Seriable’s Mark Jones reviews Carnivàle 2.07 “Damascus, NE”
As the name suggests “Damascus, NE” sees Ben end up in Damascus, following his strongest lead yet on the whereabouts of the long sought-after Scudder and finally finding him. Meanwhile, as Ben’s making some serious progress on his quest, Brother Justin’s superiors worry about the content of his sermons and Libby and Jonesy take their relationship to the next level in this significant if ultimately slightly disappointing episode.
Like many episodes, this one starts with a dream/vision. It’s Justin’s dream this time though it isn’t obvious at first that it’s another one of his visions. It sees him being measured for a suit while Iris watches the tailor taking the measurement for his inside leg. She disagrees with the tailor’s method for doing so and does it herself, adding some distinctly sexual and incestuous undertones to the sequence. As with his last vision it culminates with him being stabbed but this time it isn’t Ben doing the stabbing but Iris wearing a death mask. It’s also worth noting Justin spots a Ferris wheel reflected in his mirror. The dream sets an eerie tone for the rest of the instalment, one which isn’t short on sex or people getting stabbed.
It’s pretty obvious from the start that Ben is going to discover Scudder and he does so in the Hotel Astoria. The events leading up the discovery see Ben follow his visions, entering Scudder’s old room which is now inhabited by a trio of prostitutes. It isn’t long before Varlyn Stroud turns up but Ben manages to dodge him and heads to the Hotel Manager’s office where he now realises Scudder is holed up. The acid-scarred Scudder is the perfect set up for Ben to use his healing powers and he does so in a way that brings Varlyn Stroud, and the rest of hotel’s inhabitants to their knees. As far as moments in the show go it’s a big one but considering how long the search for Scudder has been one of the driving forces of the plot, it doesn’t feel as big as it could have been. However, flashbacks to a crazed Scudder dunking his head in a bowl of sulfuric acid are right up there with the show’s best disturbing scenes, but the real topper is the effect the healing has on Brother Justin. As Scudder’s face returns to its pre-acid dunked state, Justin projectile vomits his glass of milk, gross but good, and then when he reassures a worried Iris he’s OK, he puts his head in his hand and delivers the line “what a day to lose the maid” like no one else could. The following sequence where Ben is in the car talking with his long departed father on the other hand is just plain anti-climactic.
Sure, we get answers later but there’s no doubt Scudder is being less than revealing as Ben drives him back to the carnival. So many questions, so few answers, and Ben doesn’t really seem to be asking the things you’d expect him to. The character of Scudder himself, now we get to know him better, is also a little bit of a let down as well. The mysterious ghost-like magician that has haunted Ben for so long turns out to be a rather meek individual, his air of mystery gone. As he explains he’s been trying to keep out of the game and isn’t bothered about destroying his nemesis, which is fair enough, but it doesn’t explain why he so willing goes to meet him (though arguably Ben could have healed his spirit as well making him more amenable to visiting his nemesis).
Their meeting, though, is much more exciting. There’s the big reveal of what Lucius Belyakov aka Management actually looks like and the confirmation that Alexi Belyakov aka Brother Justin aka Ben’s nemesis is actually Management’s son. After the information has been wrangled out of Scudder, Management launches himself at him from behind his curtain and they tussle on the floor. As Ben promises, he steps in to defend Scudder but Management turns out to be a greater foe than he anticipated and when it seems like he’s dead, after Ben violently stabs him with Scudder’s knife and all the lights in the carnival go out, the limbless blue-blooded Russian comes back to life. The episode ends leaving us wondering what the outcome will be, though it’s not quite a classic cliffhanger moment.
While it’s a great to see Management in the flesh as he is now, after a season and half of being hidden behind a curtain, and have him show Scudder what he’s made of (it includes blue blood apparently), it’s one of those moments where the mystery is taken away and a little bit of magic is lost, like when you first see the shark in Jaws. It’s inevitable and exciting but disappointing at the same time.
Aside from his temporary, if violent, stomach upset, the main event of Brother Justin’s sub-plot in this episode is him making it clear on his radio show that he takes suggestions on his sermons from no-one. At first he gets his wrists slapped for the theology he’s been preaching and agrees to have his fellow ministers check over his speeches before they air. However, while on air he decides he can’t read other peoples words and proceeds to give his own rousing sermon (the line “where Jesus had twelve at his side, I shall have twelve-thousand” particularly sticks in the mind), ripping up his approved words. It’s an important moment as it shows him abandoning the pretence that what he’s doing has anything to do with being part of the church and going his own way.
Meanwhile, as the forces of evil are grappling around in trailers and rebelling against the church, the less important players in the game of darkness and light are getting on with their lives and revealing interesting tidbits about the Carnival’s boss. There’s a good gossipy conversation between Lila and Sabina as the new recruit talks about working with Samson in the past and what she knows about Management. It makes a nice to change to have some intriguing information revealed in a fairly light-hearted manner and is mildly amusing as well as we also learn that Samson is well hung, a fact which seems to impress Lila. Some viewers might find that last point a bit crude in which case things aren’t going to get any better for them as Jonesy and Libby consummate their fling.
Sex is dealt with in an open manner on the show, which is a not a bad thing, but it’s not quite the romantic moment of say Ben and Sofie’s coupling when Libby asks Jonesy to go where no Johnny has gone before in order to make their first time “special”. Another scene that misses its mark is where Lila confronts Ruthie about her brief possession by Lodz. For now Ruthie just says that she can’t remember what happened and Lila seems to accept the strange occurrence as if it might have been part of a dream.
Sofie is absent for this episode with her disappearance discussed by the carnies at the beginning and no one seeming to care too much apart from Samson. It certainly feels like something is missing without Clea DuVall around, though to make up for it we do get more marital tension between Felix and Rita Sue. This doesn’t always make for the best moments but it’s hard not to like Felix’s German dentist who fixes his tooth in exchange for free admission to the cooch show.
“Damascus, NE” is not a bad episode. There’s a fantastic atmosphere of a calm before a storm, some great moments, dramatic as well as funny, and some major developments in the plot. However there are a few moments, like the ending where Management attacks Ben and the discovery of Scudder, that don’t feel as powerful as they could have been. A very good episode which, although it falls short of true greatness, promises more excitement as the finale gets closer.
7.5/10 Seriable Stars