We come to you this week with a short, but important, second segment on Carnivàle. The sides of light and darkness have each been chosen, though the lines are arguably less clear throughout the series. In one of Knauf’s more brilliant moments, “light” creatures and “dark” creatures are never a cartooned version of themselves. In other words, they each exhibit and inhibit essential qualities of the other. Ben has a dark side just like Justin has a light side. Humanity tends to like paintings with broad strokes, essentializing and sometimes demonizing qualities of the other when in actuality we should be talking always in a multi-dimensional dynamic way about each other. Read on readers and see what unfolds in Knauf’s tale of Apocalypse!
As season two opens, the audience is brought back to the story with the words of Brother Justin: “As God has tested Job, so too have we been tested brothers and sisters.” Knauf explicitly uses biblical references for his second season opener. This imagery of suffering, and of Job’s tragedy, re-centers the audience with an apocalyptic mind set; the end is coming. Knauf brings out the suffering of this time period well. As this opening episode, “Los Moscos, NM”, of season two progresses, the audience witnesses Ben in one of the nuclear bomb tests at Alamogordo, NM. When the bomb historically detonated, it was compared to something like the creation of the world or the second coming of Christ. As the bomb explodes in the series, everything is obliterated, but as the dust settles, Ben’s and Justin’s crouching figures remain. This scene serves not only as an apocalyptic tag for the series, but also creates a map within the storyline as Alamogordo will be Ben’s next destination. The result is the link of Ben’s journey toward Alamogordo, a place fraught with man-made peril, and ultimately one step closer to Justin, who represents the ultimate end. As Ben comes out of his vision, a character yells to him that he cannot run from the inevitable fight or millions will die.
Knauf also expands the apocalyptic and biblically related characterizations underpinning Brother Justin and Ben during season two. Justin, whom the audience first comes to know as a holy man, is rapidly changing into a demon. Uncertainty surrounds Justin’s true nature, however, until he addresses his ministry in a sermon,
“I now realize that you are not here to hear the words of other men. You are here for me. So that I am not alone in the garden. ”
After the bishops try to regain control of their rogue minister, Justin takes a stand and declares himself the snake to the people of Eden. Knauf has fully revealed Justin as the antagonist and the beast in his own Revelation.
The association of Justin as devil and Ben as savior is not only carefully written within each episode, but also works masterfully with the progression of three specific episodes in season two. Rodrigo Garcia, the director of Carnivàle, says of the two characters,
“Obviously one of the main themes is the conflict between good and evil… Another extremely interesting theme is the theme of identity. Both leads — Ben Hawkins and Brother Justin — they’re haunted by their powers, by their dreams. ”
The epic battle between Justin and Ben takes place in a cornfield in New Canaan. Both of the characters – Ben armed with a dagger, Justin with a scythe – draw blood from one another. Ben plunges the dagger fatally deep into Justin. Ben, also wounded, is soon dragged away by the carnival troupe for a quick getaway. As they pull away, Sofie walks into the field. The shot pulls out, and the audience sees the cornfield rapidly dying around her. In the final scene, Ben lies unconscious in Management’s trailer. Knauf’s final vision for Carnivàle leaves the audience with many questions. Sofie, who discovers her own ability to heal by touch, chooses her fate and heals Justin. Ben, who has no one to heal him, suffers in the trailer. There is no conclusion as to whether or not Ben lives. Does Knauf intend to show that the battle between good and evil goes on indefinitely? Is there hope for a new tomorrow? Clancy Brown, the actor who portrays Justin, summarizes the thematic heft of Carnivàle in an interview,
“This is the story of the final confrontation, between these two entities, the final battle between God and Satan, for the soul of man. And, well, we are the products of that battle. So, you decide, who won or who lost. Are we creatures of light, or are we creatures of darkness? ”
The ultimate ambiguity leads the audience into a frenzy of unknowing.
Co-Written by: Seth Alexander and Erica Saccucci
I happened to catch the series premiere of EXTANT a day late (our nun friends caught it on time,) but it was well worth the wait. They were also accurate in their initial reaction of EXTANT being odd for all the reasons I discuss below. It’s a good thing I love odd. We normally post weekly on Tuesdays, but everyone gets an extra post this week because of the premiere!
My primary branch of interest within theology is reproductive ethics, so you can only imagine that I was as wide-eyed as my daughter spying a cup of gelato while the pilot unfolded in front of me. This is going to be fairly short long since there is only one episode to discuss and realistically I actually have more questions for viewers than comments – at least at this time. (Side-note, that time was 30 minutes ago before I started writing. Things change.)
Let’s break this down into three main themes that I think everyone may want to watch as time goes on. These themes, for me, bring up essential questions within the realms of moral theology, reproductive theology, and basic human existentialism. I would imagine based on the pilot that these will continue to be points of development for each character.
Moral theology. We have talked a little about moral theology before in different ways. It is actually a large subset of theology and itself encompasses many different topics. In a most basic sense, moral theology discusses how we develop a sense of “right” from “wrong” and how we form ethics, rules, and law based on that function. EXTANT seems to be indicating early on that the moral and ethical realm will be visited quite frequently. Not only is there the questionable moral development of Ethan, the Woods’ humanoid robot son, but also an overarching storyline of what was done to Molly, who knows about it, and why they are keeping it a secret.
We will get to Molly in a moment though, let’s first talk about Ethan. Dr. John Woods, Ethan’s father, is a robotic scientist who created Ethan after he and Molly were not able to have children of their own. For all intents and purposes, Ethan is a robot. There was no indication that he had organic human material, which would make him a cyborg, so he was built in the image of human beings, but not made of the same material. In Christianity, the belief is that humans are created in the imago dei, the image of God. So to make other human beings, particularly in Roman Catholic ethics, goes against what the Church would say are the laws of nature. Similarly, in creating a robotic child, that child cannot take the place of organic life, which is solely created by God via male-female sexual intercourse. John is the creator of his son, built in his likeness. John treats Ethan no different than a human child. He believes that Ethan will learn right from wrong in the same way that a human child would and could – to John it is a matter of process. Ethan is programmed with the same moral process that a human would develop when they encounter problems. John does not seem to prescribe to a religion, as far as can be told from the pilot, so having a robotic child is a non-issue… or is it? So what is the issue and why does Ms. Femi Dodd get all huffy as John presents Ethan to the board at Yasumoto Company?
Femi: What is the protocol in the event your… experiment… fails? Do you have an emergency plan for their shut down?
John: To preserve their power? Absolutely. It’s called interlude mode. ::to Ethan:: Do you mind?
Femi: Excuse me Dr. Woods, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for the resting mode, I meant for their termination.
John: To kill them.
Femi: That wording is a bit inelegant, but yes.
John: Do you have a child?
Femi: I have a daughter.
John: Do you have a plan to kill her?
Femi: My daughter’s a human being.
John: I don’t understand the difference.
Femi: Well for starters, she has a soul.
John: With all due respect, Ms. Dodd, there is no such thing as a soul.
A few moments after this exchange, John explains his position to Femi. He feels that those who believe that there is anything inexplicable by science, are idiots. Femi responds that she, then, is an idiot. Clearly it went downhill from there. Stepping back and examining their heated exchange, Femi Dodd provides the perspective that the element of unknown, in this case represented by religious belief, is ever present. There is no science to explain the soul in the way that religion/theology understands the soul. The soul, the essence of the person that exists, regardless of their physical birth and being, is also connected philosophically speaking to the conscience, which in turn guides a person morally.
What seems on the surface to be a question in EXTANT of either believing in a soul or believing in science, is actually asking on a deeper level if morality and learning to be moral are based only in process or in essence. John, of course, would argue that morality is taught as a process and therefore with the right programming anyone/thing that has the intelligence can learn to be moral via human connection and experience. This is why John calls his project “Humanichs.” Femi, obviously, is arguing that there is, by design, an essence and conscience in the human being that cannot be replicated via process or mechanics. The status of the Humanich would have to be affirmed socially before a decision on killing a humanich could be made. Similarly to other sci-fi stories, the struggle between science and religion play out nicely.
But let’s complicate this. Molly.
Molly, being unable previously to bear children, finds herself pregnant after returning from a solitary space mission aboard the “Seraphim.” Incidentally, “Seraphim” is also the name of a hierarchy of angel-like creatures. They are not only messengers at times but, more importantly, the ones that maintain purity and help God to maintain order. Remember that little insight!
During her mission she found herself face to face with her ex, Marcus, and proceeds (we can assume, I would say) to have some type of physical exchange. Molly blacks-out during this time. Upon reviewing the camera footage after she wakes up, she sees that she is alone, there was no one else there – or at least, no one that can be seen on film. There is no indication whether her child is human or alien, but it is a life growing inside her. Molly is now facing the dilemma of having to tell John that she is carrying a baby-something-or-other that is not his. Oh, and by the way, conception happened while she was completely alone other than a ghostly hallucination. If little Marcus-geist turns out to be a baby alien, will John love it because he can teach it a moral process?
In the meantime, Molly fights with both Ethan and John about Ethan’s bad behavior. For Molly this is an indication that Ethan is not a “real” child in the sense of a human child. This is the point where I started to look around for Gigolo Joe’s entrance. Molly tells John that loving, for Ethan, is a process and not a human bond. John, again, believes that if the process to love is there that is what matters, even if the material is different. During Molly and Ethan’s fight, Molly chases after him and finds him standing over a dead bird with blood on his hand. Molly recoils, Ethan says he found it that way. Ethan then, quickly, moves to compliment Molly’s hair. Is Ethan telling the truth? Is the process to turn to flattery a way to disarm the situation?
So we have a ship named after an order of heavenly beings, a conception of unknown origin (perhaps not immaculate, but certainly peculiar,) the spirit of a dead lover asking for help, and the argument over sources of morality and conscience in created beings including a Humanich child. Molly is certainly left in a hard place at the end of the episode. Not only does she have to establish for herself whether or not her robo-child actually has the capacity for real love and morality, but she also has geist-child to contend with.
Did a scientifically superior species impregnate Molly or was it a miracle? Should robots have the same rights as human beings even if it is unknown whether or not they have the same moral capacity? Stay tuned for our next episode of EXTANT inquiries.
By: Erica Saccucci
 EXTANT, Mickey Fisher. Pilot, July 9, 2014: CBS.
 I really want to point out to Molly that if she lived in Bon Temps, this would be a completely explicable phenomenon.
“Captain, you mind if I say grace?” … “Only if you say it out loud” – Firefly, Serenity, and Morality in the ‘Verse.
It took all of my will power, which is actually very little, to wait even one posting to write an article on Firefly. Firefly and its follow-up, Serenity, received both heavy cultic praise as well as criticism on its western-meets-space-meets-Chineselanguage-dystopian-Whedonverse identity. For those who love it already, read on. For those who don’t… well… there is really no help for that, read on anyway.
I could, potentially, write a book on Firefly/Serenity, but since we’re dealing here with ideas in theo+POP, let’s stick to a few key themes, shiny? Being a dystopian sci-fi, Firefly was set after the Earth was destroyed, everyone baled, and then went on to wreck other parts of the ‘verse in an inter-planetary war. Firefly takes place after that war. The revolutionary Browncoats, representative of the outer planets, lost the war to the central planets and the Alliance. That was summarized from my head, so if you want to read the full synopsis, travel here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Firefly_(TV_series)
So where does religion and/or theology fit into Firefly? Well, let’s begin with the idea that the themes of theology go beyond the obvious character of Shepherd Book, the wandering overtly Christological figure. Though Book is certainly in the theological trenches, he is not representative of Firefly’s theology in its entirety. As a Shepherd, even one with an unknown and potentially questionable past, Book is about faith and morality. Though he seems, at first, to be the “holy” character, his interests lie more in people finding goodness in their own beliefs than in people finding God in his. Risking a spoiler for all those who are reading this posthaste, at the end of Book’s life, after being fatally wounded by operatives of the Alliance, he tells a perpetually reluctant Captain Malcolm Reynolds, “I don’t care what you believe. Just believe it…” before he took his final breath.  Book, being the gun-wielding preacher that he was, questioned his own Christian morality in its imperfection. It was clear from this scene, however, that he was more concerned with Mal finding his own sense of goodness. Book knew that a moral life was not only about belief in “absolute” principles, but rather the efficacy and commitment of belief in general. In other words, he wanted Mal to find that spark worth fighting for.
Digging a little more deeply into this theme of believer vs. skeptic, while Book makes a good case for believers – being that he is generally a “good” person – the skeptics are not completely misguided in their anti-religious sentiments. After all, River was almost burned at the stake by zealots along with her brother, Simon, for being a witch. Mal was married off in a furtive ritual to Saffron, who we all know turned out to be bat-shite crazy. The religiously zealous can, at times, take beliefs to the extreme. On the other hand, the scientific minds were also convinced of their own greatness and god-like intelligence. They killed off the entire planet of Miranda and in the process created the Reavers – the very worst…and scariest!…of humanity. Though it is understandable that Mal distances himself from these atrocities on both sides, which turns him into a nonpartisan automaton, it only works for so long. Eventually, like Tiresias, he begins to see beyond his blindness. Mal cannot ignore his own moral values rooted in humanity, and so chooses to do what he believes is good for all.
It seems that the word “good” gets tossed around frequently when we discuss topics like saving the world and what is “just.” Justice for the Alliance was indicative of control, order, wealth, and the sterilization of messy humanity. The Browncoats, Mal in particular, fight against the “Big Brother” system so that justice will prevail and ordinary people can live good lives. Where self-interest thrives, it is clear that nothing else can. There is a fragile balance in order that Mal and his tenacious crew seek to restore.
Book’s dying moment, as described earlier, is essential to the Firefly philosophy. Similarly to Karl Rahner’s idea on the anonymous Christian, Book sees that through conscience and intent of goodness, belief – a most powerful gift – can be found in the most unexpected places.
As Book and River discuss in the episode Jaynestown,
“Shepherd Book: What are we up to, sweetheart?
River Tam: Fixing your Bible.
Shepherd Book: I, um…
Shepherd Book: What?
River Tam: Bible’s broken. Contradictions, false logistics – doesn’t make sense.
Shepherd Book: No, no. You-you-you can’t…
River Tam: So we’ll integrate non-progressional evolution theory with God’s creation of Eden. Eleven inherent metaphoric parallels already there. Eleven. Important number. Prime number. One goes into the house of eleven eleven times, but always comes out one. Noah’s ark is a problem.
Shepherd Book: Really?
River Tam: We’ll have to call it early quantum state phenomenon. Only way to fit 5000 species of
mammal on the same boat.
Shepherd Book: River, you don’t fix the Bible.
River: It’s broken. It doesn’t make sense.
Shepherd Book: It’s not about making sense. It’s about believing in something, and letting that belief be real enough to change your life. It’s about faith. You don’t fix faith, River. It fixes you.”
 Joss Whedon, Serenity. Universal Pictures, 2005. 1:06:52.
 ibid. “Safe,” Firefly. Fox. November 8, 2002.
 ibid. “Our Mrs. Reynolds.” October 4, 2002.
 Joss Whedon. “Jaynestown.” Firefly. Fox. October 18, 2002.
By: Erica Saccucci