Seriable’s Mark Jones reviews Carnivàle 1.07 — “The River”
After the epic duo of episodes in the form of “Babylon” and “Pick a Number,” we’re taken into transitional territory with “The River”. Although it might not have as any many dramatic developments as the previous two instalments we get to see Ben use his healing powers again, and better still, Brother Justin takes centre stage in a less memorable but still significant episode.
Unaware that his story has caught the attention of radio presenter Tommy Dolan, “The River” doesn’t waste time in establishing that Justin is suicidal as we see him getting ready to jump off a bridge, over the unnamed river that gives the episode its title. Despite attempts to talk him down, he jumps or at least it appears he jumps, and drifts down the river before washing up on the banks where he encounters two children, a young boy and his older sister.
The unnamed river offers itself to biblical allusions, Moses in the bulrushes springs to mind as Justin washes up on shore, and feels deliberately anonymous to make us ponder its significance. Especially given how specific locations are so important in the show it seems odd that this one would go unnamed.
Of course, it turns out he didn’t actually jump and was experiencing another vision in the short amount of time before he’s pulled back on to the bridge. The way the events in his dream play out and how they later tie into Iris subplot where she’s recounting the story to Tommy Dolan is really well done. As the episode reaches its conclusion, Justin’s experience on the banks of the river and Iris’ “parable” come together neatly like a zipper locking into place, so that we gradually realise what’s been going on before the twist that he didn’t jump is revealed. As narrative deceptions go it’s top notch and makes for a great way of illustrating Iris’ tale and helping us to gain better understanding of their origin story.
Aside from the way the vision is used, what it reveals is equally impressive and offers plenty of answers about where Brother Justin came from and his powers, as up to now the focus has been on expanding Ben and Scudder’s history. We learn that Iris and Justin were Russian immigrants who escape from a train crash in which their mother was killed. When they are attacked after escaping, Justin demonstrates an ability to break a person’s neck using only his mind. Once again it confirms that his actions are the result of uncontrolled emotional outbursts and his sudden realisation of what he can do, of what has been laying dormant inside him, his “birthright”, is equally telling about his character. Whereas Ben is the initially shady figure who has the ability to do great good, and reluctantly does, Justin is the opposite. He’s the one who would seem to be the better person, being a minister, but has a great evil inside of him which like Ben he will gradually begin to accept, now he knows that his visions were not messages from God.
Meanwhile, Ben goes on a snake hunt (not a euphemism) with Ruthie, and at first it seems they grow closer as they talk about the Bible and then how Hack helped Ruthie get over a deadly snake bite. Putting any possible Oedipal issues aside there’s something that seems right about Ben’s relationship with the snake charmer, with the show once again defying convention by having its hero lust after an older woman, rather than the younger females the carnival has to offer. Later on, Ben’s jealously about who Ruthie has slept with in the past winds him up enough to lash out at Gabriel. While it’s disturbing to see the baby-faced giant crying, and kind of disappointing to see Ben attack him so readily, it’s an essential set-up to another of Ben’s healing acts. This time he takes Gabriel out to a lake, where as a result of fixing his broken arm all the fish living there die. It’s interesting to see Lodz’s reaction when Lila tells him what she suspects Ben did, and like Ben it’s a little disappointing and disturbing to see him act so violently to somebody he clearly cares about. However, it serves as a reminder about how invested he is in mentoring him and his powers and hints at a darker side to the often jovial mentalist.
Aside from the forces of darkness and light, the main subplot running through “The River” is Libby and Felix’s attempt to escape to Hollywood, with Felix held back by the love for his wife Rita Sue. It offers a look into the complicated relationship Felix and Rita Sue have and serves as yet another bonding experience for Sofie and Libby, though Sofie keeps the fact to herself that Apollonia knows their plans to move to Hollywood are going to fail. It also doesn’t stop Sofie from making the quick decision to join her friend and abandon her mother, with whom she has an increasingly strained relationship, behind. It might not make for the most exciting television but there’s a really sweet warmth to the relationship of Toby Huss‘s Felix and Carla Gallo‘s Libby as he plays the supportive father who wants to do the best for his daughter, even if it’s a result of his grief over Dora Mae, but just can’t force himself to leave their current life. There’s also some nice chemistry between Clea DuVall and Gallo as they talk on the merry-go-round which makes the friendship feel really natural, and not just a reason to give Sofie something else to do other than respond to her mother’s psychically transmitted complaints.
As usual, there are no weak links in the chain where the acting is concerned, but at times young Iris’ (or Irina’s) accent does stray from Russian to Scottish, though to be fair I can’t say I’ve heard a child actor that’s done a better Russian accent (and to be extra honest, I can’t say I remember hearing another child actor do a Russian accent at all). Tommy Dolan gets more screen time in this episode, proving himself to be another welcome addition to the cast, as he plays his own games to achieve fame while helping (and hitting on) Iris Crowe. As well as this, it’s good to see Iris let her hair down and she also manages to turn the creepy up a little bit with the simple act of guiltily sniffing on Brother Justin’s leather whip.
The episode ends lingering on photograph of Iris and Justin with a young Norman Balthus, hinting at what’s to come, and we’re left with a sense of more puzzle pieces falling into place, even though the story hasn’t advanced dramatically. Learning about the Crowe’s childhood and their Russian heritage was an enjoyable experience and though the Ferris wheel might turn a little slower in ‘The River’, it’s another gripping ride which offers as many answers as it does questions, maintaining the sense of anticipation for the next step on the journey.
8/10 Seriable Stars