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'Carnivale' recap: In which Justin finally gets his backstory

Season 1 | Episode 7 | “The River” | Originally aired Oct 26, 2003

If the last two brilliant episodes of Carnivàle were about establishing the carnies and their place in a world gone mad, “The River” squarely takes aim at understanding what it is that makes those potentially incestuous Crowe siblings tick.

As far as origin stories go, this one is a humdinger and showcases perfectly the way Carnivàle likes to take audience expectation and manipulate it to elevate suspense. Just when you think you have a character pegged, the writers find a way to completely upend your assumptions. And the end result is nothing short of a creepy masterpiece.

Irina and Alexei at the river

After venturing into the wilderness in the hopes of finding his faith, Justin finds himself atop a bridge ready to end it all. But his plunge into the river doesn’t result in death. Instead, is washed up on a river bed surrounded by two skittish-looking siblings. The younger of the two, a boy named Alexei, wants to help the wounded Justin, while his older sister, Irina, insists that he is a bad man and not deserving of assistance. It is revealed that the two children are Russian immigrants who are the lone survivors of a train crash. Ultimately, Justin is able to grab the girl and promises to break her neck if the boy doesn’t get him help. Enraged at seeing his sister threatened, the boy glares at Justin, whose neck rotates and breaks in quick succession.

Back at the carnival, the impact of Dora Mae’s lynching is still being felt. To make Libby happy, Felix agrees to head out to Hollywood with his daughter so that she can pursue her dream of becoming a legitimate actress. But Rita Sue, who is not above using her sexuality to control her husband and shatter her daughter’s dream, quickly squashes the idea. The fragmented carnival family continues to splinter when Sofie agrees to abandon Apollonia and head out to Hollywood with Libby. Yet ultimately that dream too proves futile. The fact that circumstance prevents both women from being able to strike out on their own makes their decision to stay with the carnival all the more heartbreaking.


Ben continues to grow closer to Ruthie as the two search for snakes to use in her act. It becomes clear that the two are teetering on romance. But back at camp, Ben grows jealous of Ruthie’s previous romantic relationships and lashes out at Gabe, breaking the gentle boy’s arm. Lest we forget that Ben is a healer, he takes the boy out to a lake where he is able to heal him. But as Lodz had warned, no healing can be achieved without a death of equal consequence. And the consequence for healing Gabe’s arm is apparently a lake full of dead fish. Lila spies the goings-on,but when she recounts what she saw at the lake to a troubled Lodz, the blind man beats her with his cane.

Still chasing the story of Brother Justin, Tommy pays a visit to Iris and attempts to charm the woman. It’s a welcome distraction considering Iris has been meandering throughout the house sniffing Justin’s clothes as well as the horse whip he uses for self-flagellation. Tommy tries to convince her that he can be of service to their ministry and all he requires is full access to Brother Justin’s story. Later, Tommy demonstrates his worth by conning Val Templeton info financing a new church while Iris listens to the broadcast, entranced.


Fueled by wine and a deep longing for her missing brother, Iris recounts to Tommy a story she has heard of a Russian brother and sister who were the sole survivors of a train crash. It becomes clear that the children Justin has encountered are actually himself and Iris and that he is reliving a repressed memory. He jolts out of it and discovers that he hasn’t jumped from the bridge.

This realization not only confirms to Justin that he has a birthright to attain, but it also casts light on Iris’ culpability in keeping his knowledge of his gifts from him. Later, Iris receives a call from Justin in which he uses her birth name, Irina, and condemns her for always knowing what was inside of him. Alone, Iris climbs the stairs to the bedroom, passing by an old picture of herself and Justin as children with Norman.

Comments, Gripes, and Observations

  • Biblical allusions abound in this episode. From Justin’s journey into the wilderness to Ben’s healing in the water to the unnamed river itself, the writers create a narrative that works on multiple levels and in a way you don’t find too often on television.
  • Samson warned us in the pilot that a battle between light and dark was coming. That the position of dark should be occupied by the seemingly righteous minister and the position of light occupied by ex-convict Ben is especially unexpected.
  • I can’t decide who steals the episode: Amy Madigan or Toby Huss. While Madigan is able to infuse Iris with a wholly unexpected dark subtext through her facial expressions alone, Huss continues to offer a devastating examination of grief.
  • This is a show about small moments, and that’s no clearer than in the subtle exchange between Samson and Rita Sue in which he lets her know that he killed Dora Mae’s murderer.
  • Lila getting beaten with Lodz’s cane remains one of the show’s most disturbing moments—and that’s saying something.
  • The love story between Ruthie and Ben is so unexpected but moving. And when was the last time you saw the main heartthrob of a show go for the much older woman?
  • Now that Brother Justin knows his power, how do you think he’ll use it? And how do you think that will impact Ben?
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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