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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Carnivàle: “The River”

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“The River” (season 1, episode 7; originally aired 10/26/2003)

In which Brother Justin rows for shore

One of the constants of Carnivàle is that the world of the show is shrinking. Where previous avatars of dark and light wandered a world that was empty and filled with signs and wonders, Ben and Justin—whoever they are—are stuck in a world that’s slouching toward the mundane. Libby gets it in her head to go to Hollywood, and her father agrees to drive her, while Sofie decides to go along. Tommy Dolan puts out a sort of APB on Brother Justin on his radio program, and it turns into a way to track the guy’s movements like he’s Bigfoot. There’s a nomadic quality to the show, a sense of the characters heading for empty spots and making camp there, but throughout, there’s also a sense that these empty spots are shrinking, that the truly magical things of the world are fading away, as a new age comes forth.

None of this is anything new. Samson pretty much says it all in his speech to introduce the season. But I’d say it strikes me the most in “The River,” an episode that is by turns frustrating and fascinating. The season had built to such a strong point in “Pick A Number” that it was inevitable that the next week’s cool-down period would take things back, just a bit, but it’s still a little enervating to get to that marvelous, spooky, dark episode, then find that you’re right back in one of the more languidly paced hours that were part of the earlier portions of the season. Television pacing, of course, is all about making sure that you don’t ramp things up so much that everything flies off the rails. But if Carnivàle had made its way up to a pleasant amble last week, this week, it brings us right back down to the position Justin spends a lot of the episode in: laying down.

The Justin back-story, of course, is important to our understanding of the character. We learn that at one time, he was a young Russian immigrant named Alexei, who survived a horrible train crash with his sister, Irina. (The two were traveling out west with their mother, and they were the only survivors of the crash.) Some mysterious, dark figure raced after them in the dark, and though Irina was able to hold him at bay for a while, it took Alexei psychically snapping his neck to really do the job. Now, even as Iris has grown into Justin’s foremost defender, she lives with the memory of what he did as a child, knowing what he’s capable of even now. There’s a wonderful weariness to this moment, when she tells the story to Tommy, and I like the way the revelation snaps the character into place in a new way. This is TV character development at its best: when a show creates a believable reversal, throwing something we thought we knew about a character into a new light and revealing how little we actually know about it.

In theory, I like the way that this episode plays around with the old “Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge” scenario, in which a man believes he’s going to die on a bridge, gets an unexpected reprieve, then realizes with a neck snap that all is not as it seems. Now, Carnivàle reverses this, so that Justin believes himself to be dead, but when his neck is snapped (by the young version of himself, no less), he ends up atop that bridge, about to jump, just as he did at episode’s beginning. He climbs on down, muttering something about this being his birthright, and the fine folks who gathered to stop him from jumping lead him away. (This is all contained within a rather brilliant framing story by Iris, who explains who the two small children we saw tormenting Justin were.)

The problem here is that much of the story involves Justin laying on the ground while the kids torment him. As symbolism—the scared little boy becomes his own assassin as a man—it’s not bad. As a dramatic narrative, it’s inert. Particularly once you know that the two little kids he chases around the woods are himself and Iris at a younger age and that he’s uncovering long-lost memories (in some sort of fugue state, I guess), the whole thing feels belabored. There’s this portion of season one—right here in the middle—where the writers don’t seem incredibly sure how to get Brother Justin where they need him to be. I like the parallels he has with the journey of Christ himself (and this would be his 40 days in the wilderness), but the whole thing feels a little ill-conceived, as if they know point A and point B, but aren’t sure how to get between them. Which is how we end up with the fascinating conceit of him turning into the man who chased his much younger self, a conceit that reveals some crucial back-story, but does it in a fashion that’s pretty darn undramatic. Still, I like the little Russian girl yelling at him.


Things are better back at the carnival, where Ruthie’s flirting with Ben (in a relationship that still kind of weirds me out, I’m sorry), Ben breaks Gabriel’s arm, and the Dreifus family is coping with the loss of Dora Mae. It’s the Dreifus material that I find the most moving here, particularly as it intersects with Sofie’s desires to escape her mother and the life she leads and head out with her new friend, the newly blonde Libby. There’s a powerful idea of escape running throughout the series, and that idea of escape is one that’s present in a great many American tales, particularly in this era. (What is The Grapes Of Wrath but a tale of one family’s attempt to escape its circumstances, only to wander straight into even worse circumstances?) The Dreifus family wants nothing more than to put the death of Dora Mae in the past, but grief doesn’t leave that easily. The relationship between Stumpy and Rita Sue gets some nice, sad shadings in the scene where she puts out the red pig, but he’s too occupied getting drunk with Jonesy, while Libby’s desire to just leave behind the outfit that’s dragged her down for too long is heartbreaking.

It’s heartbreaking precisely because episode writer Toni Graphia tells us exactly what will happen. Appollonia tells her daughter that Libby will spend the rest of her life stripping in the carnival. She’ll never make it to Hollywood. She’ll never be big in the movies. Sofie refuses to accept this on some level and lies to Libby about what’s coming, but the damage is done. When the characters on this show want to escape something, nine times out of 10, what they’re trying to escape is a horrible fate that they’re powerless in the face of. This theme is somehow much more powerful when it’s applied to the regular folks in the carnival than it is when applied to Ben and Justin, who may be trapped by a millennia-old battle they don’t wholly understand but at least get cool superpowers out of the deal. Libby’s just a girl who wants something better and very nearly has it, before the simple inertia of being in a family and needing to care for each other takes over. There is no escape velocity in the carnival; everybody’s bound to the tale.


I’ve come to think of Carnivàle as featuring “the tale” because it crosses over with one of my favorite books, John Crowley’s Little Big, in which the protagonists are caught up in a story they will never quite comprehend, yet find themselves letting go and simply letting it sweep them away. (Also, a long lost Prussian king reappears after having slept underneath a mountain for centuries. It’s a great book!) Little Big captures a lot of what I like about genre fiction succinctly and well, but what I think it most captures is the idea of how it would feel to be trapped in this story, to slowly realize the part you have to play and step into that role, regardless of whether you want to or not. In Little Big, this is almost always associated with a certain sense of loss, with a slow acceptance that you will never be the things you hoped you would be and will, instead, find yourself playing this other part entirely. And that’s because “the tale” always wraps itself around your feet.

But there’s a kind of assurance in knowing the part you have to play, too, and we see that in Ben’s face when he heals Gabriel, in that wonderful sequence in the lake, dead fish bubbling up all around them. Or we see it as Justin realizes this is his birthright or as Iris contemplates the fact that her brother now knows the truth about his past. Lodz, the old man condemned to be a hanger-on to the tale, grows irate and beats Lila when he discovers that the story has moved on just fine without him. And the Dreifuses and Sofie continue to find themselves trapped by it, sucked down into the muck because of the misfortune of the carnival they just happen to be traveling with.


I don’t know that “The River” is a great episode of television or this show. It starts out fairly slowly, and at least one storyline doesn’t really get going for quite a while. But there are still some fairly complex themes buried down in there, even if the episode isn’t always the best at expressing them. We walk out into the wilderness for clarity, to get a better sense of what our connection to the world is and what it means. But sometimes, when we step out, we realize that we are just tiny specks in the midst of a larger plan that will never make sense to us. And that’s terrifying.

Stray observations:

  • I like Tommy Dolan a lot. I can’t really explain why—beyond my general affection for journalist characters—but I think that Robert Knepper plays him with just the right blend of snake-oil salesman and genuinely good-hearted guy. He’s really neither of these things, but he can switch between the two poles at the drop of a hat, and I love the way that he swindles the businessmen into supporting charity for the poor.
  • That song Rita Sue listens to while waiting for Stumpy to come and have sex with her is just wonderfully graphic. I love the explicit sex songs of the period, but I don’t think I’ve heard that one outside of this show.
  • The scene where Samson admits to Rita Sue that the man who killed her daughter no longer lives is nicely handled. No big hullabaloo. Just a quiet conversation between co-workers.

Next week: The sexual dynamics of the carnival get a little more complicated in “Lonnigan, Texas.”