Seriable’s Mark Jones reviews Carnivàle 1.09 — “Insomnia”
The title of Carnivàle‘s ninth instalment comes from Ben’s reluctance to sleep, but more important than the lack of rest is the idea that if you don’t sleep you can’t dream, which is exactly what he’s trying to avoid doing in this episode. He’s not the only one having trouble with visions and both Sofie and Lodz see things in their minds eye that they wish they hadn’t, in one of two episodes directed by Jack Bender, better known for his work on LOST.
Where Ben is concerned, there are revelations aplenty and it all stems from his attempts not to sleep. His new found insomniac ways seem to frustrate Lodz, who makes it clear that the dreams he has are important in deciphering his destiny and refers to them as Ben being “reached”. It’s not made clear whether it’s Lodz, Management or someone else doing the reaching but it indicates that whether Ben is playing the part of the obedient mentee or not, everything is going to plan for whoever is manipulating him. This sense of being controlled is important as it becomes clear there’s more than just destiny guiding Ben. It makes for a riveting mystery and certainly foreshadows certain elements of LOST, including being manipulated by a mysterious leader and destiny vs free will.
The bombshell is also dropped, though it may have seemed obvious before now (it’s hard to tell when rewatching already knowing all the answers), that Henry Scudder is in fact Ben’s dad. There’s no big build up like you might expect from other serials, as Samson just casually announces it in his conversation with Ben early on. The later scene where he tells the chain gang escapee what he knows, sees Michael J Anderson turn Samson’s charm all the way up as he comes clean with Ben about the picture of his mother, all the while gluing a turtle shell to a baby doll to create a “turtle boy” for the “fireball” show he plans to put on. His motives prove hard to discern, but it would seem Ben trusts him more at this point than Lodz even if to the audience it’s difficult to tell which side he should be on, if any.
Things are back on fine dark form this time round and the audience is offered several truly creepy scenes to keep them awake at night themselves. First and foremost of these is the vision transmitted to Sofie from her mother Apollonia in which she enters her trailer to find her mother bent over the table being raped by a man with a tree tattooed on his back. The imagery of the rape is disturbing in itself, but the real chilling moment is when Sofie tells her mother to stop screaming, sounds which obviously only she can hear, followed by her mum’s jaw dropping ever so slightly to indicate her internal torment and Sofie becoming even more distressed than before. The scene is blurred to avoid being too graphic (though now seems tame by Game of Thrones‘ standards), but also to prevent us from learning the identity of the rapist. It’s at this point, in some ways, Sofie starts to become a more interesting character than Ben with an increasingly intriguing back story and the ability to receive visions as well, suggesting she may have a larger part to play in the overall mythology.
In addition to being one of the episode’s darker moments it raises an important question that has been hinted at before, which is the identity of Sofie’s father. This is a significant moment in the show as it’s the start of a converging path for Ben and Sofie, although they’re far from realising it.
Patrick Bauchau is on fine form once again and it’s a particularly entertaining performance as we get to see the mentalist wow the crowds at the carnival. While initially he works the crowd, Ben and Samson stop by to watch and the small man has an ace up his sleeve as he tries to find out what Lodz is up to. Placing Scudder’s medal in the hands of the crowd who pass it to the front, Lodz touches it and immediately goes into a fit as he sees the same sort of vision involving Templar Knights and all kinds of disturbing imagery (like decapitated heads on spikes and severed feet in a basket), as Ben saw in “Lonnigan, Texas” when he came into contact with Boffo’s ring.
In addition to the familiar images, Lodz yells out a Latin phrase which Ben somehow translates to “by this sign we conquer”. Not only is it an engrossing spectacle but it sees Samson’s distrust of Lodz come to the fore for the first time. It’s an interesting rivalry and one which results in the boss man giving Ben an ultimatum, trust him or Lodz. At this point in the show it’s hard to know whose motives are the most pure. Lodz is desperate to be Ben’s mentor, and though his efforts are in vain, he seems to be pushing him in the right direction even if the boy refuses to accept his help. His motivations may seem a bit selfish, but then what Samson could hope to gain (apart from one hell of a carnival act) from guiding Ben on his path his are also not obvious.
My favourite parts, however, are the brief scenes where we get to see how Brother Justin is progressing in the asylum. It follows on nicely from where we left him and he now displays much greater control over his powers, causing a fellow patient to walk repeatedly into a wall until his head bleeds and his psychiatrist to write what he would have done had he been given the pen and paper he previously requested. As he leaves the institute, the short story arc which began with him jumping off the bridge in “The River” is completed and sees him get a step ahead of Ben, as his good counterpart is reluctant to develop his own gift. While Ben seems keener to follow Samson, Lodz’ warnings that Ben must hone is skills in order to protect the people he cares about certainly seem genuine given Justin’s development and more frightening abilities.
Aside from Ben, Justin and Sofie, less important developments include Jonesy’s continued fling with Rita-Sue after Felix apologised and there was an understanding that it was a one-off, and Tommy Dolan making a move on Iris. Rita-Sue and Jonesy’s affair adds a bit more soap-opera-eqsue background color but is certainly not as interesting as the other stuff that’s going on, and the scene where their love making is inter-cut with Ruthie’s snake act felt like it had the potential to be good but was ultimately a bit awkward.
After a couple of fine episodes, albeit ones where not an awful lot happened (Justin spent some time laying on the banks of a river, while Ben got sent on a wild lobster-boy chase), there’s more action and excitement in ‘Insomnia,’ which brings with it some fairly big answers and clues where the mythology is concerned. The beauty of these answers is the way in which they’re casually tossed to the audience, but not hastily or without thought. Unlike some serialized shows where it feels like the mythology is made up as it goes along, Carnivàle’s has a clear game plan and each new answer sheds a little more light on the overall picture. As is often the case with other mythology based shows, more questions arise from the answers we’re given, and it’s no coincidence that in the same episode that we learn of Ben’s parentage, the question of who Sofie’s father is brought into the limelight.
8.5/10 Seriable Stars