"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 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.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 Carnivale'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.
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.
Dora Mae's fate in Babylon also counts as an example.
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.
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.
Badass Family: The families Crowe and Hawkins, as well as the Houses of Light and Dark.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Executive Meddling: Lots. As Clancy Brown has put it, HBO was "uncomfortable with ambiguity," and so altered story-lines and characters to fit their needs. Brother Justin becoming all but pure evil in the second season in contrast to being conflicted in the first was because of this. Scenes where Justin was depicted as being more sympathetic were vetoed by the producers.
HBO meddled quite a bit with Justin and Iris' relationship. They pushed for Justin to rape her at the end of the first season (which the writers did not want to do, hence the ambiguity of that scene), and then demanded that the show drop their relationship entirely in the second season.
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.
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.
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.
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".
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.