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'Carnivàle' recap: Strange fruit

Season 1 | Episode 5 | “Babylon” | Originally Aired Oct 12, 2003

There are no easy answers in “Babylon.” Most of the events that unfold are tinged with just enough ambiguity to cast doubt on whether the implied danger is real or imagined. And while the episode is short on concrete answers, it goes a long way toward clarifying who these characters are and what it is that fuels them. Revelations, most notably in the Ben and Scudder storyline, abound—but it is the unexpected and devastating final moments that makes this episode one of the series’ best.


Our initial sense of foreboding comes courtesy of Brother Justin, who, his face semi-concealed by shadows, begins to explain the biblical story of Babylon in which the once-thriving town became a dwelling place for demons. As the story unfolds, the carnival begins its descent into an isolated town. There they meet a man as he is heading out of town. Samson’s exchange with the man is weirdly sinister but it does confirm for the carnies, and for us, that the carnival has now entered the town of Babylon.

Legend has it that death is the cost for performing in Babylon. Naturally, this has everyone on tenterhooks, and the stress is starting to take its toll. Sophie and Apollonia are feuding telepathically, with the latter warning against Sophie’s growing friendship with Libby. Never one to heed her mother’s advice, Sophie makes a beeline to Libby and the two smoke cigarettes and talk about sex, with Libby very knowingly informing Sophie that you can’t get pregnant your first time. I’m thinking this is a tidbit we should file away for a future episode.

Our next glimpse into carny life comes courtesy of the Dreifuss family. And while we’ve seen these characters milling about the fringes, this is our first real chance to get an up-close look at the family dynamics at play. It isn’t pretty. Rita Sue and her two daughters, Libby and Dora Mae, are practicing the “cooch show.” Rita Sue and Libby want to start incorporating some more professional dance moves, but Dora Mae doesn’t see the point since the only thing the men in the audience care about is seeing them naked. Granted, Dora Mae uses much more colorful vernacular, but you get my drift.


Ben abandons his post to go check on an ailing Lodz. Seems the blind seer is in the throes of opium detox, a fact Ben seemingly revels in mocking. The two engage in a bit of trash talk before being interrupted by Ruthie, who promptly tells Ben to get back to work. She then tells Lodz that she will “tear his pecker off like a loaf of French bread” if he messes with Ben.

With the camp about to implode with nerves, Samson offers to take the whole gang into town to blow off steam. They arrive at a desolate bar and find the man from the road working there—let’s call him Creepy Barkeep. When Samson asks what happened, Creepy Barkeep replies that he never made it out of town and never does. How the sheer hair-raising nature of that statement doesn’t cause Samson to turn tail and run, I’ll never know. But it doesn’t, and instead everyone throws down by slinging back drinks and taking suggestive twirls on the dance floor. They may be society’s “freaks,” but these people know how to get down!

Sophie and Libby forgo the bar hijinks and slip off to the local theater. It’s deserted save for one man who is in serious need of a personal space lecture. While Libby taunts him that they are dancers who get naked, Sophie steals candy from the concession stand. Given what they know about Babylon, petty larceny may not be the best decision.

Back at the bar, Dora Mae sidles up to Creepy Barkeep and asks where all the people are hiding. He ominously tells her that it’s best if they don’t come out. Seriously, have these people never seen a horror film? Creepy Barkeep then plies Dora Mae with liquor while a crowd of men with lanterns assembles outside to stare at the frivolity taking place in the bar.


It’s the morning after, and everyone is wasted in some form or another. Rita Sue and Felix argue over the music for the act, while Ruthie notices that Ben is missing. Everyone writes off his absence by thinking he is somewhere sleeping it off; in a way, that’s sort of accurate, seeing as how Ben just woke up in a cave and is currently screaming for help.

Libby tells Dora Mae that she has just fallen off the roof, which is a super old-timesy way of saying she got her period, and that the blow-off is all Dora Mae’s. Guys, I don’t even want to know what that means. Also rocking my world is Lodz, who, upon requesting to “borrow” Lila’s eyes for a spell, suddenly becomes a hundred times more interesting of a character.

It’s the evening of the carnival and the men with the lanterns arrive to the show. Immediately sensing that something is very off, Samson orders that there be no blow-off. But Rita Mae, seeing dollar signs from the large turnout, overrides Felix and Samson and insists that her daughter will perform. The weird vibes keep coming when Sophie is unable to read the future of one of the men. The exchange is terse, but does reveal that Scudder was a resident of Babylon before he fled after killing a man with a pickax.


The blow-off gets underway; I’ll spare you the details. Suffice to say, it involves nudity and acrobatics. Predictably, this drives the already off-kilter men go crazy. As they tear at Dora Mae, she calls for her father and Felix is able to save her. Outside, a hyperventilating Dora Mae tries to make sense of the attack while Rita Mae looks on in stony silence. Eventually Felix comes out and comforts his daughter while bandaging her leg. They leave Dora Mae alone outside of the tent, because clearly only good things happen in the dead of night in a cursed town. Our fears are confirmed when a noise causes Dora Mae to look up, startled.

Ben is still searching for a way out of the tunnel when, wouldn’t you know it, he comes across a man with a pickax in his head. Coincidence gives way to something otherworldly when who should come stumbling past Ben but a headlamp-clad Scudder? A chase ensues in which Ben yells that he knows who Scudder is, to which Scudder replies, “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. Following the sign, Ben is able to find his way out of the cave.

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 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.

Y’all: This was a rough one. But it’s nothing compared to the emotional devastation that awaits in next week’s episode. Hopefully, this GIF will make you feel better:


Comments, Gripes, and Observations

  • “Poodle piss” is now my go-to expression for all matters of drink and drug. It should be yours as well.
  • For as much as I am obsessed with all things House of Crowe, this is the first episode in the series that seems to be firing on all cylinders. We get real insight into the characters, and the biblical undertones mix with the mythology in a way that is, frankly, brilliant.
  • Dora Mae’s death is a sucker punch to the gut. That is all due to Amanda O’Day’s very deft acting choices.
  • How do you guys think the carnival will react to Dora Mae’s lynching?
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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