Carnival Row, created by Travis Beacham (Pacific Rim) and Rene Echevarria (The 4400), and produced by Beacham, Echevarria, Marc Guggenheim, Gideon Amir, and Jon Amiel, is an original streaming series for Amazon Prime. Based on Beacham’s original screenplay A Killing on Carnival Row, the series takes place in a world where fairies and other mystical creatures, fleeing their war-torn homeland of Tirnanoc, retreat to the city of the Burgue where they are treated with hatred and disdain. Inspector Rycroft Philostrate (Orlando Bloom) starts to investigate a series of grisly faerie murders in the Burgue, which draws him into the orbit of his former lover Vignette Stonemoss (Cara Delevingne).
It’s the torrential relationship between Philostrate and Vignette that serves as the engine of the series, and Bloom and Delevingne fuel it with their performances and the chemistry between their characters. While Bloom’s Philostrate might seem like the stereotypical “hardened noir detective” at first, as the series unfurls the audience starts to see layers to his character, as well as the reason for his solitary nature. Delevingne turns in a scene-stealing performance as Vignette; in every one of her scenes, you can feel the joy, the anger, or the compassion radiating off of her.
The other characters that populate the show are equally as layered and compelling as Philostrate and Vignette. Absalom Breakspear (Jared Harris), the Chancellor of the Republic of Burgue, must deal with his philandering son Jonah (Arty Froushan) while his wife Piety (Indira Varma) lays out a complicated scheme behind his back. Elsewhere, heiress Imogen Spurnrose (Tamzin Merchant) and her brother Ezra (Andrew Gower) are shocked to discover that their next-door neighbor is a well-to-do faun, Agreus (David Gyasi). To help support their failing finances, Imogen invites Agreus into the Spurnroses’ social circle, and sparks start to fly between the pair.
The storyline between Agreus and Imogen is probably one of the more intriguing aspects of the series, as well as the most frustrating. It’s fairly clear that the treatment of the Fae is meant to correlate to the plight and prejudice that immigrants to the U.S. often face, and while the series is often heavy-handed with these parallels, more often than not they’re spot on as well as extremely relevant.
The fact that Gyasi, a Black actor, portrays a wealthy magical creature adds a new layer of subtext to his interactions with the Spurnroses and the other members of the Burgue’s high society. However, this subplot feels rather disconnected from the main narrative. If you took it out, the series wouldn’t suffer a major loss. Given where Agreus and Imogen wind up at season’s end, I hope the showrunners have plans for them to have a bigger role in the ongoing storyline.
Apart from that, the storyline plays out as any good mystery should; a great hook, plenty of twists and turns to keep the audiences invested, and several revelations doled out over the course of the series. The third episode, which is set almost entirely in the past, explores how Philostrate and Vignette fell in love; he was formerly a soldier, she kept watch over the library of the monastery where his unit took shelter. The audience gets to see how their feelings for one another grew, how they were separated, and explains their current emotional state. It’s a well-crafted episode that grants a better understanding of the protagonists.
The worldbuilding is also very well done; you get just enough to fill out the world the story takes place in, yet not enough to overwhelm viewers with information. The Pact, the nation the Burgue went to war with, has their soldiers inject a formula into their bodies that transforms them into werewolves. Instead of dollars, people use coins that are referred to as “Gilda.” Humans have a mysterious god that they refer to as “The Martyr”, while the Fae worship other beings. All of these little details help flesh this universe out and keeps the audience engaged.
Even if its message is somewhat heavy-handed, Carnival Row will draw viewers in with its complex characters, timely parallels to current events, and a universe rich with detail and history. The series has already been renewed for a second season, and I’m eager to see where the showrunners go from here.
Season One of Carnival Row is now streaming on Amazon Prime.
Final Rating: 8/10 faerie wings
Collier “CJ” Jennings is a freelance reporter and film critic living in Seattle. He uses his love of comics and film/TV to craft reviews and essays on genre projects. He is also a host on Into the Spider-Cast.