“The Road To Damascus” (season 2, episode 6; originally aired 2/13/2005)
In which everything boils over
Nothing really happens in “The Road To Damascus,” but it’s still a must-see episode of Carnivàle. If you ever wanted to show someone just how the atmosphere of this show could be as riveting as more conventionally plotted hours of other shows, this would be a good episode to pop in. It’s a hauntingly beautiful episode of television, and there are moments in it that approach the level of visual poetry, which don’t bother with worrying about the story and just pause to show us some wonderful images. A cursory scan of the Internet suggests this episode isn’t terribly popular with fans of the show, but I think it might be the strongest episode of season two so far. And I’m hopeful that it marks a new way forward for the show, a path that’s more interested in the characters in the carnival than in the overarching mythology. (Alas, I know that’s not the case, though there’s plenty of good to come.)
I can sort of see where those fans are coming from. In fact, I can remember finding this episode a bit of a stall when it first aired. The story, which has been bumping along with its own momentum to this point, more or less comes to a halt so that we can spend a lyrical day and night with the carnival folk. But it’s such a well depicted day and night that I find it a bit curmudgeonly to be too upset with the show for pausing to take stock of where everything has gone so far. Carnivàle works best when it’s pushing the mythology and backstory forward, yes, but also when it’s taking time to dig into the lives of the people who work at the carnival and to consider the period the show takes place in. After the first five episodes were a little light in that regard, “The Road To Damascus” almost overloads on those topics.
The idea of a road to Damascus moment, of course, is one where someone has a sudden, piercing realization that causes he or she to change course entirely. It’s named after Saul of Tarsus, later the Apostle Paul, who was on the road to Damascus when the Lord shouted down from Heaven and caused him to convert from Judaism to Christianity (among other things; it’s a long story). This episode is named “The Road To Damascus” for literal plot reasons—everybody’s headed to Damascus, Neb.—but it also features several characters having abrupt realizations that change the course of things. This includes everything from Ben and Sofie finally hooking up to Lodz managing to cross back over to this plane via Ruthie’s body. (He seems pissed. As you would be.) There are moments here that feel a little anticlimactic—the big fight between Jonesy and Stumpy feels like it’s paying off a storyline that’s already been paid off five or six times—but the overall effect is one of piercing realization, followed by painful action.
What’s great about the episode is how its rhythm is all off-kilter. Right away, it’s establishing itself as somewhat different from other episodes, with frequent use of slow fades to black, followed by lengthy pauses over black screens. The show has used this editing rhythm before—usually when transitioning from the Ben half of the storyline to the Justin half of the storyline—but never as frequently as it does in this episode, and that gives the episode a bit of a restful, contemplative feel, which suits it well. The episode’s central incident (the carnival folk come across the burned-out remnants of the Daily Bros. company and decide to help them out) is basically just an excuse to throw a party, but at that party, plenty of long-simmering storylines can finally come to a boil.
The most significant of these is the furtive attraction between Ben and Sofie finally going somewhere. The show has danced up to the edge of this so many times that when Sofie breaks off her kiss with Ben because she sees her mother outside the car’s window, it’s tempting to roll your eyes and assume the show will go no further. But Ben persists, his hands taking away Sofie’s nightmarish visions, and the two of them are soon having a surprisingly sexy (considering they’re both mostly clothed and in a car) coupling, a coupling that seemingly opens the skies and brings rain. It’s that rain that provides the punctuation mark the episode needs, spitting down over Jonesy and Stumpy’s fistfight and being greeted by Ben’s hand reaching out to catch the drops, which he then brings back in to run over Sofie’s skin. (Again, surprisingly sexy.) The rain has a touch of the miraculous to it, and the whole thing returns to those questions of just who Sofie is and what she’s up to in a less overt fashion than some of the earlier episodes in this line. (That said, I could have done without the creepy kid—apparently a younger version of Apollonia—who accosts Sofie on the side of the road.)
The nice thing about this episode is that it doesn’t just focus on what Ben and Justin are up to. There’s also plenty of stuff for the other characters, even Samson, who finds himself dealing with an old lover who’s now married to the Daily Bros. he-she, a man made up to be half-man, half-woman. It’s the most Samson has gotten to do all season, and it’s a nice reminder of why he was such a potent figure in season one. When he gets back to delivering exposition to Ben by episode’s end as the two talk about how Stroud is the one behind the Daily Bros. fire, it feels much less gratuitous than it has in other episodes this season, even if Samson’s subplot was relatively minor compared to some of the others. It’s a nice touch, and hopefully it’s a harbinger of more stuff for Samson to do.
I’m less interested in the endless wars both within and without the Dreifuss marriage. My confidence in Stumpy from last week was misplaced, as he clearly didn’t put any money on Joe Louis and is, apparently, expecting his wife to just forget at some point that the family is owed a bunch of money that doesn’t actually exist. It’s a dumb plot, and it brings down a lot of what happens around it, not least of which is the latest angry bromide from Stumpy to Jonesy—based largely on the way Libby stares into Jonesy’s eyes while dancing, sure, but also on the fact that Jonesy and Rita Sue had that connection last season. The show has so thoroughly hashed and rehashed this that I’m not sure why it feels the need to go back to it, but Stumpy’s right that the situation is thoroughly fucked up. Jonesy wanting to hook up with the pretty blonde daughter of his best friend makes sense (and would be a dramatic enough story on its own). That her mother is also his former lover, thanks to an affair tacitly sanctioned by her husband, makes things even weirder. If I were Jonesy, I’d be running.
Yet even more goes on. Stroud finally reveals the full depths of his menace and apparently keeps the corpses of the Daily Brothers as his traveling companions. Lila briefly hooks up with one of the guys from the other carnival, then is shocked to find Lodz-in-Ruthie at her door before she collapses, apparently from the strain of containing the sightless ghost. Sofie sees her mother, gaping terrifyingly at her when she wakes up in the morning, then decides to leave the carnival once and for all after Ben takes away her visions of her mother and sleeps with her. (She also vows to kill her father if she ever finds him, which should be happening any day now.) And over in California, Tommy Dolan confesses to burning down the church, taking the fall for Iris, though he seems as surprised as anybody to be doing it. Brother Justin’s abilities have no bounds, it would seem.
When I lay it out like that, it sounds like a lot happens in this episode. So I suppose it’s unfair to say that not much does, as I did in the first sentence of this review. Yet even as the episode is packed with incident, it’s relatively light on plot. There’s nothing wrong with this, actually. If I were to peg why I’ve found the first five episodes of the season so disappointing, it would be an overreliance on plot, which has come at the expense of character and world-building. There’s been plenty of story swirling around, but too little of it has felt immediate and visceral. This episode is content to let things rest for a moment, to take pleasure in a sudden and unexpected rain or in the arrival of old friends, even if they arrive under tragic circumstances. By taking its time and prompting realization, “The Road To Damascus” positions the show for a strong second half of this season and reminds us just why we came to like these characters in the first place.
- I have to admit that I was greatly cheered every time that elephant showed up onscreen. It was just the right esoteric touch to remind you what show you were watching.
- Burley turns up again, and he continues to prompt irritated eye rolls from me. He’s such a one-dimensional villain and a plot device to push Jonesy and Libby closer together. Why doesn’t he just start tying her to train tracks?
- Though I’m not entirely certain of the mechanics of it (outside of knowing Justin’s responsible), the bit where Tommy abruptly realizes that it’s his name signed to Iris’ confession is powerful stuff.
- There’s some nice use of music and montage editing in the sequence where the fight breaks out, even as Ben and Sofie are having sex.
- The end of the episode, with the carnival rolling off into the distance as Sofie watches them leave her behind, is nicely affecting without pushing too hard.
Next week: It only took us this whole episode, but we finally get to “Damascus, NE.”