Seriable’s Mark Jones reviews Carnivàle 1.04 — “Black Blizzard”
‘Black Blizzard’ is an exciting name for an exciting episode which sees the carnies in the middle of a storm of biblical proportions on their way to Babylon. It’s a definite improvement over ‘Tipton,’ with plenty of compelling character development and some memorable scenes which arise from the onset of the blizzard.
There’s insight aplenty into the lives of the other carnies in ‘Black Blizzard’ and though the most interesting developments centre around Ben, we get a good peek through the curtains into Samson and Sofie’s private lives as they each head off into town looking for some brief kind of companionship. Samson finds comfort in the arms of a hooker who he’s apparently visited on more than one occasion, but when he discovers she doesn’t care about him as much as he’d like to think she did, a more vulnerable and jealous side of him is shown. It’s a similar story for Sofie who impresses a local diner owner and they get close as the lights go out and the storm rages outside. Both appear to be strong on the outside, but it would seem in their personal lives there’s much insecurity, nicely fleshing out their characters.
While Samson and Sofie are in the company of their chosen partners, Ben also begins a new relationship, albeit in a less conventional sense. Ben and Lodz are travelling in the van when the sand storm strikes and they are forced to stop. But as Ben settles down for a nap, Lodz decides to go for a walk. Perplexed, Ben starts to follow him to an abandoned house in the middle of the desert. Before the good stuff starts, however, Lodz is on hand with a slightly cliché yet none-the-less memorable line about darkness and light;
“In my experience darkness often yields the brightest light”
Even if he’s basically saying something which has been said many times before in similar tales of darkness vs light, albeit without Patrick Bauchau’s amazing delivery, it feels almost necessary at this point in the show where the hero needs encouragement to follow the difficult path ahead of him.
It isn’t long before it turns out their trip is all part of a test by Lodz to make Ben realise the full extent of his powers and begins the classic mentor/reluctant mentee relationship which is set up to become an important part of the series. The moment where Ben is forced to acknowledge his powers to Lodz is the point where he becomes the mentee, whether he likes it or not. Their meeting in the cabin also raises his awareness that it’s not just life and death that he can control, but the weather as well, something Ben claims only God can do. It’s telling how we’re led to compare Ben once again to forces of light rather than evil, before in ‘Tipton’ it was Jesus.
The pairing of Lodz and Ben is a great one as Lodz balances out the typical good guy blandness of Ben Hawkins with his enigmatic mentalism. Calling Ben bland isn’t meant as an insult, think Luke Skywalker and Frodo Baggins, but he’s surrounded by so many more nuanced characters that he pales in comparison to a lot of them and never moreso than with Lodz.
Once again the series delivers some impressive special effects and the Black Blizzard is really incredibly done. There’s not one moment when it looks like it’s been faked and the sound design of the raging winds mixed with the far off screams of livestock outside the house really help to make the experience feel more real. Some of they key images which the audience are left with is the sight of carnival being swallowed up by the storm and the dark figure of Lodz hobbling off into the clouds of sand. Not only are the computer generated visuals strong but there are some really powerful moments outside of the apocalyptic establishing shots, such as Jonesy and the others trying to get the sand out of Apollonia’s lungs.
Ben and Lodz isn’t the only important ongoing relationship that’s explored, and with Samson out of town and the carnies getting more annoyed at the prospect of heading to Babylon, Jonesy decides to confront management. The subject of who Samson answers to has been alluded to but not dwelt on in previous episodes and the mystery thickens as the limping carny ventures into the green trailer. At the beginning we see the red curtains of management visible in Samson’s mirror as he was getting ready, reminding the audience of the mysterious presence that lurks behind them.
After Jonesy is unsuccessful in getting a response from Samson’s superior he pulls back the curtains, to reveal nothing. It’s a great anticlimactic moment and raises some important questions going forward. Is Samson lying to his employees? Is Samson crazy? Or is there really something there and Jonesy just can’t see it? It’s fair to say there’s a bit of a “man behind the curtain vibe,” not only in the classic Wizard of Oz sense but also as a pre-cursor to one of LOST‘s most memorable moments in Jacob’s cabin which is especially true when Felix reiterates that Samson is the only one who can talk to him.
Jonesy is also on the list of characters who we get to know better in ‘Black Blizzard’. It’s another point which isn’t lingered on but it’s revealed that he used to be a baseball player known as “Horse Hide Houdini”, famous enough for Sofie’s diner owner to have heard of him. There have already been hints at his baseball playing past, a hobby which must have been scuppered by his leg injury, but to know that he used to be something of success and is now working for a carnival hints at a lot of internal suffering that his character must have to endure. However, this nugget from his origin story is only mentioned in passing by Sofie, and for the most part of this episode we get to see him as he deals with being in charge of the carnival while Samson’s away.
As before, we don’t see as much of Brother Justin as we do of the carnival and its inhabitants, but he at least gets some more meaty scenes this time. Clancy Brown always delivers in this role which seems to fit him like a white collar on a priest and his speech to Iris as they sit alone in Chin’s is a thing of beauty. Not only is it perfectly written but the performance gets more intense as the light fades around them making for some incredible television purely from the combination of the dialogue and Brown’s performance.
Things go from bad to worse for the minister, though, as not only does he discover that he may be forced to leave his calling at Chin’s to return to the church he was originally assigned to, but at the end the old whore house burns down. What this means for his vision and his message from God is unclear at this point but his good side shines through a little bit more as he looks upon the covered up bodies of the children who were caught in the fire. It reminds us that no matter what dark path his new powers are starting to take him down, he used to be a good person.
The music of the show has always been an important part of the atmosphere since the beginning, but there are a couple of tracks that really stand out in “Black Blizzard.” Previously, a lot of the period music which has been heard in the show was popular music from the era, whereas some eclectic choices including opera and Bulgarian folk music are used more predominantly to heighten the drama. The more typical kind of crooning that can be heard coming out the gramophones and car radios in the series are more familiar and more closely associated with the 30s, but the operatics just suit this dramatic instalment perfectly. In particular, songs which stood out were Ebben? Ne Andrò Lontana from the opera La Wally which played while Sophie waited in her car and Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares by Mir Stanke le from the powerful closing scenes.
‘Black Blizzard’ is a significant episode for Carnivàle, not only is it staggeringly good, but it’s a turning point for Ben’s character who will now have a more clear direction under the guidance of Lodz and sets up the mystery of who exactly is managing the carnival, plus there’s an increasing sense of anticipation surrounding what’s going to happen when they reach Babylon.
9/10 Seriable Stars