s able to play that off with good humor, but sometimes, he finds himself reminded that even dumb old Osgood has several advantages over him.
If there’s a story that doesn’t work quite as well for me, it’s the story of Lodz and Ben out in the middle of the storm. Maybe this is a function of knowing those answers, but the tidbits we get here—we find out why Ben didn’t die from swallowing dust as his mother did, and we see Ben briefly stop the storm—just aren’t as interesting as the character stories elsewhere. Yes, it’s fascinating to see how far Lodz will go to drag Ben into a situation where he can prove whatever point he’s trying to prove, and it’s always fun to watch Ben try to run away from his destiny, but there’s already a sense of the show falling into a pattern it’s not quite sure how to avoid: Lodz wants Ben to do something; Ben doesn’t want to; Lodz does something extreme to get him to; Ben still refuses, but we get some hints of his true power anyway. At the same time, I love the sense we get that Lodz has been waiting his whole life for this, like one of the old men in the Bible who’d been hanging around, waiting for Jesus to be born so they could die at peace. It gives a greater reason for his frustration: If you’d been waiting around for this one man your whole life, wouldn’t you be a bit frustrated when he refused to live up to your dream of him?
That notion of being trapped—by expectations, by a physical form, by an organization you’re losing faith in, by an unhealthy parent-child relationship, by a duststorm—pervades the entire episode. What at first seems like a way to enhance the show’s end-of-the-world feel instead goes incredibly small-scale and tells us more about who these people are. It’s that clash of the epic up against the intimate that makes “Black Blizzard” work so very well. Where I was impatient in 2003—just wanting this show to get on with it already—I now think “Black Blizzard” was a big reason for my later investment in the series. No matter the focus of the show, it’s hard to build a successful one without good characters, and “Black Blizzard” goes a long way toward making Carnivàle’s stand out beyond mere faces in a crowd.
- Despite getting the big cliffhanger—the new church has burned down and killed a bunch of children with it—Brother Justin mostly lurks at the edges of this episode. That’s appropriate, since Ben is not as much of a focus either. (And, actually, now that I think about it, we largely see Justin through Iris’ eyes in this episode, enhancing the feel of this being the episode where the supporting players get to shine.) Still, that speech where he quotes the Biblical passages about children sinning and millstones around necks is positively terrifying, and Clancy Brown knocks it out of the park, as he always does.
- There are worse bits of local color than the Siamese twins doing their early morning stretches and exercise routine.
- Now that the episode has so skillfully delineated the supporting characters who were clearly the most “important” supporting players, the next task will be drilling down into some of the other, more tertiary characters. If it were up to me, we’d start with the Dreifuss family, but, of course, it’s not.
- This is the first episode credited to writer William Schmidt, who will become an important voice both throughout the show’s run and in its afterlife.
- I like the subtle ways that Justin’s religion is being played up as a sort of forerunner to hellfire-and-brimstone evangelical Christianity, which has some similarities—particularly in voice—to the efforts of Father Coughlin (who’s very similar to Justin in many regards). There’s a new strain of religious fervor mixed with anger running through the country, just waiting for someone to give it voice. In reality, that was Coughlin. In this universe… we’ll see.
- In some ways, this episode functions like a bottle episode told in several different locations, except I can’t imagine it being at all cheap because of the duststorm effects.
- Next week begins one of my favorite stories the show ever told. I look forward to dissecting the next two episodes with you.
Next week: The carnival finally winds its way to “Babylon.”