Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Carnivàle: “Cheyenne, WY”

Illustration for article titled Carnivàle: “Cheyenne, WY”

“Cheyenne, Wyoming” (season 2, episode 10; originally aired 3/20/2005)

In which this isn’t the Ritz-Carlton; it’s Cheyenne, Wyoming

One of the best and worst things about Carnivàle is its tendency to not explain the rules of what’s going on. This means that when, say, Brother Justin ends this episode by decapitating Scudder, then stands out in the rain, pleased smile on his face, the audience knows exactly what he’s smiling about. But it also means that things viewers think they understand can just as easily be turned away by a stray line of dialogue or two. Take, for instance, the scene where Justin is about to kill Scudder with the scythe in the little shack Stroud has him tied up in. Wilfred Talbot Smith tells him to wait, and it’s all he can do to stop himself. Scudder can’t be drugged when he gives up his boon to Justin. No, he has to do it of sound mind, or madness and maybe even death will follow. It’s a blatant stall, a way to give the audience reason to think Ben might catch up in time. Granted, it’s all resolved by the end of the hour, but it’s mostly just there to give the episode tension it wouldn’t have otherwise.

That said, I’m not sure this is such a bad thing. This is a marvelously tight episode of the show, one that seems to compress a week of time or so into the space of 50 minutes. (I have no idea how long it would take to travel from Cheyenne to California in a 1930s car, but I suspect it’s longer than the space of a day or two, which is all it seems to take here.) There’s exciting stuff going on in both halves of the show’s storyline, and even the times we cut away to hang out with the carnival folk are filled with some great moments. I’m not entirely sure why Lodz is re-entering the picture at this point in the storyline. (If memory serves, this isn’t really paid off.) But it gives some direction to two characters—Ruthie and Lila—who’ve been in need of it all season. And the scenes between Samson and Libby are at once unexpected—who thought she’d be one of the first to enter Management’s inner sanctum—and warm, two characters who wouldn’t have had a reason to share much now sharing a very big secret.

The big doings are happening in California, however. Once Ben and Jonesy find the hotel room where Stroud was holding Scudder, they realize the two have split. Fortunately, there’s a conveniently disposed of newspaper that Jonesy kicks back to read, so that Ben might see the photo of Justin on the front page and realize that, hey, that’s the guy he needs to stop. The episode then skips across half a continent and sends the bulk of the storyline back to California, where Justin is thwarted in his initial attempts to receive his boon and is forced to stew around while Scudder sobers up. In the meantime, he’ll have some meaningful chats with his associates, discover that his sister and mentor are plotting against him, and prepare himself for the moment of surprise, when he might kill Scudder in such a fashion that he’s all but forced to give up his power to Justin. It’s a good way to get over the fact that most of what the series’ ostensible protagonist is doing involves sitting in a car and a good way to give the story over to the other characters for a little while.

The plot stall’s a bit weird when it happens, but it’s not a huge detriment to the rest of the episode. What does hold the power of the ending back just a bit are some of the filmmaking choices from guest director Todd Field (of In The Bedroom and Little Children fame). Normally, when a famous film director comes to take over an episode of a TV show, their style is subsumed into the show’s usual template. Think, for instance, of the times Quentin Tarantino has directed ER or C.S.I., two episodes of TV that had some of Tarantino’s usual fascinations but were mostly recognizable as episodes of those particular shows. (Another good example: Rian Johnson’s episodes of Breaking Bad.) Still, you can usually see a bit of the director poking through in these episodes, as surely as you can see the early style of Steven Spielberg poking through in his initial TV directorial efforts. What Field does here doesn’t really fit in with his films, to be sure, since he’s doing stuff in a genre his films don’t come close to touching. But the sequences where Scudder kills Smith—by tearing out his heart!—and where Justin kills Scudder feature some weird choices. The former is shot in a sort of combination of stutter-step flashes and slow motion, with odd, echoing sound, while the latter is preceded by a red-out, with a solid red screen popping up. Justin’s ultimate triumph is also a strangely edited sequence, but it’s before a blood-red sky with everything in silhouette, so it looks pretty cool.

Field’s biggest contribution is the level of intimacy he brings to the smaller conversations and moments. That tiny nod exchanged between Libby and Samson as the carnival departs for California has so much resonance—particularly with that earlier scene—as does the scene where Rita Sue tells Lila that Ben apparently has healing powers. (Rita’s laughing it off, but Lila, who’s learned from Lodz-in-Ruthie that Ben killed Lodz and Samson covered it up, is taking it seriously.) These small, interpersonal scenes usually work in the show, but I love the way Field shoots so many of these moments in very tight close-ups, so we can really see what the characters are thinking and feeling. It’s the exact opposite of the over-the-top bravado of the sequences that don’t work, and it’s probably the best thing about the episode.


Also great is the way that the New Canaan storyline is really starting to cook now that the show has gathered all of these characters in the same place. One of the problems with Brother Justin’s storyline from the start is that it featured essentially only he and Iris a lot of the time. Clancy Brown was strong enough to carry that on his own, but it only allowed for certain types of scenes, which tended to boil down to ominous conversations between the siblings and Justin delivering sermons. But now that Smith and Stroud and Scudder and Sofie are all there and Iris and Norman are scheming to bring Justin down, the scenes pop much more readily. We finally get absolute confirmation that Justin is Sofie’s father, even as the relationship between the two grows closer and closer and weirder and weirder. (Even if I didn’t know what was coming, I’d know this show and realize this was intentional.) And even if the scene where Stroud pushes Iris up against the wall and threatens her with rape comes literally out of nowhere, it’s the good kind of out of nowhere, the kind that lets you know just how disturbed this guy is. Iris is no longer safe in her own home, and she’s going to have to be smart to make it out of this alive. I still don’t entirely buy her character shift, but I like the idea of having this one sane woman in a house full of pure evil, whose only ally is a man imprisoned in his own body and trapped in a bed.

The stuff at the carnival feels more minor, even if it’s all very, very good. The image of Lodz crawling across the ground to Lila’s trailer, followed by the image of Lila pulling away the blanket to reveal Ruthie with the blank eyes, makes for a very good combination of creepy moments. The bit where Jonesy and Libby are dropped off by Ben, but Jonesy decides to go with Ben, his very own version of Stroud, is also very good, even if that mostly leaves them for a long sequence of traveling scenes. And the argument between Libby and her mother, the one that pushes her to reveal what Ben can do to a woman who would never believe in it, is brutal. The characters are all on the brink now, and now that Ben has pressed forward into the final confrontation—and now that he knows he won’t enter it at an advantage, thanks to a conveniently placed Scudder head—everything feels that much more desperate. The end is nigh for these people, even if they don’t know it yet.


Stray observations:

  • Man, the mentions of Rennes-le-Chateau and Sauniere make me nostalgic for the days when I was researching weird conspiracies and half-believing them. I wonder if the show would have pursued this any further, particularly given its already established Templar ties.
  • Have we ever seen Samson use that little desk in the Management trailer? I’m sure he has, but I didn’t have a memory of it outside of this moment.
  • Sofie is not very good at most household tasks, but everybody keeps her around because she’s so much fun. In another world, this is a very dark sitcom.
  • Carla Gallo is so good in her several scenes tonight. It makes me nostalgic for the time when it seemed like she was going to break out, and not when she was just guest starring on assorted random sitcoms.
  • I’m going to be talking to Daniel Knauf in a few days about this show. Is there anything you’ve always been dying to know? I can probably try and sneak it in, unless it’s some question about Burley, because I don’t care about that.

Next week: The next-to-last episode arrives, as the characters gather “Outside New Canaan.”