Pass the Remote!
by: Natalie Cannon, Zak Salih, and Angela Nemecek
Welcome to Flow’s latest experiment in academic discourse, Pass the Remote. Over the course of each bi-weekly issue of Flow, three or more scholars will exchange open letters on a topic of shared interest. Check back to see the discussion’s progress, and feel free to comment below. If you are interested in contributing to Pass the Remote contact Christopher Lucas at email@example.com.
Dear Zak and Angela,
A little over a year ago I got hooked on HBO’s new series, Carnivale. I liked the strangeness of the story — it was like a grittier Tim Burton movie — and I really enjoyed the artistic quality of the cinematography. After my course work on “Disability and Freakery” last semester, I found a lot more in the show that catches my attention.
Interactions between freaks or social others with “normal” people, in the first season of Carnivale in particular, seems to beg for commentary and further study. The fact that the show has two main venues only complicates the query in a good way; it allows for comparisons among and between the carnival and the settled town of Mintern, which comprise the two branches of the story. All the characters in the traveling Carnivale branch of the show are represented as various levels of freaks — bearded lady, lizard man with tail, whores, conjoined twins, disabled head roustie, and the dwarf, a voice of authority for the mutilated management. The protagonist Ben Hawkins is rescued by these carnies, and a lot of the tension that drives the first few episodes is how he tries to fit in or not, and the way he is made the butt of jokes and initiation pranks because they all assume that he is “normal,” which is an “other” to their freakish way of life.
The Mintern, CA branch of the show is set up as a “normal” story about holy, but normal people — a preacher, his sister, their friends, and his parishioners of citizens and migrants. The odd thing is that the “normal” people are manipulative and turn out to be evil, while the carnies and freaks are the characters most easily identified with by the audience and house tools to stop the evil. This begs the question, are we to think the other is the answer and the normal is the problem?
University of Virginia
Dear Natalie and Angela,
I second Natalie’s notion about the twisted definitions of “other” and “normal” throughout the two seasons of Carnivale. As to her question of whether the “other” is the perceived hero of this series in contrast with the evilness of what we would commonly consider “normal,” I would argue that it’s near impossible to arrive at any simple answer.
I think the qualifiers of good and evil in Carnivale are indeed based on these notions of “normal” and “other.” But as the show develops, we come to realize that what is normal and what is other is not based so much on physical characteristics but on actions and internalized characteristics. So, in a sense, Carnivale is validating these traditional notions of good and evil while trying to step outside them. Good and evil are based on character, not physical appearance – it’s a classic theme we’ve seen in numerous television shows, movies, and books. The other is still the problem and the normal is still the answer; that is, if we read Carnivale on a moral level as well as a visual level.
I guess the formula for the morality of this show would be that: visually, the other is the answer and the normal is the problem; morally, the “other” (the evil actions and intent of Brother Justin) is the problem and the “normal” (the good intentions of the prophet Ben Hawkins) is the answer. After all, don’t the common cultural codes tell us that good character is normal and acceptable while bad/evil character is abnormal and unacceptable? Isn’t Carnivale then just reaffirming these cultural codes, albeit under trickier circumstances?
Zak M. Salih
University of Virginia
Dear Zak and Natalie,
I agree with Zak’s assessment that Carnivale fundamentally reinscribes normative cultural codes, even as it plays with the slippage between outer and inner: morally good characters can look physically “deformed,” while morally bad characters can look physically “normal.” But the show adds a further twist, demanding that evil characters come to be physically altered by their evil.
Brother Justin, for example, shows consistent outward signs of evil — most notably, demonic pupil-less eyes. Indeed, this physical change is a cultural trope of evil; we come to expect this cue in everything from The Ring II to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, since it’s how we tell the “good” guys from the “bad” guys — or even how we tell the Doctor Jekyll/Mr. Hyde versions of the same character apart (Oz on Buffy, for example, gradually morphs into a werewolf when it’s that time of the month).
This physical metamorphosis indicating evil is most evident — and most permanent — in Brother Justin when he requests his gigantic tree tattoo, the Mark of the Usher. Once he has been literally “marked,” he is physically othered into the evil Other we have always known him to be. I’d argue that the viewer finds this form of othering quite satisfying, as now the character’s outside confirms his inside, and his identity is stabilized.
But this stability obviously complicates the status of other Others on the show, since it reaffirms the notion that physical otherness corresponds with moral otherness. In the end, does Carnivale only reify the stereotype that the physically different are morally reprehensible?
Dear Angela and Zak,
While I agree and enjoy that Justin finally starts to look as bad, visually, as he is inwardly, I do not agree that Carnivale only reifies the stereotype that the physically different are morally reprehensible because, at the end of Season Two, the ‘freaks’ are still visibly, physically different, but they are the ones who emerge triumphant.
Perhaps the show is instead enacting a subversion of that topos as it appeals to the audience to look beyond appearances because it has been proven that appearances can be deceiving and it was never exactly clear until nearly the end of the season as to who — Ben or Justin — is the dark one of the generation. They both kill, they both help people, they both are conflicted, and they both share the same nightmares frequently, so the division between them as Good or Evil is hazy until Justin reveals his intent.
I would argue that Justin receives his changes as punishment for falling pray to the devil within rather than the idea that he is branded so as to physically become an ‘other’ for the audience. In support of this I would also like to offer that Ben, the established ‘Good Guy’ heals the sick but not the freakishly disabled like Sampson or any of his fellow carnies. He does not exhibit the least desire to do so, and because of these contrasting actions it seems that Carnivale is not operating the way David Mitchell’s “Narrative Prosthesis” theory accuses most representations of the disabled of operating. Mitchell claims that disabled characters are either killed or cured by the end, but in Carnivale they end the same as they were before, if not a little spiritually or morally purified.
University of Virginia
Dear Natalie and Angela,
In regards to the case of Mitchell’s “narrative prosthesis” that Natalie brought up at the end of her post, I’m left wondering how we can apply this to the culminating season (and if the buzz on the web is true, possibly series) finale that aired nearly a month ago. Natalie points to spiritual and moral purification, an idea I find intersting when analyzed in the light of Brother Justin’s death in the cornfield and subsequent resurrection at the hands of Sofie. It appears that Brother Justin has taken on the persona of a dramatic Christ figure — yet aren’t Christ figures commonly considered to be agents of good rather than evil (as we all three seem to agree that Justin is, indeed, morally deformed)?
This notion further complicates our reading of good and evil in Carnivale. Notice how entrenched Brother Justin is in the Church. Throughout the progression of the two seasons, we have seen our traditional notions of faith and religion as moral forces somewhat skewed by the nefarious goings-on with Justin’s congregation (everything from the psychological torture of Rev. Balthus to nefarious allegiances with local politicians and grand baptism sequences that take on the tone of mass brainwashing). Given that Brother Justin is head of this particular religious camp, I’m left wondering what Carnivale is saying about the politics and morality of the devout Christianity on display here. In the same way that the outward/inward morality of the characters are skewed, so too do we see the same complications with Justin’s religious camp (what is normally a force for spiritual good is now a marketplace for evil and sin). It would seem then that in the universe of Carnivale, social institutions can be just as deformed and disabled as any carny.
If we consider Brother Justin to be a morally disabled character, then how does his demise/resurrection fit in with the aformentioned narrative prosthesis? He is resurrected but we have yet to see whether his evil (his disability) has been cured or transplanted into Sofie, who possesses the same black, pupil-less eyes that Angela notes is a common trope of evil in popular entertainment. While his death at the hands of Ben Hawkins might seem to affirm the narrative prosthesis on a moral level, his resurrection further complicates matters.
Zak M. Salih
University of Virginia
Please feel free to comment.
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Does normalcy lie in the character or the actor?
Natalie,I’m fascinated by the politics of casting so many actors in Carnivale who put on their “freakdom” as part of their costumes, as opposed to those who cannot remove their markers of difference once the cameras stop rolling, such as Bree Walker (Sabina the Scorpion Queen) and Michael Anderson (Samson). Tim DeKay, for example, reminds us that he is freakish only when playing the role of Clayton Jones when his knee is miraculously healed in Season Two. Most of the images of the carnival freaks are thus rendered palatable for the audience with the reminder that the majority of the actors are “normal” underneath.
Best,Alena Amato RuggerioSouthern Oregon University
Without having seen “Carnivale”, I can’t help but be intrigued by the twisted discourse that seems to be at play here — network TV certainly won’t offer anything this psychologiclaly portentous or aesthetically daring. It hasn’t even gone well, from what it seems like, with the glorified, quality HBO audience — its lack of success compared to the halfway-more-conventional “The Sopranos” and “Six Feet Under” with viewers has been well documented. Even so, “Carnivale” seems like an interesting play with the conventions of the so-called in-culture of shows; so many conventional shows get their humor from deriding the bizarre “others” (even great shows did this in some way, like “Seinfeld”). I’m curious to see which line of thinking wins out: the good vs. evil that seems to take place in the second season or the freak culture analysis that makes the show unique.
Character vs. Actor
The question of casting real ‘freaks’ and making up ‘normal’ people into freaks is a very interesting one – I agree. If you have seen Tod Browning’s “Freaks” you could study the difference between casting only people with visible differences as ‘freaks’ and ‘normal actors’ as the normal people on the show.
Another part of your question reminds me an article we read for class on P.T. Barnum … a physical deformity cannot make you a freak (in the performativity sense) any more than being female can make you an Oscar Winning leading lady. Freak is an act as much as it is a physicality and many freaks in traveling shows the likes of which are meant to be represented by “Carnivale” were fakes – people putting on make up or a costume or acting in a manner that exaggerates their difference or is considered strange. There is a nod to this history in the creation of the “Benjamin St. John” act and “turtle-boy” made of a child’s doll glued to a shell and displayed in a tank. I think part of the palatability, as you nicely put it, comes from the understanding that these are characters which the audience is meant to look at, the gaze here is not subjectifying – it is desired and earns the characters (in the show and on the set) their salaries. To quote “Geek Love,” a freak is not born, a freak is made. The characters made their choices to join the carnie show and the actors made their choices to work for HBO.
It is a very interesting subject and there is so much more which could be said, but it will have to be in another installment or comment.
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