If you are in possession of an Internet connection, I assume that at some point in the past month you’ve seen an advertisement for Carnival Row, Amazon’s new fantasy/mystery show starring Orlando Bloom and Cara Delevingne as a human detective and fairy refugee, respectively. The show, developed by Travis Pacific Rim Beacham and René A bunch of shows I’ve never watched Echevarria, based on a feature screenplay by Beacham that had been in development for years and years, is a big, expensive dice-roll by Amazon, clearly positioned as the kind of service-defining hit that Prime still hasn’t quite nabbed the way Netflix or even Hulu have.
The jury is still out on whether Carnival Row will catch on to the degree that Amazon desperately desires, with an extremely divided critical reaction at least out of the gate. Maybe audiences will find themselves bewitched by this hard-R tale of murder and magic and want to return over and over again to ‘The Row’, or maybe Carnival Row will be lost into the dustbin of history alongside so many other claimants to the pop cultural wormhole left by Game of Thrones (a series that Carnival Row only tangentially resembles in that both are fantasy stories involving a good deal of blood and nudity, but to which it will be, and has been, endlessly compared).
But regardless, Amazon renewed the series before a single episode premiered. And I couldn’t be happier. While I understand why many folks are bouncing off this thing like it’s a too-clean glass door, I was absolutely delighted by the series and can’t wait to see where things go next. So, if I may be so bold, here are some of the things I hope to see when next we travel to the Row.
But first a quick, spoiler-free, rundown of the series:
Carnival Row is set in a fantasy world in which humans coexist with magical creatures like fairies, satyrs, centaurs, the whole works. Picture a fantasyland like Narnia, only pushed forward from the vaguely medieval setting of so many high fantasy stories and into a Victorian London-era timeframe. Carriages clatter over cobblestones, endless fields of chimneys belch black smoke, and everybody’s pale and sickly, all the time.
As we learn early on, the homeland of the fairies collapsed into civil war, which only became more exacerbated when human kingdoms started showing up to either ‘help’ or try and claim their piece of the spoils. Many of the fair folk have relocated to the human country of ‘Burgue’, where they are consigned to live in a slum dubbed ‘Carnival Row’ and eke out livings while facing endless discrimination from their societal peers, the tyrannical police, and an unsympathetic wealthy class, a sort of super-cut of a dozen different oppressed minorities throughout history and also now because humans don’t really change, we just change targets.
Our main guides through this dingy world are Rycroft “Philo” Philostrate (Bloom), a former soldier and currently the only detective on the force with any vested interest in giving the fairy (or “critch” as they are dubbed) folks actual protection and justice, and Vignette Stonemoss (Delevingne), a former freedom fighter who arrives at Carnival Row and is shocked to discover that her former lover, Philo, is alive after he faked his death and abandoned her to her collapsing country.
The main thrust of the first season is Philo’s investigation into the grisly murder of a seemingly unassuming fairy woman who is revealed to have a past as a famous performer that connects her to highest vestiges of power. The first season weaves in a number of subplots around the former lovers, including spoiled heiress Imogen Spurnrose (Tamzin Merchant) entering an unusual business arrangement with a wealthy, socially-shunned “puck” Mr. Agreus (David Gyasi), political intrigue concerning the powerful Breakspear family including Absalom (Jared Harris), Piety (Indira Varma), and rebellious son Jonah (Arty Froushan), and a whole host of thieves, mystics, aristocrats, prostitutes, cops, performers, cultists, and all other manners of madness pushing a “simple” murder investigation into a tangled web.
From here on out, only read on if you’ve either watched the first season or don’t mind being spoiled.
#1: Make Vignette the actual co-lead of the show
All the marketing for Carnival Row has posited Bloom and Delevingne with equal prominence. In the first episode, Delevingne’s Vignette is the first character we meet and she is carefully positioned as our eyes-and-ears into the strange country of Burgue, the life in the Row, and the larger world of Carnival Row. But with each passing episode, it becomes more and more clear that the first season is Philo’s story, and Philo’s alone. Vignette gets lost into subplots that seem to point her in interesting directions, but don’t actually go anywhere (yet). In the last stretch of the season, Vignette disappears for lengthy stretches and only ends up factoring in the story’s resolution as a byproduct of her relationship with Philo.
It’s a shame especially because Delevingne is making some big choices as an actor in everything from her accent to the way she carries herself, but there’s just not enough material with the character to know if those choices are working or not.
The finale ends with Philo and Vignette both imprisoned in Carnival Row along with the other fae folk, which puts Vignette in a strong position to take a more assertive role within the narrative. The connections and relationships she’s built over the course of the first season could pay off beautifully if the second season involves the establishing of a resistance within the Row. With Philo and Vignette reunited and occupying the same geography for the first time in years, it’s an opportunity for the female-half of the central couple to feel like an equal part of the show.
#2: Let us see Philo and Vignette as a couple
The emotional spine to Carnival Row’s first season is the star-crossed affair between Philo and Vignette, a torrid, passionate romance that changed both lives forever. Yet the two pointedly share very little time on screen together, and when they do it’s in short, almost-always antagonistic scenes where Vignette threatens to murder him for the whole “faking his death and leaving her in a warzone” thing.
It’s hard to say if Bloom and Delevingne even have real chemistry. They seem to play well off another, but it’s entirely possible that that’s just residual charm from two pretty people making gooey eyes at each other.
The only really extended time they spend together prior to the finale is in the lengthy flashback in the third episode, detailing the love affair between the two. It’s a strong episode with good work by both the two leads, but because a year of war has to be condensed into an hour-long episode, it speed-runs through their time together and then hastens to the heartbreak.
With the end of season one, Philo has renounced his ties to the human world and joined Vignette as a prisoner of the Row, which means the dynamic between the two will be radically different when the series comes back. If we’re to really invest in this couple and its ups and downs as the heart of the show, we need to see how they actually function as a couple, and decide for ourselves if this is a love worth fighting for.
Of course, the current status quo with the Row turned into a prison for the entire “critch” population may not last very long, given how Carnival Row approaches plot. Which reminds me…
#3: Keep the pace up
One of the things that concerned me when Carnival Row was announced as a series was knowing its origins as a script for a standalone film, A Killing on Carnival Row. Streaming series already have a tendency towards redundancy and bloat, particularly those inspired by pre-existing material like books and movies. Stories that could comfortably fit within a two-hour runtime instead get streeeeeeetched out to 8, 10, even 13 hours of characters spinning wheels and doing very little of consequence in between the shocking cliffhangers meant to keep you stuck to your sofa, binging away.
But Carnival Row thankfully keeps its foot on the gas throughout the first season, introducing mysteries and new plot threads so that they can be quickly resolved and new mysteries and plots can be brought in. Episode two reveals that Philo is hiding some kind of dark secret, which you can imagine another show teasing out piece by piece, hour by hour. Instead the next episode very quickly reveals exactly what it is that Philo is hiding, and promptly moves on to the juicier material of watching how that secret, and the effort put in to preserving it, has eaten away at him.
The rapidity also enables Carnival Row to crank through story-points that aren’t working as well. Imogen Spurnrose is introduced as a spoiled monster, utterly unpleasant to be around and whose ‘troubles’ are wildly uninteresting compared to the murder and intrigue happening elsewhere. But in very short order she is paired with Mr. Agreus (with David Gyasi giving phenomenal “sexy brooding” even with giant horns stuck to his face) and their odd-couple dynamic quickly becomes a compelling, and very moving, storyline.
This propensity for speed-running through plot is not without its downsides. In the last few episodes, plot points are rattled off with little grace because the action needs to keep moving, while other relationships and dynamics pivot hard without the needed time to really land. But if I had to choose between a show trying to do too much versus a show struggling to stretch out too little, I’ll take the first one every time.
Without knowing what sort of long-game, let alone endgame, that Beacham and Echevarria have planned, I can only hope that Carnival Row continues to be the rare streaming show with an actual pulse and sense of momentum.
And maybe they can spare some time to…
#4: Actually dig into life on Carnival Row
The eponymous slum is a helluva set, and the show’s various directors and effects crews sure do get a lot of mileage out of the classic Cantina set-up of just filling up a location with every manner of monster and creature imaginable and letting that weirdness unfold uncommented on in the background.
But for as masterfully crafted as the Row is, we don’t really spend a great deal of time there or get a lot of use out of Beacham’s phenomenal concept of a small block of real estate packed to the gills with magical beings. With the exception of Vignette and those in her immediate circle, we don’t really get a sense of life within this place. The background fairies and satyrs and people are just that, background players who exist to fill the frame but don’t much exist beyond that.
This is where a TV series can serve the concept better than a movie. Because it plays out over eight hours rather than two, Carnival Row has license to examine these nooks and crannies and actually get into the nitty-gritty of how this place functions, and the effects that living there has on all the disparate souls. For all the time we spend on the Row, there’s precious little sense of the place as a community, let alone a sense of community between the residents.
Again, season two seems primed to explore this more given that, at least to begin with, a huge percentage of our ensemble is sequestered inside the Row with no way out. The opportunity is there for Beacham, Echevarria, and their team to dig into what defines these people beyond long-suffering recipients of institutional oppression and/or cannon fodder. We understand now what the fae represent as symbols, now let’s get a sense of who they are as people.
Hell, maybe the writers can develop the notion of the Row as a community through the humor that people share during times of darkness. Maybe then Carnival Row can…
#5: Lighten up by, like, 5%
I want to be very, very clear before proceeding with this bullet point that I love the utter seriousness with which Carnival Row treats its world and story. In a post-Avengers world where Whedon-y snark and banter is the de facto style adopted by any and all would-be world conquering franchises, there’s something so wonderful about a big, dense slab of fantasy that is entirely unapologetic about being exactly that. The entire cast approaches this material like they’re starring in an Oscar-courting period drama, even/especially the members of the cast with fucking big horns glued onto their scalps.
At times during the first season though, Carnival Row’s commitment to its grim tone threatens to capsize into self-parody, particularly since “tortured man possessed of great violence” is a bad fit on Orlando Bloom (Philo’s arc transforms him into/reveals him to be a noble, heartbroken romantic, which suits the former Mr. Will Turner much better).
The tone is so monochromatic that supporting characters like Karla Crome as street-smart fairy working girl Tourmaline and Simon McBurney as Runyon Millworthy, an older street performer so consistently beaten down by life that he can’t even get mad about it anymore, stand out not so much because of anything the characters or performers do, but because at the very least their bringing an energy besides ‘tortured angst’ to the proceedings. Jared Harris, meanwhile, appears to be amusing himself with a giant slab of ham. I go back and forth on whether ‘good’ is the right word to describe Harris’ performance in this one, but it sure was memorable.
Again, this is another area where the various narrative bombs that went off at the end of season one have the chance to pay off spectacularly well next time out. Agreus and Imogen as lovers on the run from her vengeful brother, Philo and Vignette reunited and battling the forces of darkness within and without the Row, these are all radical departures from the first few episodes where everyone was wallowing in sorrowful lonely solitude, and gives the writers much more variety to play with even as the narrative seems poised to plunge to ever darker places.
I hate to keep saying, “season two has the chance to really make this work”, because I don’t want to create the impression that Carnival Row’s first season is any kind of slog that you need to grind through to get to a hopefully stronger second one. No, Carnival Row hooked me in its first episode and only dug its hook in progressively deeper over the rest of the season. By the back-half of the season, the show had thoroughly embraced its own berserk nature as highbrow pulp, and the closing moments left exhilarated and hungry to see where things go next.
Whether the writers and showrunners actually address any of the points I’ve made above, we’ll be waiting awhile before we find that out. But I’m awfully excited to see where this wild enterprise goes next.