“Creed, OK” (season 2, episode 5; originally aired 2/6/2005)
In which Ben finds a masked man
We’ve talked a bit about the disadvantages of Carnivàle’s newly sped-up pace in the last few weeks, but there are plenty of advantages to it, too. Chief among these is the way that the show can now speed past plots that don’t really seem to be working as well as some of the others. For instance, the way that Iris finally confesses to the church fire from last season is dealt with in just a handful of episodes, where the series of last season might have been content to drag this storyline out for another season or two. Those long-term plot stalls are fine, up to a point, but it’s also nice to feel like we’re moving somewhere, even if it’s not always clear why we (or the characters) are moving in that direction. Plot points are getting wrapped up, characters are meeting each other, and everything has a nice momentum to it. In retrospect, this is probably why HBO decided it felt like the storylines had been wrapped up and canceled the show, but we’ll get to that when the time comes.
After the last two episodes have featured their fair share of wheel-spinning and creepy stuff standing in for character development or plot movement, “Creed, OK,” is just the kind of episode I like. It doesn’t push anything too much, but it does just enough to remind us that this is all heading somewhere vaguely important. Assorted storylines come to a head, Justin and Ben have their next weird psychic connection, and the characters at the carnival feel somewhat better integrated into the storyline as a whole than they have at any point all season. (Okay, I’m still not sure why we’re getting into the intimacies of the Dreifuss family—and since when does Stumpy have a huge gambling problem?—but at least this week’s story was more artfully conceived than last week’s Burley extravaganza.) Where “Old Cherry Blossom Road” seemed like it was wandering around in a narrative cul de sac, “Creed” is back on the road. Is it any wonder the episode ends with the carnies packing up and heading out again?
Most weeks, when I finish my reviews, I go and read the wonderful pieces by M. Morse over at CHUD. He covered the whole run of the show back in 2011, from the perspective of someone who’d never seen it before, and I’m intrigued by just how similar our thoughts are in some regards, and just how different they are in others. In his piece on last week’s episode and this week’s, however, Morse came up with a great way to describe the storytelling in both, describing them as conforming to fairy tale logic, where it’s never immediately clear why anything is happening, people wander into certain death situations before wandering out again, and yet everything still makes a perverse sort of sense. Morse’s point is that this kind of storytelling often doesn’t work—and usually shouldn’t—but Carnivàle is able to pull it off, usually thanks to its atmosphere and mood. “Creed, OK” is helped immensely by having its main “fairy tale villain” be creepy as fuck.
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Evander Geddes is the perfect example of Morse’s fairy tale logic theory. He’s a character we’re just learning about now, and he’s a character who seems terribly unlikely to be important to the long-term run of the series. He’s just another stop on Ben’s path toward finding his father, that he might kill him. But I love the way the series shows how Ben’s made a terrible mistake by wandering into Geddes’ parlor. (I’m reminded of the old saying about spiders and flies.) Everything seems to be going just fine and dandy, until reality seems to slip about 10 degrees, with Geddes and Ben’s conversation about whatever happened to Henry Scudder, whose death mask is evidently Geddes’ crowning achievement. It’s around this point that Ben’s cider is dosed with something and he passes out. Geddes drags him to his workshop, paralyzes him, and then uses plaster of Genoa (yikes) to make a quick-acting death mask. Needless to say, the whole thing shocks Justin awake from the “nightmare” he’s been having, and Geddes quickly proves that there’s no workshop underneath his house, just a dusty old crawl space. But if that’s the case, then who shipped this death mask of Ben to Brother Justin?
Poor Ben’s on his own in these events, trying to navigate the waters of his heritage without dying or killing somebody else. The best thing about this season is that he’s doing a pretty piss-poor job of it. He can’t control the numerous spiritual forces he’s unleashed simply by existing, and he’s constantly finding himself stuck in situations where he’d likely die, if not for his unique, avatar nature. Ben Hawkins is our “hero,” but in the first part of this season, he’s as likely to end up hurting someone as helping them, even though he’s got a real, earnest desire to fix the lives of those around him. Samson can even see this, as he can tell that the closeness between Ben and Sofie will result in nothing good. But Ben’s unable to pull away from the strong spark he feels with the woman, and thus continues one of the show’s more intriguing plot developments this season. Ben’s become like a recurring fairy tale hero, slipping in and out of the monster’s den, but not once getting too tripped up by those who might devour him. Yet those around him—from his cousin who now has his mouth knit shut to the creepy Geddes—aren’t quite as lucky to skate blithely on by.
As mentioned above, the pace of the season has picked up, and that means that storylines I didn’t really care about are suddenly perking my interest. The thing the Iris storyline was most missing was the presence of her brother. Really, Clancy Brown and Amy Madigan share the scene so well together that this story was just waiting for more scenes featuring just the two of them. The scene where Iris asks Justin if he wants her to confess is surprisingly powerful, before verging onto the terrifically creepy, as the two seem poised on the edge of a passionate makeout session. This still isn’t my favorite story, since it simply seems to be a way to give Justin something to do other than give sermons, but Brown’s performance is so magnetic that he makes the scenes where Justin tries to figure out his next step all the more interesting. It’s also admirable of the show to close off a plot point abandoned so long ago, and do so rather definitively.
The stuff back at the carnival isn’t as interesting, in what’s sure to be a mantra this season. On the one hand, the arrival of Varlyn Stroud at the carnival is splendidly creepy, particularly once he starts smooth-talking Jonesy about little kids dying on Ferris wheels, or when he tries to big time Samson. I also liked that Samson finally got something to do again, since he’s easily my favorite character. On the other hand, the Dreifuss storyline continues to struggle along, tonight digging into Stumpy’s gambling debts and having him get super-invested in the fight between Max Baer and Joe Louis. It’s very hard for a period piece to do a storyline like this and not make it all about historical irony—about us knowing something the characters don’t. To be sure, much of this storyline is about how the characters don’t think Louis can beat Baer—while we know he will—and it’s not immediately clear why we’re talking about Stumpy’s debts now. But, hey, if somebody’s going to make the racist tendencies of the ‘30s seem sort of fun to be around, it’s Toby Huss, who makes it all seem like he’s just having a laugh. (As it turns out, he sort of is, since he bets on Louis. All of the family’s problems are solved!)
Yet the one thing Carnivàle has been missing this season is that final moment, the part where the stories all converge into something weird and mystical and beautiful. For whatever other issues it has, “Creed, OK,” definitely has moments where everything converges. For the first thing, Sofie, who’s been concerned about Ruthie seeing Apollonia, discovers that she can read the Tarot cards herself, in a wondrous sequence where she reads Ben’s fortune, and the two of them see shrouded images of what was, along with what is to come—the pair kissing at Alamogordo. Sofie starting to realize her true purpose and her true character has been the best thing about this season so far, and this moment is worth any meandering that came before.
It all closes off with Justin receiving the Ben mask from Geddes, placing it to his face, and having a vision of the carnival folk packing up to leave town, before looking into a mirror and seeing Young Master Hawkins peering back at him. He drops the mask suddenly, and it clatters to the floor, blood seeping from where it breaks in two. It’s a potent image, the lifeless suddenly seeming to bear life, and it’s one the series keeps returning to as the season wears on. And as Ben seems to realize what’s come over him and the music swells, the series feels like it’s regained the momentum it misplaced somewhere in the last couple of episodes. We’re back on the road, there are terrors all around, and anything could happen.
- More weird Dreifuss angst: I’m not entirely sure why Libby’s complaining about how her dad doesn’t love her like the dad visiting the carnival loves his kids (whom he puts on the Ferris wheel for endless rides). It’s probably just to play up the irony of said dad visiting her mom for a bit of a romp later, or an opportunity to get her closer to Jonesy. Either way, it’s rather out of nowhere.
- The episode opens with a lovely dream sequence, where it seems as if the carnival has been buried under ash or dust and Belyakov is nowhere to be found.
- That little mask that Geddes puts on as he prepares his craft is just the right kind of creepy. It doesn’t push things too far, but it absolutely makes you shiver. (Really, his whole workshop is the perfect kind of spooky horror setting.)
- By sheer coincidence, I watched an episode of Better Off Ted featuring Dakin Matthews—the actor playing Geddes—as a bumbling old man intent on preserving that series’ corporate secrets right before this one. It was a weird lesson in Matthews’ range.
- In terms of clue-getting, Ben’s next clue—pointing to Damascus, Nebraska—is rather weakly arrived at. It’s essentially just handed to him by the powers that be. Lame!
- I do like that the show doesn’t feel the need to spell everything out. How did that mask come to be in Justin’s possession? Why, almost certainly the same way Stroud came to be on the loose, looking for clues as to Scudder’s locale: Justin can seize control of the airwaves to make all manner of men do his bidding.
- The series does a quick retcon for the Latina stripper we lost between last season and this one. Remember her? The one Stumpy was going to fall in love with? Yeah, I almost didn’t either.
Next week: The season reaches its midpoint as the carnival hits “The Road To Damascus.”