Old Cherry Blossom Road & Creed, OK (Carnivale, S2 eps. 4 & 5)
Grandma Scudder: “There are no accidents.”
Welcome back to Carnivale, the kinkiest, spookiest and most baffling television show since Twin Peaks. We’re knee-deep in Season Two. If you’d like to catch up you can click on my name above and find archived columns for everything that’s come before. And if you’d like to follow me on Twitter you can do so by clicking this here link thingy.
Both of this week’s episodes make it feel like Ben’s stumbled into a pair of gruesome fairy tales in which boys and girls are lured to the homes of witches and the bedsides of wolves and find themselves stuffed in ovens or the bellies of cross-dressing animals only to emerge from the danger shaken, but wiser and physically unharmed. Both episodes feature what I’d call “fairy tale logic,” which is to say that things happen without any attempt at real explanation for what is happening, why its happening, or how it happens, yet manage to make a certain amount of sense regardless. The filthy home of Ben’s family neatly contrasts with the impeccable furnishings in Evander Geddes’ house, creating mirrored images. Ben’s put in what seems like mortal danger with both, only to survive pretty much totally inexplicably. There’s a fair amount of the inexplicable in Old Cherry Blossom Road and Creed, OK. What’s with the black wedding dress-shrouded Apollonia, and just what is it about Ruthie’s resurrection that lets her see Sofie’s mom as often as she does? Where is Evander Geddes’ workshop? Is it a space like the “baggage trailer” from Season 1? Is it just exceptionally well-hidden? Why doesn’t Grandma turn Ben into a pincushion? Why doesn’t Geddes kill Ben? Your guess is as good as mine.
In both episodes it feels as though the show is reaching for the same sort of free-floating, abstract dread pioneered by David Lynch in Twin Peaks (several shots of the stairway in Scudder’s old home instantly evoke similar shots of the Palmer family’s staircase and the unseen amorphous evil that seemed to reside at the top of them) and both episodes largely succeed in achieving something close to the humming, atmospheric unease that Peaks generated so unsettlingly. Old Cherry Blossom Road’s opening moments are incredibly Lynchian and admirably disturbing. No special effects, no spooky visions; just the sight of an immobilized Norman Balthus lying in bed and staring at a stain on the ceiling while the sounds of increasingly-unhinged sex, mixed with the growling of some terrible beast, fills his darkened room. This is the sort of horror I like best, and that tends to work best on me as a viewer – the sort that springs from what’s not seen, and that relies less on gore or shock than on the difficult trick of making you feel the same way that you might feel walking a deserted highway late at night, hearing the sound of someone’s footsteps growing louder and faster behind you. Dread, for lack of a better word.
There are several moments here that are inspired and Lynchian in their nonsensical, dreamlike fairy tale logic – the suddenly animate death mask that Ben finds in the house on Old Cherry Blossom Rd., the sight of dozens upon dozens of those masks lining the shelves in Geddes’ workshop, the bizarre way in which Justin placing Ben’s mask to his face enables him to see through Ben’s eyes, the continued reappearance of Apollonia in her dark shroud – but some of the strongest Lynch-like moments in these episodes come courtesy of the character actors playing Grandma Scudder, Evander Geddes and dear, sweet, certifiably-insane Celeste the maid. Each of these actors taps into something genuinely unsettling, and while some of the credit must go to the show’s writers, just as much credit needs to go to these performers. Well known character actor Dakin Matthews plays Geddes, the man who made Scudder’s death mask and the latest in a long and lengthening line of homicidal maniacs with doilies in their homes. Less well known character actress Ellen Geer plays Grandma Scudder (aka “The Crone”), the eyeless, racist, impressively murderous matriarch of the skeeziest backwoods clan since Deliverance. And Eliza Pryor Nagel plays Celeste, the victim of Justin’s savage sexual appetites, offering up a sad and scary look at a girl driven into madness and/or damnation that reminded me, very briefly, of Sheryl Lee’s Laura Palmer. If it ain’t a filicidal klanmother with no eyes looking to stab her grandson it’s an infanticidal maker of death masks looking to add his interesting face to his fetish gallery. With tea. Carnivale’s universe is chockablock with these walking freakshows, and once again Carnivale goes the extra mile. Not contented to let Geddes be JUST be a guy who drugs strangers and kills them to make his masks the show lets us know that he’s primarily interested in children now, children who died “as close to the womb as possible.” I give the show credit for so consistently revolting me.
Most of both episodes consist of the same rinse-wash-repeat pattern that Carnivale’s established for Ben over the course of the show: Ben travels to some unfamiliar-and-ooky-spooky place in search of answers about who he is and runs into sinister people who aren’t much help at all really. We spend half of Creed, OK in Geddes’ house only to learn something we already knew for Pete’s sake. There’s no real plot reason for Ben to be there at all. Even the proudly-Lynchian moment where Justin receives Ben’s death mask from Geddes and gets a brief glimpse of his opposite isn’t necessary at all – Justin’s already seen Ben, and he’s already having visions of the carnival (though I enjoyed the literal “mirroring” that this scene gives us, even using a literal, cracked, mirror to hammer home the whole “mirroring” idea for us). But both episodes are nicely rendered miniature horror shows in and of themselves that manage to capture the Lynchian unease that I enjoy so much, and so I didn’t really mind another trip to this particular well even if neither episode offers much more to us beyond that. I’m just hoping the heavy-atmosphere-for-the-sake-of-atmosphere that returns to the show in these two hours doesn’t overwhelm the momentum Carnivale had started to build.
There’s no question that Carnivale is the most graphic and willfully-repellant television show I’ve ever seen. There’s a real willingness – an eagerness, even – to wallow in real ugliness, a willingness that goes beyond the physical to the verbal as well. Thanks to Carnivale I now know a totally new derogatory term for women (“split-tail”), one of the uglier euphemisms I’ve heard in some time. But this being Carnivale, the show manages to top itself by teaching us the colorful meaning behind the seemingly-innocuous phrase ‘lunch counter.’ Good Lord.
Both these episodes also share a relative lack of the stuff I enjoy digging deeper into – historical allusions, Philosophical and religious references. The major exceptions to this lie in the show’s continuous flirtation with Fatalism (nicely summarized by the quote from Grandma Scudder at the top of the column), as well as in the subtly hinted-at pattern of mothers killing their own children. We learn here that Ben’s grandmother slaughtered her husband and her other children in the wake of Henry Scudder’s birth and if you’re like me you might notice the way that act mirrors the act of Apollonia attempting to kill Sofie. You might take it further, noting that we still don’t know Iris and Justin’s full back stories but do know that they were being hunted down by someone who wanted to murder them. Who arranged to have them killed? Was it their mother? Did Ben Hawkins’ mother ever try to kill him? There’s no evidence that she did, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that she tried to smother him in his crib. At the least, we know that she was afraid of Ben.
As far as the show’s Fatalism goes, well, both episodes feature Ben getting into what seem to be deadly situations only to be spared a deadly fate for no real reason except, well, Fate. Grandma Scudder clearly tries to stab Ben with a knife (and that knife is going to have major significance, I just know it) but doesn’t seem to be physically capable of doing so. It’s as though a Higher Power stops her arm from bringing the blade down. And Geddes heavily implies that he gets rid of the people whose death masks he casts, yet Ben wakes from the experience entirely unharmed. The continual sense that someone/something (God? Satan? Fate itself?) is moving these people around like chess pieces continues unabated. In addition to the above something like a recurring theme begins to suggest itself with the introduction of Grandma Scudder – namely, the theme of sightless people (Lodz, Grandma Scudder) “seeing” more clearly than those around them.
Portions of both episodes suffer from what’s probably Carnivale’s biggest continuing problem outside of its first season inertia – when the focus comes off of Ben and Justin the show falters somewhat. Some of this is entirely subjective. If you’ve been enjoying Stumpy and Rita Sue’s ongoing marital problems then seeing those problems continue here should bring you similar enjoyment. Speaking for myself, I’m flat-out bored by them. Don’t get me wrong – both actors are unreservedly excellent in their roles, and the boredom I feel doesn’t keep me from enjoying their character work (Toby Huss is particularly fun to watch) but there’s something downright…pedestrian about their troubles in comparison to everything else that’s happening around them, and as good as these actors are they can’t overcome that basic deficiency. Your mileage may, and probably will, vary.
But while Rita Sue and Stumpy’s issues may bore me as often as not, they don’t piss me off. The character of “Burley” on the other hand? He pisses me off.
For one, he’s not really a character. He’s a two-dimensional jackass that the show hauls out for one episode’s worth of jackass-y comments and threatening glares, then drops again like a hot rock as soon as his “usefulness” (so to speak) is through. Burley exists less as a human being than as a human-shaped plot device intended to create drama among the other characters. This works, serviceably enough, when he’s confined to making grumpy comments about Sofie’s presence among the Rousties. It quickly grows ridiculous as “Burley” spreads his mustachioed menace over a wider area. I don’t buy into any of the confrontations/conversations he has with the cooch clan, and I somewhat resent the way he up and disappears as soon as the episode’s over (though this exchange is admittedly priceless – Rita Sue: “Thought maybe it was a rhetorical question.” Burley: “There’s nuthin’ retardicle about it!”). Carnivale has made a habit of shaping smaller side-characters and side-stories that end up going nowhere fast and Burley’s episode-length hissyfit represents that tactic’s nadir. Remember the gecko man? Where’d he go? Remember the hints and teases that Sofie might be pregnant? Where’d that go? What about the conjoined twins who were all over Season 1? Where’d they go? Remember that teasing hint regarding Jonesy’s back story that we got? The one where some unidentified guy capped his knee with a bat for an unidentified reason? What happened to that? Hell, remember when Samson seemed to have an inner life that didn’t revolve around Management? A life that involved dropping in to visit hookers and managing the carnival and generally being a much more interesting, multifaceted character? Where’d THAT go?
In creating these characters/situations and then dropping them Carnivale does itself a disservice.
But let’s not end on a down-note. Let’s end by talking about all the stuff I found intriguing, but couldn’t work into the flow of the column above. This’ll probably end up being the form that these columns take from here on out, since I intend to try and tackle two episodes at a time until we reach the series end. As always, I’m sure I’ve missed a bunch of stuff so I invite you to chime in and tell me about it:
- Sofie’s storyline continues to get more interesting to me. She glimpses her mother at the end of Creed, OK and learns that “You were always the one who read the cards.” She reads those cards for Ben during the episode and during that reading we see both her and Ben standing in Trinity, NM sharing a kiss as the End Of The World seems to arrive around them. Clearly Sofie has a large and growing role to play in the shape of things to come, and I’m genuinely interested to see what that role might be.
- Evander Geddes: “The form of perfection that is the avatar is the sum of individual imperfections. My objective, you see, is to capture the soul.”
Am I wrong, or does Geddes mention “avatar” as he chatters to Ben in his workshop? Is soul another word for avatar? Did this man know Scudder’s nature? Does he know Ben’s?
Iris is the character I least understand on this show (which is saying something) mean, I get that she and Justin have the ookiest co-dependency since Jame Gumm met skin. I get that family will do practically anything for each other. But I guess I just font identify with unconflicted sociopaths that easily.
And yet, I like what they’re doing with the character At this point. I like the way Amy Madigan makes her request into a taunt and a plea at the same time. I like not being sure whether she’s still serious or whether this is a survival tactic – a reverse psychology designed to let her brother know that he can trust her with anything, because she will do anything for him, and so keeping herself safe. The events of Creed, OK make it seem as though Iris’ fate is sealed, as Tommy Dolan takes down her confession but I can’t help feeling that Justin is going to save Iris from justice at the last possible moment, in what would arguably be a sinister, mirrored reversal of God staying Abraham’s hand just as Abraham is about to sacrifice Isaac.
- And speaking of Justin, his sermon in Old Cherry Blossom Road contains a reference to a Bible story that’s one of my personal favorites: Jesus throwing the “moneychangers” out of the temple. Its one of my favorite stories because of the firm, clear way in which the figure of Christ is shown rejecting the mingling of religion and commerce. As metaphor it speaks directly to our modern age, in which capitalism and Christianity have become so inextricably mingled that it can be hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. The “Christian industry” is enormous, and geared toward selling people a panoply of items that have no real connection to concepts of faith, worship or spiritual reflection. This story works well with the open contempt Justin has shown for those in positions of power, but there’s a sinister undercurrent to his usage of it. The story of Jesus driving out the moneychangers has been used, at various points in history, to justify and/or spark hatred of the Jewish people. In the last column I wrote about Justin’s resemblance to Father Coughlin, an influential anti-Semitic radio preacher. That resemblance makes me think his reference to “moneychangers” points again to ideas of White/Christian Power and Anti-Semitism. I’m very curious to see if the show follows that path.
All screencaps courtesy of Magic-hours.