I’ve also finally achieved a great aim of mine- I’ve completed watching season one of Carnivale.
Thankfully it was a cable series and therefore 12 episodes rather than 22 or the completion of the first season would still feel completely unattainable. I’ve found that I really like this show. Although there’s an interesting overarching storyline about the battle between good and evil involving questions of morality what I find most interesting is the familial, and other, interactions between the characters- primarily the Felix/Rita Sue/Jonesy/Sofie/Libby nexus, but various others’ relationships too.
I suppose the interesting situation between the five characters I mentioned above starts with the death of Felix and Rita Sue’s daughter, Dora Mae. Rita Sue along with her daughters Dora Mae and Libby are dancers/whores for the circus, and watching Felix organising his daughters’ show is an eloquent demonstration of the desperation of the times. Dora Mae is killed in a ghost town by even more desperate men, and the manner of her death is incredibly degrading- she is found hanged with the word ‘harlot’ carved into her forehead. Part of what I love about this show is that whilst the episodes are reasonably self-contained the sense of continuity is maintained, and often not a lot of time has passed between episodes. For example Dora Mae’s death remains important and relevant for several episodes after it occurs, whilst I could imagine in many shows that it wouldn’t be mentioned again after an episode or two.
Her death leads to a spiralling situation in which Felix, consumed with grief, can’t stand to be around Rita Sue. He seems to be blaming her (and himself) for their daughter’s death, after all it was her who specifically disobeyed Sampson’s orders and included the ‘blow off’ in the show. Felix is really cold to her, refusing to give her any intimacy or kindness. The scene in which he turns her down, and her subsequent tears, is really heartbreaking. When Libby expresses an interest in leaving to go to Hollywood he tries to facilitate this, even at the expense of leaving Rita Sue behind, but eventually he has to accept that he is too drawn to his wife to actually leave her (as she had been saying throughout all of his planning).
However, the fact that he remains with the carnival certainly doesn’t mean that their marital issues have been resolved. He seems to have become obsessed with the fact that his wife is a whore, whereas before he had accepted it. This leads to him offering his wife (and her services) to his friend, Jonesy, who’s been pining after Sofie for a ridiculously long time. Jonesy is an incredibly likable character, and so wonderfully proud and capable most of the time. Since I like him so much I felt really bad for him over the Sofie situation, he just seemed to like her so much- there was a brilliant scene of them (finally!) playing catch, it was totally sparse and understated but somehow still incredibly captivating. At first in scenes like that it just seemed as if Sofie wasn’t really aware of how much Jonesy liked her, and the fact that he always managed to say the wrong thing just seemed sadly inevitable. However, more and more it became obvious that she was totally aware of his feelings and managed to willfully misinterpret the things he said just so she could be stroppy about something.
Libby and Sofie develop a very sweet friendship, initally bonding over sex. It is nice that Sofie gets an opportunity to enjoy being a girl with Libby, and it was fun to get to watch a positive and fairly realistic portrayal of female friendship, at least for a little while. In general I like the portrayal (and physical look) of the women on the show too. Despite the fact that most of the time when Sofie and Libby appear on screen together I can’t help but smile I don’t really like Sofie as a character all that much. Her mother, Apollonia, is also not overly likable. I suppose it’s difficult for a paralysed psychic who gets about four words throughout the season to be engaging though. The scene in which Sofie experiences a vision of her mother’s rape is incredibly disturbing, and the contrast between Apollonia’s screaming and the upbeat music just adds to the jarring sensation. Much later on though Sofie is almost taunting her about this vision, which doesn’t make much sense to me: I can merely surmise that Sofie is a bitch.
Mostly I just can’t stand Sofie for the way that she treats Jonesy. He’s so head over heels in love with her, and she treats him so horribly. He’s incredibly protective of her, in fact when she tries to play whore he completely fucks someone up just for touching her kimono. (Of course partly this is because he has a sort of idealised vision of Sofie as good and pure, unlike women like Rita Sue, which the latter does thankfully later mock him for.) It takes Rita Sue’s impassioned speech about Jonesy, “Don’t you dare badmouth that man! You’re goddamn lucky to have any man feel that way about you”, to start to change Sofie’s mind. Of course it later comes back to bite everyone in the ass… But Sofie really isn’t this sweet, naive girl that Jonesy seems to think she is, she can really be an artful little bitch. She just seems really happy to lead him on, to offer him her attention or her hand or a kiss on the cheek whenever she wants something from him. Pfft. Women.
In an effort to appease Felix (and probably also to console herself) Rita Sue agrees to sleep with Jonesy, however it becomes more than just a typical trick, and they begin a torrid affair. Their first sex scene is so charged and just fantastic. The moment when she removes his leg brace and ends up kissing his scar is so sweet and powerful, especially because you can just see the tension pour out his face (as well as the tears). It’s such a sweet moment, and then it sort of turns into something that seems like a typical whore’s trick, but it’s just so much more than that. There’s just this brilliant contradiction in the character of Rita Sue, she’s incredibly sly sometimes but at the same time she is such a sweet and honest woman. It’s such a deeply desperate, and hot, scene. They later come to a friendly agreement to never have a repeat performance, although their handshake on the point swiftly leads to more groping. But surely all decisions about sex ought to be sealed by something more interesting than a handshake anyway?
They end up having an illicit (and hella sexy) frantic relationship which manages to be pretty romantic without being too saccharine. They act almost like schoolkids, shooting shy glances at each other and exchanging sappy grins. They’re a little too obvious. Libby, like (but also incredibly unlike) Sofie, ends up seeing her mother having sex (one assumes probably not for the first time), she watches Rita Sue and Jonesy from the shadows with a cigarette and an unreadable expression. Perhaps the relationship between Rita Sue and Jonesy might have come to an end more quickly if Felix had just been a better husband to Rita Sue. Honestly the correct response to your wife telling her that she’s on her period (even if you suspect she’s lying, I don’t care) is cuddling, not eye rolling, muttering and turning around.
Sofie gets depressed and makes a move on Jonesy, who asks instead that they take things slow. She responds by being a complete and utter bitch,quelle surprise. Jonesy then breaks things off with Rita Sue, in order to give his non-existent relationship with Sofie some sort of chance. Felix isn’t treating Rita Sue any better, after getting incredibly drunk and expostulating on how he clearly loves his wife because he sometimes can’t stand her voice in the mornings and calling her a two bit whore (which earns him a really angry ‘don’t you dare talk about
my your woman like that’ glare from Jonesy) he sleeps with Catalina. This is acceptable somehow, clearly Mexican whores (with strangely saggy breasts) are exotic and wonderful, as opposed to his own wife, who’s just cheap. I originally had a lot of sympathy for Felix but he totally squandered it with his treatment of Rita Sue.
There’s just something really likable about Rita Sue that kind of reminds me of Nancy in Weeds. They both have this extreme emotional rawness and a deep honesty. Pretty much any time either of them actually gets to have sex I’m very happy for them too. Rita Sue is just ridiculously sexy most of the time too, even Catalina has to acknowledge it when she’s watching Rita Sue getting mopped down by a mob of guys while wearing only a tiny see through dress. However Catalina does turn down Stumpy’s offer that she could sleep with Rita Sue as a proxy for him.
The friendship between Sofie and Libby continues to be adorable, and randomly moves to include reasonably explicit lesbian visions experienced by a drunken Sofie. You can so tell that this was an HBO show. I know that theorists like Rich argue that there’s a ‘lesbian continuum’ linking various forms of female interaction together, and I can see where this argument comes from. However I do find it a bit patronising and essentialist, I don’t think that deep relationships based on mutual understanding are the exclusive preserve of women; that somehow we just have this wonderful way of understanding each other. I also think that there is a distinct difference between a friendship and a relationship, and whilst sex is not by any means necessarily the dividing line I would have liked a bit more of a lead up to the sudden sexual and devotional aspect of Libby and Sofie’s interaction.
Nonetheless I simply love Libby as a flirt, she gets Sofie drunk on tequila and tells her, no drawls at her, that she looks like Katharine Hepburn whilst clearly trying to eyefuck. Now that’s class. When Sofie discovers that Jonesy’s been sleeping with Rita Sue and that Libby knew she could act like a mature person and ask them about it. Of course she doesn’t do that at all. Sofie also can’t ever apparently cover anything up, whenever her mother psychically informs her of something that she doesn’t want to repeat instead of simply not repeating it she draws attention to it by having a loud conversation with her. She then distrusts her mother on practically every point, despite the fact that she’s never wrong.
There was a brilliant scene in the aftermath of everyone’s distress though. Rita Sue, Jonesy and Sofie all end up moping separately in the same tent with the requisite coffee, whiskey and cigarettes. It reminded me of ‘Nighthawks’ a whole lot. I also really liked the scene in which Felix and Rita Sue discuss their marriage, and how they’ve messed it up. Its a serious conversation but just dissolves into laughter, especially when Felix recalls Rita Sue’s face when she first saw Catalina. However the scene takes on a much more sinister turn when you realise that Felix was actually holding a gun out of sight throughout.
Sofie cements the fact that she’s a complete bitch by using the fact that Libby has a crush on her. She purposefully seduces Libby just so that Jonesy will find them and be hurt, and so that she can destroy Libby in the process (by trivialising whatever was between them). Its completely cruel, and she doesn’t even stop to consider that there could have been more to the situation than what she’d gleaned. After all Jonesy didn’t do anything wrong, he didn’t owe Sofie anything. He in fact broke things off with Rita Sue for Sofie. The fact that Libby didn’t want to tell anyone what she’d learnt is completely understandable. Sofie could have at least tried talking to Libby about it before being so mean. I’m not sure exactly why Apollonia tries to kill herself and Sofie by setting their wagon on fire, but it seems pretty fair. Then Jonesy, despite the horrible way that Sofie treated him, actually douses himself with water and runs into the fire in an attempt to save her.
I have to say that I do also love Ben Hawkins and his ridiculous dopiness. He’s honestly one of the stupidest characters ever, but in an endearing (and hick-ish way). A perfect example is when he decides to take his frustration and anger out on Gabe, the carnival’s strongman, really not a good choice. Poor, childlike Gabe completely can’t understand what’s happening either. The stupidity of Hawkins’ actions are compounded by the fact that he has a massive crush on Gabe’s mother Ruthie. There are some pretty stupid ways to come onto a woman, but hitting her son has to be up there. Ruthie is great as well, she’s just so incredibly strong and sure (and why couldn’t Atlas Shrugged‘s Dagny have been a little more like her?). The time when Hawkins is sent off to find a decent freak showcases his stupidity perfectly too, how can he not realise that overly-friendly good ol’ boys with big grins and a tendency to call you ‘son’ are clearly out to screw you over?
I like Hawkins so much that I’m not even all that jealous that he gets to do what I’ve always wanted (but especially when I was reading the appropriate Blyton books as a child or had a looming deadline at university), he gets to run away and join the circus! Then they did have to go and shatter the illusion by revealing that it wasn’t that they randomly allowed him to join the carnival, he’d been picked up on purpose. However with the way that the plot twisted and turned to reveal his connection to the carnival I can accept it. I do feel really sorry for him, people are constantly pulling him in different directions and lying to him. Even when someone decides to furnish him with important information they never seem capable of just telling him something, they insist on dragging him off somewhere in order to give him an elaborate demonstation.
He’s especially likable when he’s totally sleep-deprived after trying to avoid his dreams. He just wanders around all dazed and confused, which I can definitely identify with. I think sleep deprivation may in fact be my favourite drug, it gets you completely messed up and its free for the taking. One of the results of insomnia for Hawkins seems to be an amping up of his oral fetish, he’s fairly fellating his cigarette at one point. Possibly this adds to the tension between him and Ruthie, and when she eventually forces him into bed and tries to get him to sleep there’s a brilliant illustration of the fact that it doesn’t really matter how much you need to sleep, if there’s sex with a deeply attractive person on offer you’re going to stay awake. It’s completely unfair that Hawkins doesn’t get to enjoy proper post-coital bliss though, his dreams come back in full force (although with noticeably less screaming). The next day he starts freaking out about all their sinning (which he seems to think is on par with murder), and Ruthie gives him a brilliant telling off, ‘nobody tells me what to do in my bed, including the Lord!’.
I actually screamed out loud (and hopefully didn’t disturb the neighbours) when Ruthie was bitten by the (planted) snake. I couldn’t quite work out why Hawkins suddenly became so pliant and trusting of Lodz (whose name I feel ought to be pronounced ‘Wudj’). I would understand him turning to him since he’s desperate, but it seemed so obvious that Lodz was at least partly responsible for Ruthie’s death. Hawkins’ attempt to kill the crazy old drunk was portrayed brilliantly, but the scene in which he slit his own throat in exchange for Ruthie’s life was incredibly powerful. Poor Hawkins was willing to die for her, but wasn’t allowed to. I’m glad that Hawkins ended up killing Lodz, he definitely deserved to die. If not for being a complete bastard (which he often was to Lilah too, but I didn’t mind too much since she wasn’t very nice), then for being stupid enough to trust the freaky voice from behind the curtain demanding that he come closer.
Samson’s also a really great character. I really loved the way that he calmly told Rita Sue that he’d killed Dora Mae’s murderer (who was incidentally played by John Hannah, which I found deeply exciting) as if he was discussing lending her a cup of sugar or something equally innocuous. He’s also got one of the best pissy faces of all time. Management seems like an interesting enough character, there’s a great sense of mystery in Carnivale, but the device of literally having a man behind the curtain seems a bit too cliche (and just makes him seem like a big old ‘fraidy-cat). I hope that it’s developed somewhat in the second season.
Justin was always an intriguing character, but it took quite a while for his storyline to slot into place. The episode in which him and his sister’s back story was explored was great, and it used a really excellent device for the revelation that they were in fact mysterious, Russian children. Clancy Brown, who plays Brother Justin, was portrayed as being attacked by these two children, and it was only at the end of the episode that it was revealed that actually he was hallucinating and imagining himself in the place of the trapped man, whereas Justin had actually been that little boy, Alexei, and always had this great (evil) power.
Then suddenly there’s wacky, intense incestuous overtones! The brief kiss between Justin and Iris upon his return might seem almost fraternal, but it contrasts sharply with her apparent horror when Dolan tried to chastely kiss her. In a surprising twist it’s revealed that actually Iris seems to have been perpetrating far more evil acts than Justin. Her slightly creepy shyness of the past now makes perfect sense. After this happens there’s suddenly a very strong incest vibe. I’m still in awe that this show made it onto television, even if it was HBO. Iris and Justin have some great scenes, I really liked the incredibly tense, sparse scene where they were staring at each other and barely talking over dinner, with the loud, scratchy sounds of Justin cutting his meat overpowering everything. When they drink lemonade together in perfect time they seem like something straight out of a classic horror movie.
I really loved that Justin’s attempt to reveal Norman’s greatest sin merely showed Norman saving Justin and Iris as children. I thought that perhaps it was a ploy to get Norman to (attempt to) kill Justin and thus turn him into a sinner of sorts, but I now think that it was actually genuine. I quite like religious people. Well actually that isn’t true since they fill me with a morbid terror. However I like their wonderful tendency to throw in quotes at random moments which are only tangentially relevant to the situation at hand, just as I do.
There’s a massive amount of imagery and plot in this series which can be interpreted (without much effort) as incredibly anti-Christian. The baptismal blood and sacramental razors were especially brilliant. The only reason I can think that it was allowed on American television is that it does at least operate within a nominally WASPish world, the characters frequently remember to be disparaging about the Cat’lics. In fact Samson’s introduction in the first episode is fairly disparaging of Christian theology:
“Before the beginning, after the great war between heaven and hell, God created the Earth and gave dominion over it to the crafty ape he called man… and to each generation was born a Creature of Light and a Creature of Darkness… and great armies clashed by night in the ancient war between good and evil. There was magic then. Nobility. And unimaginable cruelty. And so it was until the day that a false sun[*] exploded over Trinity and man forever traded away wonder for reason.”
*I love homynyms.
I absolutely adored the fact that Rita Sue actually has a ceramic pig that she displays when she wants to be ‘porked’. Possibly an even better pun was the ‘man eating chicken’ show that Felix busted out when time’s were getting especially tough. The crowd are treated to exactly that- they get to see a man munching on chicken. Felix appeases them by suggesting that they go out and tell their friends that the show was great so that they can at least have the pleasure of frustrating somebody else. Also “Mexithing” as a portmanteau really made me giggle for some reason. I’m not entirely sure why, maybe it’s just because I love Jonesy.
Dolan’s another great character whom I really like. Robert Knepper has such a lovely voice too, I can’t think of anyone better to play a radio reporter. The way in which he decided to take up Justin’s story was great, he does seem to honestly want to inspire, but he’s also happy to be honest about the way in which he personally gains from it. The idea of “Where are you Brother Justin?” becoming a rallying cry for the disenfranchised reminded me of the “Who is John Galt?” of Atlas Shrugged. It started out as a much more positive cry, but ended up being far more depressing since Justin appears to be evil incarnate. Carnivale can be deliciously ironic. I also really liked how Dolan was the only one in the church who didn’t start gasping or muttering at the statement “I have committed murder”, instead he’s scrutinising the situation and you can see his excitement at finding an interesting story.
I really like the score of Carnivale, it’s beautiful. There’s just generally really great use of music and sound in the show. The horrific noise of the Hawkins’ Scudder-studded dreams really adds to their terror. There’s also a really good use of contrasting a character’s screams with happy music, such as when Justin is screaming in the asylum.
Some of the casting is just so spot-on. Nick Stahl is a great Hawkins, and just a great actor. He manages to somehow pull off the character’s naivety without it being grating. Cynthia Ettinger plays Rita Sue so beautifully, and is just somehow extremely erotic no matter what she’s doing. That may in part be as a result of her admittedly fantastic breasts. Carla Gallo was such wonderful casting for Libby too, she really looks like a 1930s Hollywood actress. Tim DeKay (who has a brilliant name) makes an excellent Jonesy, I can’t imagine anyone who looks more like a baseball player in the world, including actual baseball players, the entire cast of Field of Dreams or even Jesse L. Martin. He also looks surprisingly good all sweaty and covered in oil, although not as good as Jared Padalecki in a comparable situation. I’m not quite sure when he suddenly got ridiculously hot rather than just being insanely cute and puppy-like. I’m not complaining though. Here, have some Jared-scented eye candy:
Hopefully I’ll get around to watching season 2 of Carnivale sometime this decade.