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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Carnivàle: “Pick A Number”

Illustration for article titled Carnivàle: “Pick A Number”
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“Pick A Number” (season 1, episode 6; originally aired 10/19/2003)

In which carnival justice is dished out

“Pick A Number” contains one of the single most chilling images I’ve seen on TV. Samson is striding out of the little bar of Babylon, having spoken with the bartender, who’s finally given him all he knows about Scudder, the ghosts of the city, and anything else Samson might find useful. Samson has also done exactly what the bartender asked him not to do, shooting him just below the eye, leaving him to die on the bar floor, just another ghost for Babylon’s impressive collection. Samson seems rather resolute as he walks away, as if he’s accomplished a final bit of nastiness. And then he sees the naked, spectral image of Dora Mae in the window of one of the buildings. We see his look of horror. We cut in closer, see her look of pleading desperation. And then the hand of one of the men of Babylon swoops in around her, and she’s dragged back into the darkness. Samson shudders, but there’s not really much he can do. He lives in a world with all of these supernatural elements, yet he commands none of them. All he can do is walk away.

Lots of shows say that their universes contain Hell or Hell-like dimensions or what have you, but few make Hell feel as palpable as that one image does. If there’s a place of eternal torment where innocent souls that find themselves condemned there are punished over and over for no good reason, it’s almost certainly like this, a place where the good are taken away with one easy gesture. That shot makes the idea of Hell seem almost viscerally unfair, even for the lowest of the low. No one is so bad that they deserve an eternity of torment, and there are plenty of good or otherwise non-harmful people like Dora Mae who would end up there. Dora Mae Dreifuss, whatever her faults, does not belong in Babylon for the rest of time. And yet that’s where she’ll end up, barring some sort of intervention from Ben Hawkins.

“Pick A Number” works because of that final image, I think. Without it, the whole thing might feel a little silly and inconsequential. With it, it becomes one of the best episodes the show produced, an hour that nicely lays in the stakes for our little fictional universe. This is a place where all of the bad things we say might happen to your everlasting soul stand a pretty good chance of happening, yet it sure doesn’t seem like any of the good things will. (Notice how Libby rejects the notion of some sort of pleasant afterlife early in the episode. No way that’s the case, given the kind of actual life she’s had to lead.) Whoever “Hack” Scudder was, he now seems to have been a massively evil man on top of it, as the episode all but lays the blame for the mining accident that led to Babylon becoming a town of hungry, roving ghosts at his feet. Sure, the episode never comes out and says it, but I think we all know how to interpret, “Guy was chased out of town, and then the next day, there was a mysterious accident.” This is the playing field Justin and Ben operate on, and it’s a playing field where false moves could mean awful metaphysical ends.

“Pick A Number,” in other words, grounds the idea of Hell, makes it seem a little more present and ever-threatening than just, say, a pit of everlasting fire. In that simple action, the show tells what’s basically a fairly spooky story about a ghost town in Texas, yet it does so in a way that feels completely and utterly realistic. When Samson has the carnival folk drag out that little wagon to take three times around the bartender and Lodz is intoning about carnival justice—something I’d almost be incredibly entertained to find out actually existed, though my Google skills are too weak to suggest anything even slightly similar ever did—the whole thing should feel patently ridiculous, like something that bears no resemblance to anything that’s happened in our world, ever. Instead, you sit there and nod and say, “Yeah, this definitely feels like the way a bunch of people who worked at a carnival would get justice for one of their own.” Similarly, scenes where someone who’s being punished for crimes rather out of their immediate control is forced to play a vague game of Russian roulette are a dime-a-dozen in these sorts of stories. (Why, Justified had one just a couple of weeks ago!) But this one feels less like a parable of justice and injustice and more like a dusty recollection your grandfather might share of something that once happened to him as a boy.

I think the reason all of that works is because everything that comes before the episode’s weirdest elements—which are largely confined to the last 20 minutes of a 55-minute episode—is so perfectly small-scale and fully realized. The sequences where Dora Mae’s body is prepared for burial and where she is actually buried are, again, just perfectly realized, giving us a sense of what the show could do with a fuller version of the funeral scene from a couple of weeks ago. I like the way that director Rodrigo García chooses to shoot these scenes in a series of disconnected close-ups, the way that we see, say, fingernails being painted or blood swishing around a bowl. It’s a somewhat obvious choice—again, it’s one you’ve seen many times before—but it’s one that really pays off for the show.


In particular, I like the way that this makes the funeral sequence give the characters that much more of a “reality” and weight. People like Samson and Gabriel get a nice new shading as they lay their gifts down in the grave with Dora Mae’s body, and the bit about Samson giving Dora Mae the watch from Management is a nice little hint as to what’s all really going on here without calling too much attention to itself. I think I like “Babylon” and “Pick A Number” so much because, in general, the “Ben and Justin are discovering they have mystical powers” stuff is the least interesting part of the show to me. That doesn’t mean I don’t like it, and it doesn’t mean I don’t understand that it’s necessary (as you’d probably have no show without that element). But I’m much more into this for the bits of historical texture and the world of the carnival itself. At its best, this is a show that really digs into the desperation of these people, like when Samson, who’s done the “right” thing earlier in following the letter of the law on carnival justice, shoots the bartender anyway. He—or Management?—needs retribution, even if he has to keep up a good face for his underlings.

I said last week that I like this show best when it’s a show not just about weird, mystical events but also about how normal people react to getting swept up in those events. Without doing a lot, “Pick A Number” gives you both a very good sense of what it would be like to lose a child for strange, never properly explained reasons and what it would be like to be a miner, minding your own business, before you end up caught in a mining accident that turns you into a vengeful ghost. True, we don’t really spend a lot of time getting to know the ghosts’ “characters,” but that speech from the bartender sells it perfectly well. And the grief of the Dreifuses and their fellow carnival members gives the whole episode a sort of somber air that’s nicely earned.


If there’s a character who really comes into his own here, it’s Jonesy. Before this, he’s just been the one guy in the carnival who seems to have a somewhat level head, the 1930s movie-serial hero who’s somehow ended up driving around with a bunch of carnival people trapped in an unending battle between light and dark. We get a pretty major “answer” in the episode, when we see how Jonesy came to limp as he does, and the episode’s character storyline involves Jonesy deciding to leave the carnival because he can no longer trust Samson’s judgment. Having seen the inside of Management’s trailer, Jonesy believes that there is no Management, and it’s just a ruse Samson has perpetrated for unspecified reasons. The friendship between the two men runs deeply enough that Samson’s hurt by these accusations, but you can also see he understands how crazy he must appear to this man. (I was going to say something about how the show has kept the question of whether there is a Management nicely ambiguous to this point, but there’s always some sort of mystical hoo-ha on a show like this.) The scene where Jonesy once again takes his place at the side of his friend—choosing to trust him, even though it seems insane—is the one “good” moment here, the one moment when it seems like humanity and hope might win out over crushing despair.

What’s more, this is the third episode in a row where our two protagonists are reduced to supporting characters on their own show. Ben’s adventures in the mine conclude with a lengthy vision of the trenches of World War I, complete with a younger Lodz and an awesome bear (I can’t get enough of that bear), while Justin takes to the road after the burning of the orphanage (and a vision bearing some pretty unfortunate special effects) and runs into a radio reporter who brings his sad story to the masses. I really like the idea of Justin as this wandering crusader without a crusade, someone who could be out there in the dark for anyone in the show’s Depression milieu to stumble across, but to say it’s not the focus of the episode is an understatement. I know plenty of viewers who get irritated at this point, hoping that the show will just get back to Ben and Justin’s story already, but I think the show doesn’t work nearly as well without these three episodes at this point in season one. There have to be stakes to whatever war Ben and Justin are fighting in. Now, finally, there are both metaphysical stakes—Hell—and concrete ones—death. Carnivàle may ostensibly be the story of what happens to Ben and Justin, but deep down, it matters most to the innocent, trusting people who end up in their respective entourages, hoping some good will creep up around the corner.


Stray observations:

  • Really weird touch: When Rita Sue is looking for Libby, Libby and Sofie come striding out of the darkness with a bunch of Babylonians at their side, all walking in tandem like they’re about to begin a coordinated dance number.
  • This episode’s script is credited to first-season showrunner Ronald D. Moore. Moore would utilize some of the same tricks on his next series, Battlestar Galactica, to make the stakes of that show’s eventual metaphysical conflict grounded and real. No matter what you think of that show’s final two seasons, Moore was trying to blend the ethereal and the real in a way few other TV shows have attempted (though, obviously, one of them was this one), and it’s interesting to see how he approached the question in similar ways.
  • Though I totally understand why he doesn’t do it, I’m finding Ben’s refusals to just give in and talk with Lodz already sort of annoying.
  • This is the episode where I also come to find Ruthie an interesting character in her own right. She was just sort of part of the crowd in the previous ones, but here, her sense of grief is nicely set up.
  • You get a really good sense of just how uncertain Iris is about how to proceed without Justin in just that one shot of her staring at his empty room. These two are remora and shark.

Next week: We spend a little quality time with Brother Justin down by “The River.”