“Day Of The Dead” (season 1, episode 11; originally aired 11/23/2003)
In which the end is coming
After ramping things up with “Hot And Bothered,” Carnivàle does what it can to cool them back off slightly for the penultimate episode of its first season. I said last week that this season of television is oddly structured, and this is the latest thing I find confounding: Taken on its own, “Day Of The Dead” isn’t bad, particularly when it brings closure to the season’s longest-running story arc among the carnival folk. But as a follow-up to “Hot And Bothered,” which ended in a hallucinatory rush, it feels like a step back, as if the show realized it hit the gas too soon and needed to rein things back in before the finale. It’s an episode that mostly exists to get us to the dual cliffhangers, which put Ben and Justin in situations where they’re not sure what to do next, where their power is called into question. But the road there lacks a certain urgency that “Hot And Bothered” had in spades.
Frankly, I might not have been the audience for this episode anyway, because I continue to find Ruthie uninteresting as a character. I liked her in the scene where she and Ben were out hunting snakes several episodes ago, and I liked the way she blurred the lines between mother and lover at the end of last week’s episode. (If this show has a consistent mood, it’s “barely repressed sexual panic.”) But the character herself hasn’t been lavished with the same kind of character development that we’ve seen for Jonesy or Sofie or the Dreyfus family. Hell, even Lodz is better known to us, and one of the points of that character is that his true motives are at least slightly opaque. Ruthie exists primarily to have sex with Ben and to be the mother of Gabriel. She’s not a character so much as a function right now, so when she’s lying on the ground, dead, it’s hard to get too worked up about it in anything but the abstract.
Of course what we’re really supposed to be worried about is that Ben’s powers have failed him at this critical moment. (Or, I suppose, it could just be that his powers won’t allow him to resurrect someone from the dead, and he’s just finding this out now. Otherwise, you’d assume he would have figured something else out.) And that’s an interesting conundrum, but only intellectually. I get that Ben wants to resurrect her because of his feelings for her, complicated though they may be, but Ruthie has yet to inspire anything like the same feelings in me as a viewer, and that makes the whole thing feel perfunctory. Yes, Ben must try to save the woman he slept with. No, he’s not going to be able to save her. Oh, isn’t that too bad?
At the same time, Brother Justin is learning that Iris set the fire that killed all those kids way back in the early parts of the season, and this is a payoff that actually features some bite. Just as the man has started to harness the full extent of his power, he finds himself unable to simply prepare to tell those looking into the fire to fuck off because his sister killed a bunch of children to further his position. It’s a monstrous act, and it’s one that the whole season has been building to. You might have forgotten—or at least moved to the back burner of your brain—that Justin’s spiral was kicked off by the death of the children and the end of his dream of a church for the migrants. But the show hasn’t, and it lets us know that the person who set the fire is the person who’s closest to Justin in the whole world. (Ron Moore loves to use the technique of playing up a story point, then moving it way, way, way out of the center of the storyline, before bringing it back with an unexpected resolution when you least expect it. He used this device many, many times on Battlestar Galactica.) The scene between the two blends equal parts wrath, horror, and lust, and Clancy Brown and Amy Madigan knock the scene out of the park, particularly that moment when Justin reaches over to strangle his sister, then gives her a passionate kiss. All of the raw emotional reactions missing in the death of Ruthie are on full display here, as these two chase each other down their long spiral of dysfunction.
The other finest scene in the episode comes in rough proximity to the Justin-Iris showdown. Stumpy going to have his Tarot read by Sofie is one of the season’s finest scenes, and I like it precisely because it takes its time and lays out all of the secrets on the table (in the form of those damning cards). Earlier in the episode, I was starting to get just a little sick of the endless permutations of these relationship musical chairs. (I think it was somewhere around the scene where Sofie talked earnestly with Rita Sue about how much she liked Jonesy and how she wanted to give it a go.) There’s only so long that you can play around with people gazing longingly at each other and sleeping with the people they don’t want to sleep with before it starts to get old. Plus, the introduction of Caterina as some sort of catalyzing influence doesn’t really work because she’s not a character so much as she is a way to get Stumpy to cheat on Rita Sue, as she’s cheated on him.
But man, oh man, that scene with the Tarot cards is a knockout. There’s a good emphasis in this episode on laying out the steps taken in various religious rituals (perhaps a continuation from the baptism that closed the last episode), and this is presented as almost the same thing. Stumpy doesn’t take it seriously after Caterina brings him to talk with Sofie about his problems (again, because Caterina’s on the show just so she can do stuff like this, not because she’s got anything else going on). But by the time the cards start to lay out exactly what we already know is going on—complete with pauses for us to fill in Apollonia’s dialogue, since we already know whatever it is she’s saying to her daughter. It’s capped with a scene where Sofie realizes that, yeah, Jonesy’s been sleeping with Rita Sue, and maybe she’s not as ready to be with him as she thought. (Then again, she was having fantasies about Libby earlier in the episode, so she might just need some time to think even more stuff through.) And where I might have found all of this irritating earlier in the episode, here it did feel at least somewhat heartbreaking.
The episode’s goofiest moments come when Ben heads into town to watch the Day Of The Dead festivities. He ends up talking to a wise old woman, who’s able to tell him that the dead need to eat bread (or something), and I’m sure it’s all meant to come off as profound and unsettling, but, instead, it’s just a little silly, particularly when those kids surround him and start weeping. (I’ll cop to finding the little boy with the white tree painted on him being just a little eerie, however.) On the other hand, Ben’s venture into the Catholic church and its confession booth is another nicely spooky moment. One of the nice things about putting Scudder on the other side of the little window is that he’s recognizable to us in the audience, but not so recognizable that we can’t spend half the scene trying to figure out who the hell that is before he turns to face us dead on. And while some of what he says is too obviously about how he’s Ben’s dad, I do like the notion that Ben’s mother chose to die. I don’t know if Ben will take this to heart—does Ben ever take anything to heart?—but it’s something he needs to hear.
Finally, we’ve got the ongoing struggles between Lodz and Samson, which continue with Lodz making the attempt on Ruthie’s life (by placing a deadly poisonous snake in a bag left for her), presumably to trick Ben into healing her, though you’d think he’d make sure everybody was positioned just so for this to be the case. But we also get to see that Ben finally decides to trust someone, and that someone is Samson, the guy who only knows a little bit. But as soon as Ben confides in him, Samson opens up and tells him what he knows. It’s a nice little moment, and it’s one that signifies that even if the carnival is full of people who want to use him for their own purposes, Ben’s willing to side with those within the company who will make genuinely good allies. The relationship between Ben and Samson is another one that’s been built carefully over the course of the season, and the payoff here, while not as shocking as the one between Iris and Justin, is sweetly muted.
“Day Of The Dead” is an episode that exists solely to get everybody into place for next week’s big finale. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this—all serialized dramas have to do episodes like this—but it doesn’t do a lot to justify its existence otherwise. (It just might be the weakest episode of the first season.) And as we watch Ruthie’s corpse lie in the middle of a dirt road, Ben trying to revive her, it’s interesting to contemplate just what it is that holds her at a remove: Is it that the relationship is so strange? Or is it simply the fact that the show’s ensemble was so huge that not everybody could be developed? Somebody had to be put into harm’s way, but it might have been nice if it was someone we knew just a little bit better.
- Man, this show is fond of showing us the rousties walking along the edge of the Ferris wheel to make sure it’s properly set up or whatever. I think there have been 500 shots of that this season alone.
- Nicely eerie moment: The worm moves in the bottle of tequila Sofie and Libby are drinking.
- I like the carnival folk siding with Samson, no matter what Lodz and Lila say.
- Speaking of which: Lila is not a pleasant person, but she’s also another character who hasn’t gotten the screentime necessary to grow beyond her very one-dimensional starting point.
- Since we’re about to lose a bunch of them (not to death but, rather, to randomly disappearing between seasons)—and when was the last time we saw the conjoined twins?—I’ll put this to you folks: Do you think the show’s ensemble was too huge for every character to be properly delineated over the course of the season? Or do you think the show focused too much on, say, the love hexagon to the exclusion of the fascinating adventures of Lizard Man?
- What do you think you’re doing, Tommy Dolan? Brother Justin made you. Brother Justin can wrap a microphone cord around your neck and strangle you with his mind.
- Thanks for perking up discussion last week, everyone! Let’s make sure it keeps going, so season two happens. Tell me how I’m wrong about this one, since I’m sure I’m in the minority.
Next week: We reach an explosive finale with “The Day That Was The Day.”