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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Carnivàle’s “Black Blizzard” trapped the characters inside their own ugly lives

Illustration for article titled Carnivàle’s “Black Blizzard” trapped the characters inside their own ugly lives

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: With the 2016 television season slowly staggering in after the holidays, there are not many new releases to inspire us. Instead, we’re using the weird winter weather as an occasion to revisit our favorite episodes about freakish storms.


Carnivàle, “Black Blizzard,” season one, episode four (originally aired 10/5/2003)

Carnivàle, HBO’s fantastical, sometimes frustratingly opaque Dust Bowl series, made it through only two of its planned six seasons. Low ratings and big budgets joined forces to bring a doom about every bit a final as one that Brother Justin could have wrought. Its early end left countless plots unresolved, mysteries forever mysterious, and character fates hanging in the balance. There’s not even hope for a Deadwood-style resurrection, as creator Daniel Knauf told the A.V. Club in 2013: “[The movie] was on the table for a little while, and I took a big old pass on it. It wasn’t because I was holding out or anything. It made no sense to me. It still doesn’t.”

So when looking back at Carnivàle, it’s not the mysteries that matter. They’re gone. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. What we’re left with is the characters, and “Black Blizzard” is the season-one episode that first gave us a chance to get to know them. To do it, writer William Schmidt and director Peter Medak used one of the oldest tricks in the book: They trapped the characters indoors.

The need to take shelter from the storm is a pretty familiar trope, but the titular blizzard is anything but ordinary. A monstrous dust storm sweeps in, adding to the apocalyptic feel of both the episode and the series as a whole, trapping the carnival’s members—most notably, supporting characters Sofie (Clea DuVall) and Samson (Michael J. Anderson), both to this point largely unexplored—in prisons of their own making. Sure, we still see a bit of Brother Justin (Clancy Brown), who gets to spit out some first-class fire and brimstone, and the show tosses out a few more hints about Ben’s (Nick Stahl) abilities, thanks to the machinations of Lodz (Patrick Bauchau). Still, the bulk of the episode leaves the Avatars and greater forces behind, focusing instead on smaller, but no less powerful things: loneliness, longing, being deceived.

Both Samson and Sofie’s stories center on sex, though neither in the way the character intended. Both seem motivated by a need to escape from their day-to-day existence—Sofie from her fantastically unhealthy psychic link with her catatonic mother, Samson from the physical realities that set him apart from much of the world—but neither maintains it for long. Sofie’s hinges on a largely harmless lie to a café owner (the terrific Gabriel Mann), who deceives her in turn and sucks all the pleasure from her feeble attempt at connection. Samson’s depends on a lie of another kind—the idea that in his encounters with Miss Jolene (Judith Hoag, also terrific), the money is largely incidental.

Now and then, everyone pretends what they must in order to get what they want. But the swirling cloud of dust that sweeps through ”Black Blizzard” isn’t the only thing to creep in through the cracks, sticking in the eyes and mouths of the people it’s trapped. Deceiving others can be hurtful, but it’s the deception you sell yourself that does the most damage. It’s the lie that welcomes in the truth, the storm that leaves everything the same, just drier, dustier, and even more inhospitable than it was before.


Availability: “Black Blizzard” is available for individual purchase on Amazon, and streams free through both Amazon Prime and HBO Now.