Every single episode of Carnivàle was fantastic, but two planted themselves deeply in my psyche. Episode 5 of S1, “Babylon” and the following episode, “Pick a Number” were out of the ordinary; they took a slight turn off from the main storyline and in doing so, brought us closer to many of the carnie folk. In doing so, the show became something more important to me—I began rooting for the characters, wanting to know more about them, admiring their strength while living hand-to-mouth in dire conditions.
“Babylon” stirs up those feelings of apocalyptic dread more than any other episode of Carnivàle. Two episodes earlier, in “Tipton” we first heard of the mysterious Texan town. Its reputation precedes it, and everyone is reluctant to travel there. But Samson has been told by Management to go there, and he begs them to keep their faith in him. With many of the carnies starting to wonder if Management exists at all, or if this is a ruse by Samson to keep them all under his control, that faith is dwindling fast.
They have good reason to be worried.
The episode begins ominously with Brother Justin Crowe sitting in the burned-out remains of the Ministry he built, reading a prayer for the children who died. His face semi-concealed in shadow, he tells the biblical story of Babylon in which the once-thriving town became a dwelling place for demons. As his story unfolds, we see the carnival procession begin its descent into an isolated town. As with each place they visit in the Dust Bowl, grit covers every inch of every building, painting it sepia. Yet this town seems to be completely deserted. There are no signs of life, no footprints in the dirt, no sound of work or revelry, just the wind howling through, making floorboards creak and weathervanes whirl.
Walking up the hill heading out of the town, a man with a knapsack passes the troop. Samson’s exchange with the man is strangely sinister, but it confirms for the carnies, and us, that the carnival has now entered the town of Babylon. By the time the show reaches the town, it feels soaked in dread and anticipation. This feels like something we’ve been preparing for our whole lives.
Once in the town, the carnival realises that there is no-one here. The place is desolate, which only increases their anger towards Samson—they had travelled all that way in the wrong direction, at least they could have got some great earnings out of it. Despite this, there is a feeling that they are being watched or that a plan is being hatched somewhere, and they are all in grave danger.
Tensions are high everywhere in the camp. Psychic mother and daughter Apollonia and Sofie telepathically argue after Apollonia tells Sofie not to get too close to Libby Dreifuss, one of the girls that dance the Cootch. Never one to heed her mother’s advice, Sofie makes a beeline for Libby and the two smoke cigarettes and talk about sex, with Libby informing Sophie that you can’t get pregnant your first time. This was something Sofie was worried about after rebelling against her mother and sleeping with a man from a nearby town in the last episode, “Black Blizzard”.
It is this episode that we really get to know the Dreifuss family—some of the greatest characters of the whole show. Up to now, they’ve kind of been on the fringe of things, but here we begin to learn about these complex characters. It’s a strange family set-up, to say the least. Dad Felix a.k.a. Stumpy, runs the Cootch show, which consists of his wife Rita-Sue, and his two daughters Dora-Mae and Libby. Is it weird that a doting father would will his wife and daughters to get naked for paying customers? Yes, of course, but it is realistic. Travelling families would do what they could to stay alive. As the episode goes on, we learn that they don’t just dance, on occasion, they will have sex with the punters, for the right price and if they’re in the mood.
Dora-Mae is much like her mother, curvaceous and sexy with an attitude to boot. You’d have to be that way to survive this life. Libby is scrawny like her father, but with the face of a fallen angel, and a great dancer too. She has dreams of Hollywood in her head, but her mother and sister have little further ambition. While Rita-Sue and Dora-Mae seem tough as nails on the outside, they are sensitive souls, who just want to be loved—don’t we all. Felix is a bit of a weasel, but his heart is in the right place. Outnumbered by the women in his life, he tries to manage them, but they often go against his wishes.
Lead character Ben Hawkins plays a smaller, but important part in “Babylon”. He goes to visit Lodz in his trailer as he has heard he is unwell. Then he mocks the fact that it is withdrawal from opium that is making Lodz sick. Ruthie interrupts the pair trash-talking and sends Ben out. She warns Lodz not to mess with him or she’ll “tear his pecker off like a loaf of French bread”. Ruthie herself isn’t fully aware of why she is so protective of Ben—they are sexually attracted to each other, but she has a motherly affection for him too.
With the nervous tension about to spill over in the camp, Samson takes the whole gang into town to blow off steam. They arrive at an empty bar and find the man from the road working there. His name is Stangler and is played by Scottish actor John Hannah. When Samson asks what happened, Stangler replies that he never made it out of town and never does. This simple comment could drain the blood from your face. What did that mean? Was he a ghost? He’s far too ‘solid’ to be a spirit. Is something keeping him there? Why can’t he leave? So many questions, but Samson just carries on; he’s clearly seen enough weirdness in his time not to bother asking anymore. Instead, he buys his crew several ales, and they all get very merry and very messy.
Dora-Mae asks Stangler where everyone in the town is hiding, and he tells her that it’s best if they don’t come out—a warning that she especially should heed.
What’s great about “Babylon” is that it builds tension using some of the oldest tricks in the book. As Stangler plies Dora-Mae with liquor, faceless masses of dirt-covered men leer in through the windows from the shadows. The music looms ominously. Things happen just a little too quickly or a little too slowly, causing disorientation and confusion. A mob approaches from the darkness, lit by torchlight. These are old, old methods used to make things seem just slightly unnerving and it would be easy for all of this to tip into self-parody. Instead, the show manages a sort of eerie straightforwardness, a daunting sense that we know exactly where this is going, but we’re powerless to stop it. We feel much like Samson, who seems to know that something terrible is going to happen to someone, but he’s out of control. Management has brought them here for a reason, and that reason is Ben Hawkins.
Ben awakes after a heavy night of drinking in an abandoned mine that he cannot escape from. Lodz however, borrows the power of sight from his ladyfriend Lila and asks her to help him climb to the mine exit where he sits and waits for Ben’s return. In the mine, Ben sees the vision of a man with a pickaxe buried in his head and follows him through the dark, narrow tunnels. He then bumps into the man who has been haunting his dreams for a while now; Scudder, wearing a gaslamp on his head. Scudder has been here, but why? Ben shouts to Scudder that he knows who he is, Scudder asks him, “Do you know what that means?” And just like that, Scudder disappears, leaving in his wake a sign that reads “AVATAR” over and over again.
This is the first time we have seen the extent of Lodz’s psychic powers. It takes a tremendous amount of energy for him to use it. He’s very much like the character of John Locke in Lost, in that you never really know if he’s a hindrance or a help. Is he light, or is he dark? Or perhaps he’s just self-serving.
Everyone has a sore head the next morning, but the show must go on. The Cootch girls gear up, but Libby tells Dora Mae that she has just fallen off the roof (which is an old-fashioned way of saying she got her period) and that the blow-off is all Dora Mae’s. The “blow-off” means some naked acrobatics for the unnervingly attentive crowd.
The miners arrive by torchlight, almost silently and without any expression of joy, arousal, or excitement of any kind, they flood the carnival. Samson feels that there is something wrong and orders them not to do the blow-off, but Rita-Sue doesn’t listen—all she sees is dollar signs from the large turnout, and overrides Felix and Samson, insisting that her daughter performs. The weird vibes keep coming when Sofie is unable to read the future of one of the men. The exchange is tense but does reveal that Scudder was a resident of Babylon before he fled after killing a man with a pickaxe.
Dora-Mae goes ahead with the blow-off, and the crowd goes wild. Then men claw and pull at her naked body like pack animals wanting to feast. She screams for her daddy to help her, and he does. At least this time. She sits outside in shock at what happened, her father consoles her, but Rita-Sue just looks on, stony-faced, unable to admit that she shouldn’t have pushed her daughter to do this.
After getting chewed out by Samson for drinking on the job, Jonesy goes stumbling off into the woods, where he finds Dora-Mae hanging from a tree. As he carries her body back to camp, Justin’s voice again reminds us of the story of the harlot in Babylon. Seeing her lynched child, Rita-Sue begins screaming as a close-up of Dora Mae’s face reveals “HARLOT” carved into her forehead.
By the time the episode reaches its powerful climax—with Jonesy carrying the body of Dora through the hellish landscape of the carnival gone mad—we feel like we’ve lost our bearings. We know where we are, but it doesn’t feel like home anymore. Like the too-fast Ferris wheel, we want to just stop the ride and get off.
For a girl we barely knew before the episode started, her death sure did have an impact on me. It was clear now that anything could happen out here in the dust, that these people, either by luck or misfortune, were stuck between the battle of light and dark. With Ben getting closer to learning the truth about himself, and Brother Justin on his dark path of self-discovery, there were likely to be many other casualties along the road.
“Babylon” goes down as one of the greatest episodes of Carnivàle because of the weight of the dread that accompanies it, and for its accurate portrayal of the danger women working in the sex trade are in. The sadness of Dora-Mae’s story only goes deeper in the next episode “Pick a Number” which, no doubt, I will write about sooner or later.