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Series / Carnivāle

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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 America, 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 storyline 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).
  • Actor Allusion: A Clancy Brown character gets a powerup after decapitating one of his enemies. Hmmm...
  • Adoptive Name Change: When Father Norman Balthus finds and adopts two lost Russian orphans, he names them Justin and Iris Crowe. They are actually Alexi and Irina Belyakov, the presumed dead children of Lucius Belyakov, AKA Management.
  • 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: murdered for being a "whore" and resurrected by the magic of the town, she's doomed to be the plaything of the raping, murdering miners for all eternity.
    • 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.
  • Albinos Are Freaks: In one episode, Gecko shudders at the mention of an albino and says he hates them. Gecko himself is a man with reptilian skin who works in a traveling carnival, which shows how low he considers them.
  • All There 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. Of note, the Gospel explains some crucial series terminology like "The Alpha" and "The Omega" (the first Avatar and the last Avatar, respectively), "Vectorus" (someone with Avataric blood who isn't an Avatar), and "Vitae Divina" (the blue blood that marks someone as an Avatar).
  • 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:
  • Anti-Villain: Brother Justin, at least in the first six episodes when he truly does not comprehend the nature of his powers. He believes himself to be a good man, but cursed with demonic powers. It isn't until "The River" that he embraces his destiny.
  • Arc Words:
  • As Long as It Sounds Foreign: Whenever "Russian" dialogue is heard, most of it is actually gibberish.
  • Attempted Rape:
    • In the pilot, Ben saves Sofie from this.
    • 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 get it on in the cab of Ben's truck. They cause a thunderstorm.
  • Axe-Crazy: Ben's grandmother, upon birthing Scudder (the Child of Darkness), took an axe to the rest of her children, then gouged out her own eyes.
  • Back Story: From just a generation before the show to all the way back to before the Flood.
  • Badass Normal: Jonesy and Samson. The latter qualifies as a Bad Ass Old Guy.
  • Badass Preacher: Justin, who is imposing even before the demonic powers.
  • Badass Family: The families Crowe and Hawkins, as well as the Houses of Light and Dark.
  • 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.
  • Because Destiny Says So: The reasoning behind much of the requirements of the Avatara, including all Vectori being mad and the Prince having to kill his Prophet to rise to power.
  • 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.
    • The mask-maker Evander Geddes definitely qualifies as one, putting on a sweet, grandfatherly facade. He kills children and makes masks of their faces.
  • 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, who traded his eyesight for his psychic powers.
  • Blue Blood: Rather literally in the case of Prophets.
  • Book Ends: The first and last episodes both feature a pair of siblings going up on the ferris wheel (the girl with polio who Ben later heals and her brother in the former, Justin and Iris in the latter)
  • Broken Bird: Sofie. A lifetime of being in constant telepathic communication with your mother'll do that to you.
  • Brother–Sister Incest: Justin and Iris. It seems to be more sexual in nature on Justin's end, when he spies on Iris in the shower and later forces a kiss from her, but Iris certainly demonstrates her devotion to Justin, as well as her jealousy of any woman Justin pays attention to.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Christianity is Catholic: Subverted in that Justin, Iris and Norman are all Methodists. When Norman is considering attempting an exorcism on Justin Iris dismisses it as "Papist hocus pocus".
  • Chuck Cunningham Syndrome: Gecko and the Steben sisters all disappear after the first season without any further mention or explanation of where they went.
  • Circus Brat: Dora Mae, Libby, and Sofie were all raised in the carnival from a young age.
  • Crappy Carnival: The carnival referred to in the title is an OSHA-compliant variant. Strangely, it's the good guys running it.
  • Creepy Child:
    • Young Iris and Justin in "The River", with their sunken eyes, "Alexei's" lack of English, and "Irina's" vicious temper.
    • The creepy girl Sofie sees in "Day of the Dead" who first tells her "Every prophet in her house".
  • 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.
  • 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: Management hides his true form behind a curtain in the back of his trailer. At least, when he physically manifests, he does.
  • 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.
  • Dark Messiah: Justin, even before the actual Antichrist power level hits him, is a staggeringly popular cult leader, envisioning himself (as a former immigrant) as the savior of the California migrants. The migrants treat him with holy devotion, and it's only a matter of time and power before he starts exploiting his status.
  • 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, 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.
  • 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 Manchild. 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 Is Bigger: Justin, as the Avatar of Dark, can influence minds, create illusions, gains superhuman strength when enraged, displays acts of telekinesis, in addition to his main ability of showing people their greatest sins. He had most of these abilities even before gaining his boon. On the other side you've got Ben, who as the Avatar of Light can just heal others, with the added limitation of having to take the life force from somewhere else. Even after gaining his boon from the previous avatar, this limitation is still in effect and Ben doesn't appear to gain any new or further abilities.
    • Ben shows more control over his healing powers once he rises as the Prophet; he can take life from a specific source instead of a general area. Additionally he is shown projecting his consciousness while trying to find Berlin Stroud, and also summons the Baggage Trailer to show Samson he truly has replaced Management.
  • Evil Laugh: Of course, when you have Clancy Brown in the cast, the Evil Laugh is nearly a requirement.
  • Evil Old Folks: Ben's creepy, racist grandmother whose husband was a founding member of the Ku Klux Klan.
    • The mask-maker Evander Geddes, who kills children and makes masks of their faces.
  • 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.
  • Fantasy Americana: Possibly one of the quintessential television examples.
  • 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
  • Foreshadowing: The only foreshadowing we get of Tommy Dolan being tricked into taking the fall for the Ministry fire occurs in Season 1 at the end of Justin's stay at the asylum where he tricks his doctor into writing things in his notes.
    • Lucius Belyakov's (aka Management) name is very similar to Lucifer which means "light-bringer" which foreshadows his status as a Light Avatar.
  • 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. 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.
  • Heir Club for Men: Only firstborn sons can become Avatars. Until Sofie, that is.
  • The Hero's Journey: Both the Hero and the Villain go through many of the steps of the journey, cluing the audience into the fact that they're not that different. Even one of Campbell's original terms ("The Boon") is name-dropped in the official guide to the series' mythology.
    • The Call to Adventure: Ben is invited to join the carnival, while Brother Justin is inspired to build a new church after a series of visions.
    • Supernatural Aid: Ben is mentored by the psychic Professor Lodz, the dwarf Samson, and the ghostly Management. Justin receives a series of prophetic visions that put him on the path to becoming an Avatar.
    • Crossing the Threshold: Ben leaves his sleepy hometown in Oklahoma, while Justin ultimately leaves his hometown in California to start a new ministry in the flatlands.
    • The Belly of the Whale: Ben attempts suicide in the mines of Loving, NM, only accepting his destiny when he survives; Justin discovers his full powers when he winds up in an insane asylum after being driven to despair by the destruction of his ministry.
    • The Road of Trials: Ben must traverse the long road from Oklahoma to California to confront Justin, and he crosses paths with multiple dangerous and/or unsavory characters along the way. Justin must make his way back to the ministry.
    • The Meeting with the Goddess: Ben learns about his father's past from the alluring snake charmer Ruthie, and cultivates a love affair with the enigmatic Sofie. Justin has a long-standing love for his sister, but falls in fascination with Sofie, when she runs away to New Canaan.
    • Atonement with the Father: Ben uncovers the full truth about his absent father Henry Scudder, ultimately finding him, healing his facial scars, and forgiving him for leaving. The last vestige of goodness in Justin begs his foster-father, Norman Balthus, to kill him, but Balthus cannot bring himself to do it, and thus damns both himself and Justin.
    • The Ultimate Boon: Ben fully assumes the mantle of the Avatar of Light after killing the previous Avatar, Management, and takes up his father's old trench knife from World War I as his personal weapon. Justin likewise becomes the Avatar of Darkness after killing Henry Scudder and taking up a scythe as his personal weapon.
    • Apotheosis: In the series finale, Ben faces Justin in personal combat and wins, being carried away by the Carnival to recover from his injuries. Justin is killed in battle with Ben, but is resurrected by his daughter, Sofie.
  • Heroic BSoD:
    • Apollonia hit hers before the events of the series, after her rape by Justin.
    • Brother Justin after the destruction of his ministry, also his Start of Darkness.
    • Ben in "The Day That Was the Day", after he learns the truth about his destiny.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Most of the light avatars are prone to these, lampshaded by Samson in the finale.
    Samson: What is it with you people?
  • Historical Fantasy: Set in the Great Depression, and would have continued through World War II had it not been Screwed By The Network.
  • Homage: To everything from sports history to The Bible to The Wizard of Oz.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: In an attempt to get Ben to use his powers of resurrection, Lodz purchases a snake to kill Ruthie. Unfortunately for him, the life Ben chose to exchange for Ruthie's (at the behest of Management, no less) was none other than Lodz himself.
  • 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.
  • Hourglass Plot: Brother Justin is a preacher who slowly turns to the dark side upon the realization that he is The Antichrist, and also suffers from an unfortunate case of Bad Powers, Bad People. Ben, an escaped criminal on the lam from the law, makes a parallel journey as he comes into his own powers as the Messiah. Word Of God states that, in the third season, both men would have been recovering from the events of the finale, which would make Ben more paranoid and Dark Messiah-ish and Justin more reluctant to use his powers.
  • Hypocritical Humor: 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 "meant for greater things".
  • In the Blood: The Avatara are all descended from the same two brothers, and they all have either healing or destructive powers.
  • Inexplicable Language Fluency: During the fireball show, Samson secretly passes an old Crusader fob up to the stage during Lodz's psychometry act. When Lodz touches it, he's struck by visions of a holy war and begins chanting "In hoc signo vinces!" Ben, an uneducated farmboy, surprises Samson by translating even though he doesn't even recognize the language is Latin:
    Ben Hawkins: By this sign we conquer... by this sign we conquer...
  • It's All My Fault: In Babylon, Rita Sue blames herself for Dora Mae's murder at the hands of the revenant miners. Rightfully so, given that she was the one who insisted on doing the blow-off against both Samson and Stumpy's wishes. For a while, she's downright inconsolable.
  • 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.
  • 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 2 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".
    • Ben's grandmother Emma Krohn is a blind old woman of questionable sanity who reveals a crucial piece of information to Ben, and gave birth to a line of men with supernatural powers. Her last name is pronounced exactly how you think: like "Crone".
  • The Man Behind the Curtain: Management, a.k.a Lucius Belyakov, always hides behind and only speaks through a curtain.
  • Mind Rape: Brother Justin's preferred use of his powers, particularly on young women.
  • Monochromatic Eyes: A staple of Avatars of Darkness.
  • Mysterious Past: Nearly everyone. For example, Iris and Justin's past is teased out over the first season, and we never learn why Ben was in prison (or how he escaped) in the show proper.
  • 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 (including ones you can walk into and touch), 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.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Brother Justin's character arc reflects several real-life radio preachers of the time. Justin's radio success, his building of a massive "temple" for Christian worship in southern California, and especially his mysterious, never-fully-explained disappearance (and the ensuing media frenzy) all reflect the life of Aimee Semple McPherson.
    • The other period radio personality from whom much of Justin's story was drawn is Father Charles Coughlin, a Catholic priest who at the height of his popularity commanded a radio audience of over 40 million listeners per week. Justin's use of isolationist, anti-semitic, and anti-immigrant scare tactics to terrify and enthrall his audiences comes straight from Father Coughlin.
  • 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.
    • His accent is Truth in Television as during this time period America had many recent immigrants from Europe and therefore meeting someone with a non-American accent was not far-fetched or considered strange. especially since Europe was also going through a depression at the time, increasing immigration in hopes of prosperity somewhere else.
  • One-Word Title
  • 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.
  • Pet the Dog: Iris attempting to comfort the maid Celeste after Justin's assault.
  • 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."
  • Psychic Dreams for Everyone: Ben, Justin and presumably the other Avatars. Lodz as well. Ben and Justin often see each other in their shared visions.
  • Psychic Nosebleed: Ben, any time he uses his powers pre-Prophethood.
  • Pre-Approved Sermon: The Methodist Church tries to do this to Justin. It doesn't go well.
  • 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.
    • Played for laughs with Stumpy.
  • Rage Against the Mentor: Ben doesn't take kindly to Management's attempts to manipulate him.
  • Rape as Backstory: Apollonia was raped by Justin, which makes him Sofie's father.
  • Resurrect the Villain: In the series finale, Brother Justin is killed by Ben and the carnies leave New Canaan thinking Justin is dead... except that Sofie (who, as the Omega, has both Light and Dark Avataric powers) later finds Justin and resurrects him.
  • Running Gag: "Shut up, Osgood!", wherein one of the rousties persistently says dumb shit, and someone, usually Jonesy or Samson, gets exasperated with him.
  • Scenery Dissonance: Type 1. The show takes place in some really scenic settings, and features occasional horrifying violence.
  • Sexy Priest: Justin. Sinister, impeccably dressed, popular with the ladies, and after the events of "Alamagordo, NM", just about on the level of Messiah-hood.
  • 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.
  • Single Phlebotinum Limit: While it takes a long while for the show to reveal it, all the supernatural oddities we see were ultimately caused by the Avatars.
  • Sins of Our Fathers: What with his dad being an (unwilling) Avatar of Darkness, it's not surprising Ben runs into this a lot. Since Lucius Belyakov has a major case of Light Is Not Good, Iris and Justin probably apply, too.
  • Sinister Minister: Brother Justin is probably one of the most iconic examples.
  • Sinister Scythe: Justin's scythe, which he uses to murder the migrants blocking his path to Ben in the finale.
  • 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.
  • Tear Off Your Face: In what is likely an homage to Poltergeist, Brother Justin has a hallucination in which he tears off his own face to reveal that of Ben.
  • 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.
  • Vicious Cycle: From the beginning of time, the Creature of Light and the Creature of Darkness are destined to battle, then be killed by the next generation.
  • Villainous Incest: Of both the brother/sister and father/daughter variety.
  • Villain with Good Publicity: Justin, with some significant help from Tommy Dolan.
  • Visual Pun: Rita Sue puts a pig statuette in front of her trailer when she wants her daughters to make themselves scarce for the night. It means that she's hoping to get porked.
  • 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.
    • Jonesy's fate at the end of Season 2 is left uncertain. Did he die from his gunshot wound or did he recover, assuming the Carnivale found him later off-screen?
      • According to the other wiki, Jonesy survived his gunshot wound, having been saved by Iris. Sofie's intent in shooting Jonesy was to stop him from taking her back to the carnival, not to kill him.
  • 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 creator Dan Knauf) when it comes to her brother underneath.


Video Example(s):


Carnivale Opening

The opening credits juxtapose historical events relevant to the 1930s setting with tarot cards.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (3 votes)

Example of:

Main / TarotMotifs

Media sources: