Before Their Time: Carnivàle

“Nothing back there but 50 miles of sand and sidewinders.”

This is not CGI. This is an actual photograph of a “black blizzard.”

Halloween is coming up, and there’s no better way to celebrate the spooky season than by lowering the lights and queueing up the eerie, chilling, and (of course) unfinished Carnivàle. Set in the Dust Bowl, this HBO period drama married historical and magical realism for a hypnotic vision of a haunted frontier. Carnivàle is a vision of a nation aflame, teeming with darkness and miracles, chasing dreams and fleeing horrors: America on the move. Even the landscape is restless, hurling itself from howling skies, scouring the land of opportunity into the Plain of Armageddon. It’s a world ripe for apocalypse, and in 1934, one is brewing quietly between California and the stricken Plains.

The pilot opens with glimpses of Ben Hawkins (Nick Stahl) and Brother Justin Crowe (Clancy Brown). Hawkins gets picked up (quite literally) by the show’s titular troupe after losing his mother and her homestead. Baffled and tactless, Hawkins settles in as a roustabout, keeping his distance and a powerful secret from this new tribe. Further west, beset by anguish and visions, Crowe ministers to a sunny and oblivious congregation. Strange happenings dog his ministry, of which he may be author or victim. Gradually both men are revealed to be “avatars,” human beings endowed with strange powers and destined to carry on the battle between good and evil. Both struggle with their natures even as their powers and predecessors draw them on to an inevitable confrontation. Their journeys unfold ponderously over the first season, but the show wisely eschews a claustrophobic focus on the avatars. While Crowe and Hawkins grapple with the tension between who they are and who they want to be, Carnivàle unveils the world for which they will fight.

It is one awash in more prosaic demons. Crop failures and foreclosures are driving people west. Tent cities sprawl along train tracks. Migrants flit ghostlike at the margins, seeking the work and dignity that have eluded them elsewhere. Townspeople recoil from them as though misfortune were a contagion. The era is rendered so faithfully that after a few episodes your cheeks itch with phantom grit as your eyes scan vast and hostile horizons.

Nothing moves quickly here, but this isn’t a world you want to rush through: Only the dust and the dead travel fast. The living prefer the rumbling rhythms of a carnival caravan, and the first season grants an unhurried introduction to each player in this spectacular cast. Fortune-teller Sofie (Clea Duvall) snaps at her catatonic but telepathic mother (Diane Salinger). Bearded Lady Lila (Debra Christofferson) and Mentalist Lodz (Patrick Bauchau) circle Hawkins with nearly predatory fascination. The Dreifuss family – Felix (Toby Huss), Rita Sue (Cynthia Ettinger), Libby (Carla Gallo), and Dora Mae (Amanda Aday) – bicker about music choices and dance moves in the family striptease. Ruthie (Adrienne Barbeau), mostly retired, grounds the troupe with experience, kindness, and unflappable common sense. Boss canvasman Jonesy (Tim DeKay) drags a bitter broken knee behind his good one as he pounds and pulls up stakes in town after town. And Samson (Michael J. Anderson) directs them all, mapping the circuit, bribing local law enforcement, and quieting company unrest as the shadowy presence known only as Management issues increasingly cryptic and dangerous orders.

Suspenseful and luminous by turns, Carnivàle unfolds its mysteries only to the patient, but time spent exploring this painstakingly recreated era is well worth it. The series resists binge-watching, but there’s something to be said for letting just one or two episodes leave you in silent, open-mouthed horror (the two-part story of “Babylon” and “Pick A Number” come to mind). Obviously HBO eventually disagreed, citing finances and pacing when it cancelled the series in 2005. Although the two seasons produced only scratched the surface of the show’s complex mythology (series creator Daniel Knauf plotted six), they are more than enough to immerse you in a world at once richly textured and eerily familiar. A good carnival is the promise of another world. Once the lights go down, anything is possible.

HOW TO WATCH: Carnivàle is available for streaming on HBO Now and Amazon Prime Video, and both seasons are available on DVD.

MUST WATCH: The show builds slowly, and jumping into the middle will spoil some neat surprises, so start with the pilot, “Milfay.” If nothing else, check out the opening credits. This stunning trompe l’oeil intercuts tarot cards, historical footage, and famous artworks, linking all three in a mesmerizing continuum of human history.

FAVORITE LINES: “Let’s shake some dust, children!”

“The people in these towns are asleep. Work at home all day. They’re sleepwalkers. We wake ‘em up.”

“Lyle, I’m tellin’ you this operation is 100% legit.”
“I never heard an honest man use ‘legit.’”

“Have you seen my bear?”

PAIR WITH: Absinthe – the classic preparation, of course.

WATCH OUT FOR: Ron Moore logged writing and production credits in Season 1 before leaving for Battlestar Galactica. The soundtrack is the work of Jeff Beal, also known for scoring House of Cards. Much of the cast will look and sound familiar: Viewers of *ahem* a certain age may have trouble placing Toby Huss, because it’s been years since his star turn on Pete & Pete as Artie, The Strongest Man In The World. Cynthia Ettinger appeared in Deadwood, and Clea Duvall is currently deploying her deadpan to great effect in Veep and Better Call Saul. Many cast members have also done voice work for animated shows and video games; Huss and Clancy Brown have appeared on The Venture Bros. (one of my favorite shows), the former voicing General Treister, Scaramantula, and Copy Cat and the latter as Red Death in the Season 6 finale. Brown also lent The Legend of Korra’s Yakone his air of quiet menace. (Spoiler alert: Clancy Brown has been in EVERYTHING.)  

AFTERWARDS: This page lays out much of the troupe’s carny lingo. If you find yourself hooked on the world, the show’s mythology has a dedicated and extensive Wikipedia page.

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