Carnivàle was a little-watched, little-remembered TV gem from the early part of the last decade. It was set in the American Dust Bowl during the Great Depression and concerned two disparate groups, one of them a travelling troupe of performing ‘freaks and geeks’ – hence the name of the series – the other centred around the at first benevolent-seeming preacher Justin. Varying hugely in tone and content, the episodes covered a wide range of themes and featured both superb, cinematic acting and groundbreaking storytelling. On one level Carnivàle could simply be viewed as a historical piece (in much the same way as Boardwalk Empire is today). However, what really made it stand out was the fact that its overarching story also depicted the battle between good and evil and the struggle between free will and destiny. A complex, layered tale, the full story of Carnivàle and in particular its many undercurrents were never really explained on screen. In some ways the show suffered for treating its audience as intelligent adults and making them figure things out for themselves – Carnivàle was cancelled after just two 13-episode seasons and never got anywhere near completing its creators’ intended 6 year story arc. Even many of the show’s most ardent viewers are surprised today to hear that its storyline mixed Christian theology with gnosticism and Masonic lore, particularly that of the Knights Templar. However, as I hope to demonstrate, plenty of hints as to the true nature of the ‘hidden’ story of Carnivàle were dropped in the course of its two-year run.
Two main plot-lines slowly converge during the course of Carnivàle. The first involves Ben Hawkins, a young man with strange healing powers who joins a travelling carnival. Soon thereafter, Ben begins having surreal dreams and visions, which set him on the trail of a drifter who apparently possesses unusual abilities similar to Ben’s own. The second plotline revolves around a Methodist preacher, Brother Justin Crowe, who lives with his sister Iris in California. Like Ben he is plagued by prophetic dreams and has unearthly powers of his own, which include bending human beings to his will and making their sins and greatest evils manifest as terrifying visions. Neither Ben nor Justin is aware that they are destined to be at odds, pawns in an eternal struggle between light and darkness, and that fate is drawing them ever closer to each other. Both roles are played to perfection by Nick Stahl (Terminator 3) and Clancy Brown (Highlander) but honourable mentions must also go to a number of brilliant supporting actors including Michael J Anderson (Twin Peaks), who plays the dwarf carnival foreman Samson; Patrick Bauchau, who plays a sinister, blind fortune-teller; and especially Clea DuVall, who plays a fascinatingly torn, sometimes sexually confused character who is destined to play a pivotal part in the fortunes of both Ben and Justin.
I could go on listing the other good things about Carnivàle – including set design and filming that’s so realistic you feel as if you were literally in the Dust Bowl yourself while you’re watching the program – but that’s all just window-dressing. What the show is really about is its mythology, several clues to which are dropped during its ominous title sequence. This features tarot cards, images of the rise of fascism across the world in the 1930s, and Christian iconography. The sequence ends with the camera shifting from the “Judgement” Tarot card to the “Moon” and the “Sun”, identifying the Devil and God respectively. Further heavy hints are dropped in Samson’s monologue at the very beginning of Carnivàle’s first episode: “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…”. Most mythological elements in Carnivàle relate to these so-called ‘Creatures of Light and Darkness’ or Avatars, human-like manifestations of higher beings complete with supernatural powers, whom it is established by the end of the first season are in fact Ben and Brother Justin.
The term Avatar originates in Hindu mythology, where it most commonly refers to the incarnation (bodily manifestation) of a higher being or the Supreme Being on Earth. The series portrays Avatars as embodying good and evil, and whose constant and age-long struggle serves to explain the Dark Ages and Ages of Enlightenment in mankind’s history in the real world. Carnivàle represents this Avataric duality as Light and Dark in several instances – even the surnames of the main characters, Ben Hawkins and Justin Crowe, suggest a symbolic link to hawks and crows, the winged Creatures of Light and Dark. There are several types of Avatar – the Alpha, the progenitor of the human line of Avatars; the Prophet; the Prince; the Usher of Destruction, whose appearance heralds Armageddon; and the Omega – the last Avatar (who may be Clea DuVall’s character Sofie). The alleged context for some of these events is provided by the ‘heretical’ gnostic Gospel of Matthias, a book in Season 2 that connects the Templars to Ben’s father. Written in archaic English, reminiscent of the King James Bible translation, it contains parts of Samson’s opening monologue, mentions the Avatars, and alludes to an apocalyptic passage in the Book of Revelation. It also contains etchings of a gnarled and bent tree, which in one image is attacked by a Knight Templar holding a knife. This tree-illustration also appears on the chest of the Tattooed Man, a forbidding figure who constantly appears in the dreams of many of the characters, and who may be the Usher.
The show’s creator, Daniel Knauf, made further real-world allusions concerning the mythology of Carnivàle when he once implied that Jesus, Caligula, Alexander the Great, Caesar, Buddha and Vlad the Impaler (among others) might all be Avatars like Ben and Brother Justin. Whilst this is undoubtedly a little far-fetched the concept of Avatars is an interesting one. Carnivàle also makes use of the order of Knights Templar, whom it is suggested in the series were once charged by the Roman Catholic Church with locating and aiding the Avatars. Tarot divination also plays an important part in the show – for example, the tarot readings of fortunetellers Sofie and her mother Apollonia advance the plot significantly at times. Tarot symbolism is closely entwined with almost every element of Carnivàle, from the opening title sequence to sets, props and people. In fact symbolism of all kinds abounds throughout the show – even the tree on the Tattooed Man’s chest represents the iconic Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden. The show’s setting of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s is itself highly symbolic – the dust storms and arid state of both nature and man are representative of the waxing and waning of the powers of the Dark and Light Avatars.
There is so much more to talk about in terms of the symbolism and deeper themes of Carnivale but, rather than just reading about it here, I’d strongly recommend anyone who is even vaguely interested in this stuff to just rent or buy the series to watch in their own time. In the unlikely event that you’re not hooked immediately – perhaps due to the somewhat slow place of the first few episodes of season 1 – I’d urge you to stick with it. Season 2 is more than worth the patience and it’s just a crying shame that it all ended there. Regrettably the series never picked up the fans that it could have – perhaps because so many of the fantastical and mythological elements that might have appealed to fans of the later Game of Thrones and the like were so relatively well-hidden in Carnivàle. As far as I’m concerned, though, that just makes the whole experience all the richer.