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Carnivale – Season One – Episode One: “Milfay” and Episode Two: “After the Ball is Over” Review

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Written by : published Friday 15th July 2011

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Watch Carnivale at: http://www.thetvking.com/tvshows/6755/carnivle/

For viewers with a penchant for brooding mystery, look no further than Sky Atlantic’s Carnivale to give you your fix. Set in the 1930s, the show follows two threads of corresponding storyline: the path of Brother Justin Crowe (Clancy Brown) who is convinced that God has bestowed upon him His designs for mankind and the journey of young chain gang fugitive Ben Hawkins (Nick Stahl) as he adapts to life as a carnival roustabout. These opening episodes provide us with enough enigmatic characters and situations to satisfy even the most stubborn of mystery lovers, and those who are already hooked will agree that the rabbit hole is destined only to go deeper.

 

Episode one, Milfay, gives us our first glimpse into this mysterious world. We meet Ben Hawkins as he sits at his mother’s deathbed. He tries to approach her but she won’t let him near; she seems repulsed and afraid of her son. Shortly after, she passes away leaving Ben to bury her outside in the dusty ground. A travelling carnival, plying its trade from town to town, picks Ben up after he collapses at his mother’s funeral and takes him in. Hawkins isn’t pleased when he reawakens, declaring that he’s been “Shanghaied by a group of carnies”, but he soon accepts that the carnival will provide him with shelter and a good place to hide from the law on his tail.

 

Meanwhile, Brother Justin Crowe is experiencing a turning point in his own life. Though his sermons are gathering more and more parishioners, he is saddened to discover that one worshipper has stolen money from the collection pot. In a frightening sequence, the woman coughs up coin after coin, fountains of gold projecting from her mouth onto Justin’s study floor. Looming above her, Crowe demands that she pray with him for her soul. As the camera pans out, we come to realise that this was simply an illusion, but did Brother Justin make it happen? 

 

These two characters are bound together in some way, both suffering from the same unnerving dreams and sometimes seeing each other in them. These vivid scenes are tense and cryptic, teasing peeks at the series’ mythology. At the beginning of Milfay, Samson (Michael J. Anderson), the carnival’s co-manager, speaks to the audience directly about good and evil and the age-old battle between the two.  This must be what is truly at the heart of Carnivale. Though the horrifying imagery in the dreams Ben and Justin share is indeed hellish, it will be fun to delve deeper into the show’s more mythological undertones.

 

Nick Stahl brings a sense of stoic nobility to Ben, but there are flashes of contradictory behaviour. He is quiet and thoughtful, yet lumbering and ape-like. His choice of words is sometimes without tact (Such as in episode two, After the Ball is Over, when he describes Sofie’s (Clea DuVall) paralysed mother as a bit of a turnip), and his stubbornness has been noted by many of the carnival workers already. Stahl throws everything he has into projecting Ben as a character without much outward grace, but with vast troubles on the inside. He is a haunted man, bearing considerable guilt in his soul, and his mother’s death bothers him greatly. As Milfay ends we find out why: Ben has the gift to give life - to heal - but his mother saw his ability as the devil’s work and disowned him.

 

Clancy Brown is brilliant as Brother Justin. A seemingly peaceful man, these first two episodes show that there is a much darker side lurking behind those pale blue eyes. InAfter the Ball is Over, Justin uses his newfound power of illusion to shame the owner of Chin’s (the gambling hall Justin has a vision about in Milfay) into donating the building to him so he can convert it into a new church for his followers. The rage he can suddenly convey, reinforcing his anger with the 'word of God', is certainly a terrifying thing indeed.

 

The rest of the cast is great too. There is never a moment when you doubt that these travellers haven’t known one another for years. From Samson to Jonesy (Tim DeKay), these carnies are full of character and the makeup and set pieces are aesthetically pleasing in their authenticity. There is an unavoidable feeling that the carnival freaks will eventually become the least bizarre elements in Carnivale, which is really saying something when you see some of the acts the carnival boasts

One character of mention is the seemingly all-knowing Lodz (Patrick Bauchau), the blind, absinthe-supping carnival elder who observes sightlessly in the background. He has the ability to see into people’s dreams and when he looks into Ben’s what he sees almost kills him. Lodz is unsure about Ben, suggesting on more than one occasion over the opening two episodes that he could be dangerous. Patrick Nauchau is marvellous in effortlessly bringing to life a character seemingly destined to play a pivotal role in the series. 

 

Carnivale also finds in its setting one of its greatest strengths. 

 

In an America crippled by the ‘Dustbowl’, the gritty (one character even remarks that they’re sick of waking up on a morning with grit in their teeth) lives of those living in what they dubbed the ‘Dirty Thirties’ are lives in crisis. The prevalent dust storms which blight the landscape invoke destructive biblical imagery, God casting down a plague, as it were, on his followers (described by Samson in his speech at the beginning of Milfay as ‘crafty apes’). It is a desperate time of death and despair, and both the carnival Ben travels with and the sermons Brother Justin gives provide the people they reach with some kind of hope. This time period is perfect for what Samson suggests will be the battleground for the war between good and evil.

 

It is without doubt that there is a much bigger game being played in Carnivale, and Milfay and After the Ball is Over are tantalising tastes of what’s to come from this delicious HBO series. It will be exciting to see how the plot unfolds, but we must anticipate that the plot will thicken before we get any answers to our already growing list of questions.

 

8/10

About the author JakeCunliffe125

JakeCunliffe125

I am a first year Journalism student studying at Huddersfield University. So far so good.

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