Written by Daniel Knauf
Directed by Rodrigo Garcia
Originally aired: September 14, 2003
From the first few remarks of a cryptic prologue, Carnivále’s pilot, “Milfay,” ushers in a different sort of drama, a form of storytelling comfortable with its own weirdness and undaunted by grandiose ideas. Just as one might expect from the acts of a traveling circus, there’s much more to Carnivále than meets the eye, and its ambitious first episode deals with themes of magic and a conflict of biblical proportions.
In the first few moments of Carnivále’s inception, Ben Hawkins (Nick Stahl) keeps vigil over his dying mother’s sickbed. When he reaches out to help her, she shrinks from him as if he were evil incarnate. A carnival passes by later as Ben digs a grave and argues with a demolition worker sent by the bank over who has rights to his mother’s property. A few carnies throw together an impromptu funeral service for the departed woman, but before she is comfortably in her tomb, a bulldozer levels Ben’s dilapidated home and he’s on board the caravan for the long haul.
Unsettled by the shackle around his ankle, several of the carnival’s workers treat Ben with the same mistrust that his mother did. But acting on orders from their reclusive and Oz-like director, Samson (Michael J. Anderson), the diminutive co-manager, insists on employing Ben. Despite the suspicion surrounding him, Sophie (Clea Duvall), a fortune teller, suspects Ben is something special, and their bond is cemented further when he rescues her from an attempted rape. Sophie’s intuition is dead on. Ben wields a power he has yet to understand, one that gives him sway over life and death itself, but he is also a tortured soul, not only because of his mother’s zealous rejection but also because of recurring nightmares that almost prove deadly to a psychic who intrudes on his dreams. Somewhere far removed from the circus, a fledgling evangelist, Brother Justin (Clancy Brown), shares the same nightmares. In addition to these terrors, he is also prone to holy visions that include blood, snow, and neon crosses, and even during his waking hours, he has started to evidence unusual powers that manifest the sins of his congregation in unbelievable ways.
A number of elements converge to make Carnivále the amazing spectacle it is, and all those ingredients were evident straight from the start of “Milfay.” Carnivále benefits from the earnest acting of an outstanding cast, an enigmatic and enticing storyline, and most of all its perfectly attuned atmospheric setting. It was stroke of pure genius to set this story in 1930’s America. If ever there were a time period in this country’s relatively youthful history that resembled the end of the world, it was during the Great Depression. The show’s heightened need for survival extends beyond an eerie supernatural threat only a few characters can perceive to the day-to-day struggle to satisfy basic human requirements.
The drabness of the Dust Bowl could also suggest the setup for a perfect dichotomy between reality and the wonder of a magical battle with apocalyptic stakes. However, the magic of the show is presented with a similar mundanity. “We sell dreams,” Samson tells Ben, and Sophie later observes that the people they entertain are sleepwalking and it’s their job to wake them up. Either way, the carnival isn’t an escape from reality, it’s an augmentation of it. Magic is definitively real to these folks. Sure, Professor Lodz (Patrick Bauchau) might be addicted to absinthe, but he lacks no confidence in the prophetic veracity of his visions. In this episode, we see a kitten raised from the dead, a woman vomit an impossible fountain of coins, the sky rain blood, a catatonic woman move objects about with her mind, and a little lame girl healed of her lifelong condition. And all of this is treated matter-of-factly. Magic is not the gaudy light shows of Harry Potter. It’s as ordinary as anything else in this world.
It quickly becomes obvious that Carnivále possesses the kind of plot that is propelled by its mysteries. The show’s creator, Daniel Knauf, supplied his vision with a complicated mythos that demands a lot of concentration. Rich with symbolism, the pilot episode deals out its clues liberally—repeatedly visiting images of a dead tree tattoo, an inverted tarot card, a vaguely familiar signet ring, etc.— but it stops just short of explaining their overall relevance. Dream sequences and montages encompass a season’s worth of imaginative material. It’s the equivalent of flipping puzzle pieces face up without any other effort to order or assemble them, but these teasing fragments promise something entirely surprising and wholly worthwhile, igniting an undeniable eagerness for the full picture.