This spoiler-free review is based on viewing all eight episodes of Carnival Row season 1.
When presented with the premise for Carnival Row, potential viewers may wonder if they’re in store for an extended exploration of a refugee crisis in a steampunk fantasy setting. After two human factions battle for supremacy in the homeland of a diverse collection of faerie races, the victorious nation known as the Pact engage in wholesale slaughter of the fae while the retreating Burgue must unwillingly accommodate those that are fleeing the carnage. But this eight-episode first season is about so much more than that, weaving together mystery, tragedy, and romance in a world reminiscent of Victorian London with the potential complexity of Middle Earth.
And the allegory of the displaced fae isn’t just a nod to the plight of immigrants, unwanted by foreign lands but unable to return to their own. It’s also about imperialism and the decimation of a native people reminiscent of Europe’s takeover of the Americas. It’s also about the Egypt-like raiding of culturally significant antiquities to be put on display for gawking humans who have no regard for the importance of the ancient objects (some even older than the human race in this story) to the fae folk they belong to. There are also shades of Vietnam-esque wartime objectification where the soldiers deign to take quarter in allied fae communities as long as there’s a whorehouse present. Just about every shade of oppression one can imagine is present in Carnival Row, and the thematic tapestry is all the more intricate as a result.
The series begins, as many epic poems do, in the middle, as the winged Vignette Stonemoss (Cara Delevingne) is forced into indentured servitude in the Burgue after the ship for which she had organized paying refugee passengers goes down at sea with all souls lost but her own. Elsewhere in the Burgue is the police inspector Rycroft “Philo” Philostrate (Orlando Bloom) who has an uncharacteristic sympathy for the fae (or “critch” as the common slur refers to them) and knows many who live in the ghetto area of town that gives Carnival Row its name. Interestingly, Philo’s story is tied closely very early on to his history with Vignette and with a wartime secret they share.
In fact, what makes Carnival Row such a compelling drama is its ability to combine unparalleled world building with a series of tales that appear to be unrelated but which are actually inextricably linked. For example, there’s the tale of the aristocratic brother and sister whose misfortune concerning the aforementioned lost ship evolves into a tale of social manipulation in high society, prejudice against the “pucks” and “pixes” that act as the male and female servants, and a strange curiosity about the wealthy new neighbor who seeks to upend everything. Likewise, we have a ringside seat to arguments in Parliament over the refugee crisis and the jobs being lost to the inferior fae, but the intrigue runs much deeper than the surface politics, tying the whole story together.
Although viewers will glimpse many horned-and-hoofed satyrs and dragonfly-winged fae and even a few trolls, kobolds, and centaurs, this story is not filled with wizards and magic in the traditional sense of other stories containing such creatures. Although there are seers and potions and prophecies, dismissed by most Burguishmen as charlatanism, there is an undercurrent of power that pervades the central mystery of Carnival Row, and fans of fantasy will not be disappointed by what they witness, especially in the gruesome use of haruspicy, a form of divination using the entrails of animals.
Fortunately, not all of our time is spent in the seedy underbelly of a smoke-filled, often rainy city of humans, but the flashbacks to the fae land of Tirnanoc before the Republic of the Burgue withdrew still have a misty grayness to them, suggesting a land of great age and wonder. Although the men of The Pact are painted as much more ruthless, the malice of that particular enemy is left intentionally vague, both in their treatment of the fae and even of their own soldiers. Carnival Row wisely chooses to spend much more time swimming in the moral ambiguity of those who think nothing of a dead pix near the docks but who would be lost without their puck manservant or an occasional trip to the brothel in the Row.
As the pieces of the puzzle begin to come together in the final episodes of the season, viewers will be amazed at how the disparate details of the central mystery not only paint a picture worthy of Shakespearean tragedy; they also set up a shocking direction for an already guaranteed Carnival Row season 2. The final solution is one that the audience will find ultimately satisfying yet completely open-ended, and even though the resolution will likely seem both inevitable and obvious in retrospect, most will be left wondering how they didn’t see it coming and be overjoyed that they didn’t.
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Michael Ahr is a writer, reviewer, and podcaster here at Den of Geek; you can check out his work here or follow him on Twitter (@mikescifi). He co-hosts our Sci Fi Fidelity podcast and coordinates interviews for The Fourth Wall podcast.