Carnivàle: The (Un)Holy Power of Brother Justin Crowe

It was the fall of 2003. When you think of HBO at that time, the first show that probably comes to mind is The Sopranos. That’s understandable. Tony Soprano and crew ruled the TV landscape at that time as the centerpiece show of television’s premiere pay network. Literally everyone watched The Sopranos, and the show permeated popular culture in the early 2000’s (and for damn good reason).

With that being said (and at the risk of blaspheming one of TV’s great shows), I have to say that I’ve always been a tad bitter at all the adulation heaped upon that admittedly stellar piece of work simply because it overshadowed a show that deserved an equal press push and the same critical acclaim as HBO’s monster hit. I’m talking, of course, about Daniel Knauf’s short-lived Dust Bowl-era fantasy about the generational battle between good and evil known as Carnivàle.

In its two seasons, Carnivàle told a rich tale of a traveling carnival rumbling through the Dust Bowl southwest during the Great Depression. The carnival becomes home to a young man named Ben Hawkins (Nick Stahl; Terminator 3), a reluctant healer who is this generation’s prophet of light in the war of good and evil. His opposite is the show’s powerhouse antagonist and arch-villain, the complex and dangerous revival preacher/Antichrist named Brother Justin Crowe (Clancy Brown; Highlander, The Shawshank Redemption).

Humble Origins and a Decent Heart

When we first meet Brother Justin, he’s leading a full and healthy congregation in Mintern, California. He’s respected and admired, but he’s ruffling the wrong feathers in town by ministering to the migrants and “Okies” from back east. He uses his considerable power to gain possession of a Chinese whorehouse/gambling den that he converts into a new church and orphanage for his societally unwanted parishioners.

Brother Justin Hands
Just your friendly local preacher here. Nothing unusual at all.

Following a mysterious fire that killed six children and a caregiver living inside the newly coined “Dignity Ministry,” Brother Justin finds himself a changed man. Broken by the tragic deaths, he wanders off into the wilderness (i.e. he hits the road as a vagabond) to figure out what God really wants and who he really is. His love and passion for these downtrodden people are one hundred percent real, and he is reeling both spiritually and emotionally when he disappears.

The early work by Clancy Brown as we’re introduced to Brother Justin is easily amongst the best work of his career. His natural ability to be silently menacing, combined with a particularly cool preacher getup, let you know he’s dark as hell…but then he shows you humanity and concern that poignantly remind you Satan was once an angel. In this case, he’s a dark angel who’s just coming to understand his previously misunderstood powers. The casting of Clancy Brown is perfection; his ability to bring layers of humanity to an outright demon is not to be missed.

On the road, Brother Justin learns and remembers more about himself and his true nature. Much is revealed about the backstory of Justin and his sister, Iris (Amy Madigan; Field of Dreams). Russian orphans themselves, the two were saved from a train accident and raised in the ministry by Reverend Norman Balthus (Ralph Waite; The Waltons). Much like his enemy, Ben Hawkins, Justin and his sister have unclear paternal heritage and lifelong knowledge of born power and gifts. In another important parallel, both Crowe and Hawkins are still somewhat uncomfortable with their powers at this point in the story.

Brother Justin at the tree
Dreaming big dreams…

Both grow to find the courage of their conviction as it pertains to their powers, however. Once Brother Justin returns from his awakening, he is a transformed beast with the power to command an audience on voice alone. He’s gained a large audience thanks to his story going national on the radio with on-air personality Tommy Dolan (Robert Knepper; Prison Break), and he intends to capitalize on his new power and understanding.

 “If you ever loved me, kill me!”

Heading into Season 2, Brother Justin has stepped fully into his own flesh, so to speak. The simple beauty of the warning in the story cannot be overstated as Brother Justin returns to the pulpit full of the Holy Spirit (or at least his own version of it). To see him so effectively fool everyone as his congregation and reach grows is to see your religion turned back upon you, and it’s damn powerful stuff.

Speaking of powerful stuff, the relationship between Brother Justin and Reverend Norman Balthus is the highlight of Justin’s slow transformation to becoming a fully functioning demon without remorse. There comes a point where you see the last real humanity of Justin Crowe. Norman, the man who raised him, has seen the demon in him for what it is and confronts him. Justin surprises him by handing him a massive gold candlestick and laying his head bare on the altar so it can be crushed. He begs for death and cries out to God. Pleading with Norman he wails, “If you’ve ever loved me, kill me! Before it’s too late!”

Brother Justin transformed
Do you like my eyes? What do you mean, I look evil?!

It’s a moment that steals a bit of your soul and reminds you that these avatars, these generational prophets and ushers of doom, are still human beings at the end of the day. They’re human beings “gifted” with incredible powers they didn’t ask for, but they’re still just people. Clancy Brown has to carry the motherlode of duality as he’s the one playing the evil character, and he crushes it in one of the best and most consistent performances of his career

Moving Toward Armageddon 

Now fully understanding his role as The Usher of the Apocalypse, Brother Justin spends his free time torturing a stroke-riddled Norman and screwing maids to madness Randall Flagg style. His flock numbers in the tens of thousands, and he’s become an attraction folks travel from states away to see. It’s a chilling turn that sees Clancy Brown playing the character with patient malice that doesn’t have to be overacted. The physical bearing of Clancy Brown (six foot three and broad as hell) and his deeply harmonious voice are all the acting that’s needed. The man drips menace as the story winds down to its conclusion. He’s become a true BBEG (Big Bad Evil Guy).

And that’s where the problems really start…

The Bomb
I love the smell of Armageddon in the morning!

Carnival and church finally collide in a season finale that takes the rather masterful finale from the first season and turns it on its ear. Long-standing questions are answered, and new questions are raised. The second season ends on a cliffhanger. Not just any cliffhanger, mind you—the second season ends with a legit game-changer finish that made me immediately mad I couldn’t go ahead and start watching the third season the very moment the credits rolled.

Alas, the third season never came. The continuing story of Brother Justin Crowe and Ben Hawkins stops there, with a new avatar and an end that was merely another beginning. The fate of TV’s ultimate “preacher from Hell” will never be known. We won’t get to see an honest-to-God legend like Clancy Brown don the black suit again, and I find that to be a goddamn shame if you’ll pardon my blasphemy.

I mean, it’s not like it’s the end of the world or anything.

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Written by Stuart Monroe

A man obsessed with all things horror (particulary the Italians and the British), Big Daddy Stu devours everything he can in the genre. When he's not watching or reading horror, he's watching pro wrestling or Clemson Tigers football. Big Daddy Stu also writes a bit of fiction on occasion.

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