Most fantasy and sci-fi works, be they on the page or screen, tend to comment on contemporary times. Amazon Prime’s streaming series CARNIVAL ROW is one of them. Its story concerns human detective Rycroft “Philo” Philostrate (Orlando Bloom), a good man in a nasty Victorian fantasy world, rekindling his amorous relationship with a fairy named Vignette Stonemoss (Cara Delevingne). This duo is a no-no in their society – a mix of races, né species, actually, ostracized by most everyone, especially the British-accented humans. As such, it’s an obvious metaphor for racism, and this show makes the case for all kinds of diversity, though here that means centaurs, sprites, witches, and fauns.
But as much as the show deals earnestly with diversity, there are two additional ideas at play in the series that gives it even more contemporary bite. It takes up the cause of economic injustice, savaging the ownership class for keeping down the working class, even in a fantasy society such as this one here. Additionally, CARNIVAL ROW comments wholly on our post-COVID coldness, our nation even more disconnected, content to wholly loathe those not in our ‘bubble.’ The narrative vamps a host of national issues, from pandemics to anti-immigration policies to demagogues attempting to rig elections. Heck, the show even seems to be commenting on Harry & Megan with another mixed-race couple, this one with an upper-crust female. In many ways, this second and final season of the show plays as a scathing editorial lacerating the ugliest headlines in America over the past few years.
For those of you familiar with the series, you’ll recall that the main storyline of the first season concerned an unknown serial killer. He was a Jack the Ripper type, slaughtering all kinds of folk in Carnival Row, the seedier section of The Burgue. (The riff on the EastEnd in greater London is purely intentional). The maniac is still at large in season two, but his antics are more back-burner this time. Driving the plot now are the struggles of the working class against a corrupt government with its thumb on the scale.
The ruthless treatment of the regular Joes and Janes here starts with the nation’s human chancellor Jonah Breakspear (Arty Froushan). He comes off like a cross between Trump and Jared Kushner, all whiney embitterment and entitlement. Breakspear openly slanders his opponents, disposes of his enemies without due process, and rants like a bratty child when he doesn’t get his way. There’s no Truth Social or Twitter in this fantasy world, but he does use the Burgue’s newspapers to work up a froth maligning the fairy community, his favorite target.
Those fairies, known as “the fae”, are also contending with a disease that is quickly becoming a plague. Then there are the hair-trigger coppers who act more like a state-sanctioned army hunting them down for sport as well. If you think all of this sounds too much like a couple of hours of watching cable news, you should know that CARNIVAL ROW editorializes with plenty of cheek, both the comedic and sexual kind. It’s a rollicking series, bawdy and profane, over-the-top in many ways to make the fantastical all the more fantastic. It’s clearly following the blueprint of GAME OF THRONES with its world-building, fantasy creatures, and expensive production values. The show can get strident, but it’s mostly both fun and funny, finding witty snark in almost every scene.
Still, there is a lot of genuine sweetness to go around in the show. The main duo of Philo (Bloom) and Vignette (Delevingne) continues to showcase the heart of the show as they trade quips, kisses, and longing glances while trying to save their town. They don’t have as much sweaty, intense sex as they did in the first season as that mantel has now been passed to the other mixed duo, Agreus Astrayon (David Gyasi) and Imogen Spurnrose (Tamzin Merchant).
Agreus is a wealthy and sophisticated faun, one who’s elevated his station in the Burgue’s caste system despite his hooves and horns. And while Imogen is a genteel lady, all prim and polished on the outside, her love for Agreus turns her into a lusty wench in the bedroom and a progressive voice in the boardroom. And when the two are forced to work in a slavish sweatshop midway through this second season, Imogen stands with her husband calling for worker’s rights. She’s practically a bodiced Norma Rae.
The series is well-acted across the board with special kudos to veteran character actor Simon McBurney. He plays Runyon Millworthy, a wily street performer, whose career path leads him from street theater to Parliament. (Wait a minute, I think I just uncovered another metaphor there.) Millworthy becomes the true hero of this show in his way, cajoling politicians to get in touch with their better angels to make the Brugue better for everyone.
The violence throughout the series is vicious and can be quite off-putting. Like GAME OF THRONES, the show seems to be obsessed with beheadings. And there’s a lot of story being told here, a few too many strands of plot that don’t amount to much, and some of the dialogue can get a bit preachy. Still, those flaws are countered by A+ production values, excellent makeup and visual effects, and a genuine sense of world-building in every second of the series.
This makes Amazon’s decision to not extend the series all the more unfortunate. The ten episodes this season crackle with tension, and almost every one of the dozen main characters get a vivid story arc. Delevingne and Bloom radiate star power, Karla Crome makes her hooker with a heart of gold feel funny and fresh, and any show that employs the gifted Alice Krige is tops in my book. She is superb at playing witchy hags, as she does here, remaining a luminous actress even under all the prosthetics.
If you were a fan of the first season, you’ll like this one even more. And if you know nothing of CARNIVAL ROW other than what you’ve read about it here, by all means, invest your time in the first season and this last one. Creators Rene Echevarria and Travis Beacham have delivered two vivid seasons, a heady mix of mythical creatures, Victorian London, and social commentary. Their world comments cleverly on ours, and God knows we could use a few good cops like Philo, savvy protestors who get things done like Vignette, and politicians who pass legislation that lifts up everyone like Millworthy. We could use also use a few more shows like this one too that put so much care into every stunning detail. It’s a vivid place to visit, and despite the hoofs, it has a lot to say about all of our missteps.