It would be easy to categorize Carnival Row—the eight-episode Amazon Original series set to premiere on August 30th—as Amazon’s attempt to create a Game of Thrones-esque hit for their streaming platform. This categorization isn’t wrong, exactly—Amazon has clearly invested a large amount of money to make this a flagship show for them—but placing Carnival Row into only this bucket does the series a disservice.
Yes, the new series is like Game of Thrones in that it takes place in a darkly fantastical world full of geopolitical strife and unnatural evils; and yes, like a certain HBO show, Carnival Row, with its graphic deaths (and innumerable close-up shots of entrails), nudity and foul language, is definitely not suitable for children. These similarities, however, are superficial at best. Viewers will get a different experience here—a more intimate one that reveals Carnival Row’s magically effed-up world through a cadre of unique individuals with varying levels of social status.
Carnival Row is an Expansive, Darkly Rich World That is Grounded in the Personal Trials of Its Characters
The show’s focus on the seemingly innocuous ongoings of everyday life, however, doesn’t mean that the scope of Carnival Row isn’t expansive—the worldbuilding is impressive here, especially given that the series does not have volumes of original source material to depend on. In the first season, we see human-ruled republic of The Burgue, a magical noir version of Victorian London, as well as the magical fae continent of Anoun where, in the kingdom of Tirnanoc, a genocidal group called The Pact is killing off the faerie population.
The bulk of the first season, however, spends time in The Burgue and focuses on two characters: the soldier-turned-inspector Rycroft Philostrate (AKA “Philo,” AKA Orlando Bloom) and the faerie Vignette Stonemoss (Cara Delevingne). The two start the show as star-crossed lovers who find themselves back in each other’s lives on the streets of Carnival Row, the section of The Burgue where fae—magical creatures that range from faeries to pucks to centaurs—live as best they can in a city where humans look down on them as lesser-than and treat them as third-class citizens.
The show doesn’t just stay with Philo and Vignette, however; viewers also spend time with a slew of supporting characters, who range from Chancellor of The Burgue Absalom Breakspear (Jared Harris) to Tourmaline (Karla Crome), a faerie poet-turned-prostitute. The characters’ experiences and circumstances are just as varied, and while they at first seem so disparate, their lives become entangled in various ways as the season progresses. This interweaving of these characters’ lives and the rich, dark tapestry that it creates, is one of the first season’s strengths. And while some of the connections and the associated plot points are a bit more forced than others, especially in the last couple of episodes, the resolution at the end of the season creates enough closure (albeit with a few quibbles) to be satisfying while still leaving more than a few loose threads that could be pulled into new storylines for the show’s already-greenlit second season.
A Fantasy World With Real-World Connotations
The machinations of all these characters have the potential to muddle and bog down the plot (refer to the beginning of this review of the name of a certain show that may have succumbed to that), but the first season clips along at a compelling pace, propelled by the ostensible Big Bad, the Dark Asher, an unnatural dark being haunting the sewers of The Burgue and killing fae and human alike. Inspector Philo is tasked with tracking down the monster, and the whodunit mystery surrounding the creature is enough to keep viewers hastily clicking for the next episode to play.
But The Dark Asher, its love of eviscerating people aside, is not the real evil of the show; the real Big Bad is bigotry, how people can dehumanize those who are different, and how that “othering” can lead to the loss of basic dignity and rights. This overarching theme is present in the first minutes of the series where persecuted faeries sail away from Tirnanoc to seek haven on The Burgue’s shores. The Burgue, however, is less than an ideal haven, with more than a few humans having racist and/or xenophobic feelings toward the refugees. This sentiment runs through every facet of life in The Burgue, from the corridors of Balefire Hall—the institution of political power in the republic—to the poverty-laden streets of the Row. The relevance of The Burgue’s strife to the real world is eerie, especially when you realize that the series is based on a film script creator Travis Beacham wrote over 15 years ago.
And while Carnival Row is very clear with this messaging, it serves to build up the characters, the world and the story instead of distracting from it. The world here, brought to life through the characters we spend time with, is a rich one, and one that will draw viewers in and have them eagerly waiting for the next season.
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