Seriable’s Mark Jones reviews the Carnivàle series finale — 2.12 New, Canaan
Carnivàle’s final episode is a bitter-sweet experience hinting at an exciting third season which unfortunately never came to be. While the second season may have had its flaws ‘New Canaan, CA’ shows that despite some slight changes to the formula the show never lost sight of where it was going.
Things kick off with Sofie seeing the carnival and her mother again when she’s hanging out the washing. Sofie may not be the centre of the action in this final instalment but the changes she undergoes in it are of more significance to the series than the carnival finally learning Ben’s secret is. It begins with things getting worse for her when Justin has Stroud lock her up in the familiar cabin, after giving her an attempt to kill him with a straight razor and trying to get her to tell the truth about knowing Ben. During her imprisonment she finally figures out the truth about her parentage communicated to her via her dead mother and a montage of all the hints which have been dropped along the way. Rather than being an unnecessary use of flashbacks, like some shows do to jog the audience’s memory, these show how well thought out the series has been up to this point. What doesn’t really come across however is how Sofie goes from being so good one moment to the embodiment of evil the next. Sure it’s understandable how the scales have been tipped, for instance Jonesy’s betrayal and Ben abandoning her, but it seems like they should have tipped a bit more before now. Compared to Justin the submission to her Avataric nature is pretty rapid, although the clues show us that she’s been headed down that path since season 1.
Aside from Sofie’s revelation and Ben and Justin’s battle, one of the best parts of this episode has to be meeting of Justin and Samson. It’s fair to say the show’s two best acting talents were Clancy Brown and Michael J. Anderson and if nothing else it’s fun to watch them act together for the first time as the carnival boss starts to put his plan into action. To say there’s tension in the air would be putting it lightly. Aside from the tensions between Justin and his sister he clearly holds some disdain for the carnival folk on his couch and to cap it all of Varlyn Stroud walks in leading to the inevitable mention of his previous meeting with the carnies. It’s a highly enjoyable game of cat and mouse they play as Justin looks Samson in the eye to check for any flicker of recognition when he mentions Sofie’s name and Samson offers Justin and Iris tickets for the Ferris wheel.
The main event is obviously the showdown between Justin and Ben, a meeting which has been foreshadowed since the early days of the show. After much planning on the part of Samson, Ben and Jonesy, Justin is trapped in the Colossus, allowing Ben to drain his life force while he heals the minister’s followers at the carnival. As things seem to go well at first there’s a definite sense of fun that comes from Samson, Jonesy, and Felix’s as they all muck in to make sure everything goes without a hitch. Samson’s confidence in his plan, Jonesy’s triumphant tearing off of the Ferris wheel’s brake and Felix’s overly-enthusiastic patter as he welcomes Ben on to the stage all help to lighten the mood and lead us into a false sense of security. Justin is certainly affected by the healings, with the healing of each ailment having the opposite effect on him, but it doesn’t destroy him or leave him overly weakened as he stops the Ferris Wheel himself and goes on a rampage, not sparing anyone who gets in his way. Including Brother Norman who after a series of being a stroke victim gets a brief reprise before Justin cuts his attempt at an exorcism short. This is a little bit disappointing as it would have been nice for Norman to have had a bigger moment following his recovery but his sacrifice is a necessary one giving Ben more of a head start. The eye for an eye method of harming Justin on the wheel could have been a little cheesy but it makes for an exciting climax, at least until Justin stops the wheel turning. In one of the many examples of the fine cinematography in this episode the circular motion of the camera around Ben echoes Justin on the wheel creating a sense of momentum which carries us into the big battle after “the whole thing has gone to the crapper”.
The moment when Ben thrusts Scudder’s knife into his chest at the climax of their chase is what we’ve been waiting for though and it appears as if his mission is complete. The final showdown unfolds perfectly, delivering on past hints at a chase through a cornfield and revealing that “a dark heart dwells where branches meet, anointed dagger plunge thee deep” were more than just fancy words that Management imparted onto Ben. How exactly Ben managed to wriggle into the scarecrow’s clothes and remain hidden is something that shouldn’t be thought too much about but it works so well, not only for his deception but for the added iconography of Ben hanging on a cross (and it’s hard to imagine a way it could have been done with more subtlety).
While Ben may have been on a cross he didn’t die on one (or near one) as his final showdown leaves him weakened but still alive. The great twist however is that the dead Justin is the one who is resurrected by an unlikely source. Although Sofie showed signs she was starting to see Justin’s true colours, her inner demon is finally revealed following her imprisonment. We see Clea DuVall wearing the simple but effective black contact lenses for the first time, that dark look is bad news for Jonesy when he comes to rescue her. Unfortunately she leaves him for dead, whether he lives or not is another question posed to keep us interested in a third season, indicating that she’s inherited her father’s dark powers and that she’s every bit as evil. It becomes apparent when she heals Justin, something which isn’t shown explicitly but ingeniously hinted at by the wilting cornfields (reminding us of Ben’s first on-screen healing, one of many call-backs in this episode indicating we’ve come full circle), that Sofie is Ben’s true opposite. Plenty of clues have hinted at her hidden power and when it becomes obvious this power is not a good one it delivers on a lot of foreshadowing, especially Apollonia’s attempt to burn down her and Sofie in her trailer and Lodz’s unexplained surprise when he reads the fortune teller’s mind.
This episode’s best moments don’t all come from the dramatic plot developments though and there are some pretty touching moments throughout as well. Not only do we have the carnies’ reaction to Ben when they first meet him after learning his secret, but Samson helps out Rita Sue and Felix, closing off a chapter in their story.
The scene where Ben steps out of Management’s trailer to be greeted by a crowd of forgiving carnies could have been over-sentimental, but is played just right with an apology from the group delivered by Rita Sue, who’s obviously for grateful for Ben healing her family by healing Jonesy (once again reminding us that his powers are not just good for fixing physical ailments). It was clear before that things would be different when Ben’s secret was revealed, but it’s at this point that he’s fully made the transformation from being an untrusted stranger to being part of a family. The scene doesn’t go on too long, and as the camera passes through the crowd it’s under-scored by a bit of humour as we see a fed-up Lila grumbling, abandoned even by Burley.
As for Rita Sue and Felix, the couple’s marital troubles may have been resolved but the issue of Felix’s debt and impeding punishment for not paying hasn’t. However, Samson kindly donates the carnival’s $250 honorarium to the troubled couple meaning that if it had made it to a third season there probably wouldn’t have been so much domestic drama. While I never objected to the Dreifuss’s, their squabbles and troubles felt like they had run their course, as had their usefulness in this season.
The closing scenes of ‘New Canaan, CA’ really secure the foundations for what could have been an amazing third season. It becomes clear that Sofie is now the anti-Ben with similar healing abilities, resuscitating her father (and god only knows what dark paths their allegiance may have led them down), and that Ben has taken the place of Management in what would be a decidedly different travelling carnival than before. Although it never became obvious, as the series got cancelled, the last episode of season 2 was meant to be the end of the first “book” of a proposed three of Carnivàle. Looked at in this way it becomes clear that it would have had a lot more surprises up its sleeves even if the central mystery isn’t a secret. The episode is a fitting end to the first part of a trilogy and though it lacked some of the finer touches that made the season one closer so great, it’s still a fine piece of television and I must admit my jaw dropped slightly when I saw that wilting cornfield on the first viewing.
Looking at the series as a whole it may have had its flaws but there’s no doubt it’s an under-appreciated gem of serialised television. While the second season may have been the victim of some stylistic changes and narrative tweaks, especially with regards to the uneven pacing, the series never lost sight of its main goal or deviated too far from its original course. Repeat viewings and background reading may be necessary to fully grasp its confusing mythology but that’s not necessarily a bad thing as it can make re-watching episodes more rewarding. Unlike a show like LOST, the second season of Carnivàle gave us a pretty good idea of how the show was going to end, offering a glimpse of Ben’s final task and clues which actually paid off and promised to pay off (unlike some of LOST’s clues which really didn’t go anywhere or were never explained satisfactorily, the White Tennis shoe anyone?). While some might see this as a negative aspect, eliminating a lot of mystery, there’s definitely something to be said for having a very clear destination which would have made the series more about the journey and the surprises along the way rather than one surprising destination that’s destined to upset a large number of the fans.
What made the show work so well, even in the less memorable episodes, was the authentic dialogue and feel which came from the realistic way it was shot, helped by a lot of impressive location shooting, and the consistently brilliant performances from the actors. Whether it be Nick Stahl’s portrayal of Ben from reluctant hero to unlikely saviour, Clancy Brown’s unwavering gravitas as Brother Justin, Michael J. Anderson’s charismatic and sharp witted Samson, Amy Madigan’s demented sister routine (delivering lines like “when I die I’m going to hell, and if I’m very, very fortunate my brother will be waiting for me with an embrace” like no-one else could), Clea DuVall’s troubled Sofie, Cynthia Ettinger’s lovable if at times grouchy Rita Sue or Toby Huss’s always entertaining Felix “Stumpy” Dreifuss, every actor carved out their own unique and believable personality, each one of which the show would have been poorer without, apart from maybe Burley.
In terms of how its sits among other serialized shows there’s definitely a sense that it’s a precursor to LOST, which hit screens a year after Carnivàle started and was clearly influenced by Daniel Knauf‘s show in places, if it somehow wasn’t then there are some huge coincidences. The most obvious parallels between the two are the fight between darkness and light (the good guys wear white clothes, the bad guys black), a mysterious “man behind the curtain” leader, and bad and good guys with unclear motives. Oh, and there’s also that whole thing about a nuclear detonation changing the fate of mankind. LOST succeeded where Carnivàle didn’t though and got its six seasons, one silver lining for fans of both being that Clancy Brown got the chance to turn up in LOST as Kelvin Inman.
Its closest companion in the serialized stable, however, has to be Twin Peaks. While it hasn’t enjoyed the same kind of cult status it was similarly unique (and also featured Michael J. “Let’s Rock” Anderson) and had a slightly rocky second season as well. No doubt both shows would have learnt from those mistakes had they made it into their third seasons but as destiny would have it (or the freewill of the network executives) that was never meant to be. Like so many cancelled shows Carnivàle leaves us wondering what might have been and if there’s any chance of a revival (still got my fingers crossed for that one, in any form), but unlike some other unresolved shows those questions linger for a long time. For those interested in learning a little bit about what might have been, the original Pitch Document for the show offers some intriguing hints and is proof of how well planned the series was.
9/10 Seriable Stars