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Season 2 of 'Carnival Row' Has Transcended the Glossy Vanity Project Label

By Alison Lanier | TV | March 3, 2023 |

By Alison Lanier | TV | March 3, 2023 |


Carnival Row as a project got a lot of critical pushback on its first season, generally along the refrain that Amazon was yet again throwing money at a massively expensive prestige project. But its return, after long hiatus, for a grandly scoped season sets a high bar that I’d argue makes it one of the strongest fantasy shows of the year.

Instead of a hollow prestige project predicated around its two famously attractive leads (Orlando Bloom and Cara Delevingne), we get a dexterous, richly imagined (and funded) fantasy allegory against colonialism, nationalism, racism, and inequality. Subtle it is not, for sure. Heavy-handed or unambiguous are both fair words, I think. But well-executed? For sure.

Carnival Row is set in a grim and grimy alternative London (called The Burgue), in roughly Victorian times, a London where the British’s imperialist empire encroached onto the lands of the fantasy creatures, resulting in pixies, fauns, trolls, and other fae being displaced from their now-war-torn homeland and relegated to “The Row,” an immigrant slum by the river. Tensions between the cruelly discriminated against fae and their oppressors, the wealthier humans of the Burgue, simmer to a breaking point in season one, leading to the Row being closed off by a militarized police force as poverty, illness, and violence boil inside.

Season two opens with our main characters not exactly at a low point but certainly scrabbling for purchase in a bad situation. Rycroft Philostrate, or Philo (Bloom), has been outed as a human-passing half-fae, and as a result as been stripped of all his social standing as a previously respected police inspector and is now fighting for change and justice from the bottom rather than from the top. Vignette Stonemoss (Delevingne), who was reunited with Philo when he was sent to the Row, is continuing her guerilla revolutionary activities with the violent fae resistance group the Black Ravens as divisions spring up within the group and the fae community barely treads water.

Meanwhile the lethal, supernatural darkness haunting the city returns: a formless, dark-god-like evil that now stalks Tourmaline (Karla Crome), one of Vignette’s closest friends. Jonah Breakspear (Arty Froushan) and Sophie Longerbane (Caroline Ford) are heading up the contentious political scene, Jonah hand-wringing and Sophie manipulating while they carry on their very secret and very sexual alliance. And Imogen (Tamzin Merchant) and Agreus (David Gyasi) escape into uncharted waters, so to speak, having fled England because of their dangerously taboo fae-human romance.

Their plotline this season is one of the most interesting to me personally, exploring a new revolutionary group and philosophy. Where so much of the show is predicated around the balance of the central characters—Vignette as an advocate for radical, tangible change, Philo for patient, progressive justice but stability at the same time—the addition of another resistance group and its failings adds to the show’s central formula.
All told, it’s a blatantly, lavishly expensive show that feels like an original delivery on the grim fairytale trend, handling a bolder breadth of topics than the lazy “let’s make this misogynistic old story feminist, wow!” Instead, Carnival Row seems to be making a genuine attempt to depict violent nationalism against an extremely othered Other.

Guillermo Del Toro, who was originally meant to be a co-writer and co-director, stepped away from the project by 2017 due to his busy feature film schedule; however, there’s a sense of Del Toro-ish tangible magic still imbued in Carnival Row, with a fantastic world rooted in a sense of physicality, worldbuilding detail, and yearning for larger societal justice. A good test of worldbuilding for me is if you could set up and play an engaging game of DnD in the setting, with character backstories and all, and have said setting feel airtight. Carnival Row answers to that description.

We saw a massive-budget project make an awkward foray on the same platform with The Rings of Power, a promising Lord of the Rings prequel that made the baffling choice to throw out Tolkien’s actual plot and riff dramatically in a new direction. That, to me, felt frankly like a money-grab vanity project. (Sorry everyone.) Carnival Row has transcended the glossy vanity project label and conjured some truly solid fantasy, telling dark and dangerous stories in the fantastical social allegory that the genre plays with so well.

(Yes, I am a massive fantasy genre nerd. Your mileage may vary if say, fantasy is just not your thing. But hey, I hear there’s some good sci-fi on HBO if you’d rather go in that direction.)

The first four episodes of season two are available to stream on Amazon. The next batch of episodes drops today (March 3), with the final episodes going live on March 17.