Seriable’s Mark Jones reviews the Carnivàle Season 1 finale — 1.12 “The Day That Was The Day”
Bringing to a close an impressive first season, “The Day That Was The Day” is not just a stellar episode of Carnivàle but a huge moment for serialized TV as well. In it we see Ben finally turn to Lodz for assistance, with all the drama and excitement that entails, and Brother Justin trying to come to terms with his true nature, begging Brother Norman to kill him.
Starting with a scene featuring Justin and Iris at their dinner table, staring at each other in silence, it tells us everything we need to know about the brother and sister since we last left them. Following the revelation that Iris burned down the orphanage, there are clearly tensions between them as well as between the two sides of Justin, the Minister who was previously oblivious to his powers and his demonic nature which is slowly taking over. It sets the tone for the rest of the episode which bristles with atmosphere and the sense of a storm which is about to burst.
Though the series was short lived, and certainly hasn’t got as much attention as some shows of equal quality out there, it’s hard to argue that Carnivàle and “The Day That Was The Day” in particular wasn’t influential. One scene certainly seems to foreshadow the LOST episode “The Man Behind the Curtain” (which aired May 13 2007, compared to this episode which first hit screens on November 30 2003, for anyone who was wondering) where Locke and Ben (Linus) venture into Jacob’s cabin. The moment comes where Ben turns to Lodz for guidance on how to save Ruthie, who takes him to see Management. Ben’s initial disbelief that Management exists and Lodz’s manipulative nature, not to mention the overall atmosphere and mystery which surrounds the carnival’s head honcho, is very reminiscent of the Island-based encounter. As in LOST, we don’t get to see who the mysterious person behind the curtain is at this point, aside from hearing their creepy voice (Linda Hunt) and seeing the burning end of their cigarette and a slight glimmer of their hand. Apart from the show being thematically similar throughout, this scene alone should be enough to convince any LOST fan that this is a series worth watching.
LOST parallels aside, not only does the scene deliver on the previous episodes’ promises of Lodz trying to teach Ben how to use his powers, but there’s plenty of top-notch dialogue as Management explains that;
“To restore a life you must take a life”
The establishment of these rules forms the basis of Ben’s motivation in this episode, coming to terms with who he really is in order to save Ruthie’s life. We already know he’s committed murder, though faced with the prospect of killing some who “doesn’t matter” he can’t bring himself to do it, at least initially. Still desperate to save her life, he resorts to taking his own in a shady spot in a graveyard, rather graphically slashing his own throat. Not only do we have the shock value of Ben’s actions (it looks very real), but the appearance of Scudder to heal him, telling him that “that’s not how it works,” raises a lot of exciting questions as well — especially concerning the meaning of the word “avatar” in the world of Carnivàle.
Piling more burdens onto Ben’s shoulders and offering up another LOST connection in the form of actor Jon Gries, aka Roger Linus in LOST (who coincidentally was in the episode “The Man Behind the Curtain”), a Ranger turns up at the carnival looking for Ben. With one murder already under his belt, and another one potentially in the works, the odds are pointing to an even more difficult path he’s going to have tread in season two, despite his good intentions.
Later, it turns out that Management has been playing the long con with Lodz, who he double crosses after restoring his sight. Returning to the trailer, Ben insists that he’s not like Management though when he hears how Lodz was responsible for the death of Ruthie he starts to change his mind. The con is complete when Ben looks into the mentalist’s now functional eyes, clearly able to see that he is lying about not being responsible for her death. Everything about the restoration of Lodz’ sight and the scene where he dies is damn near perfect, especially the moment when Ben whips off his glasses and Management’s plan becomes apparent. As much as it’s a shame to see Lodz go, the scene and the conclusion of his arc are certainly worth the loss of such a brilliant character, and turns Ben into a more powerful, and potentially dangerous, character going forward.
It isn’t only Management who summons Lodz, and there’s another unexpected yet brilliant moment where Apollonia causes a record to fly off the gramophone which is playing, allowing the needle to fall on to the record underneath which repeatedly plays “I want you”. Before his untimely demise, he’s witness to a shocking revelation, after reading Apollonia’s mind, and we’re left to ponder over what it could be. As Lodz storms out of her trailer in shock, Apollonia seemingly manages to extend her reach beyond gramophones to cause the sound of thunder to rumble from a clear sky.
While we don’t get positive confirmation as to who the “her” is Lodz refers to, we’re given plenty of hints and at the thrilling climax Apollonia tries to burn down the trailer with her and Sofie in it. Though Sofie is saved by Jonesy, the indications that her character might be more important than first suspected start to come to fruition and sets up a few big questions to keep us hooked in Season 2.
Lodz’ undoing at the hands of Ben is just one big confrontation that’s taking place as Norman confronts Brother Justin and Brother Justin confronts himself. Throughout the series there have been clear signs that Justin is evil, whether he realised it or not, and even after his spell in the asylum there was some ambiguity as to what he saw himself as. If there hadn’t been so many clear markers about who was good and who was bad (from the outset it seemed like Ben was the bad guy turning good and Justin the good guy turning bad) this ambiguity might have been frustrating or even confusing. However, it played out well and made Justin a much more interesting and complex character than a straight-forward evil priest.
What makes the climax of his storyline in season one so great is that in trying to prove to Norman that he’s actually good, he realises that the greatest evil Norman ever did was in saving him and Iris. Distraught, Justin begs for Norman to kill him, and there’s a point where it seems like it might almost happen, but Norman is unable to bring himself to do it. In not killing him he seals the next stage of Justin’s evolution and after the encounter at the church Justin makes his debut appearance on the radio.
There are so many memorable scenes it’s hard to pick one that stands out from the rest, there are the obvious ones already mentioned like Lodz’s death, Ben’s suicide and Brother Justin’s meeting with Norman, but then there are the more subtle moments like Ben silently observing the rest of carnies, looking for a life to exchange for Ruthie’s, or Brother Justin clicking his fingers like a demonic beat poet before taking to the microphone on his first radio broadcast. Not only is every performance spot on but this instalment is littered with quality dialogue, especially from the likes of Samson.
“Look I don’t know what it is you have to do and I don’t care but I do know what kind of games Management plays, he don’t care much for people. Like pieces moving around on a board, but these people around here mean more than that, to me. Whatever it is you gotta do, you make sure it happens to somebody else, somebody who don’t matter, somebody who won’t be missed, someone more like you”
Or Brother Justin with his closing speech, which if it doesn’t chill your blood I’d recommend a visit from Mr Hawkins and his healing hands;
“The clock is ticking brothers and sisters. Counting down to Armageddon. The worm reveals himself in many guises across this once great land. From the intellectual elite cruelly indoctrinating our children with the savage blasphemy of Darwin to the craven Hollywood pagans corrupting them in the darkness of the local bijou. From the false prophets cowering behind our nation’s pulpits to the vile parasites in our banks and board rooms and the godless politicians growing fat on the misery of their constituents. The signs of the end times are all around us, etched in blood and fire by the left hand of god. You have but to open your eyes brothers and sisters, the truth is that the devil is here. The Antichrist, the child of lies, the son of darkness walks among us cloaked in the flesh of a man.”
All these moments add up to something completely unique and darkly magical, and for all the slow pacing that has been Carnivàle‘s trademark, the action-packed final scenes make for a heart-stomping and thrilling finale. As close as it gets to the more obvious cliff-hanging moments of more mainstream shows, rather than opening a hatch and leaving us not knowing whether Ruthie survives, the final scene shows her waking up. Our reason for revisiting this world is now not in the not knowing but in the wanting to know what happens to the characters next.
‘The Day That Was The Day’ is the strongest episode of Carnivàle yet, offering the kind of serialized thrills that only a successful finale to a whole season of well plotted mysteries and tantalising questions can deliver. Even the less important things, like Rita Sue and Felix patching up their relationship issues (in another one of my favourite scenes, well written and brilliantly acted), are very satisfying to watch and sit well alongside the more heightened drama which is going on. Lodz may be gone but the groundwork is laid for an even more exciting and even darker second season.
10/10 Seriable Stars