Though many column-inches have been devoted to how much Amazon invested in the high-pedigree luxurious drama The Rings of Power, it’s perhaps another of their titles, Carnival Row, that deserves the major plaudits, yet often feels overlooked. Taking the fantastical elements of J R Tolkien or C S Lewis and blending them with the political savagery of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, it’s a genuine shame that the first series of Carnival Row launched in 2019 – just before the COVID pandemic – and that its delayed return to our screens (complete with its expensive nature) likely robbed us of a quicker reprise and anything beyond this final run…
I fully admit that I embraced the ‘Previously on…‘ recap after such a long time away and even then, it took a while to reestablish the various motivations and alliances that inform this twisted world. The first season was essentially a murder-mystery, but at least for the first two episodes of the second season, formal procedural investigations take a far back-seat to more far-reaching mythology. However, by the end of the first episode (the first two episodes were made available), we’re fully back, immersed in a world that may contain fauns, centaurs and the faere folk but which is, in its own way, far more believable than the generally human machinations in shows like Game of Thrones. Where Rings of Power is elegant and graceful and full or prose, Carnival Row is grubby and street-wise, a solid, swirling mixture of the sacred and the profane. In many ways its world-building has more in common with the equally ambitious animated Arcane than anything else… the streets and alleyways here are dangerous but believable.
Amid the outstanding production designs of location and character that feel as if they should win a host of technical awards, the cast is an enviable ensemble of talent.
Though many column-inches have been devoted to how much Amazon invested in the high-pedigree luxurious drama The Rings of Power, it’s perhaps Carnival Row, that deserves the major plaudits, yet often feels overlooked. Taking the fantastical elements of J R Tolkien or C S Lewis and blending them with the political savagery of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, it’s a genuine shame that the first series launched in 2019 – just before the COVID pandemic – and that its delayed return to our screens (complete with its expensive nature) likely robbed us of a quicker reprise and anything beyond this final run…
Orlando Bloom is Rycroft Philostrate, the grizzled, battered ex-law enforcer now thrown into Carnival Row, the ghetto where the faerie, fawns, trow, etc. have been herded and treated each day with a degree of casual brutality which wouldn’t be believable if we didn’t know of the historical and current examples in our real world. Revealing himself as a half-blood, he’s now biding his time, knowing that he has a very small number of allies on both sides of the barbed-wire but many more who would gladly see his attempts of any kind of reconciliation fail. The fact that he now also knows he’s the illegitimate son of the late Chancellor Absalom Breakspear (played by Jared Harris until the character met his demise last time) is the kind of information that could save him or damn him depending on whose ears the secret lands, but it’s a currency that Rycroft will look to exploit early in the season.
Ingenue Cara Delevingne’s Vignette Stonemoss is a fae weathered by her experiences, never wanting to be a warrior, but able to rise (literally) to the occasion when needed. She’s the love of Rycroft’s life but it’s definitely a star-crossed union that often teeters on the edge of falling apart given their alliances and Vignette is in every way his equal. The first season explored their history in a series of flashbacks, separated by fate and how their methods vary, but now they’re together there’s still friction if no less primal passion and love. Vignette doesn’t want any singular power, but finds more responsibilities falling her way as tensions increase and the missions involving the more militant Black Raven cabal against supply trains get more and more brazen.
The rest of the supporting cast all bring their A-game. Jamie Harris is detestable as Sergeant Dombey, clearly aiming for a long, painful death if there’s any justice out there; Simon McBurney as the pragmatic Runyan Millworthy feels like he’s walked out of a warped House of Cards and Karla Crome as the haunted fae Tourmaline Larou brings a tortured elegance to all her scenes in the first two episodes. On a political level, Arty Froushan’s Jonah Breakspear feels less like the villain of the piece we might have originally mistaken him for and much more the plaything of the Opposition’s leader Sophie Longerbane (Caroline Ford) whose duplicity is obvious but whose motives remain shrouded in secrecy thus far.
Elsewhere – and giving us a further taste of farther shores – the wealthy fawn or ‘puck’ Agreus Astrayon (played with flair and a sense of style by David Gyasi) begins to realise that his refined furnishings aren’t about to protect him or his paramour, the until-now spoiled debutant Imogen Spurnrose (Tamzin Merchant) from the rebellious forces of a changing world looking for retribution against the previous ruling class in a way that would make our own French Revolution weep. It also manages to echo the way that people of color were still treated as they got more rights but still faced the bigotry of others. It’s also great to see the underused Joanne Whalley as Leonora, a character whose kitchen-maven environment is likely at odds with her influence.
There is another murder-mystery being looked at by the end of the second episode but it never feels like it’ll supercede or have the same prominence as the first season… more likely it will play into the bigger political conspiracies at play. For these opening episodes that works well enough, but it’ll be interesting to see if the run can balance out both as the season progresses.
- Production Design / VFX10