Seriable’s Mark Jones reviews Carnivàle 1.11 — “Day of the Dead”
In the penultimate episode of Carnivàle‘s first season things start building up to an exciting finale as Lodz takes drastic measures to help Ben develop his powers while the man with the healing hands places all his trust in Samson in his continuing quest for answers.
Following another vision of Brother Justin, this time he’s handing out razor blades like communion wafers, Ben takes a trip into town. Initially he has some intriguing encounters with the locals who are in the midst of celebrating the Day of the Dead. First he sees a child with the now familiar tree painted on him and then after being assailed by a group of children, who sense some kind of loss in Ben, a woman offers him some food saying “even the dead must eat”. Their mention of loss foreshadows the end of ‘Day of the Dead’ but the other incidents are little wild cards that probably mean nothing but build up the tension and atmosphere before his next meeting with Scudder.
After spotting a church, Ben goes in seeking forgiveness as he feels he’s sinned by killing a man, not to mention sleeping with Ruthie as well as some other indiscretions. Entering the church’s confession booth, he spills his guts to the priest, showing a level of emotion that hasn’t been seen before in his character. Although Ben is a likeable hero, and well played by Nick Stahl, like many good guys he’s not always as interesting as his enemies or the people who are helping him. However, we get a sense that there’s more going on under the surface than we’ve seen before as he gets upset confessing about how he let his mother die. Not only is it a good moment because it makes Ben more interesting and relatable but the priest turns out to be Scudder, who vanishes into the ether when Ben realises who has been listening to his confession. It’s a chilling reveal seeing Scudder’s eyes staring through the grating and one that acts as a tipping point for Ben to finally place his trust in someone.
Shaken by his vision, Ben returns to Samson to try and find out more about Scudder, telling his Boss everything he’s seen in the process. Unfortunately Samson doesn’t have much to tell him, in one of the great anti-climactic moments the series is really good at, where we realise that apart from the few things he already told Ben about Scudder, there isn’t much more that he knows. While this episode demonstrates the lengths Lodz will go to do Management’s bidding, it also shows that Samson doesn’t have much of a motive other than satisfying his own curiosity and possibly reclaiming his spot as Management’s right-hand man.
The sense of the power shifting from Samson to Lodz is addressed by the Carnies over breakfast, illustrating how much they are and aren’t aware of. Their concern is with who pays their wages and the fact that the power struggle between Ben and Samson has much deeper and more dangerous implications is completely not on their radar, even Lila seems unaware of the full extent of Lodz’ new role.
Ben isn’t the only one visiting the local town as Lodz also has some businesses to attend to, purchasing a deadly snake which will eventually end up biting Ruthie. Lodz has always been a bit of a likeable rogue who seemed to have some genuine concern for the boy, but with his conversation with management at the end of the last episode and now his attempts to murder Ruthie (although he’s obviously banking on her being saved), he definitely isn’t coming across as a good guy at this point.
After a few episodes where Sofie has been dealing with her problematic relationship with her mother, her and Libby’s friendship is explored again. Already close at this point, things start to look as if they might get even closer as the pair almost kiss after having a little too much to drink. While their heterosexuality has already been established, it feels like quite a natural development, and though Sofie pulls back before their lips touch, the vision she receives at the crucial moment indicates that it’s a relationship which is going to be an issue in future episodes.
For now she just takes the vision as her mother playing tricks on her and reasserts her affections for Jonesy in a conversation with Rita Sue. She can’t argue later on, however, when a twist of fate brings Stumpy into her tent causing her to learn of Jonesy’s relationship with the cooch dancer. Clea DuVall does an amazing job of shifting between sweet, when she’s with Libby, confused, when she’s talking about Jonesy and angrily frustrated when she has anything to say to her mother. There’s also a distinctly creepy quality to her interactions with Apollonia, especially when Sofie looks like she’s about to smother her mother with a pillow before preceding to prop her up to cut her hair.
In the Brother Justin camp Brother Norman approaches Iris about what he saw in the church when he was baptising Justin and Tommy Dolan suspects Justin of burning down the orphanage. The resulting revelation is that it was in fact Iris who was responsible for the fire and it becomes increasingly apparent how aware she has been the whole time of Justin’s destiny. It’s an important bit of character development showing that she has been keeping her own true nature hidden not only from the audience but her brother as well. Justin’s mixed reaction is hard to read but is a testament to his complex character that we don’t know whether he throws her on to the sofa out of anger, happiness or even lust.
As well as this, the scene between and Norman and Dolan introduces the reporter as the only character who is starting to see Brother Justin for what he really is apart from Iris. It’s a decent development and indicates he’s going to be a more significant piece of the puzzle, a thorn in Justin’s paw, rather than just being the journalist that brought Justin’s story to the public’s attention.
Towards the end of the episode Lodz’ plan is put into action as Ruthie gets bitten by the snake he procured while in town. Naturally, Ben doesn’t hesitate to try and save her life and he’s determined not to let her die as he did his mother. Though we’ve seen him use his powers before, it’s a pivotal moment for Ben as it’s the first time he uses powers to bring someone back from the brink of death, rather than just heal a broken limb. Clearly there’s some underlying emotion involved here, especially apparent after his speech about his mother at the beginning, but we don’t get to see whether he’s successful or not, as the end credits start rolling as he fails to revive her with the ease he’s previously demonstrated.
Overall, this is a very satisfying instalment adding more depth to our hero’s character with a shocking revelation at the end and a bit of a cliff-hanger ending to lead us into the last episode of the season. We’re also more aware of where everyone stands on the scale of good to evil at the moment, Brother Justin and Iris are firmly at the evil end, Ben at the other and somewhere in-between is Lodz and Management, showing just how far they’ll go to further their own goals.
9/10 Seriable Stars