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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Carnivàle: “Babylon”

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“Babylon” (season 1, episode 5; originally aired 10/12/2003)

In which there’s a ghost town…

One of the best things about Carnivàle is how it can summon up a sense of apocalyptic dread, pretty much at will. It’s certainly helpful when the show is trying to build out its secret-history aspects or its fantastical moments. But it also adds to the general sense the show gives of these people living hand to mouth, barely scraping by and having to hope that Samson’s leadership doesn’t sink every single one of them. We only heard about Babylon, Texas, two weeks ago at the end of “Tipton,” but by the time the show reaches that city, it feels double-soaked in dread and sweaty anticipation. This feels like something we’ve been preparing for our whole lives, even though we know it’s only episode five, and there’s nothing that can happen here that will rock the boat too much.

What’s great about “Babylon” is that it strikes those sensations using some of the oldest tricks in the book. An ill wind rattles the carnival buildings. Faceless masses of dirt-covered men leer from the shadows. The music looms ominously. Everything proceeds just a little too quickly or a little too slowly. A mob approaches from the darkness, lit by torchlight. We get hints that all is not what it seems. These are old, old methods used to make things seem just slightly unnerving or supernaturally off-kilter, and it would be easy for all of this to tip immediately into self-parody, with the mob seeming like something out of a Universal monster movie, say. Instead, the show manages a sort of eerie straightforwardness, a sense that we know exactly where this is going, but we’re powerless to stop it. By the time the episode reaches its powerful climax—with Jonesy carrying the body of Dora through the hellish landscape of the carnival gone mad—we feel like we’ve lost our bearings. We know where we are, but it doesn’t feel like home anymore. Like the too-fast Ferris wheel, we want to just stop the ride and get off.

What’s remarkable to me—what, in fact, I’d completely forgotten—is that most of the people driving the big mysteries of the series are absent from this episode for the most part. Ben gets himself stuck in a strange mine with the word “AVATAR” written all over the walls. (And thinking back to 2003, would the word have jumped out as readily for viewers as it does now, with our knowledge of the James Cameron film? The camera pans across “TARAVA,” and goes out of its way to obscure the actual word.) Lodz sits outside of the mine and might as well whistle a happy tune as he awaits Ben’s return. Justin sits out the episode entirely, but for a tiny shot at the beginning of the man sitting in the burned out church and a couple of small pieces of narration. No, this is an episode about the people of the carnival, and it’s an episode about the way that getting caught up in a millennia-old battle between light and dark would really suck for the people who just happened to stumble into the middle of it.

In particular, the episode is a good chance for us to get to know a little more about the Dreifus family. If I have a complaint with the episode, it’s that Dora’s death perhaps doesn’t resonate as much as it might have if we’d gotten to know her and her family better before this episode. I’m surprised at how well this episode does at filling in the blanks of what it’s like to be a part of a family working a cootch show, of what it’s like to be a mother proud that her daughters can so rile up a bunch of horny men, of being a father who has to show off his daughters’ goods to said men. It’s also pretty good at sketching out the tensions that exist among the members of this family, of the ways that Felix and Rita pick at each other or the ways that Libby and Dora snipe in each other’s general direction. In some ways, this is the usual family-fight stuff, but it also feels weighted with portent, both because of where these people work and because of how the episode ends. “Could any family survive this kind of life wholly intact?” the episode seems to want us to ask. The answer isn’t clear, except in the case of Dora, who’s lynched, the word “HARLOT” scratched into her forehead.

Again, that this moment resonates as much as it does is pretty impressive. But when Jonesy walks through the carnival with Dora’s dead body in his arms, it’s hard to feel anything for her personally so much as it is to feel for the carnival in general, sensing that everyone involved may be in far, far over their heads, particularly with Ben and Lodz off on their ultra-strange Outward Bound retreat. Since this episode is the first of a two-parter, it’s easy to forgive the fact that it’s mostly setup for whatever’s coming in the very next hour. But when Dora dies, it feels a little too much like a plot tumbler clicking into place, when it would have been far more powerful to feel acutely that this young life had been snuffed out, simply because she got caught up in a weird battle that had to drag Ben to a certain place to learn certain things he won’t understand or even try to figure out. The war between light and dark kicks up all kinds of collateral damage, just by its very nature, and Dora Mae Dreifus is another body added to the pile.


“Babylon” and the episode that follows it, “Pick A Number,” just might be my favorites of the whole series. As a cumulative whole, they create an emotional impact—and a sense of ever-mounting horror—that the rest of the series sometimes seems to be chasing just behind. But I think what I like most about these two episodes is that they really are about the people in the carnival and the ways that they find their lives destroyed because they’ve signed on with a man who takes orders from curtains and a blind psychic who keeps trying to push the new drifter they’ve picked up into weirder and weirder territory. To be sure, there are plenty of people in the carnival who can sense some of what’s going on. But most of these people are folks like the Dreifuses, who have the sort of normal life that someone like Sofie—so pinned down by her mother and everything that’s happened in her life—longs for.

That’s what sets apart mystery shows that work, to my mind: They really get involved with the people who get dragged into the giant, world-spanning mysteries. Yes, we’re following Ben and Justin as our protagonists, and the story is very much about the two of them accepting their gifts and learning just what the forces of the universe have in store for them. But we’re also there with Jonesy as he realizes that his boss seems to be taking orders from a being that simply doesn’t exist, and we’re there with the Dreifuses in their grief for their dead daughter (even if we don’t feel it as sharply). There’s a reason that Jonesy is the one to find Dora’s body hanging from the tree, I think: He’s the man who’s begun to realize that either there’s a giant pack of lies underlying everything he’s thought to be true or he’s just another tiny piece in a chess game played by eternal forces he couldn’t possibly comprehend. Mystery shows have a tendency to turn their characters into game pieces, shoving them around the board with a kind of mechanistic glee. On the worst of these shows, the characters seem to have no agency and blindly go along with whatever’s happening. (Anybody here see The Event?) But on shows like this one, the characters actually fight back a bit against their fates. They’re still going to be trapped in a carnival, headed toward a ghost town, led by a man who consults with his drapery, but they’re not going to be happy about it, and they might consider leaving if the opportunity presents itself. They’re being dragged along through this elaborate war between light and dark, but they’re not exactly happy about that fact. They feel like human beings, and that makes all the difference.


It’s hard to say too much about “Babylon” (he said as he closed in on 1,500 words) because so much of what the episode does is setting up for next week. (Indeed, I’m having to dance around several points I want to make in regard to the preceding paragraph, for fear of spoiling our first-time viewers. Suffice it to say that I don’t think the story behind Babylon is any coincidence, given what I say above.) On a show that always nailed its all-pervading atmosphere, though, this just might be the show’s finest achievement in those terms. That bar filled with strange, silent men feels like something you might stumble into on a long road trip when you get horribly lost. The way the wind seems to pick up with active menace enhances the feel of something awful just around the corner. Even the shots of sword swallowers and fire eaters and the Siamese twins seem eerier and harder to process in this context. While our hero is stuck beneath the Earth, these people are being offered up as sacrifices to gods they don’t even worship. To these ancient forces, Dora Mae Dreifus is just another body to add to an ever-growing pile. To her mother, though, she’s everything.

Stray observations:

  • Scudder comes up again, and it turns out that he worked in the mines around Babylon, silver mines that dried up, so the miners all left. (Hmmmm…) The mention of him in Sofie’s trailer ties into Ben’s glimpse of him in the mine, where he also sees the corpse of the man Scudder killed via pickax.
  • There are some interesting thoughts in regard to the idea of what Babylon means, both in scripture—Justin defines it as a city of sin, a city of the lost, a city of the damned—and as a reference point for the end of the world. One of the reasons the show can build such an apocalyptic simmer is that that name already has us prepared, I think.
  • Probably the most chilling moment in this episode is when the men lunge at Dora and the tent comes down around them. It honestly feels like nobody’s getting out of there alive.
  • I’m really impressed with Toby Huss’ work in this episode. He’s clearly going to do whatever it takes to get people to see his daughters get naked.
  • I was a bit confused by the idea of a father showing off his naked daughters to paying customers, but Wikipedia assures me the writers of the show had learned about it in their research of the period. Sounds like a great job for family bonding.
  • I like the way we’re getting a gradual sense of the personalities of the other carnival folk, even if it seems like most of them are really, really pissed off much of the time.
  • Everybody's favorite British character actor, John Hannah, turns up to make hanging out in a bar with creepy miners seem all the more exciting.
  • First-time viewers: How much do you think you have figured out about what's going on in Babylon? I’m always very curious to watch people put the pieces together.
  • Just how many people work for the carnival? It sometimes seems like several hundred do, even as I know that’s not the case.

Next week: Carnival justice is meted out, and the sojourn in Babylon ends in “Pick A Number.”