Review: Carnival Row

This series from Amazon did not look promising, from the overly attractive leads (Orlando Bloom and Cara Delevingne) with overly twee names (Rycroft Philostrate and Vignette Stonemoss) and a premise that appears to be just piling on random fantasy tropes into a huge pile. We learn, in episode 4 that the murderous monster (and the second serial killer of the series) lurking in the sewers is a “Darkasher” — a creature assembled by dark arts from the parts of other creatures because the show still hadn’t thrown in Frankenstein into the mix and needed an explanation for the Lovecraftian tentacle-headed thing lurking in the shadows and murdering pixies. Too much? In the flashback episode just prior, aside from a huge heaping of back story we also got the addition of not just werewolves but steampunk airships with machines guns.

Chop up parts of creatures, stitch them together and via dark magic a shambling monster will appear. I love it when flawed shows include their own self-descriptive metaphors. However, as much as this steampunk fairy costume drama Victorian fantasy about race, colonialism, power struggles and serial killers sounds too much extra on top of too much extra, it somehow works. You may need to grit your teeth for episode 1 and there’s some cheesy dialogue that you might want to just ignore but somehow the shambling monster of a premise finds a way to co-ordinate its multitude of limbs together and deliver a surprisingly layered and engaging series.

The setting is The Burgue, a quasi-London by way of New Crobuzon or maybe Ankh-Morpork which is one of two industrial-colonial powers in the world. The second is The Pact, about whom we learn little but serve as an even-worse colonial power to create that sense for the Burge as a British Empire that is not-as-bad-as-it-could-be. The two powers have been fighting over the lands of the Fae, a multitude of fantastical peoples. There are apparently all sorts of creatures (e.g. centaurs, some troll like being etc) but we only really follow two kinds: a satyr like race with sheep horns and goat legs called ‘Pucks” and human sized pixies with insect wings called “Pix”. The war is primarily an explanation for why the city of The Burgue has a large (and oppressed) immigrant population of quasi-magical people who form the troubled under class of the city. Everybody naturally speaks in a range of British/Irish regional accents.

The promotion of the show, with it’s focus on Bloom and Delevingne as the star-crossed lovers with overly contrived names obscures that the strength of the show is as a multi-layered narrative with an excellent supporting cast. The story actually follows three relationships and the consequences to the city of each of them but initially key characters appear to be merely side plots. There are naturally a set of coincidences and surprise familial relationships that tie these stories together but which also reveal that there is more going on than just a Lovecraftian thing lurking in the sewers.

The idea of using fantasy creatures to examine race and racism isn’t a new one and it carries with it the risk of simply repeating the racism behind the concept of fantasy people. However, the show’s diverse cast and layered characters avoids some of the worst mistakes and sometimes manages a nuanced and interesting take. I’ve some more thoughts on that and also some issues with the choice of the underlying villains that precipitated the events but hard to discuss without major spoilers.

Visually it is impressive with thought put into costuming and into making Prague look like a plausible but unfamiliar fantasy steampunk quasi-London. The supporting cast is very good, especially David Gyasi as Agreus Astrayon, a wealthy puck with ambitions of being accepted by high society. Bloom is not annoying and Cara Delevingne’s perfomance as an angry refugee suffering from the loss of her homeland and the wholesale theft of her culture is also very good.

Sometimes too much can be good. The show piles things on but commits to its own absurdity with an unabashed confidence. The main monster-murder plot wraps up satisfyingly in the final episode (oh my it was ____ all along!) but with plenty of twists and developments to keep you hooked for a second season (which apparently is on its way). There’s a lot of gore and there is a lot of sex and there is a lot of everything and they still didn’t really get into the werewolves or the airships or presumably werewolves on airships, so it is safe to assume there is a lot more to come. I enjoyed it and I expect that it will provide a treasure trove for cos-players.

13 thoughts on “Review: Carnival Row

  1. “but we only really follow two kinds: a satyr like race with sheep horns and goat legs called ‘Pucks” and human sized pixies with insect wings called “Pix”.”

    Were they not able to get the rights to Saga or something?


  2. I’ve been a little scared off by all of the negative reviews, but the set and costume designers seem to have been working themselves half to death. It looks so cool, I was afraid I’m was gonna have to watch, and your review has convinced me. From the pictures I’ve seen, Delevigne’s costumes are just stunning, and she’s got the chops (OK, OK, and the cheekbones and the eyebrows) to wear them with style.


  3. Initially I thought that this was a show about a Victorian age carnival hiding real magical creatures as circus freaks, which isn’t a new idea either, but was of much more interest to me than an over-hash of the white savior with a white love interest half his age saves POC represented by magical monsters while maintaining British imperialism in a world filled with naked women/sex for the guys thing. It’s just so old and creaky, though hearing it has werewolves makes it a bit more interesting. If you say it has amazing dialogue, then maybe, but costumes and pandemonium alone are not strong enough draws.

    On the bright side, Hollywood is browsing, with mixed success, through Victorian/steampunk at the moment, so a lot of this sort of project are in the works.


      1. Well it’s a t.v. series so he’ll be bad at it, morally compromise himself, make difficult bargains, do some heinous acts, etc. Possibly he is a werewolf. 🙂

        I am fond of Orlando and wish the show well, but did not find enough being offered to excite me. It does sound like the everything and the kitchen sink approach might be producing some fun for people.


  4. Hang with it, Kat. The show does a very good job of twisting tropes and expectations in wonderful ways.

    No way, I took call waiting of!@#$!(!@ ) #$! NO CARRIER


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