Tarot in “Carnivàle”
by Jaromir Król
I. The Show
There is no other show like “Carnivàle”. The 2003 HBO TV show told the complex story of a timeless battle between the forces of Light and Darkness, grounded in ancient legends and Gnostic mythology, and set in the backdrop of America’s Dust Bowl and the era of the Great Depression. It traced the meandering paths of two characters, the young, tortured healer Ben Hawkins, and the charismatic preacher Justin Crowe, along with the constantly evolving lives of a colorful, enigmatic and eccentric cast of a traveling carnival show.
No other show has featured the Tarot so prominently, either — not only by organically including the cards in the plot, but to the point of building its entire introduction upon them.
The opening of “Carnivàle” might well be the most captivating and memorable introduction to have ever graced a TV show: Tarot cards, richly illustrated with details of artworks created by the Old Masters and their apprentices, fall as the camera zooms in on them, to immerse itself in the tale contained in each one. Intricate animation turns them alive, splitting and expanding them into detailed, multi-layered panoramas, which then morph into grainy footage of pre-war chronicles, as they depict the gray life of America during the time of the Great Depression. A thousand stories hiding in the images come alive, illustrated by Jeff Beal’s enduring musical score.
II. The Seventy-Eight
The history of the Tarot is a subject worth of an entire separate work. The deck consists of 78 cards, 22 of which are known as the Major Arcana, and the remaining 56 as the Minor Arcana. Nowadays, it is associated almost exclusively with divination and cartomancy, yet it was probably first conceived as a set of recreational, playing cards.
“Probably” is a term that would need to be used often when writing the tale of the Tarot: already the beginnings of the deck are shrouded in mystery. The Tarot likely began its lengthy and uninterrupted life somewhere in 15th-century Italy, though some claim that the themes and traditions that it had collected can be traced to much earlier periods, and to civilizations beyond the Mediterranean Sea. Even its name is something of a riddle, derived from the Italian word “Tarocchi”, whose origin remains cryptic to this day.
The first known and partially-surviving Tarot decks were probably made around 1450 in Milan, lusciously hand-painted by artists, who, as so much else in the early history of the Tarot, are an enigma. Their names may have been preserved somewhere, or forever lost to history. They may have worked together, or separately. There may even have only been a single creator — perhaps the Milanese painter Bonifacio Bembo, perhaps a student of his… or perhaps someone else entirely. Whoever the mysterious creator was, he or they used the lushest paints and most expensive materials of the day to render multiple decks of seventy-eight cards of unmatched beauty and detail. Larger than the palm of an outstretched hand, the cards are nowadays known as the Visconti-Sforza deck, after Milan’s enigmatic duke Filippo Maria Visconti and his heir Francesco Sforza, who had — probably — commissioned and financed their creation. Originally known as the Trionfi — the triumphs — in time, the decks would evolve into the divinatory Tarot.
Little else is known about these first Tarot cards, their symbolism and the inspiration behind their design, yet one aspect is certain — the immortality of that which they established. Tarot cards have stood timeless for centuries, captivating and fascinating millions. Some are attracted to the Tarot for reasons related to mysticism, and for its association with divination. Others love it for its enigmatic history that evokes shadows of ancient past and forgotten mysteries. Others still delight in its historical and intrinsically artistic value, and its cultural significance that has lasted for centuries. Afficionados and collectors appreciate the decks as works of art, and as miniature journals of history, palm-sized, pictorial chronicles which reflect the culture of their day. The Tarot has inspired thousands of works of arts, written, aural and visual — and it continues to inspire.
In 2003, “Carnivàle” joined the decorous list of artwork influenced by the cryptic cards.
III. The Imaginary Deck
The striking, sumptuous imagery of the Tarot cards used in the opening instantly sent viewers onto a hunt for the mysterious deck. Many guesses as to its identity were made: some believed that the deck was the Tarot of Prague, others thought that it was the Tarot de Paris, still others were convinced that they were looking at the Tarot of Fine Art.
In fact, the deck was purely imaginary, created by the team in California’s A52 studio of visual design, coordinated by creative director Angus Wall and lead designer Vonetta Taylor.
The artwork for the cards was a mixture of paintings, sculptures, and original design. The paintings chosen came primarily from the Renaissance era, but the selection extended beyond the period as well. The artists whose works can be found in the deck include the Renaissance’s Michelangelo, Raphael, Bruegel, Francesco del Cossa, Ercole de Roberti, Josse Lieferinxe, Jean Fouquet, Jacopo Bassano and Carlo Crivelli, the Baroque’s Carracci and François Lemoyne, as well as the 19th century’s Gustave Doré, Pierre-Paul Prud’hon, Franz Stassen and Karl Bryullov. Carlo della Rocca’s 19th-century Tarot designs inspired some of the imagery as well. Modifications and additions were made to some paintings, to match the contents of the show and the transitions of the animations — for instance, structures from 19th-century United States were planted in the background of Jean Fouquet’s 15th-century painting, which originally depicted the ancient Roman Empire.
Rather than strictly conform to any established Tarot tradition and symbolism, or even to the names of the cards, the images were chosen for their visual values, the details that would match the show’s storyline and mythology, and the way in which they would lend themselves to animation. The choices encompassed many historical and artistic periods, and they did not stick to one subject. Thus, the cards may look quite unorthodox, if not odd. There is, for instance, the Moon card with an image of a devil that seems as if it was taken straight from Carlo della Rocca’s Soprafino Tarot deck. The Buddha stands for the King of Cups, while Michelangelo’s image of the Christian God is the Sun. The Archangel Michael appears as the King of Swords, and the Magician is a background detail from Josse Lieferinxe’s painting depicting the crucifixion of Jesus.
Considering the quality of A52’s graphics, one might try to use it to recreate the deck in print, but — aside from the issue of the availability of the original designs — one prosaic reason prevents that above all: no complete deck was ever created. It appears that, rather fittingly to its name, A52 designed 52 cards (some of which had duplicated imagery) — a mixture of incomplete Major and Minor Arcana.
IV. The Promotional Deck
Every major TV series comes with promotional material, and “Carnivàle” was no exception. Considering the nature of the series, few promo items would fit it better than a Tarot deck. A producer at HBO thought so, too, and so a contractor was chosen to create the item.
Sadly, those excited by the prospect of seeing the enigmatic deck from the show’s opening were in for a disappointment: the promotional deck was a separate project, handled by a different designer — a New Jersey studio named Orange Velvet Design.
The disappointments did not end there. The studio’s schedule was tight — a mere few days — but it could be enough to create an interesting deck, based on the storyline of the series and its rich imagery. Sadly, it appears that nobody at HBO seemed to bother enough to supply the studio with any promotional materials that could help with the task. The style and content of the cards was left fully to the designers, who had no clue about the nature of “Carnivàle”, its plot, its characters, or even their names. The result was a deck that both the viewers of the show and Tarot connoisseurs have described as disappointing and thoroughly underwhelming: 78 cards filled with mostly identical, white carnival masks superimposed over black background. Small details that matched the name of each respective card were added: crowns for the Kings and Queens, a generic clipart Earth for the World, and, of course, a bevy of swords, cups and clubs. Nothing about the deck’s imagery made any reference to “Carnivàle”. In fact, the only visual connection to the actual show was the presence of its logos at the bottoms and on the backs of the cards.
Had the deck been released on its own, as a project unrelated to the show, it might have even received a nod as an interestingly minimalistic example of circus-themed Tarot design. The expectations set by “Carnivàle”, however, were too high for the viewers to embrace it as an official product.
The deck was used for promotional purposes, as was briefly sold by HBO in the network’s online store.
V. The Anachronistic Deck
The introduction of “Carnivàle” may have featured an imaginary deck, but the show itself made ample use of the cards, and a physical deck would certainly be needed for many scenes. The prop designers of the show did not build their own deck: instead, they picked an existing one, tried and tested for several generations.
The Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot deck was created in the first decade of the 20th century, and was first published in 1909, by the freshly established London publishing house “William Rider & Son”. The cards were conceived by the American-British mystic Arthur Edward Waite, and drawn by the British illustrator Pamela Colman Smith, known to her acquaintances as “Pixie”. Her realistic drawings were relatively austere in their design, but rich in symbolism, and in time the deck would become the most popular Tarot deck in the Anglo-Saxon countries, and one of the most popular ones in the world. Over one hundred years after its creation, it is still the leading Tarot variant in the United States. It stands as one of the most culturally and historically significant Tarot decks in existence, alongside its younger sister, the Thoth Tarot, and the two venerable, revered protoplasts — the six-century-old Visconti-Sforza deck of Italy, and the almost-as-ancient French Tarot de Marseille.
It was the Rider-Waite-Smith deck that “Carnivàle” used on screen. However, there are scores of variants of the deck and its clones, and without access to a screen-used copy, attempting to identify the variant used in the show would normally be a herculean task.
(The battle over the rights to the imagery and names of the deck, along with the current legal situation, is a subject which could fill a separate lengthy text — however, suffice it to say that in the United States, the vast majority of the decks are published by a company named “U. S. Games”, and carry the company’s copyright notice on the margin of each card, to the chagrin of almost everyone who purchases them).
Thankfully, the show has graciously provided a major clue which not only helps in the identification, but which actually provides it. The backs of the cards are clearly visible in several scenes of the show, and they make the origin of the deck evident: the criss-crossing pattern of black and blue lines is an unmistakable characteristic of the decks manufactured and sold in the United States by U. S. Games.
The size of the cards, and the fact that they are labeled in French, allows one to zero in on one deck: the French-language edition of U. S. Games’ Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot Deck.
The spread of the lines on the back points to a deck manufactured in the 1990s, as it would be slightly modified a decade or so later, when U. S. Games changed the deck’s printer from an Italian to a Chinese one.
Sofie, the character who began as the traveling carnival’s fortune-teller, carried the deck wrapped in a dark, embroidered shawl. At least one deck was burned in the show’s second season, which, interestingly, goes against the advice of many Tarot connoisseurs.
The deck was chosen for its appearance, its screen-friendly size, and likely for the perceived cultural association of the French language with poetry, mysticism and enigma. Interestingly, however, the nature of the deck makes its choice slightly anachronistic. “Carnivàle” opens in 1934, when the deck would have been available for over two decades, and would probably be the one that Sofie and her mother would have purchased. However, the criss-crossing pattern would only appear on the backs of the cards decades later. In the 1930s, the backs would have been covered in a cappuccino-hued pattern, which resembled the surface of a sun-dried prairie, or in a blue arrangement of Tudor roses, if Sofie and her mother had managed to obtain an early edition of the deck. The names of the cards would have probably been the original, English ones, hand-written by Pamela Colman Smith; the names on the French cards are rendered in a modern, proportional font.
HBO had also commissioned an online game of Tarot, with an accompanying, Flash-based website. “Fate: the Carnivàle Game” was a variant of the classic Solitaire, which used the Rider-Waite-Smith imagery and symbolism, with the backs of the cards changed to a blue logo of the show. It was once available for 20 USD from the now-defunct RealOne Arcade service, and is no longer downloadable.
VI. The Special Cards
A deck that does not exist, an underwhelming deck that does, a real yet slightly anachronistic deck… is that all there is to the Tarot in “Carnivàle”?
Actually, there is still more: the show had several special cards designed by the prop masters. Facsimiles of cards used for close-up takes — notably, “The Magician”, Ben Hawkins’s card — were made, with artwork identical to that of the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, and the same backs, but with the obnoxious “Copyright 1971 U. S. Games” notice removed from the margins.
Another addition was the modification of some of the cards, to match the show’s storyline: “The Hanged Man”, “Le Pendu”, was created in several variants. The card depicted the Tattooed Man, a silent character appearing in several of the show’s dream sequences, hanging from a cross made of a living tree, which matched the tree pictured in the original Rider-Waite-Smith card. In one variant, his left leg was loose; in another, both legs were tied together. Yet another variant was almost identical to the card from the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, but while the hanged man’s general appearance was unchanged, his legs were tied. The cards mimicked the style and coloring of the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, to the point of recreating Pamela Colman Smith’s signature in the corner.
Yet there was still another addition, and this one was the most interesting of them all: a special card, unique to the show, was created. It bore the name “Le Passeur”, which may stand in French for several nouns, including “the giver”, “the bringer”, “the smuggler” or “the ferryman”. In “Carnivàle”, it stood for “The Usher” — Brother Justin’s ultimate character, the creature that was to bring evil into the world.
The card portrayed the Usher, with a dark tattoo of the show’s symbolic tree across his chest, standing between two columns, in front of an empty space. His arms were spread in an almost gentle gesture, as if he was introducing the forces that came with him to the unexpecting universe.
Le Passeur’s style and coloring (including the criss-crossing lines on the back, and the name being rendered in a proportional font) matched those of the Rider-Waite-Smith deck as well, with one significant difference: Pamela Colman-Smith’s signature was absent, likely by choice. The card bore the number XXIII, separating itself from the traditional Tarot’s Major Arcana, of which there are twenty-two.
Typically, the Major Arcana cards begin their numbering with the Fool card bearing either the Arabic zero or no number at all. Afterwards, they continue with Roman numerals, so the twenty-second card actually bears the number XXI. Thus, if one were to interpret the numbering in “Carnivàle” literally, it would mean that Le Passeur was the deck’s twenty-fourth card, and that there was yet another card in it, a mysterious preceding one that bore the number XXII. As amusing as the idea is, the prosaic explanation is that the prop designers were not aware of the details regarding the numbering, and simply assumed that since there are twenty-two Major Arcana cards in the Tarot’s total of seventy-eight, the additional card would have to carry the number XXIII — and that was the number which they assigned to Le Passeur.
The show made a point of emphasizing the fact that Le Passeur’s number was a peculiarity: when the card was discovered by Ben Hawkins, he became alarmed by the familiar imagery that had haunted him in his nightmares, and he showed it to Sofie. The Tarot expert did not recognize the card, and explained that not only had it not come from her deck, but that she had never seen such a card before. Le Passeur stood out, separate from the deck, just as the Usher would be distinctly separate from the world that it would seek to possess.
Due to the fluid nature of TV series, not all of the special cards were actually used. “Carnivàle” ended prematurely, with two seasons out of the planned six. Had the show continued for more seasons, perhaps all the cards would have eventually made it to the screen. In fact, perhaps the audiences would have seen even more Tarot designs: the known details of the planned plot that was to follow the second season suggest that Sofie’s character would have taken center stage in the show. If that were to happen, her connection to the Tarot would have provided a perfect ground to expand that element of the plot — perhaps by creating more cards, or even by building a new deck for the exclusive use of the new, changed, dark Sofie.
The question remains unanswered, an enigma with many possible solutions — and considering the cryptic nature of the show, perhaps that is, indeed, the most fitting outcome.