Seriable’s Mark Jones reviews Carnivàle 1.06 — “Pick A Number”
Following on from “Babylon” the sixth episode of Carnivàle deals with the aftermath of Dora Mae’s death and sees Ben emerge from his journey into the mines. Brother Justin also makes more of an appearance this time round, wandering off into the wilderness to search for guidance after the destruction of Chin’s.
So much in this episode is dependant on the audience caring about Dora Mae’s death and being invested in finding her killer. Even if we never really got to know her very well, “Pick a Number” does a great job of making it clear what she meant to her family and co-workers and strengthens the family-like dynamic that has already been established. There are plenty of touching moments as they come to terms with her passing, with the exception of Gecko, whose camp outpourings of grief are funnier than they are sad, and as the carnies pack up and head off to their next destination it feels like they’ve all grown closer as a unit.
After the carnies have all had a chance to process Dora Mae’s murder the focus is on dispensing “Carnival Justice” to the person responsible. There are some tense scenes as the male carnies band together and head into Babylon, Western style, only to find it deserted. As they roll into the empty town there’s definitely the sense that there’s something hinky about Babylon. When they fail to find anyone there they head back home to bury Dora Mae, and following her funeral Stangler is spotted in the distance. They soon catch up with him and bring him back to “stand tall before the wagon” for the recent murder as their grief soon turns into angry vengeance.
The concept of Carnival Justice is an appealing one with its strange rituals and Russian roulette style of sentencing, and is welcomed by the carnies as much for its entertainment value as it is for its serving of justice. It’s best not to think about how it works too much, as picking six would have been a certain death sentence, but Stangler picks three and there’s a suitable amount of tension as we wait to see if he bites the bullet. While the bartender is spared by the ritual, for a moment it seems like Samson is being too nice and a little out of character by not killing him anyway. However, the carnival leader eventually seeks out justice on his own but not before he gets a few answers. After telling Samson what’s really going on in Babylon, and how it’s related to Scudder leaving the town, Stangler is shot across the bar. It never seemed like Stangler was going to be around for more than a couple of episodes but he was undoubtedly a welcome addition to the cast, even for such a short time.
Amidst the tensions surrounding the hunt for who killed Dora Mae, Jonesy decides to confront Samson about why there was no one there when he visited Management’s trailer. The answer Samson gives doesn’t really seem like a satisfactory one, but Jonesy appears appeased for the time being. There’s a sense of this being out of a loyalty towards his boss, but also a growing acceptance towards the strange things which have happened since Ben’s arrival, and the sense of change which is become ever more apparent. The confrontation feels a little bit anti-climactic; it seemed at times like it was going to be more explosive, though it becomes increasingly obvious that the identity of Management is going to be one of the answers that is withheld from the audience longer than some of the other mysteries. It’s also interesting learn a bit of Jonesy’s backstory, revealed via a flashback at the beginning where we find out how his leg got broken. His character may not be as essential as some but it’s good to see his own backstory fleshed out along the way.
Last time we saw Ben he was groping around in the darkness in one of Babylon’s mines, and as he’s nearing the end of his strange journey there are plenty of clues left to be gathered. As he approaches the mine’s exit he suddenly finds himself in the trenches of World War I, where aside from those who have been present in his earlier dreams he encounters a younger Lodz, who is still able to see. The way the mine experience blends into the waking vision of the trenches is seamlessly done and offers plenty of material for analysis. The immediate thing to take away from it are Lodz’s connection with Scudder in World War I and his ownership of the violent hat wearing bear, which offers some tantalising hints at his history.
With “Babylon” almost entirely void of any Brother Justin, “Pick a Number” sees his return with a subplot that deals with his loss of faith and lack of direction after the destruction of Chin’s. While it’s clear that Justin is a force of evil in the show, the opposite of whatever Ben is, since the fire he’s started to show a little more humanity and less of the manipulative games he plays with his powers. However, there’s clearly some external power at work guiding his actions under the guise of God, but to what end it isn’t clear at this point.
The signs that are given to Justin lead him into the wilderness, of sorts, and it won’t be long before his destiny becomes a little more realised. Before he sets out on his quest, he sees ghosts of children who died in the fire, creepily fading in and out of view, and is also guided by the remains of a window frame which falls from the ceiling of the building. In terms of the special effects, the ghosts of the children were better executed than the falling debris which seems a little too slow and on the corny side, but that’s a small point. After ditching his collar, Justin goes wandering and ends up sharing a seat by a fire along with some homeless people. One of them just so happens to be an undercover reporter known as Tommy Dolan and it isn’t long before the minister’s story is broadcast on the radio. This marks the beginning of a whole new chapter in Brother Justin’s story and soon the power of his words won’t just be limited to those in close proximity to him.
The real cherry on the top of this episode is the brief moment that Samson sees the ghost of Dora Mae in the window of a house in Babylon, who disappears as she’s pulled away by one of the clamouring miners. Not only is it a spine-chilling moment because of all the cryptic hints that Stangler has been dispensing which tumble suddenly into place, but because of the look of horror on Samson’s face as it dawns on him what has been going on. Although we never really got to know Dora Mae that well, her death becomes all the more tragic now that we know why she’s been killed.
It’s also a significant moment for the show in general as it shows the extent of magic in the world outside of the carnival; that Scudder’s departure doomed anyone who died in Babylon to become trapped there as ghosts. The idea of ghosts living in the material world opens up the possibility of much more interesting mythology to come, but this episode also proves to be a transitional one as both Ben and Brother Justin arrive at a turning point on each of their respective journeys.
As with “Babylon” before it, “Pick a Number” is better viewed with the other half of the Babylon story arc and works less well as a standalone episode to be rewatched. The story arc is brilliant, the atmosphere is spot on (as always), and it really helps to move the series forward. At times the pacing seems a bit off, with Ben emerging from his journey quite early on, but overall it’s another stunning instalment.
9/10 Seriable Stars