“Carnival Row” Season 1 – A Powerful Exploration of Intersectionality, Colonialism and Trauma

“Carnival Row” is one of the best shows I have ever watched. Rarely have I seen stories that do fantasy stories outside the Medieval era go that deep and develop their world the way this show does. I wish “Bright” and the “Harry Potter Universe” had this level of self-awareness and willingness to tackle the problems of our world through the lens of fantasy. This show has a great world, characters, soundtrack and cast and without going into spoilers is a show I highly recommend.

The show was created by René Echevarria and Travis Beacham.

The story follows Inspector Philo (Orlando Bloom) investigating murders on Carnival Row as a pixie from his past from the war against the pact returns in Vignette (Cara Delevingne), as their histories rise to the surface plots unfold between humans and the fae in the Republic of Burgue.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The World – The world of Carnival Row is fascinating as you have fae on both sides being used by human empires of The Pact (an alliance between Quivira and Cibola)and the Republic of Burgue for control of the fae land of Anuon). The Anuon land and Burgue lose leading to a retreat and fae refugees moving to Burgue for refuge against the pact. This is the core conflict explored though we hear of more nations that were also affected by the ongoing war between the Pact and Burgue. The world is an urban fantasy, steampunk neo-noir and all those aspects enrich this already lore filled rich world.

The Mystery – The main mystery Philo is following is why a mysterious beast that is neither fae nor human is killing both. As he learns the truth behind those murdered he comes to face the truth of who he is and his own past. It is really well done.

The Soundtrack – Nathan Barr crated an amazing soundtrack that gave me major “Westworld” vibes. It is haunting and it plays beautifully into the noir feel and the many interwoven histories of the characters. I shall have to check out his other work.

The Characters – The characters are what drive this show and there are so many who are compelling. I can’t wait to see where the stories go in season 2.

Agreus and Imogen – One of the B plots is that of Imogen Spurnrose and the faun Agreus Astrayon. The arc goes from Imogen only helping him enter high Burgue society to save their family funds to falling in love with him. Agreus ends up helping her accept that she is an outsider and embracing it and he risks everything for their relationship as together they leave after her racist brother tries to kill Agreus after finding out. This was a compelling plot and I hope they work out and aid the fae in Burgue. Tamzin Merchant and David Gyasi are both great.

Dahlia – Dahlia is the ruthless leader of the Black Raven, an all Pixie organization that deals in drugs and smuggling. Vignette joins them after Ezra nearly rapes her and is nearly killed by Dahlia because of her past with Philo, until she kills the police informant. She is a fascinating character and I’m curious how the Black Raven will fight against the greater oppression that the new Burgue regime brings about.

Portia – Portia is Philo’s landlady and somewhat lover who lost her husband during the war. Much of her arc is asking Philo to open, which she likes at first when he does but is unable to accept him as a half-fae until days after when he’s been arrested because of what she told the officers. She clearly regrets her actions and maybe even loved him but we never learn for sure as her attempt to save him involved him denying his being half-fae. I hope she becomes a fae ally next season. She is a great character.

Darius – Darius is a fellow soldier of Philo’s was bitten by a Marrok (wolf-man) during the war and only wasn’t executed after being found out due to Philo. He knew about Philo’s history and respected him too as being Marrok he could smell both his human and fae. I really liked their relationship as both only had each other after the war.

Haruspex – Alice Krige is always amazing and I loved her as Lady Piety’s Haruspex. She proves to Philo the existence of the Darkasher (being made from dead bodies) who is killing those connected to Philo and helps him take on Lady Piety when she reveals her to be the culprit when she is stuck between life and death before passing on. I’m curious if her prophecies are true or not as so far they are a part of the world but their weight is not fully realized.

Tourmaline – Karla Crome plays vignette’s pixie best friend and former lover. She was a former famous poet and scholar before the Capitol High Bresail fell to the Pact, making her a refugee and later a prostitute on Carnival Row. She continues to look after vignette and gives her refuge. She also kind of becomes friends with Philo and I bet we’ll see her involved with the Black Raven in the fight against the Burgue. I hope her or Vignette take over it.

Absalom – Absalom Breakspear is the Chancellor of the Burgue and his party is the one not trying to make things worse for the fae. His party isn’t helping them either which is sad given his first love was a fae and he is Philo’s father. A fact that costs him his life when Lady Piety wants her son Jonah to be the only one the prophecy applies to to rule. Absalom is flawed leader who could not predict Sophie Longerbane or Lady Piety in the end and it cost him his life and the peace when Lady Piety finishes killing him to find Philo. Jared Harris is amazing in the role and I loved his talk with Philo about Aisling, Philo’s mother.

Lady Piety – Indira Varma plays the magically gifted Lady Piety. Her motivation is her son Jonah and the prophecy she believes he is to fulfill to be more powerful than his father. She had him and Sophe Longerbane with Lord Longerbane but the reason why is never explained. I loved her drive though. Her obsession and darkasher made her a great villain. She could only see the world she wanted to make and nothing more.

Vignette – Cara Delevingne is amazing and I can’t wait to see more of her as Vignette in season 2. Vignette is a romantic and lover of books and protects the Pixie library at a holy sight. It is in the war against the pact she and Philo fall in love and she learns of his half-fae blood. She gives him the charm of her heart and has to wrestle with that after she learns he lied and didn’t die. Her arc is finding power in being a Pixie again as she joins the Black Raven. She experiences the worst of humans first hand with the near rape by Ezra and later Burgue putting the Pixie Holy Library in a museum to say nothing of all the refugees Pact humans murdered who she couldn’t save. This being honest with herself helps Philo do the same and when he finally is honest about being half-fae they are together under the new awful anti-fae regime in Burgue.

Philo – Philo’s arc is one of self-acceptance and he hurts a lot of people to get there as he refuses to open up until Vignette has confronted him over his lies. He loses Vignette and Portia and only gains those relationships when he is finally honest though he leaves Portia to be fully honest in his love for Vignette. So much of his life is hiding and denial which only hurts himself and others. This is the best I’ve seen Orlando Bloom. He is amazing in this and captures Philo’s trauma, pain and complexity so well. I can’t wait to see him and Vignette take the fight to Burgue next season as he has finally embraced being half-fae.

The Plot Revealed – In the end we learned Sophie Longerbane set the plot in motion by blackmailing Lady Piety, leading to Piety trying to kill Philo believing that he threatens her son’s rise to power in the prophecy. Sophie wins too as she is set to marry Jonah (who we learn is her secret brother) as their regime oppresses all the fae, walling off Carnival Row until the faun extremists can be found. This is going to be the new status quo as Jonah and Sophie only care for power and neither mourn their father’s deaths. Sophie believes only in creating chaos in order to gain power and I’m curious to see where her plots will go.

A Study on Radicalization – We see Absalom’s former servant radicalized when he is on the street and has nothing and he is introduced to faun religious text that gives an outlet for revenge and rage. We also see politicians feedings the radicalization and racism in rallies and blaming the fae for humanity’s woes. You see the cycles feed into themselves leading to violence and those multiple ways to radicalization.

Instersectionality in Burgue – At the top we have humans and those who have lived in Burgue for generations. Within this you have the powerful families and human immigrants as lower in power. Lowest you have the fae who can’t even vote or marry humans though like Agreus can still buy property in any location if they have money. Their children in turn our outcast from both but some like Philo can pass if their wings or fae aspects were removed or changed at birth. The show explores this powerfully.

Colonialism and it’s Consequences – The war against the pact cost everyone in the loss of life and livelihoods but those who lost the most were the fae as their holy places were destroyed or put in museums and even in how they helped the colonial powers were never treated as equals.

Power and Passing – Passing is a major theme as we see Philo can but Agreus with all his money cannot. They illustrate how power works too as Philo has full rights as long as he passes while Agreus’s power is only in is money and the law can ignore that at any time it wants, which is why he has to leave Burgue to be with Imogen.

The Cons:

Lady Piety and Lord Longerbane – How and why they hooked up is never explained. We only know Longerbane was courting her but we never see her show an interest in him, only Absalom. This could have been an easy fix too. Just give them a scene together.

How Does Ezra Have Any Resources at the End? – He was going broke and only just got a ship funded and he’s going to Imogen and Agreus. He’s an idiot and going to go broke as he has is his insecurity and obsession. Can’t wait to see him fail. How does he have enough resources for his quest though? He doesn’t even know where Imogen and Agreus are going.

This show is amazing and I can’t wait to learn more about the other fae and see their fight against Burgue oppression. This season has a whole story but still leaves so much open to explore for future seasons and I can’t wait to see where it goes. This show is a favorite and a great example of how to do fantasy, politics, noir and steampunk.

Final Score: 9.6 / 10

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