Seriable’s Mark Jones reviews Carnivàle 2.01 “Los Moscos”
The battle between darkness and light, a mysterious leader and a nuclear detonation with unclear results may rings bells for LOST fans but for Carnivàle and its second season they proved to be crucial ingredients as well. While the first two points have already been clearly laid out, the third is revealed in this opening episode hinting at many exciting possibilities for the future of the show. Of course, these possibilities were never realised but that doesn’t make ‘Los Moscos’ and the following episodes any less special.
As with the pilot, the first episode of the second season begins with Samson addressing the audience directly. Although it’s quite a theatrical device, it fills the audience in on exposition which might otherwise have had to be clumsily revealed and Michael J. Anderson’s performance is flawless, making it compelling to watch. In his speech he describes the “dark one” taking his mortal form after the end of the First World War and fleeing across the ocean to America. This dark one is then pursued by the prophet, “diminished by his wounds,” who then turns to the “next in the ancient line of light,” placing the burden of saving mankind on the shoulders of “the most reluctant of saviours”. No names are named but we have a pretty good idea of who he’s talking about and he gives us enough information to better understand the story up to this point, yet leaves enough unsaid to allow us to fill in the blanks ourselves.
Following Samson’s scary bedtime story we pick up where we left off and it becomes apparent that when Ben restores a life it can be felt by Brother Justin, who is visibly pained while delivering his sermon. Things really get going though when we return to Management’s trailer and the aftermath of Lodz’ death.
If Ben’s previous encounter with Management was reminiscent of LOST’s ‘Man Behind the Curtain,’ this episode is the equivalent of the discovery of the hatch and its potentially world destroying secret in “Man of Science, Man of Faith”. After some cabin shaking, once again strikingly similar to LOST, Management reveals its arm as it, confirmed to be the very badly wounded Russian Sniper known as Lucius Belyakov, grabs Ben. In one of Ben’s best visions yet we see him and Justin, once again crouched down, standing in the middle of the desert as an atomic bomb is detonated. It’s revealed to be Ben’s destiny to prevent the bomb from going off, a major moment for the character and setting out a very clear timeline for the finale.
For Ben the vision is the moment when he starts to realise where his strange journey is taking him and moves him forward on his arc from the point of being the naïve and reluctant hero to the point of realising he might have a more important purpose than he could ever have imagined. It shows as well in Nick Stahl’s acting as there’s a sense that Ben is becoming more aware and accepting of his destiny and in turn a more interesting character. In terms of the timeline of the show, Carnivàle has always referenced real-life events that happened concurrently with its own secret history, so it’s safe to assume the show would have come to some conclusion around the time of the first nuclear detonation in 1945 (already hinted at in the opening of Season One with the line “a false sun exploded over Trinity”). The idea of the quirky old-fashioned carnival and Ben’s Okie ways having to deal with such a modern menace is quite an appealing idea and it’s a crying shame that the series never made it beyond a second season.
What’s striking from these opening scenes, especially on a first viewing, is the noticeable gear shift from the steady drip of answers in series one to the biblical flood of revelations that greet the audience in “Los Moscos”. With the benefit of hindsight and retrospection the change doesn’t seem so jarring as it did on a first viewing, though some still find it upsetting. In a lesser show this might be more understandable but Carnivàle is still holding a royal flush when it comes to writing, acting and production values in Season 2, making the shift, in the eyes of this reviewer, forgivable. Had those answers not been given, the mythology of the show would seem even more frustratingly inaccessible when rewatching the series following its cancellation and it may well have been not so rewatchable as it is now. If anything it at least demonstrates how hard it is to strike the balance between not enough and too much when it comes to answers in a serialized show (and the fickle nature of the fans), especially for one of few the shows that seemed to have it all planned out from the beginning.
Later on Ben will continue his mission to find Scudder, returning to the Templar Lodge that previously yielded no clues to him and Samson. This time he breaks in and enters after they’ve closed their doors and searches for more information on his father. It’s not long before he’s rumbled by the Lodge’s leader who he manages to overpower and retrieve some information from. Before leaving he also notices the tattooed man in the mural on the war and its the artist, a man named Kerrigan, that points him in the direction of his next destination. Apart from establishing a clear collision path for Ben and Justin these scenes also see Ben verbally acknowledge his true nature declaring that he’s not human like his father.
Ben isn’t the only one receiving visions of his destiny however, and Brother Justin is also the recipient of a message which reveals to him his greater purpose, the building of a giant temple. He later calls it his “new Canaan” after finding the location from his vision, signposted by the twisted tree, as he and Iris are driving down the road. If this wasn’t enough in addition to Ben’s mission to stop the A-bomb from dropping, we’re given more tantalising revelations about the show’s mythology, the complexities of which start to show at this point (which can either be a good thing or a bad thing depending on how much effort you like to take in understanding your mythologies), in the form of an ancient manuscript which Justin happens to quote during his first radio broadcast. Wilfred Talbot Smith is an expert on the manuscript and approaches Justin after hearing him speak, recognising him as the Usher. Their meeting is the equivalent of Ben realising he’s got to stop the bomb going off, i.e. Justin basically being told he’s going to be the one responsible for the bomb going off and given one massive hint about what he’s got to do next.
Aside from this in terms of Justin’s character developing into someone who realises they’re really, really evil we’re left in no doubt that he’s got the hots for his sister. Although it’s only dealt with briefly we see him staring at her underwear as she shifts while sleeping on the couch and then arriving at a Chinese brothel. Although the short scenes could have appeared in any episode it at least clarifies that at this point only Justin’s thoughts are incestuous, not his actions.
While plenty is changing in the world of the carnival at least one thing returns to normal as in Lodz’ absence Samson is back in Management’s good graces. His first task is to dispose of the professor’s body which leads to one of the episodes lighter moments. As the body is dumped unceremoniously in a sandy ditch Samson turns to Ben declaring that “If someone picks a number for this one it’s gonna be me”, resigning himself to the fact that Ben now has an important journey ahead of him and he has to do everything he can to help, and it’s a nice in-joke for people familiar with the previously established concept of “carnival justice”.
In addition to plenty of amazing dialogue ‘Los Moscos’ isn’t short on memorable visuals either. Aside from the nuclear explosion in Ben’s vision which looks incredible (Justin’s less so though still quite good), there’s the tragic matter of Brother Norman having a stroke on the steps of his Ministries’ headquarters, bringing to mind the kind of imagery you’d expect to see in a religious painting, and the wonderfully horrifying closing scenes where Justin peels off his hair and his skin to reveal the face of Ben Hawkins underneath, which even when you know what’s coming doesn’t lose any of its impact.
All in all it’s another barnstorming slice of TV and especially for an episode of Carnivàle manages to pack a lot in. Sometimes it feels like there’s almost too much, Justin’s trip to the brothel after ogling his sister felt like it could have been saved for another time, but overall it works not only as an exciting and engrossing episode but as a set up for things to come. Although it establishes a more clear direction for the show, which suggests a journey that is going to take precedence over building to the answer of a big mystery, it’s still the same old Carnivàle playing by its own rules to create a unique televisual experience. In a perfect world the show would have completed its six season run and continued in the same fashion as the first series, as it is the answers we’re given in this episode alone offer enough for our imaginations to conjure some idea of what the missing four seasons might have been like.
9/10 Seriable Stars