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

Carnivàle: "Insomnia”

Illustration for article titled Carnivàle: "Insomnia”

“Insomnia” (season 1, episode 9; originally aired 2/9/2003)

In which sleep does not come easily…

If you were the kind of person who was watching this show for answers, I suspect “Insomnia” would drive you a little nuts. It’s an entire episode that raises at least one big new mystery—who’s the guy with the tree tattoo who raped Apollonia and is Sofie’s father?—and spends most of the rest of its running time avoiding anything like addressing any of the other mysteries. It’s an entire episode where all that really needs to happen for these stories to inch forward is for Ben to fall asleep, and then he resolutely refuses to do just that, either because his dreams have terrified him away from the “land of Nod” or because he’s a stubborn old cuss who just wants to be left alone. Yes, the major dramatic question of “Insomnia” is whether Ben Hawkins will fall asleep or not, and when given space to suggest (or even say outright) that he can’t sleep or Lodz will eat him, the show mostly plays mysterious.

So, yes, I can see why some would hate “Insomnia.” I still rather dug it, because of this recent batch of episodes, it’s the one most interested in the business of running a traveling carnival in the 1930s. I love this sort of stuff—I was the guy who got really into the “How does Mildred run her restaurant?” portions of Mildred Pierce—and I enjoyed everything about how Samson set up and successfully executed the “fireball show,” which turns out to be a show promising all sorts of extra-special attractions, designed specifically to lure in as many people as possible, both to collect their dimes but also so the carnies can collect the wallets of the more ostentatiously wealthy of the carnival attendees. I enjoy the way the episode never comes right out and says, “Oh, here’s what a fireball show is and why it’s called that,” and I like the way that it eventually spells out how Samson uses all of the weird items he asks Osgood and the other carnies to collect in that early scene set at breakfast.

It’s only on this trip through the series that I’m realizing that Carnivàle utilizes the “one episode equals one day” structure Deadwood creator David Milch is so fond of. Yeah, there are episodes of the show that take place over more than one day (or at least seem to), but for the most part, this series keeps things moving along over the course of one 24-hour period. This is one of the things that makes Ben’s insomnia a little more palatable as a story device. All of us have had to struggle through a day after a night in which we got little-to-no sleep, and the woozy way that Ben’s adventures are shot so readily suggests this that you could probably watch Jack Bender’s direction on mute and figure out that Ben is suffering from a severe lack of rest. That scene where he watches Ruthie dance with the snake suggests this in particular, and I love how he races across the stage, tongue all but hanging out, collecting those silver pieces like a kid running around at an Easter-egg hunt.

That day-by-day structure makes some of the mythological complication easier to stomach. When you’re watching this show week to week, it feels like forever since Ben joined the carnival and forever since he should have unleashed his true power with the help of Lodz (presumably). But when you really think about it, only a few weeks have passed within the show’s universe—at the most—and Ben’s reticence to jump headfirst into a game he’s only just now realized is being played around him makes a lot more sense when viewed as the actions of a kid who’s slowly having his entire life upended. “Insomnia” makes a good case that what Ben needs most of all is just someone who’s not insane and potentially power-hungry like Lodz to make the case for him to learn to control his powers. Sure, Lodz’s suggestion that if he doesn’t, he’ll doom all that he loves makes a certain amount of sense (particularly since we know the genre of the story we’re watching), but it’s also easy to see why Ben finds Lodz so irritating.

Samson, on the other hand, is plausibly being sold as the father figure of this little band of miscreants. When he goes from talking with Sofie about her secret origin story to lurking outside Management’s trailer (to dig through wallets with the phoniest-looking prop money ever) to talking with Ben, it almost makes me want to repeat the old Homer Simpson gag: “Talk about parenting!” More and more, Samson has settled into his role as being the guy who makes the tough choices—even if it’s Management using Samson as a proxy for whatever Management is up to—and the guy who’s always there to take care of his fellow carnies, even if his morals are often a little more opportunistic than a traditional hero. Michael J. Anderson has an undeniable warmth to him as an actor, and the show makes good use of this in scenes like the one where Samson tells Ben that, hey, like it or not, Hack Scudder’s his dad, so he may as well suck it up and bear it.


If there’s a “storyline” in “Insomnia” beyond Ben trying not to fall asleep (the fireball show is cute but really more of a vignette about carnie life), then it’s based in the struggle between Lodz and Samson for the person who will gain access to Management’s trailer, thus allowing Linda Hunt to boss them around. Last week, it almost seemed as if Lodz had bested Samson at this game, but here, Samson throws off Lodz’s mentalism act (so that’s what he does) by handing him Hack Scudder’s old Templar pin, causing Lodz to disappear into what appears to be an epileptic seizure, thrashing about on the ground and just generally terrifying everyone in the crowd. Everyone, that is, except Ben, who helpfully translates Lodz’s Latin, leading Samson to ask, once again, just what’s up. Whatever the Templars are up to, it involves putting heads on posts and a general air of menace, and the horrific images Lodz sees are among the episode’s stronger moments.

Brother Justin, meanwhile, gets less of a focus this week than he’d had the past two, with his mental hospital stay coming to an end after he apparently writes out some sort of manifesto. In a lot of ways, this story feels like a retread of last week, right down to Justin saying “Be still” (this time to quiet an entire hospital full of moaning patients), but it’s fun to watch Clancy Brown command the screen like he does here, and the bit where he goes and tells the other patient to start pounding his head against the wall is a nice example of the dark implications of granting Justin unfettered power. Brown plays Justin’s growing malevolence with just the right mix of weariness and odd enthusiasm, and it’s nice to see this all play out as it does.


That said, this episode is yet another that suggests the supporting characters are the real reason to give this show a rewatch. The triangle between Stumpy, Jonesy, and Rita Sue seems to be drawing to a close, even if Stumpy still isn’t ready to be the husband Rita Sue needs, but then it reignites when Jonesy tries to put a stop to it. Sofie fears that her mother may be going insane, a concern that Jonesy, to his credit, doesn’t laugh off. Samson plots an elaborate show that will mostly exist to make sure that fools and their money are soon parted. Ruthie tries to seduce Ben and get him to fall asleep. There’s nothing revolutionary here, but it’s easy to lose just how well this show treated many of these characters, even in the midst of trying to build out the show’s larger mythology. It’s easy to think of this as a series that’s all about teases—or all about things that are about to happen, as I suggested last week—but it’s also a series that’s giving us some very warm, heartfelt portrayals of people just trying to get by in an America that increasingly feels like a carnival trundling toward a cliff’s edge.

“Insomnia” is another placeholder, in many ways, and I’m not sure it accomplishes anything that last week’s episode didn’t already do better. But where that one set my teeth on edge, something about “Insomnia” creates a pleasant atmosphere of oddness and weird goings-on. I understand the temptation to write this episode off, to say, “Hey, why don’t we get a move on with the story already?” but I think that’s not what the show’s going for, after all. The mythology and the larger story of the battle between light and dark is interesting, sure, but it’s just the gateway drug that exists to get us into these smaller stories of people facing down their own private darknesses the only ways they know how.


Stray observations:

  • The scene where Sofie talks about how she’s starting to be able to do the stuff her mother can is a really nicely done one, and Clea DuVall and Anderson play the hell out of it. I’ve always been a little sad that DuVall hasn’t had a better career, and I’d love if she mounted some sort of comeback.
  • Possible spoiler alert: How obvious is it at this point who Sofie’s father is? I like to think it’s really obvious, as I guessed it on my first watch, but it’s also possible I’m just a very lucky guesser.
  • I love Toby Huss in the scenes where Stumpy’s announcing some sort of carnival business. That scene where he announces the man eating chicken is a heckuva lot of fun.
  • Do you think Lila ever gets tired, watching Ben ward off sleep?
  • Another very nice scene: Iris and Tommy’s short scene outside of her house (in which he comes on to her) is a nice little duet between the two, the real reason they won’t hook up never spoken.

Next week: Think you’ve seen the last of Ben refusing to sleep? Well, think again, because you’ve still got “Hot And Bothered.”