EW Community TV Show Episode Guides and Recaps from EW's Community

'Carnivàle' recap: Of carnies and men

Season 1 | Episode 1 | “Milfay” | Aired Sept 14, 2003

Full disclosure: Back in 2003, I burned up the HBO message board every Sunday night connecting with other “carnies” ready to talk about the latest episode of Carnivàle. Not only that, but upon its cancellation, I trekked across the country to attend the most weird and fabulous convention of fans ever assembled, called CarnyCon. And so when word came out that this season’s American Horror Story would take place in a freak show, I immediately wondered if it would possess the same mythic strangeness and unrelenting atmosphere of HBO’s most egregiously overlooked drama.

Created by Daniel Knauf, Carnivàle is the ultimate slow-burn story that has at its heart an inevitable reckoning between good and evil. With a stellar cast and cinematography exquisite enough to make cinephiles drool, Carnivàle’s run was cut frustratingly short. And so, in an effort to remind people what they were missing, we at the EW Community will be recapping the show in its entirety.

Also, there may be fan flailing. You’ve been warned.

The Rewind Recap

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We open with a close-up shot of Sampson (Michael J. Anderson), the carnival’s manager, as he provides what is easily the most eloquent information dump in the history of television. By having Sampson address the audience directly, he is set up to be the bearer of the show’s central mythology—in which two creatures, one of light and the other of dark, are born into each generation. It is prophesied that the final battle between these entities is imminent. As if to put a fine point on Sampson’s words, the scene cuts to a frenetic array of images: a soldier runs through a cornfield chased by a scythe-wielding man with a tree emblazoned on his chest, tarot cards fly through the air, and soldiers fall on the battleground. The images are haunting and surreal, and belong to a young man named Ben Hawkins (Nick Stahl).

In Oklahoma, Ben awakes from his nightmare and stares at his mother, who lies dying in the adjacent room. As he reaches for her hand, she recoils in horror before succumbing to her illness. His attempt to bury her is interrupted by a demolition unit. But Ben stands his ground while two men from a traveling carny show, one of whom is Sampson, look on and take bets as to whether Ben will be squashed by the machines. Ultimately, the standoff is resolved by Jonesy (Tim DeKay), who notices the broken chain dangling from Ben’s ankle. The entirety of the carnival turns out for an impromptu funeral, but Sampson scoffs at Ruthie’s (Adrienne Barbou) point that they just can’t leave Ben behind. However, when Ben keels over from exhaustion, Sampson agrees to Ruthie’s demands.

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Meanwhile, in California, a preacher by the name of Brother Justin Crowe (Clancy Brown) reigns supreme over a flock of true believers. As he preaches from the pulpit, his sister Iris (Amy Madigan) notices a migrant, Eleanor (K Callan), lift coins from the donation plate. As she goes to make her exit, Iris intervenes and brings Eleanor back to the home she shares with her brother. But as Justin takes her to task for stealing from the needy, Eleanor begins to spontaneously vomit gold coins. From the shadows, Iris looks on; it’s clear that something is amiss in the House of Crowe.

Back at the carnival, Lila (Debra Christofferson), the bearded lady, smokes opium and pesters her paramour, Lodz (Patrick Bauchau), into reading Ben’s dreams. Something of a seer, the blind Lodz agrees, only to be assaulted with the same dream imagery we saw at the beginning of the episode. Shaken, Lodz warns Sampson that Ben is dangerous, but Lodz is quickly rebuffed when Sampson reveals that the management has been expecting Ben.

Despite awaking to find that his chain was removed, Ben is uncomfortable around the carny folk. He makes his way to a migrant village and discovers a woman rocking her dead infant. The harsh realities of migrant life during this period are vividly explored in both the slumlike living conditions and the mental deterioration of the camp’s inhabitants. It’s an uneasy scene on many levels. By chance, Ben stumbles upon Sophie (Clea Duvall), the carnival’s tarot card reader, being attacked by two mechanics. The two travel back to the carnival, with Ben now more aware of the dangers from so-called polite society that face the carnies.

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After being assaulted by the same images that haunt Ben, Justin awakes in a cold sweat and finds Iris calmly watching him. Needing some fresh air, Justin walks down to the migrant camp on the edge of town, where he comes across the Mr. Chin’s sign from his dream. It hangs over a brothel, and yes, it comes complete with flashing red light. As Justin stares at it, the street noise quiets and it begins to snow. But as the snow gives way to falling blood droplets, the Mr. Chin’s sign explodes, leaving only a burning red cross in its wake. Justin falls to his knees and the moment is revealed to be one of his visions.

It’s nightfall and the carnival has swung into action. These scenes are so richly detailed that you can almost smell the popcorn and taste the dust. As Ben walks around, we are introduced to an eclectic cast of characters. In one tent, Gabriel (Brian Turk) performs his strongman act, much to the admiration of his mother, Ruthie. In another, Rita Sue (Cynthia Ettinger) dances the cooch with her daughter, Libby (Carla Gallo), as their husband/father, Felix (Toby Huss), tries to rustle up business. Sophie, who communicates telepathically with her comatose mother, Apollonia (Diane Salinger), convinces Ben to let her read his cards. As she does, we see him as a young boy who is able to bring his deceased cat back to life. But his mother, fearing God’s retribution, quickly drowns the pet. He then flashes to scenes of his mother calling him filth as he tries to spare her suffering. Noticing Ben’s discomfort, Sophie reaches for him, and when their hands touch, Ben is assaulted by an image of an attacking Justin with coal-black eyes.

Fleeing the carnival, Ben stumbles upon a girl paralyzed from polio. As he lays hands upon her legs, the camera pans away. Our last image is of the girl joyous running back to her house. Apparently Justin is not the only one prone to magical gifts.

Comments, Gripes, and Observations

  • Can we just talk about the sheer beauty of the title card sequence in the beginning? The overlay of tarot card imagery against historical footage reminds me a lot of the title card sequence for The Americans, and really sets the tone for the story to come.
  • Did the scenes at the carnival whet your appetite to know more about the characters and their oddities?
  • Sampson’s opening monologue is not only useful exposition of the story to come, but I love that the creative team took such a literal approach to the visuals by having him bathed in light against a black backdrop.
  • The sequence of Eleanor upchucking coins hasn’t aged particularly well, but K Callan remains my favorite part of “Milfay.”
  • What did you guys think of the show’s pacing? That nothing earth-shattering occurs in the first episode is, I think, by design. This was the first major television offering to prove that audiences could be trusted to stick around for a show that moved at the speed of molasses—if the setting and characters were interesting enough.
  • Oh, Amy Madigan. I didn’t remember what a creepy presence Iris was in the first episode—forever looking at her brother all suspicious-like and doing needlepoint.
TV Families | EW.com
Mark Harris
February 23, 1990 AT 05:00 AM EST

The Bradys are back, with a passel of 90’s hassles. Do they represent the typical American Family? Did they ever? Who does? Stare and compare!

Kind Of Family
TheBradyBunch 1969-74: Blended
The Bradys 1990-: Enormous
Married…With Children 1987-: Postnuclear
Thirtysomething 1987-: Extended
The Flintstones 1960-66: Modern Stone Age

Family Pet
The Brady Bunch: Tiger
The Bradys: Alice
Married…With Children: Buck
Thirtysomething: Grendel
The Flintstones: Dino

Typical Guest Star
The Brady Bunch: Davey Jones
The Bradys: There’s no room
Married…With Children: Sam Kinison
Thirtysomething: Carly Simon
The Flintstones: Ann Margrock

Expression Of Joy
The Brady Bunch: Groovy!
The Bradys: Ritual hugging
Married…With Children: ”Oh, great.”
Thirtysomething: ”Of course I’m happy for you. Really. But what about me? Why does it always have to be about you?
The Flintstones: ”Yabba-dabba doo

Expression Of Rage

The Brady Bunch: ”Hmmm…”
The Bradys: ”If you back away from something you really want, then you’re a quitter!” (the angriest any Brady has ever been)
Married…With Children: ”Aaagh, God, take me from this miserable life!”
Thirtysomething: ”I’m not angry, OK?”
The Flintstones: ”Willllmaaaa!”

Typical Problem
The Brady Bunch: Marcia and her rival both want to be the prom queen.
The Bradys: Bobby gets paralyzed.
Married…With Children: Al doesn’t buy his family Christmas presents.
Thirtysomething: Nancy gets cancer.
The Flintstones: Fred and Barney are staying out too late.

Typical Solution
The Brady Bunch: The prom committee decides to have two queens.
The Bradys: Bobby gets married.
Married…With Children: They hate him.
Thirtysomething: If only we knew…
The Flintstones: Wilma and Betty decide to follow them.

House Style
The Brady Bunch: Conservative but mod, circa ’69
The Bradys: Conservative but mod, circa ’90
Married…With Children: Roach motel
Thirtysomething: Enviable
The Flintstones: Suburban cave

Clothing Style
The Brady Bunch: Early Osmonds
The Bradys: Made in the USA
Married…With Children: Flammable fabrics
Thirtysomething: Eclectic earth tones; nice ties
The Flintstones: One-piece

Most Annoying Character
The Brady Bunch: Alice’s cousin Emma, the substitute housekeeper (too strict)
The Bradys: Marcia’s husband, Wally (chronically unemployable)
Married…With Children: Steve (supercilious)
Thirtysomething: Ellyn (goes through Hope’s drawers, babbles, changes hairstyle every other week, generally mistreats her friends)
The Flintstones: Mr. Slate (bossy)

Attitude Toward Sex
The Brady Bunch: Never heard of it
The Bradys: Omigod — even Cindy does it!
Married…With Children: Peg: Yes. Al: No.
Thirtysomething: They didn’t get all those kids by accident.
The Flintstones: Prehistoric

How Spouses Fight
The Brady Bunch: They don’t.
The Bradys: Infrequently, but it happens
Married…With Children: Tooth and nail
Thirtysomething: They stop talking
The Flintstones: Fred and Barney go bowling while Wilma and Betty max out their charge cards.

How Kids Get Into Trouble
The Brady Bunch: Greg takes a puff of a cigarette.
The Bradys: Carol’s grandson steals her business cards and sticks them in the spokes of Bobby’s wheelchair.
Married…With Children: By committing felonies
Thirtysomething: Ethan plays with a forbidden toy rocket.
The Flintstones: They don’t.

How They’re Punished

The Brady Bunch: ”It’s not what you did, honey — it’s that you couldn’t come to us.”
The Bradys ”Next time, ask.”
Married…With Children: By the authorities
Thirtysomething: It blows up in his face.
The Flintstones: They’re not.

What Family Does For Fun
The Brady Bunch: Takes special three-part vacations to Hawaii and the Grand Canyon
The Bradys: Has flashbacks
Married…With Children: Exchanges insults
Thirtysomething: Talks
The Flintstones: Attends showings of The Monster at the Bedrock Drive-In

Unsolved Mysteries
The Brady Bunch: How exactly did Carol’s first husband and Mike’s first wife die?
The Bradys: What’s with Marcia’s new face and Bobby’s blonde hair
Married…With Children: What kind of hair spray does Peg use?
Thirtysomething: Why did Nancy take Elliot back? What do Gary and Susanna see in each other?
The Flintstones: How does Barney’s shirt stay on if he has no shoulders? Where do Fred and Wilma plug in their TV?

Worst Behavior
The Brady Bunch: The Brady children once made Alice feel under-appreciated.

The Bradys: Marcia’s son Mickey watches Bobby’s car-crash tape for fun.
Married…With Children: The Bundy’s kill their neighbor’s dog.
Thirtysomething: Elliot has an affair and talks about it.
The Flintstones: Characters don’t wear under-clothes.

Best Reason To Watch
The Brady Bunch: This is what life should be.
The Bradys: They’re all grown-ups now!
Married…With Children: Terry Rakolta hates it.
Thirtysomething (Tie) This is your life. This isn’t your life.
The Flintstones: This is what life might have been.

Best Reason Not To Watch
The Brady Bunch: Blurred vision from rerun overdoses.
The Bradys: You’re all grown-ups now.
Married…With Children: She has a point.
Thirtysomething: After a while, you think it’s real.
The Flintstones: The Simpsons

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