Seriable’s Mark Jones reviews Carnivale 1.03 — “Tipton”

The first two episodes of Carnivàle were fairly balanced between the amount of time dedicated to establishing the characters of Ben Hawkins and Brother Justin Crowe. ‘Tipton,’ however, is a Ben-heavy instalment which goes some way to establishing the “rules” of his powers, though suffers a little for the lack of his God-serving counterpart.

Any viewers’ hopes that the show’s pace might pick up are thwarted from the opening scene, with a two minute funeral procession taking place in slow motion. It may turn some people off but it’s all for a good reason as this episode’s primary concern is death, or rather the taking of life. It’s also about religion, at least moreso than “Milfay” and “After the Ball is Over,” as Samson is forced to temporarily turn the carnival into a religious revival show with Ben as its star.

The man stood watching the coffin being carried out of the home at the beginning turns out to be Lyle Donovan, the sheriff of Tipton who refuses to let Samson set up due to the poorness of the townspeople and his reluctance to let them be conned out of what little they do have. After a trip into town with Ben where the little girl he previously healed recognises him, Jonesy is alerted to the fact that there’s something funny about Ben. When they get back he even notes the people were “coming up to him, calling him Jesus”, drawing a comparison between Ben and the holy figure, another pointer that Ben is in fact a force for good rather than evil.

Pretty soon Ben is made the reluctant star of a revival show, reinvented as Benjamin St John, where he performs fake healings to impress the crowds. Ben doesn’t really have a lot to do, or say, in these segments and it’s Felix who steals the show with his comical patter and enthusiastic preaching about his reformed nature to the audience. The real pay-off for the fake healings, and whether or not the audience will become wary, is towards the end. Ben turns up late to the show, interrupting Felix and his replacement, as Lyle Donovan calls on the healer to cure his sick mother who is close to dying. After some internal struggle, Ben refuses to do so and lets her die, but not before she whispers the word ‘Babylon’ to him.

Donovan’s mother, Becca Templeton, is an important part of this episode – a former lover of Hack Scudder who used to own the Big Sky Farms truck which was in the picture that Ben found in the baggage trailer. Half following the clues he picks up from the townspeople, half following his own prophetic dreams, he finds out where she lives and gets a few answers. While it’s great that the writers don’t want to keep us hanging around for these answers, the big takeaway from his encounter with Becca is that there are rules that go with his powers, namely that if he gives life he has to take it away from somewhere else.

It seemed clear from the first episode where Ben healed the girl and the field of wheat died that there were side affects to his healing powers, so the revelation doesn’t come as that much of a shock. However, it does make Ben a bit more wary about his abilities and his refusal to heal the woman at the end, out of fear that someone else should die, was quite a noble thing to do and shows that he wasn’t prepared to risk killing someone just so Samson could make a quick buck, or to get in his boss’s good books. The best thing to come out of Becca’s appearance is the mention of Babylon, a name with some epic biblical connotations that’s enough to indicate some serious stuff is going to go down there when the carnival rolls into town.

With so much focus on the revival show and Ben’s quest for answers there’s less time for Brother Justin, which is a real shame. Though any time Justin is preaching, such as when he opens up Chin’s to the public, is enjoyable to watch, there’s less of the really fun stuff that we’ve seen in previous episodes. When Templeton’s uncle turns up with Ned Munson to inform him that he’s being kicked out of the building because it’s going to be demolished, you’d expect things to erupt like the coins out of the woman who was caught pinching from the collection plate in “Milfay,” but the worst that happens is Chris Templeton develops trouble breathing. Anti-climactic as it might be it’s still interesting to see how his powers seem to be involuntary and connected with his fits of rage, compared to Ben who seems to be able to exercise some level of control over his.

At this point in the show the format is clearly defined, each week will take the carnies to a different town which will deliver its own dilemma while guiding Ben towards his ultimate destiny. It also shows that how changeable the mood of the carnies is towards Ben. It’s fair to say there’s still an air of hostility towards him and though it abates slightly when the revival becomes successful, there are still underlying tensions within the camp. However, if “Tipton” shows us anything it’s how important the balance is between the amount of screen time Ben and Justin get. Slow doesn’t mean bad where Carnivàle is concerned, but there are times in this episode where it felt like more could have happened, especially with Justin, and Ben’s character come out of it just as developed. In addition to clarifying “the rules” as the carnival rolls out of Tipton, the idea that Ben is Scudder’s son is more firmly implanted in the minds of the audience. Clues in this respect are the fact that Becca says he has the same powers as Scudder and their resemblance when Ben is dressed up in his tuxedo for the show.

Overall, “Tipton” isn’t as successful as the previous two episodes but there’s still plenty of interesting developments. One of the main problems is that Ben’s emergence as a miracle healer feels a little forced as it seems a bit of a stretch that the girl he healed back in Milfay, and her grandmother, would make the journey to Tipton so quickly and that they would be in Tipton at all. On the plus side, the rich texture and great dialogue don’t let up and the end of the episode with Samson’s decision to head to Babylon, and the negative way in which Jonesy regards the news, promises more exciting things to come.

8/10 Seriable Stars

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