“Pick a Number” was an almost break-away episode of Carnivàle, coming straight after the disturbingly creepy episode “Babylon,” in which poor Dora Mae—Cootch dancer, daughter of Rita Sue and “Stumpy” Dreifuss, and sister to Libby—was brutally murdered, and had the word “harlot” carved into her forehead.
This is an emotionally charged episode, perhaps even more so than “Babylon,” as we see how the murder affects every part of the Carnivàle community. It also contains what I feel to be one of the most upsetting scenes in TV history. It’s not so much what we see, but what is implied. But more on that later. It is the third episode on the trot that reduces the lead characters to the sidelines, and it’s a good thing. As wonderfully mysterious as Ben and Brother Justin’s stories are, they wouldn’t carry as much weight if you didn’t come to care about the people around them and how they have unwittingly become caught up in this apocalyptic battle of light vs dark—even if they have no clue yet.
Brother Justin is at his lowest ebb. He is still battling to understand why his God would take the lives of the innocent children in the church fire, and understandably so. What God would reward one of his most loyal servants, who had just converted a whorehouse where children were regularly used for sex into an orphanage and safe haven for them, by killing all the children inside? Justin’s faith is dwindling; he feels his God has left him, and so he hits the road to find himself. This begins a new part of Brother Justin’s story, as at a roadside campfire he meets a radio reporter (Robert Knepper, in one of the few good guy roles I have ever seen him play), who brings his sad story to the masses by sending it across the airwaves.
Meanwhile, Ben is still lost in the mines in Babylon, seeking out Henry Scudder. He finds himself in a dream reenactment of the trenches in World War I. In the vision, he sees a younger Lodz before he was blind, and again the massively awesome, but somewhat terrifying, circus bear with a fez. Lodz asks Ben, “Have you seen my bear?” and another piece of the puzzle falls into place. Lodz owned the bear that mauled the Russian soldier—a recurring dream sequence that we do not yet understand. Despite Ben being our reluctant hero, he frustrates us greatly by not opening up to Lodz, the one person who could help him understand his past, and possibly even his future. Ben does finally find his way out of the mine, where Lodz is still waiting for him. Ben’s traumatic day is far from over though. He’s about to learn all about carnie justice. A lot happened while Ben was underground.
Dora Mae’s family grieve in different ways. Stumpy is broken, Rita Sue is vengeful, and Libby puts a defiant face on her fear. For her, it’s not just losing her sister; this is her job. If she hadn’t gotten her period, it could just as easily have been her hanging from the tree. It’s a dangerous world for sex workers, especially in a time and place with so little law enforcement. The Carnivàle have their own rules and rituals and get ready for some retribution, but an armed search through the town finds no-one. Just like the day before, Babylon appears to be a ghost town. That is precisely what it is.
Finally, they find Stangler (John Hannah), the bartender, and they force him to participate in a ritual known as “carnival justice,” in which an old wagon is circled around the accused three times. It is in scenes such as this where Carnivàle really shines. I have no clue about the authenticity of this ritual, but it feels right. Every person in this strange community would likely be poorly treated in any other situation—they would be considered freaks, and while they are fully aware of the fact that “normal” folk come to ogle them, right here and now, in this room, they are all-powerful.
“One of ours is dead; one of theirs is gonna answer for it.” — Samson
Whether Stangler was the man who murdered Dora Mae or not, he was going to pay with his life. Samson may be small of stature but he’s big of character, and he carries a massive weight on his shoulders, trying to keep his troops happy. He tells Stangler to “pick a number” (which we discover means how many bullets will be loaded into a pistol’s chamber) for a charming game of Russian roulette, carnie style. Stangler actually survives each trigger pull, but wading through the tension allows some time for him to admit that he did murder Dora Mae. Quickly, we the audience, change our feelings about whether this eye-for-an-eye style punishment is fair or not. Now it feels justified, especially when we learn the reason why he took her life. He did it so that the menfolk could engage in some spirited coupling with a woman, as they have none in the town.
This total disregard for a woman’s life, taking it away so that she can be of service to these men, without giving her any choice in the matter, is the hardest thing to stomach. The revelation that Babylon is literally a ghost town is not a surprise at this point; all suggestions had led to this. But how it became this way is intriguing. It turns out that the man Ben is seeking, Hack Scudder, was responsible for the deaths of the entire mining community. The miners had sought Scudder as he apparently murdered one of their company. Rather than be lynched, he created a cave-in, killing all inside. Quite the deadly touch has Scudder—the curse he made on the town means that anyone who dies in Babylon thereafter is doomed to wander there for eternity.
This leads us back to poor Dora Mae. Her body is treated with the utmost respect in death, more so than it was in life. The women gather to wash the blood from her body, paint her nails and dress her ready for the afterlife—a place she will sadly never arrive. Dora Mae’s funeral is held in an open field in Babylon, with each troupe member leaving a personal possession in her grave. Indeed they all leave a part of their soul in that town. Despite us never really getting to know Dora Mae when she was alive, her death led us to learn a lot more about her family, friends, and carnie life.
Samson leaves a watch in her grave, which he says is from Management. The crew are beginning to get disillusioned with Management. It was Management’s decision to turn away from their original destination and visit Babylon in the first place, none of the troupe wanting to go there, and the troupe were right to trust their gut feelings. Samson has the unenviable task of trying to get everyone to stay positive, and to have faith that their unseen leader knows best.
It’s here that we learn more about the character Jonesy. Until now, he’s been one of the few carnie workers with a level head. He’s not part of the freak show; he’s no strong man or sex salesman. He’s down to earth, hardworking, and honourable. How on earth did he end up here? Through a series of flashbacks, we learn that he was, in fact, a very brilliant baseball player, but had to give it all up when his knee was smashed in by the mob after he refused to throw a game. Crippled, he turned to the Carnivàle as the Ferris wheel operator.
Jonesy’s friendship with Samson is strong, but strained at times. After the wheel of fortune spins in Stangler’s favour, preventing his death by roulette, the Dreifuss family and everyone in the Carnivàle are disappointed that revenge was not given for Dora Mae. Rita Sue and Stumpy reluctantly agree with Management’s rules on the matter, but Jonesy doesn’t take it lying down and heads off to Management’s trailer to dispute the decision. When he gets there, he finds nothing. No-one is behind the curtain. Now Jonesy has to grapple with himself over whether Samson conjured the idea of Management up as a way for a small man to keep control of a large brood, or whether to keep the faith in Samson and keep believing, despite his logical mind telling him otherwise.
Jonesy says he’s going to leave, but at the end he once again takes his place at the side of his friend—choosing to trust him, even though it seems insane. This is the one truly hopeful moment in “Pick a Number,” the one moment when it seems like humanity and faith might win out over crushing despair.
Despite Samson towing the party line in public—he has to show that he is in charge—he doesn’t let the story end there. After receiving information about Scudder going south, he shoots Stangler right below the eye, leaving the bartender to bleed to death in the Hell he begged not to die in. He fulfils the justice the carnival couldn’t get during the trial. He really steps up in this episode and for all these reasons is able to put Jonesy’s fears to rest, at least for the moment.
Then, as he steps away he looks back at the bar, and sees Dora Mae’s naked ghostly figure at the window, looking at him in despair. Samson cries out in horror, as the arm of one of the men swoops around her dragging her back in with them for an eternity of rape and abuse.
This is what Hell looks like. It’s not all fiery parties and fun debauchery. It is a woman’s soul tormented forever and for no reason. Her life was taken without a second thought. That shot of her at the window makes the idea of Hell seem almost viscerally unfair, even for the lowest of the low. No one is so bad that they deserve an eternity of suffering, and there are plenty of good or otherwise non-harmful people like Dora Mae who would end up there. Dora Mae Dreifuss, whatever her faults, does not belong in Babylon for the rest of time.
In a show that is all about the testing of faith, light vs dark, good vs evil, we have to continually ask which side is which? Dark cannot exist without light and vice versa. If good deeds are rewarded with brutal punishment, and evil deeds are rewarded with pleasure, is your God good or evil? It is a question that Ben and Brother Justin both found themselves asking time and time again, and what all humans and many TV shows question throughout time, but very few have done it with as much style and compassion as Carnivàle.