“Outside New Canaan” (season 2, episode 11; originally aired 3/20/2005)
In which it’s almost time, but it’s not quite time just yet…
I prefer season one of Carnivàle to season two, but I’ll say this for season two: It builds much, much better. The early going has its rough spots, but somewhere around the Damascus arc, season two attains an impressive momentum that just keeps building, even in the episodes I’m not as fond of. And even that early going feels better motivated than season one’s duller spots. I love the atmosphere and mood of season one, but season two is plotted rather ruthlessly, particularly when you consider that the show’s forward momentum is slower than most other series by design. The pace of the season is deliberate, but it picks up as it goes along, and the show never overplays its hand. As we hit the midpoint of the final three episodes of the season (which function as a kind of trilogy), that becomes even more apparent.
Like most middle chapters in a trilogy, “Outside New Canaan” is a bit of a stall on plot terms. But it’s a thrilling stall. There are moments in this episode that the whole series has been building to, like the carnival folk learning that Management doesn’t exist or Ben and Brother Justin finally sharing the same frame in physical reality, not some dream. The show knows that by having kept the characters apart for so long, just watching Iris share a scene with Samson and Jonesy will give viewers a little kick, and it exploits this for all it’s worth. Will Ben discover that Sofie’s living at Justin’s place? Will he come in contact with Iris and Norman, working so hard to bring down Brother Justin from within? And when will Brother Justin see that big Ferris wheel going up in his front yard and seem to disintegrate from the sheer horror of it all?
I interviewed Daniel Knauf last week, and he said a lot of fascinating things about the development of the series (and where he had hoped the series would have gone). You should expect that piece in a couple of weeks, but I thought it would be worth talking about what he said about bringing Ben and Brother Justin into contact in season two. The story has always gone that HBO wanted to see the two characters have a confrontation in the second season, and that Knauf said that was already his plan. And while I’ve always more or less accepted that as the official line, I’ve also thought that perhaps Knauf was simply going along with what the network wanted, the better to ensure the show would stay on the air.
But what Knauf told me was that, yeah, it would have been too long to make the audience wait if the show hadn’t had Justin and Ben meet in the second season. I’m not sure exactly how he and the writers arrived at this amount of time, but it ends up feeling just about perfect. (My rough thought is that it might have come about because that length of time would track to a traditional TV season on a broadcast network.) The confrontation had always been in the cards, and something about waiting that long works to make the whole thing ideal. Had this happened at the end of season one, it would have been too sudden. If it happened in season three or four, it would have been too easy for viewers to stop caring. But by piggybacking the confrontation off of both characters receiving their “boons” and the deaths of Scudder and Belyakov, the whole thing gives an already purposeful season an extra blast of momentum. Just placing these characters in proximity to each other ends up being all the season needs to get that last burst headed into next week’s finale. (Which, spoiler alert, I like a lot.)
By far my favorite scene here is that long confrontation where the carnival folk try to get Samson to prove to them that Management exists and he can’t, because, well, Management is dead, and Ben’s the one telling everybody where to go now. The only people on Jonesy’s side are Jonesy and Libby (for obvious reasons), as well as Ruthie, though she seems as if she could be swayed by a particularly good argument from the other side. Lila mounts a particularly good case against Samson even before she reveals that there’s nobody living behind the curtain. It’s not hard to see how her righteous fury over the cover-up of Lodz’s death might have led to an escalation that Samson wouldn’t have been able to control. And, indeed, this very nearly does happen, as Samson’s suggestion that the carnival needs to go back up Ben is met with derision.
But Samson’s got an ace in the hole, even if he has no idea he does. Jonesy’s been healed, and he’s faking his injury to avoid having anyone ask prying questions. But now, now that the one who healed him is in danger, he’s got the opportunity to show everyone just what’s happened to him. The moment when he runs away from the little crowd, then back toward it is one of the most thrilling in the entirety of the show. It’s a moment that has all of the joy and freedom that Lila’s earlier speech lacked. Her exposure of the truth about Management felt like a time bomb the show had planted long ago going off. Jonesy’s run is even better because it’s the detonation of a time bomb we didn’t even realize the show had planted. When he was healed, it was all the evidence anyone would need to support Ben Hawkins, but the show shuffled it off to the back-burner, to be properly utilized here. It’s a wondrous moment, and it evokes some of the awe that might exist every so often in a world of magic.
The opposite is going on over at Brother Justin’s house. The world is coming down around his ears, and even if he doesn’t know it, he can sense it. Every time Ben is near, clutching at the dagger, Justin nearly collapses. The new maid he’s got an apparent interest in is his daughter. His sister and his mentor are conspiring to bring him down. And now that carnival is parked outside his house, jarring him so that he cuts himself shaving. At least he’s got blood the color of liquid Tide, which portends that big things are coming for him. The thing is that even if the forces of good seem to be closing in just a bit in this episode, it never feels like they have a prayer of bumping off Justin. His forces are simply aligned against them by too great a degree, and even once the carnival sets up camp, Ben’s only going to have a handful of assets on his side. But this episode does a good job of setting up the sides as far more even.
If there’s a flaw here, it’s that Ben Hawkins is forced to mostly sit and wait as all of this happens. Now, that’s not unexpected, since that’s often his character arc, but it’s not fun to come to an episode where he’s sidelined yet again, where Jonesy stops him from rushing Brother Justin mostly just because it’s not the season finale yet. Yes, it’s not a good time for Ben to be taking on Brother Justin on his own. Yes, the presence of Sofie has thrown Ben for a bit of a loop. And, yes, the scene where Ben meets Iris in Justin’s bedroom is terrific fun (as are the scenes dealing with the hatchet he leaves with her). But there’s a part of me that would have loved to have seen Ben rush his nemesis, who thinks that the Ben we’ve known for the past few weeks would have done this, no matter the timing. That he’s stopped yet again is something of a disappointment. I would have loved to have seen the writers leave us on the two nemeses finally seeing each other for the first time in the flesh.
That’s not what we got, of course, and that’s okay. If the Ben stuff in this episode isn’t up to the level of the carnival and Justin stuff, well, that stuff is really, really good. And then there’s Sofie, who feels like the one wild card left in this deck. She’s falling in with Brother Justin, a bit too suddenly perhaps, but at least in a manner that feels vaguely realistic. Then she spots Ben after she’s baptized, and his presence shakes her. She’s got to talk to him, and once she does, he tells her things about her employer that also rattle her, things that seem to bear themselves out all around her. (Justin speaks in Russian with Iris, and he seems to have an unhealthy fascination with Ben, what with the death mask and all.) She ping pongs between the two sides so rapidly that it should be unbelievable, but Clea DuVall plays everything here as a woman who’s never been allowed to make up her own mind finally having to make the biggest call of them all. Even though I know what’s about to happen, I almost want to see her say, “Screw this!” and walk away from all of it. It’s not worth it, Sofie. Just leave.
- The baptism scene is wonderfully creepy. The image of the corpse just floating down the river is eerie without calling too much attention to itself.
- I like the bit where Iris tries to hurriedly tell Norman who Sofie really is. There’s a great, gathering weight to the Brother Justin scenes, and it feels like the storm is about to break.
- For as down as I’ve been on the Dreifuss storyline this season, the moment when Stumpy leans over to his wife and tells her she’s going to have to get over Jonesy eventually is quietly devastating. It’s the kind of thing only two people who are married to each other would know, yet it’s just the right level of off-center for this show.
- I’m not immediately clear on why the hatchet harms Brother Justin so. Is it just because Ben touched it? Shouldn’t pretty much everything in his house hurt him then? Am I overthinking this? (I am.)
- The filmmaking, with its rich, sepia-toned color, greatly enlivens the confrontation scene as well. It really does feel like a period photograph come to life.
- Burley watch: He’s pretty much just still a guy who says angry things to move the plot forward. We’ll see if this changes next week! (Spoiler alert: It doesn’t.)
- My talk with Knauf revealed a great many things, but he also told me about the initial plan for all of the stuff with Lila suspecting Ben. It sounds like it could have made for a great story.
Next week: The road comes to an end in “New Canaan, CA.”