A popular portrayal of violence in media is that violence is righteous. The perpetrator has a goal: vengeance, justice, sacrifice, greed, etc. For example, the Winchesters in Supernatural utilize violence typically in the context of vengeance or justice; they attempt to kill the demon that murdered their mother, or they attempt to kill monsters that pose a threat to the average passerby. Their violence has purpose—protagonists use violence to inflate their morality; by presenting violence as the Right Thing, violence is portrayed in a positive and purposeful light.
Another example is Beatrix from the Kill Bill series. Beatrix’s fiance and wedding party are murdered by her jealous former boss and lover, Bill. As an act of revenge against Bill and a call for justice, Beatrix seeks revenge against both Bill and the assassins that committed the murders. Beatrix says at one point, “When fortune smiles on something as violent and ugly as revenge, it seems proof like no other that not only does God exist, you’re doing his will.” Beatrix’s mission is then put in the context of a moral duty; it, as Eric Bain-Selbo argues in his essay Sacred power of violence in popular culture, “restores the divine and just order.”
Certainly not all protagonists and situations are like this, but righteous violence is a common theme that, once again, follows the motivations of vengeance, justice, or sacrifice. In the case of Beatrix, she not only has a purpose for violence (revenge), but her violence is beneficial (neither Bill nor the assassins will kill anyone else). This same idea is used in westerns—a vigilante cowboy at high noon with an unconvicted criminal. It’s used in superhero movies—the superhero, motivated by good will or revenge on behalf of a town or wronged love one, protects others by punishing a criminal.
However, the victim is perhaps more important than the protagonist in question. The victim frames how we perceive the hero.
Consider the movie Elephant, which is about a school shooting. Contrast the shooters with Beatrix. Both have the motivation of revenge—Beatrix against Bill; the shooters against the institution that bullied and crippled them. What differentiates the two, despite the severity of motivation, is the victims. Beatrix’s victims are bad people; by killing them, at least some cycle of violence is ended. The shooters’ victims are not bad people; their deaths are sad and tragic because the victims did not directly commit any deed worthy of death.
It is in this way that Carnivàle portrays a negative rather than positive view of violence.
The mere premise of the show necessitates violence: a Creature of Light and a Creature of Darkness must war until one prevails. This Manichean set up constitutes a differentiating of “Us” versus “Them.” Though the simple division of people is by no means something that necessitates violence, identity and protection of identity and scarcity of resources is enough to instigate violence. In the case of Ben and Brother Justin, both fight for their prevailing view of the world.
Despite this, violence is not a good thing, nor is it a means to an end. Brother Justin is, arguably, the most violent character in the show. Because he is the Creature of Darkness, most of his actions can be taken as an act of evil. Depicted or attempted five times in twenty-four episodes, the rape of women is one of the most frequent and violent acts in the series. Committed at least twice and shown three times by Justin, it is a metaphor for ultimate evil. The point of this violence is that there is no point to the violence. The reason that rape is utilized as the most extreme form of evil is because it is senseless; Brother Justin’s motivations are unclear (other than his status as a being of pure evil, so perhaps his motivations are just to be as evil as possible) and women suffer because of it. It is needless; there was no driving force; the women did not deserve this. Not only did Justin have little to no motivation, but the victims did nothing to inspire this gross act.
This use of violence is in no way righteous or cathartic. We cannot side or sympathize with Brother Justin when he is violent in this way because we cannot glean any sense of joy or justice from the victims.
Of course, not all violence is portrayed negatively. When Ben murders Lodz for poisoning Ruthie, the audience can gather a sense of enjoyment, especially when Ruthie is revived as a result. However, the relationship between positive and negative portrayals is about equal, if not in favor of negative—negative in that a victim is (relatively) innocent and motivations are poor. Negative in that we don’t want to see Ben held down by a man making a mask out of his face because Ben is a hero who shouldn’t be drugged and physically restrained. Negative in that we don’t want to see Jonesy tarred and feathered because it wasn’t Jonesy’s fault that the Ferris wheel malfunctioned. Negative in that Spangler from Babylon wasn’t necessarily Dora Mae’s murderer, but the carnies try to punish him, anyway. The list goes on—the innocent school children burned, Justin treated terribly at the mental institution, etc.
By equating rape with ultimate evil, by presenting violence with little cause, and by giving us victims who, in our eyes, are not worthy of the violence against them, Carnivàle discourages violence and presents an alternate portrayal of violence that contrasts the more positive portrayal of violence in media.