I’m still working my way through the early episodes of Carnivale’s first season. Since HBO only ever made two, I’m glad I’m doing it slowly, prolonging the pleasure, shall we say. Each episode also leaves such a residue of images and sensation that I want to take time to absorb it.
At this early stage, what perhaps intrigues me most about Carnivale is its simultaneous sense of being out of time and acutely inside it.
On the one hand, the series trumpets its historicity. You have the sepia photographs and documentary footage from the 1930s which assail you in the opening credits (especially that scary one of the kiddie KKK). You have the immaculate period clothing and accoutrements – the vehicles, the slang, the carnival rides, the ramshackle buildings passed along the way. And of course you breathe in the Dust Bowl grit and the Depression-era sweat admixed with despair every time you watch the show.
At the same time, though, Carnivale is also about dreams and magic. It’s about being transported from the here and now into an otherplace independent of history. The opening credits alone make that clear. They constantly move between grainy “real” photographs and timeless pictures from tarot cards, zooming in on actual footage of a woman dancing and then transforming her into a static image of occult paraphernalia. The idea that stock tarot-figures might give insight into a person’s character – or that the future is out there, that one possesses a destiny – are profoundly ahistorical. And so there is always there is rubbing-up-against each other of the timeless and the historical in Carnivale, which I am still looking to interpret. I have the sense that this is in large part what makes the show so unsettling: the intermingling of two modes of being in such a promiscuous way.