Carnival Row: Season 1 REVIEW – Fairies Aren’t Always Twinkly

Elves and kobolds meet graphic scenes and political machinations, like a more fanciful Game of Thrones.

carnival row orlando bloom Cara Delevingne

One of the best narrative devices in my book is originality, since there’s nothing more enthralling than unventured territory. Not to say cunningly re-invented arcs aren’t of the same caliber but there’s a sheer ecstasy in experiencing snow or the ocean for the first time. Carnival Row astutely combines the two, and it’s simply something to be enjoyed.

Amazon Prime’s new fantasy drama tells the story of a war between the Burgue and the Pact. Fairies’ homes are caught in the crossfire and torn to shreds, urging them to take refuge in the city of Burgue. Citizens grow uneasy with the rising number of immigrants, which leads to snowballing oppression of non-human creatures.

With a snowy Victorian backdrop, the scenery, make-up, and costumes are extraordinary. Given the fantasy theme, one would expect a real-life Tinkerbell, but these fairies wear sensible 1900s fashion with exquisitely crafted wings. The pucks, on the other hand, are mind-boggling with their spiral horns and two hooved legs in knickers. I stared in awe of how these bull-like creatures were created.

The writers use the contrast between good and evil as a plot-driving force. They emphasize this idea with Agreus’s description of the painting named ‘The Rising’: “That we’re all poised somewhere between heaven and hell, I suppose.” Selfishness, power, and prejudice causes people to act beyond measure with no regard for the consequences. Some characters like Tourmaline Larou (Karla Crome) glows with light, while others, including Sophie Longerbane (Caroline Ford), create mystery with their ambiguity. Still not sure which side she leans toward.

There are critiques to be made, but this show combines some of the strongest elements of storytelling like innovation, universal concerns and strong female characters in creating a crisp new product. Carnival Row seemed to have grasped the skillful craft of joining fantasy with reality. It addresses repression and migration in crucial yet vindictive ways while the results, such as prostitution, are blared with shocking heartbreak. However, love continues to conquer all.

The story opens onto a war zone, with bullets echoing from armed soldiers, and beastly wolf-like creatures chasing fairies through frosty woods. Vignette Stonemoss’s (Cara Delevingne) strength is revealed straight off the bat when she strangles a wolf – twice her size – to death in an attempt to save one of her fellow fae. Through perseverance alone, she turns up as sole survivor of the stampede and shipwreck that follows.

We learn that Vignette’s forbidden ex-lover, Rycroft ‘Philo’ Philostrat (Orlando Bloom), a Burgish inspector, is still alive when she presumes him dead. In the city, Philo investigates several attacks against the fae and concludes that a dark monster – neither man nor fae – may be responsible, which launches the key arcs of the first season.

The two leads embarked on a secret love affair when Philo was sent to Tirnanoc (a fae village) during the war. In this time, they shared their deepest and most dangerous secrets with each other, but when Vignette learns that he lied about his death, she’s unforgiving, as expected. Their chemistry is off the charts and it’s clear the love still burns brightly, though the fairy refuses any relationship with him after the betrayal. Vignette’s limited choices in the city, lands her with a fae underground trafficking operation, whereas Philo will still attempt hell to protect her.

Carnival Row sanctions the injustice of racial disparity. With the refusal of any worthy jobs, the city of Burgue forces creatures to become servants, prostitutes and some even homeless. In parliament, we witness the battle for and against the rights of these non-humans, labeled critch, displaying man’s hatred against species other than their own.

Similarly, the Spurnrose family consider their new neighbor, Agreus Astrayon (David Gyasi) the wealthy puck, a disgrace to the upper-class neighborhood until it seems like his acceptance could be the answer to their bankruptcy. Most citizens view the creatures as bugs that should be squashed, and treat them with no respect and utter cruelty unless it suits their own needs. However, some smarter and more open-minded humans realize that despite the physical differences, inside they’re the same. It’s a strong moral lesson delivered with keen conviction.

While the story mostly focuses on the leads’ endeavors, interesting side plots arise when the chancellor’s son, Jonah Breakspeare (Arty Froushan), is abducted at the fairy brothel on Carnival Row. His own mother is behind the kidnapping, yet she blames and kills the opposition leader for the crime. Piety Breakspeare (Indira Varma) is a smart and cunning woman who involves herself with dark magic to pursue aspirations out of her reach. She’s the sly antihero who audiences want to strangle and love simultaneously due to her acumen.

War in any form is a dark destructor. It leaves the survivors bare without partners, homes, and purpose. No doubt it’s brought about by those filled with greed, hate, and darkness; it pests, plunders and brings nothing good to the world. The writers are gritty in their description of these evils, not only the people but the acts as well. Some scenes contain gruesome dark magic that may be offensive to the faint of heart – I had to look away once or twice myself – but all vices have their purpose in fiction.

As expected of this experienced cast, especially working under directors like John Amiel, the acting is effortlessly on par. Orlando Bloom breaks your heart with nothing but a facial expression and Cara Delevingne tangibly portrays Vignette’s fury with the humans. Most characters are thorough and nuanced. Anyone can route for the good-hearted hero with a tragic backstory, while the female protagonist’s strength and determination is something to be envied and admired.

Vignette’s best friend – and implied former girlfriend – Tourmaline is one of my favorites, with her dry humor and strong loyalty. She’s the one who says what has to be said and does what has to be done. Likewise, Runyan Millworthy (Simon McBurney), the eccentric street-performer with his kobolds (feline fae creatures) and blatant honesty provide some much needed inspiration and a few laughs. In a brutal show like Carnival Row, a bit of comedy gives audiences a breather though they could have turned it up a notch.

As I said, it’s not without faults. We’re presented to a world that’s fresh like bread straight from the oven. But with a meager eight episodes and a lot of plot, it’s difficult to form connections with the vast amount of characters introduced. They delve deep into some, while others, like Tourmaline, deserve more screen time than they get.

In addition, I believe viewers have to at least understand the content to live up to the wobbly expression that anything goes in fantasy. Imogen Spurnrose (Tamzin Merchant) tells her brother they live in the seventh century, yet steam trains and lightbulbs exist. What? How?

Despite the original concept, it still leans on well-worn narratives such as forbidden love, a murder mystery that somehow ties back to the protagonist, and political domination. If it works, it works, but in this case it needed a pinch of salt. Another small tear in the fabric is the continuous explicit sexual content. Some might enjoy it – however, if it doesn’t contribute to the story, it’s unnecessary in my opinion. The creators could have invested that time in creating more suspense towards the end, since the resolution felt rushed. That said, it’s invigorating yet thrilling, and I would recommend it to anyone with the slightest taste in fantasy.

For more fantasy fun, check out our review of Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance.

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carnival row orlando bloom Cara Delevingne
Even faltering here and there, Carnival Row is an enjoyable new notion with a wide budget. Its message is clear, concise and something that can be taken to heart.