Series: Carnivāle

The whole gang in Season One.

"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..."
—Samson's prologue

A semi-surreal drama set in 1930s Depression-stricken US, Carnivale 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.

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.

This show provides examples of:

  • 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 Carnivale 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).
  • And I Must Scream:
    • Apollonia is stuck in a catatonic state, only able to psychically communicate with her daughter.
  • Norman, following his stroke, at first cannot move then is later forced to pretend to be unable all while Justin does and says horrendous things in front of him.
  • Ascend to a Higher Plane of Existence: Stated to be what happens to Light Avatara when they die.
  • 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."). Unless he's angry, when he barely changes his tone or expression yet is suddenly terrifying.
  • 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.
  • Anti Anti Christ: Brother Justin starts out as this, until he embraces his nature. Ben's father Henry Scudder is a more straight example of this, fighting against his nature as the "creature of Darkness" until the end.
  • The Antichrist:
  • Back Story: 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:
  • Badass Normal: Jonesy and Samson. The latter qualifies as a Bad Ass Old Guy.
  • Badass Longcoat: Justin's cassock, after he stops bothering to button up the front, which also leads to Chest Insignia.
  • 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.
  • Beethoven Was an Alien Spy: All of human history from before the Flood onward has been heavily infuenced by various Avatars. Jesus? Oh yeah. Alexander the Great? You betcha.
  • 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.
  • Blue Blood: Rather literally in the case of Prophets.
  • Buried Alive: The fate Ben almost suffers at the hands of his relatives.
  • Cain and Abel: Word of God states that the first two Avatara were brothers, with popular conjecture theorizing they were Cain and Abel.
  • California Doubling: Oh, so very much. No matter where the carnies go, it looks suspiciously like South Korea or some planet visited by Serentiy.
  • Career-Ending Injury: Jonesy was a professional baseball player before his knee injury.
  • Cassandra Truth: In the finale. Even if he was 100% telling the truth, you can understand why the rest of the troupe was reluctant to believe Samson when he claimed that the unseen "Management" died before any of them ever got to meet him, and he never got around to telling them.
  • The Chessmaster: Explicitly referenced with Management.
    Samson: He don't care much for people. Like pieces moving 'round on a board.
  • 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".
  • Chosen One: The entire point of Prophets and their Princes.
  • Chuck Cunningham Syndrome: Gecko and the Steben sisters all disappear after the first season without any further mention or explanation of where they went.
  • Crappy Carnival: The carnival referred to in the title is an OSHA-compliant variant. Strangely, it's the good guys running it.
  • Creepy Child:
  • Cut Short: Hope you weren't too invested in finding out what happened in Season 3. Or seasons 4, 5, and 6.
  • Cycle of Revenge: The battle between Avatara 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.
  • Danger Takes a Backseat: And just when Scudder thought he was in the clear, too.
  • 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".
      Tommy Dolan: Aw, come on. I'm not that bad.
      Justin: No. You're not.
  • 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.
  • Dumb Muscle: Gabriel, the carnival strongman, is a giant Man Child. Most of the rousties qualify, too.
  • 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.
  • Evil Sounds Deep: Clancy Brown really does have a fantastic villain voice.
  • Eyeless Face: The Crone, Ben's grandmother is missing her eyes, and it's pretty creepy. Made even moreso 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.
  • Foregone Conclusion: From the moments of the opening monologue, you know everything ends with the atomic bomb. And at the beginning of season 2, you learn the whole story has a Downer Ending because of this
  • Ghostly Glide: During one of Brother Justin's visions, the ghosts of children float into, then out of, view.
  • 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 Avatara.
  • 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.
    • Ben gets duped, kidnapped, tortured far too often for someone in his line of work. He tends to believe what people tell him even if these people are obviously creepy and manipulative.
  • Heroic BSOD:
  • 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.
  • Kick the Dog: Justin's treatment of Balthus in the second season falls under this.
  • Klingon Promotion: An essential part of someone's ascension to Avatar status: the next person in line to become an Avatar ("The Prince") can only claim his full powers by killing the previous generation's Avatar ("The Prophet") and asserting himself as his replacement.
    "By the hand of the Prince, the Prophet dies."
  • Knee-capping: 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: 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.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Management, to a diabolical tee. Iris, following in her father's footsteps, doesn't do too bad at this either.
  • May-December Romance:
    • Ruthie was about thirty years older than Ben.
    • Jonesy is nearly twice Libby's age.
  • 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 Carnivale 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.
  • 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.
  • Not Even Bothering with the Accent: John Hannah as Dora Mae's murderer in Pick A Number is from a tiny town in the middle of the dust bowl but inexplicably speaks with Hannah's natural Scottish accent.
  • Only Child Syndrome: A justified case, as outlined in the Gospel of Knauf. According to this universe's rules, only the eldest male child of an Avataric family can become his generation's Avatar, but giving birth to an Avatar is such a traumatic experience that it renders the mother permanently infertile. Hence, Avatars can only have older female siblings, and they have a disproportionately high chance of being only children.
  • Or Was It a Dream?: Several characters have intense dreams/visions/hallucinations that leave them unsure of what is real. A good example is when Ben fell asleep in the mask-maker's house and woke up sometime later uncertain if what he remembered had actually happened. It really happened.
  • 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.
  • The Pig Pen : The Depression isn't far enough in the past to qualify as an example of The Dung Ages , but many of the working class (particularly the carnies and the attendees at various functions) are covered in dirt and grime, due to living in the "dust bowl," in extreme poverty, without indoor plumbing. At least two minor characters also die of "dust pneumonia."
  • Racist Grandma: We get a non-comical and extremely disturbing example with Ben's creepy, militantly racist grandmother, whose husband was a founding member of The Klan.
  • Russian Naming Convention: Mostly averted, as siblings Alexei and Irina do not call each other by the diminutives of their names except once, when Alexei says, "Privyet, Ira."
  • Shown Their Work: Depression-era US 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Tsundere: Rita Sue, who only shows her softer side when it comes to her family. And sometimes not even then.
  • 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.
  • Walking Wasteland: Episode 1 shows us the little girl recently healed by Ben running after the Carnivale, 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

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