Minor spoilers ahead.
I initially pegged "Carnivàle" as a slow-moving, atmospheric supernatural show that didn't concern itself overmuch with plot. Well, in season two the plot showed up with a vengeance. While the complicated series mythology remains largely unexamined, it soon becomes inevitable that our two protagonists, Ben Hawkins and Brother Justin will have their destined confrontation by the last episode of the season, and the series becomes a much more goal-oriented, focused piece of work in order to get them there. Instead of waiting for the apocalypse to arrive, now key characters are actively in search of it.
Spurred by newfound purpose, Ben puts his doubts aside and becomes a hero the audience can really root for, while Brother Justin descends into the depths of villainy in pursuit of power. Nick Stahl and Clancy Brown's performances really kick into high gear, and are a lot of fun. However, the effect of putting so much focus on this pair is that for much of the season the rest of the cast gets sidelined. I wouldn't say they're neglected since there there are strong subplots and character arcs for most of the regulars, particularly the Dreifuss family, Jonesy, Samson, and Sophie, but we see far less of the little character portraits and backstory that was prevalent in the first season. It's also very noticeable that the cast has been reduced by several members.
A few new characters and some strong guest stars help to pick up the slack. Notably there's a new villain, Varlyn Stroud, played by John Carroll Lynch, who Brother Justin sets on Ben's trail like a bloodhound. However, the ones who make the most of an impression tend to be the ones with the least amount of screen time. I love how "Carnivàle" consistently manages to create these fully-formed characters who only appear for a few minutes, some who are totally incidental to the plot. A German hotel clerk and a nameless old man on the road who Ben gets information from are as memorable as some of the major players. There are so many I wish we could have spent more time getting to know.
This season is more fulfilling from a writing standpoint. Though the the pace remains fairly slow, there are far more frequent payoffs to the various storylines, and the status quo changes irrevocably several times. What the series loses in simmering mystery, it gains in strong plotting and a bolder narrative. I found I got much more attached to characters like Jonesy and Samson when they were put in a position to be more active and make more important choices. Meanwhile, those left treading water with dead-end developments like poor Ruthie were more frustrating to watch. Easily the character I found the most improved was Amy Madigan's Iris, whose motivations are much better defined this year. With much of Brother Justin's inner struggle resolved, the spotlight turns to his devoted sister and her myriad sins.
There were some things in this season that came off as rather contrived - someone's gambling problem materializes out of nowhere, the fallout from Lodz's absence is a distraction that doesn't really come to much, and Sophie's existential crisis gets awfully convoluted - but eventually the show finds its groove again when it counts. The back half of the season is one of the most enjoyable runs of episodes I've seen in a long time, finding ways to get all the characters involved in the final battle and building up the suspense to terrific heights. After seeing so many similar supernatural genre programs fail to stick their landings, it's incredibly gratifying to see "Carnivàle" execute a properly epic and apocalyptic showdown so well.
The world of "Carnivàle" remains a source of fascinating horrors. More than once I was reminded of Garth Ennis's "Preacher" comics, with their abundance of uniquely American grotesques. Ben Hawkins runs across several varieties of them in his travels, and of course Brother Justin is one as well. The second season had to undergo some budget cuts and it shows. The carnival scenes are scaled back and crowds are thinner. Still, the effects and makeup work remain top of the line, and the production design of the Depression Era setting is consistently gorgeous. You can see the dust and grit in every frame. And I just love the little details like Libby Dreifuss's bleached hair starting to show its roots in a later episode, and that Lila uses a single curler for her beard. After a decade the series doesn't look like it's aged a day.
I'm not particularly upset that "Carnivàle" ended after this season, because I knew it was going to be truncated from the start and the finale was strong enough and decisive enough that it left me satisfied. "Carnivàle" feels like a complete story even though I know that more was planned. This is certainly one of the best HBO productions I've seen so far, and the most unique.
Looks like it's on to "Deadwood" next.