Carnivàle: The Apocalypse is Here / Part 2

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!

Carnivale - Season 2

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,

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“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

“Captain, you mind if I say grace?” … “Only if you say it out loud” – Firefly, Serenity, and Morality in the ‘Verse.

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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. [1] 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 “absoluteserenity-book-death” 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.[2] Mal was married off in a furtive ritual to Saffron, who we all know turned out to be bat-shite crazy.[3] 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.[4]

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.”[5]

 

[1] Joss Whedon, Serenity. Universal Pictures, 2005. 1:06:52.

[2] ibid. “Safe,” Firefly. Fox. November 8, 2002.

[3] ibid. “Our Mrs. Reynolds.” October 4, 2002.

[4] Rahner, Karl and  Paul ImhofHubert Biallowons. Karl Rahner in Dialogue: Conversations and Interviews 1965-1982. New York: Crossroad. 1986.

[5] Joss Whedon. “Jaynestown.” Firefly. Fox. October 18, 2002.

By: Erica Saccucci

Marie Laveau and the Devil: Misrepresentation of Vodou and Women’s Religious Leadership in American Horror Story: Coven

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The third season (Coven) of American Horror Story (AHS) was by far the most popular installment to date of the television series.   A record number of 4.2 million viewers tuned in for the season finale to find out who would reign supreme in this epic of witches from Salem and voodoo queens, all set in magical New Orleans.[1] Due to the increased popularity of the most recent season of AHS, it seems appropriate to address some racial and religious injustices perpetrated by the program – common Hollywood prejudices whose firm grip upon the popular imagination has apparently not relaxed in the twenty-first century.

Many published works on Vodou include a preface that says something like, “Vodou is not devil worship, black magic, cannibalism, etc.” This is a necessary introduction, as Vodou is a religious tradition that has long been glamorized and vilified by scandalized white voyeurism and fear of black power. Hollywood did not originate the diabolic spectacle versions of Vodou, but has been a vehicle for its wide dispersion. The ubiquitous image of the zombie of Walking Dead or any comparable works have their roots in the sensationalist creation of “voodoo” by white writers.

The grim fascination of Vodou for white audiences began in the eighteenth century with the legendary Vodou roots of the Haitian Revolution, in which men and women of color rose up against a sadistically cruel slave economy in the French colony of St. Domingue and, ultimately, won independence. The victory of the Haitian republicans horrified white slaveholders in the newly-independent United States and caused political turmoil on both sides of the Atlantic. Suspicion of the savage “slave religion” of Vodou has followed it ever since, and in the twentieth century became fertile ground for the spectacular entertainment of Hollywood.

So with that, what has all this to do with AHS: Coven?

Coven introduces the viewer to the fictional New Orleans boarding school, Miss Robichaux’s Academy, a school for young witches. The school was founded by the persecuted witches of Salem, who fled New England for New Orleans, and is now a safe haven and place of instruction for modern witches. There is a tense peace in the City of New Orleans between the predominantly white witches of the academy and Marie Laveau, the centuries-old voodoo queen and her devotees, who are women of color.

The focus of the season is, by far, the Salem-heritage witches of Miss Robichaux’s; however, Marie Laveau and her fellow Vodou sévités, based at a hair salon, stand as antagonists to the witches. As such, the development of Marie Laveau’s character is less comprehensive than the other characters; however, near the end of the season a window into Marie’s past is opened that directly touches on the themes of race and religion.

It is revealed that the source of Marie’s powers and her extraordinarily long life is a deal she made with Papa Legba, one of the principal lwa of the Vodou pantheon. Here is the first problem with the depiction of Vodou in AHS, it is never portrayed as a religion, but as a black magical tradition. Papa Legba shows up to explain how Marie received her powers. Legba is iconographically a muddle of other lwa, principally the familiar figure of Baron Samedi (always depicted as negative and scary by Hollywood). Naratively, Legba functions more like the figure of the Christian devil. He is the lord of Hell and comes to collect those bound for the afterlife; his deal with Marie is to exchange power and immortality for her soul. Another stipulation of this deal is that she must provide him with the soul of an innocent child each year. Here the depiction of Legba goes beyond any kind of blending of lwa characteristics and stumbles headlong into the lurid sensationalism of white commentators on Vodou since, at least, the nineteenth century.

Papa Legba, in Vodou practice, is the keeper of the crossroads. It is he who holds the keys to gate between the world of the lwa and the world of human beings. As such, Legba is served and petitioned at any Vodou service, so that the ceremony may take place at all. As such, the iconography of St. Peter with the keys of heaven and hell is often used to represent Legba. Alternately, he is depicted as a man with a cane, broad-brimmed hat, smoking a pipe, and attended by a dog. Thus, both iconographically and characteristically, AHS made a mess of the figure of this important lwa. Making him a cocaine-snorting baby-eater is the offensive icing on the cake, so to speak. Not only does this distort Vodou in rather unimaginative ways, it treats Marie Laveau in a misogynistic and, again, racially problematic light.

Laveau, the real Marie Laveau, can in many ways not be separated from the legends that have grown up around her (such is the also the case with Delphine Lalaurie, who figures into the AHS narrative). What can be said definitively about Marie Laveau is that she was a spiritual practitioner in the city of New Orleans, who had some measure of public recognition for her work. She is, perhaps, one of the most popularly well-known women religious leaders in a city that has known many, from the Ursuline sisters that helped settle and build the young colony to a long line of women’s leadership in the Spiritual Churches of the city. Women, both Vodou, Christian, and beyond have been arbiters of the divine and leaders of the community in New Orleans. AHS demonizes Marie Laveau and her religious tradition just as male religious leaders have discounted the leadership of women for centuries. The narrative spends more time working through the character of the notorious racist and slave-torturer, Mme. Delphine Lalaurie, and renders Laveau and Queenie as rather flat versions of the “good” and “bad negro.”

If the writers of AHS were going to write a fanciful revision of the Salem Witch Trials — themselves an historical instance of religious hysteria and violence of against  women—why then are the same racist and misogynistic tropes trotted out for the “voodoo” women of New Orleans?

Granted,the concept of “horror” is written into the very title of this television series; however, it doesn’t seem that the kind of atrocities the writers ended up depicting, either blatantly or subtly, were what they had in mind for this season about scary witches.

 

[1] http://www.vulture.com/2014/01/ratings-american-horror-story-coven-finale.html — accessed 3.2.14

 

By: Seth Alexander