Seriable’s Mark Jones reviews Carnivàle 1.05 — “Babylon”
At the mid-point of Carnivàle‘s first season comes ‘Babylon’, the first of two powerful episodes which deals with the trials Ben and the carnies face when they reach the abandoned mining town with its name of biblical fame.
The focus on this episode is mostly on the events in Babylon, meaning the only time we see and hear Brother Justin is at the beginning and the end. Not surprisingly, it begins with a fitting (if slightly compacted) quote from The Bible, applicable to the situation of both the minister and the carnies, as he’s crouched praying among the ashes of Chin’s.
“And he cried out with a mighty voice, saying “fallen, fallen is Babylon the great. She has become the dwelling place of demons and a prison for every unclean spirit and hateful bird”. And the kings of the Earth who committed acts of immorality and lived sensually with her will weep and lament over her when they see the smoke of her burning, standing at a distance because of the fear of her torment saying “woe woe the great city Babylon, the strong city, for in one hour your judgement has come””
Even if ‘Babylon’ could be viewed as the first half of a two-parter with an over-arching storyline between this episode and the next, the opening and closing quotes give it a self contained feel, though it doesn’t change the fact that its best watched with the following “Pick a Number”.
The major dilemma that doesn’t get resolved (the hunt for Libby’s murderer is a story in itself) is Ben’s fate in the mine. But while his journey isn’t over, the audience is still given plenty to go on, including the appearance of Scudder in the mine and the word “avatar”, a key one in the series, carved into one of its beams. The mine is an important step on Ben’s journey, delivering a healthy dose of clues and once again seems to be another lesson overseen by Lodz. We don’t actually see how he got there, but the mentalist clearly knows what’s going on and waits outside the entrance of the mine for his return. The scenes in the mine are claustrophobic with minimal lighting and great sound design used to create a sense of Ben’s location as successfully as the blizzard in the previous episode.
Aside from Ben’s dark journey, the main events are the arrival of the miners at the carnival, the ensuing chaos, and the murder of Dora Mae Dreifuss. To start with, the miners’ arrival is memorable because of the tension that’s been created through the negative reaction to Babylon from the carnies. We knew something bad was going to happen, it just wasn’t clear what, and the horrific events don’t disappoint. The visuals are impressive with the miners, still clad in their work gear, emerging out of the darkness, lamps in hand. As they drift among the tents the tension is palpable and things kick off quite violently when Dora Mae performs the “blow off,” against Samson’s instructions, and the tent collapses.
Carnivàle isn’t a show that’s afraid of showing a bit of flesh, and when Dora Mae does the blow off, it’s not only the guys in the tent that get to see everything. The full frontal nudity may offend some (though it’s hard to imagine anyone that easily offended not having bailed by this point in the series) but it feels necessary to delivering the impact of the miner’s bringing down the tent and the ensuing madness. It also shows a level of integrity that Dora Mae is a realistic-looking woman unlike some other shows which might not have gone so far unless she looked like Daenerys Targaryen or the numerous other beauties in HBO’s other hit serialized drama Game of Thrones.
Later on Jonesy discovers the body of Dora Mae, the daughter of Felix and Rita Sue, hung from a post with the word “harlot” carved into her forehead. It’s powerful stuff, though while it’s a shocking moment and the grief of the carnie’s is understandable, the audience hasn’t gotten to know her sufficiently well enough to really react emotionally to her death. The fact that Ben is otherwise detained is also convenient as it could have ruined the impact if he’d been close by with his healing hands, and it also seems fateful, maybe too much and too conveniently so, that Libby’s menstrual cycle prevented her from joining her sister in removing her panties. Mainly, the death of Dora Mae’s is a catalyst for more exciting action in the next episode, and also allows Sofie and Libby’s new found friendship to deepen further.
There may be less character development at work but the pairing of Sofie and Libby works nicely and seems to grow naturally out of some bonding over girl talk. In addition to giving Libby more screen time, the friendship sees a change in Sofie’s character as she becomes more confident and independent from her mother. It’s also interesting to see what the carnies are like away from the carnival as Samson treats them all to a night out. One of the appealing things about the cast of carnies is the way they naturally feel like a unit, and to see them taken out of their normal habitat in a more social environment reinforces the sense of camaraderie and friendship that is clear when they’re working.
While light on the Clancy Brown, the acting is solid from the whole cast who are helped by the very welcome John Hannah, guest starring as the mysterious bartender Stangler, and one of the few visible inhabitants of Babylon. Lodz as always is entertaining to watch, especially in his scene at beginning with Ben where he’s suffering from “the clanks.” Though some of the most memorable moments from the carnies are when we get to see a more relaxed side of them on their night out and the sweet little scene where Libby and Sofie take in a silent movie, accompanied by Libby on piano. There’s some good scenes with Rita Sue and Felix as well, funny as well as emotionally touching, and it’s darkly comical to see Rita Sue give Felix the proud parent look as Dora Mae performs the blow off for the raucous crowd.
Brother Justin’s closing speech ties up the proceedings nicely, and while there’s another episode that deals with the carnival’s stay in Babylon, in one hour, or at least the episode’s 48 minute running time, the Carnival has changed significantly.
“And on her forehead a name was written, a mystery, Babylon the great, the mother of harlots and of the abominations of the Earth. And they threw dust on their heads and were crying out, weeping and mourning saying woe woe the great city, for in one hour she has been laid waste.”
Not quite laid waste, perhaps, but it’s clear that things aren’t going to be the same for the carnival from this point forward.
As a stand alone episode, ‘Babylon’ is less satisfying than its predecessor “Black Blizzard,” but when coupled with “Pick a Number” forms one of the series’ high points, as there’s a lot to appreciate in the light of later revelations. Not only this, but what it lacks in screen time from our favourite evil minister, it makes up for in top-notch atmosphere and mystery.