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"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..."
A semi-surreal drama set in 1930s Depression-stricken America, Carnivàle casts the epic battle between Good and Evil against a background of the traveling circus and the revival tent. One story line involves an escaped convict with the ability to heal the afflicted and resurrect the dead as he follows a carnival troupe across the country and slowly discovers clues to his Mysterious Past. The other story line focuses on a Methodist minister in California who heeds a call from God to start his own church, awakening his own supernatural ability to manipulate others' thoughts and read their souls. Gradually, the two plots converge for a confrontation on a cataclysmic scale.
Reminiscent of the sinister visual style of David Lynch — it even features Michael J. Anderson from Twin Peaks — this sprawling, mega-budget HBO production treads the line between fascinating psychodrama and frustrating gobbledegook. Interference from the network weakened series creator Daniel Knauf's vision, truths were learned at a snail's pace, and the show ends on an excruciating cliff-hanger. But Carnivàle's mythology, production design, acting, and attention to historical detail are stellar. The show won five Emmys in 2004 for best title design, cinematography, art direction, costumes, and hairstyling.
The show was originally intended to be six seasons long, each two seasons comprising one "book" of a trilogy, but HBO canceled the show after the second season due to budget constraints.
- Aborted Arc: A number of subplots in the second season were cut thanks to HBO's Executive Meddling. In particular, Lodz was going to have a bigger role. Lodz's line to Lila about seeing her again "in the flesh" was supposed to refer to the Carnivàle coming across his mummified corpse in another traveling freak show.
- Abusive Parents: Both Ben and Sofie's mothers were the emotional kind. It's also implied that Justin and Iris's birth mother was also emotionally abusive (dragging two kids across Russia on a train, telling them their father is a monster, etc).
- Affably Evil:
- The garrulous and agreeable contract killer Varlyn Stroud.
- The child-killing Evander Geddes who enjoys nothing more than good company and hot cider.
- When he goes full bore evil, Justin's fairly affable ("Blessed are the meek? Hah, how banal.").
- All in The Manual: Knauf has revealed much about the characters' histories and the series' mythology outside of the show. Much of it is explained in the Gospel of Knaufias.
- And I Must Scream: Apollonia is stuck in a catatonic state, only able to psychically communicate with her daughter.
- Dora Mae's fate in "Babylon" also counts as an example.
- Anti-Villain: Brother Justin, at least earlier in the series.
- The Antichrist: What Brother Justin becomes after Jumping Off the Slippery Slope.
- Heavily implied to be the purpose of Sofie's status as the Omega.
- Arc Words:
- "Every Prophet in his house."
- "Pain is an unavoidable side effect."
- "Because Management says so."
- Ascend to a Higher Plane of Existence: Stated to be what happens to Light Avatars when they die.
- Attempted Rape: In the pilot, Ben saves Sofie from this. Jonesy implies she'd asked for it.
- In "Babylon", the miners attempt to do this to Dora Mae. Stumpy and the other rousties get her out of there.
- Auto Erotica: Ben and Sofie.
- Axe Crazy: Ben's grandma is this.
- Backstory: From just a generation before the show to all the way back to before the Flood.
- Badass: Ben and Justin by the end of Season 1 and particularly acute once they become the Prophets of their respective Houses. The show also has examples of:
- Balance Between Good and Evil: The entire point of the battle between Light and Dark Avatars is to determine whether that generation of man rises toward enlightenment or falls toward barbarism. Consider the time of the series. Give you two guesses as to who won the generation before Ben and Justin.
- Balancing Death's Books: To heal someone who is dead, Ben has to kill someone else.
- Because Destiny Says So
- Beethoven Was an Alien Spy: All of human history from before the Flood onward has been heavily influenced by various Avatars. Jesus? Oh yeah. Alexander the Great? You betcha.
- Beta Couple: Jonesy and Libby.
- Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: The really dangerous one? Sweet, innocent, Iris Crowe.
- Black Eyes of Evil: Members of the House of Dark display these when their evil flares up.
- Blessed with Suck:
- Ben has the power to give life, but at the cost of taking it from others.
- Sofie's psychic abilities allow her to see visions of confusing, at best, events, and act as a medium for her comatose mother.
- Blind Seer: Professor Ernst Lodz.
- Blue Blood: Rather literally in the case of Prophets.
- Broken Bird: Sofie.
- Brother-Sister Incest
- Buried Alive: The fate Ben almost suffers at the hands of his relatives.
- Cain and Abel: Word of God states that the first two Avatars were brothers, with popular conjecture theorizing they were Cain and Abel.
- Career-Ending Injury: Jonesy was a professional baseball player before his knee injury.
- Chekhov's Gun: Multiple, throughout the series:
- Justin's manipulation of the asylum patients in "Lonnigan, Texas" - specifically, his use of the phrase "be still" to freeze them in place - pays off big in the finale when he brings the Colossus itself to a halt with the same phrase.
- All of Ben and Justin's dream sequences foreshadow actual events.
- The use of Ruth Etting's "Love Me or Leave Me" as Flora Hawkins' and Henry Scudder's theme in "After the Ball Is Over", underlying Ben's diner dream and Scudder's actual appearance in "The Day That Was the Day".
- The Chessmaster: Explicitly referenced with Management.
Samson: He don't care much for people. Like pieces moving 'round on a board.
- Chosen One: The entire point of Prophets and their Princes.
- Christmas Cake: Ruthie and Iris.
- Chuck Cunningham Syndrome: Gecko, one of the carnival freaks, disappears after the first season, without any further mention or explanation of where he went.
- Circus Brat
- Crappy Carnival: The carnival referred to in the title is an OSHA-compliant variant. Strangely, it's the good guys running it.
- Crapsack World: Start with the fact that it's set during the Great Depression. Then add in A LOT of Black and Gray Morality, severe supernatural events, and the overarching theme of Balancing Death's Books.
- Creepy Child: Young Iris and Justin.
- The creepy girl Sofie sees in "Day of the Dead" who first tells her "Every prophet in her house".
- Crucified Hero Shot: Ben gets one at the end of Season 2.
- Cryptic Conversation: Every single interaction between Ben and Management. Actually, any interaction with Management at all.
- Curtain Camouflage
- Cycle of Revenge: The battle between Avatars repeating ad infinitum.
- Dark Is Not Evil: Henry Scudder, the Dark Prophet, is actually a pretty decent guy considering he's destined to spread pain and suffering throughout the world and may or may not be metaphysically responsible for the Great Depression and the rise of fascism. Unlike Justin, Scudder wants nothing to do with his destiny.
- Dark Messiah:
- Brother Justin defines this trope from start to finish.
- And Sofie as of the series finale.
- Deal with the Devil:
- Lodz's sight was the price for a trickle of Avataric power, courtesy of one Henry Scudder.
- Also, this wonderful exchange:
Justin: I'm reminded of the phrase "making a deal with the devil".
- Death by Childbirth: Whether their lovers are Light or Dark, any woman who bears an Avatar becomes instantly barren and goes irrevocably insane.
- Decapitation Presentation: Justin does this with Scudder's head after he kills him.
- Delivery Guy Infiltration: You'd think security would be tighter at New Canaan/Crowe House/Casa de Creepy, but Ben manages to get all the way up to the house and into Justin's bedroom before Iris catches him.
- Dirty Business: Ben does a lot of things that fall into this, like murdering Lodz, and Samson does a lot of unethical things as well, but rarely expresses remorse.
- The Dragon:
- Iris is Justin's at the beginning, then Varlyn Stroud becomes one.
- Lila is Lodz's.
- Samson is an unwilling one to Management.
- Dreaming of Things to Come: Ben, Sofie, and Justin dream about events that occur later in the series.
- Driven to Suicide: Preparing to do this causes Brother Justin to realize who and what he is.
- Dysfunctional Family: One is left to wonder whether there even is such a thing as a truly functional family in this series.
- Equivalent Exchange: Healing has a toll.
Rebecca: There's rules, boy. To give life, you gotta take it from someplace else. Could be those birds up in the sky, the grass by the road. Could be that little girl you brought in here.
- Even Evil Has Standards: Even after accepting that he's evil, Justin is still disturbed by Iris burning down the orphanage and her lack of remorse over it.
- Evil Laugh: Of course, when you have Clancy Brown in the cast, the Evil Laugh is nearly a requirement.
- Eyeless Face: The Crone, Ben's grandmother is missing her eyes, and it's pretty creepy. Made even more so once its revealed that she gouged them out herself after murdering her entire family on the night Henry Scudder was born. *shudders*
- Face Heel Turn: In the finale, Sofie shooting Jonesy and resurrecting her diabolical father.
- False Widow: In one episode, Sofie pretends to be a widow in order to get into bed with a random stranger in town.
- Fate Worse Than Death: Dora Mae is gang-molested by a group of seemingly-undead miners. Then murdered by one of them. Then her spirit is condemned to the town, apparently doomed to spend eternity naked in a town of dead-eyed, soulless monsters.
- Good Eyes, Evil Eyes: When using their full power, Light Avatars get an invisible aura (read: the righteous fury of God himself) while Dark Avatars have their eyes go completely black (read: Oh, Shit!).
- Gory Discretion Shot: At one point, someone makes Henry Scudder angry. Henry Scudder then proceeds to rip their intestines out. You don't see the tearing, but you do see the bits being tossed about.
- The Grotesque: A number of the supporting and some of the main cast. Pretty standard for a traveling carnival, but they're all given distinct characters separate from their appearance.
- Healing Hands: A hallmark of Light Avatars.
- Heroic BSOD:
- Apollonia and, later, Sofie.
- Brother Justin after the destruction of his ministry, also his Start of Darkness.
- Ben in "The Day That Was the Day".
- Heroic Sacrifice: Most of the light avatars are prone to these, Lampshaded by Samson in the finale.
Samson: What is it with you people?
- Homage: To everything from sports history to The Bible to The Wizard of Oz.
- Horrible Judge of Character: Just about everyone has this for Justin, but in particular, Sofie, has a bad case. Although the real wolf in sheep's clothing hanging around New Canaan is Magnificent Bitch Iris.
- Hourglass Plot: Ben and Justin.
- Hypocritical Humour: There's a lot of snarky in-jokes in the dialogue referring to the characters' darker sides; see Deal with the Devil above.
- I Cannot Self-Terminate: Ben attempts suicide in "The Day That Was the Day", but Scudder heals him because Ben is "too important".
- Incest Is Relative: The Crowe family likes this one. Not only do we have Justin and Iris, but Justin also has an eye for his daughter (although he doesn't know about their relation).
- In the Blood: The Avatars.
- It Got Worse
- Kick the Dog: Justin's treatment of Balthus in the second season falls under this.
- Kneecapping: Jonesy's limp is the result of being kneecapped by mobsters when he refused to throw a game.
- The Knights Templar: The Knights Templar play a role in the first season, and it's implied Scudder was one.
- Light Is Not Good: Management, the Light Prophet, wants nothing more than to stop Justin and save humanity. He goes about this by being an utter Manipulative Bastard.
- Lipstick Lesbian/Bait and Switch Lesbians: Libby and Sofie, which doesn't go much of anywhere.
- Little People Are Surreal: One of the strongest subversions in the history of fiction. Samson is a main character for the duration of the series, and a three-dimensional one at that. He wears well-fitting suits and acts dignified at all times. As the series grows darker and more ambiguous, he ends up being the only character the audience can really trust. He's also the narrator, and thus the Audience Surrogate.
- Lost in the Maize: The Season Two finale, which has appeared in Ben's visions throughout the series.
- Luke, I Am Your Father: Nasty surprises for Belyakov, Ben, Justin, and Sofie.
- The Man Behind the Curtain: Management, a.k.a Lucius Belyakov.
- Manipulative Bastard: Management, to a diabolical tee. Iris, following in her father's footsteps, doesn't do too bad at this either.
- Meaningful Name:
- Benjamin Hawkins, Justin Crowe . Daniel Knauf explained this in an interview, saying, "Birds are, to me, the creatures that have lowest flesh-to-soul ratio. They are barely carnate."
- The names of several towns visited by the Carnivàle along the way (Babylon and New Canaan in particular).
- The stage name of the balding, weightlifting dwarf? Samson.
- The name Belyakov is derived from the Russian word беляк (belyak), which means "white hare" (or "white rabbit"). "Lucius" is pretty reminiscent of "Lucifer", which also means "light-bringer", and foreshadows his status as Light Avatar.
- There's also all the names from The Bible. Gabriel (from the archangel), Ruth (from the loyal daughter), Tommy/Thomas (the doubting apostle of Jesus), the aforementioned Samson and Lucius, and of course, Benjamin Hawkins (Benjamin being the most righteous of Joseph's brothers, the name meaning "son of my right hand."
- Justin's given name is "Alexei", which in a nice twist of irony, means "defender". Iris's given name "Irina" is also ironic, meaning "peace".
- Mind Rape: Brother Justin's preferred use of his powers, particularly on young women.
- Mind Screw
- Miss Conception: Sofie.
- Monochromatic Eyes
- Mysterious Past: Everyone.
- New Powers as the Plot Demands: Done quite intentionally. In the beginning, we're aware that Ben has healing powers and that Justin possesses some kind of mind control, but as the series goes on, it's gradually made clear that Avatars may not have any real limits on their powers. By the end of Season 2, we've seen various Avatars exhibit telekinetic powers, create scarily lifelike illusions, control the weather, turn water into blood, raise the dead, receive prophetic visions, and travel using astral projection. Had the series continued, it's safe to assume that we would have seen new abilities emerge.
- Parental Abandonment: Ben's father, Justin and Iris's mother and father, Sofie's father. The reasons behind all of this are eventually brought to light.
- Passing the Torch: Not a fun process for Prophets, as it requires them to willingly allow their Prince (young Avatar) to kill them and take their powers and knowledge.
- Pre-Approved Sermon
- Psychic Dreams for Everyone: No, really. Everyone.
- Psychic Nosebleed: Ben.
- Racist Grandma: Played for laughs with Stumpy. Not so much with Ben's militantly racist grandmother, whose husband was a founding member of the Ku Klux Klan.
- Rage Against the Mentor: Ben vs. Management.
- Rape as Backstory: Apollonia was raped by Justin, which makes him Sofie's father.
- Rape as Drama
- Running Gag: "Shut up, Osgood!"
- Russian Naming Convention: Averted (or ignored). As siblings, Alexei and Irina would not have called each other by their full proper names, but would have used familiar (and most likely, affectionate) diminutives. Thus, Alexei would be called at least Aloysha, if not something more affectionate, like Alyoshenka; Irina would have been called Ira, if not something more affectionate like Irochka or Irinushka. It's possible that the writers either decided against having the siblings use diminutives, for fear that it would confuse the audience, or simply did not know about their usage.
- Actually, Justin does use the diminutive form of Irina in "The River". When Iris answers the phone in the middle of the night, he greets her with "Privyet, Ira".
- Sexy Priest: Oh, just guess.
- Shown Their Work: Depression-era America is painstakingly and beautifully recreated. There is an incredible focus on small details.
- Signs of the End Times: Brother Justin says that the depression and all the traits of the Crapsack World in which the show takes place are surely signs of the apocalypse. He isn't wrong, but what he isn't aware of at that point is that he's the one who's bringing it.
- Sinister Minister: Brother Justin is probably one of the most iconic examples.
- Sinister Scythe: Justin's sickle.
- Sins of Our Fathers: Ben, Sofie, Iris, and Justin.
- Supernatural Soap Opera
- Tar and Feathers: In "Lincoln Highway", Jonesy is almost lethally tarred and feathered.
- Tarot Motifs: Right from the opening credits.
- We also have Sofie's tarot readings for Ben in "After the Ball Is Over", Libby in "Insomnia", and Stumpy in "Day of the Dead".
- There's also the flashback to Apollonia reading Iris's cards and being raped by Justin.
- There was an original card created for the show - Le Passeur, the Usher - which refers to an important plot point.
- Thanatos Gambit: The entire point of Management's death was to turn Ben into a fully-powered Avatar.
- Those Two Guys: A few, especially Osgood.
- Throwing Out the Script: In one episode, Brother Justin is given a Pre-Approved Sermon which he starts to read then rips apart in favor of his own words.
- Took a Level In Badass: Almost every character on the show eventually. Most pronounced in the case of Sofie and Ben. Lampshaded as a literal part of the Avataric cycle.
- Town with a Dark Secret: Several of them, but most notably Babylon.
- Trailers Always Spoil: The DVD menus give away the Crone having no eyes, something which in the episode is intended to be somewhat of a shocking moment.
- Trickster Mentor: Management and Lodz.
- Tsundere: Rita Sue, who only shows her softer side when it comes to her family. And sometimes not even then.
- Two-Part Trilogy: The series was originally planned to be a trilogy of 'books' with each book being represented by two seasons.
- Vicious Cycle
- Villainous Incest: Of both the brother/sister and father/daughter variety.
- Villain with Good Publicity: Justin, of course.
- Walking Wasteland: Episode 1 shows us the little girl recently healed by Ben running after the Carnivàle, with crops wilting around her. An odd subversion of the trope, in that this is neither her doing, nor emblematic of any evil force, but the necessary loss of life needed to heal, according to the mythology.
- What Happened to the Mouse?: As it was too expensive to continually apply the actor's extensive makeup, the character of Gecko disappeared after the first season.
- With Great Power Comes Great Insanity: Word of God says this is the fate of anyone born of Avataric blood who isn't an actual Avatar. It's certainly proving true in the case of Iris.
- Woman Scorned: Sofie's revenge on Jonesy and Libby. Ironically, it led the two to becoming the Beta Couple.
- Working on the Chain Gang: Ben escaped from a chain gang before the beginning of the series and, in the first episode, is still wearing a broken iron manacle around his ankle. What he did to get there is never revealed to the audience, other than that he's wanted for murder.
- Word of God is that he assaulted a bank teller after his farm was foreclosed, and later killed one of the guards when he made his escape from the chain gang.
- Yandere: Iris. So genteel and pleasant on the surface, so "crazier than a shithouse rat" (in the words of Dan Knauf) when it comes to her brother underneath.