Humans and mythical creatures struggle to live together peaceably in the wake of a devastating war as a brutal serial killer runs amok in Carnival Row, a new “Victorian neo-noir” fantasy series on Amazon Prime. It’s part murder mystery, part fairy tale, and 100% wholly original, rather than being an adaptation of pre-existing source material. Small wonder Amazon has already ordered a second season of this lush and richly textured series.
(Mild spoilers below.)
Carnival Row is based on a feature film script by Travis Beacham (Pacific Rim), written when he was still in film school in North Carolina 17 years ago. He was working in the school library and found himself reading about everything from Celtic mythology to Jack the Ripper. All that fodder fed into a ten-page script for a short film about a constable in neo-Victorian London visiting a faerie brothel where a murder has taken place. His professor suggested the subject was better suited to a full feature, and Beacham worked on it in his spare time. An alumnus of his school forwarded the finished script to a few people in Hollywood, and it started winning fans. In fact, the script made the very first Hollywood Black List in 2005, an annual list of the “most liked” screenplays not yet produced.
It still took another 14 years to make it into production, and Beacham was convinced his dream project would never amount to anything. “I loved it very intensely,” he said. “Imagine feeling like you’re never going to do anything better than this, and it’s never going to be a thing.” The success of Pacific Rim in 2013 certainly helped bring the project to fruition; the same production company, Legendary Entertainment, ultimately bought the script in 2015 and reimagined it as a series for Amazon Prime. That turned out to be the perfect format in this golden age of big-budget prestige drama, which is far more friendly to this kind of extravagant, cinematic world-building.
Rycroft “Philo” Philostrate (Orlando Bloom) is an orphan of the Burgue, a human city co-existing in a world with other exotic lands that are home to various mystical creatures: faeries (“Pix”), fauns (“Pucks”), trolls (“Trows”), centaurs, werewolves (“Morroks”), and so forth. The races used to live peacefully in their respective regions, until war broke out with a mysterious group called The Pact. The humans of the Burgue sided with the fae to protect their homeland from the invaders. We learn in a standalone flashback episode that Philo met and fell in love with the faerie Vignette Stonemoss (Cara Delevingne) during his military service in her homeland of Tirnanoc. The lovers were torn apart when the Burgue forces retreated. Knowing Vignette would never leave him willingly, Philo faked his own death so she would evacuate with her fellow fae. Many of them ended up in the Burgue as refugees to escape being murdered by The Pact’s occupying forces.
Philo is now a police inspector working to solve a string of heinous murders, and anti-immigrant sentiment among humans in the Burgue is on the rise. “Our streets are safe no more!” one pompous politician declares, and there appears to be little Absalom Breakspear (Jared Harris), current head of the Burgue’s Parliament-style government, can do to appease the opposition. Creatures are treated as subhuman, but Philo defends and protects the “critch” (a derogatory term) as best he can. When Vignette finally seeks refuge in the Burgue, after years helping smuggle others to safety, she is understandably peeved to find him alive and well. She becomes an indentured ladies’ maid to spoiled heiress Imogen Spurnrose (Tamzin Merchant), whose brother Ezra (Andrew Glover) has lost much of the family fortune with his bad investments. She spies an opportunity to reverse their fortunes when wealthy puck Agreus Astrayon (David Gyasi) moves in across the street, and (reluctantly) befriends him, in defiance of all social norms.
Oscar-winning Director Guillermo del Toro was originally tapped to direct the series—the neo-Victorian setting and fantastical creatures would have been very well-suited to his idiosyncratic style. But del Toro left the project before production officially began to focus on his feature-film commitments. He was replaced by Paul McGuigan, who was in turn replaced by Amiel. There was also some apprehension about the series when rumors surfaced that there had been numerous reshoots—often a sign of trouble for a project, although Bloom called the reshoots “a gift” during a San Diego Comic-Con panel.
Beacham concurs, arguing that the reshoots were necessary to pull off a project as ambitious as Carnival Row, particularly when it comes to establishing the world and the major characters and conflicts. “It really helps to have everything done, beginning, middle, and end, and then look back on it as a whole, rather than triage individual episodes,” said Beacham. “We didn’t re-shoot everything from front to back, we mostly focused on the first two episodes. The reshoots vastly improved the first season.”
I’m inclined to agree, too: there’s a polish to the finished eight-episode season that assures you the show knows exactly where it’s headed as the story unfolds, despite how complicated it is. In addition to the compelling central mystery of the murders, there are subplots involving political rivalries, religious and racial tension—particularly from those humans who worship The Martyr, a vaguely Christ-like figure, only hanged instead of crucified—romantic entanglements, a criminal underground, and dozens of smaller narrative flourishes that serve to further build out this fictional world. It is to Beacham’s and Amiel’s credit that the viewing experience is richly immersive rather than hopelessly confusing, and all those threads neatly converge in the finale. That polish extends to the expert pacing: the series takes its time to build toward the Big Reveal, but it is never overly plodding or ponderous.
“We’re definitely going to start seeing this wider world [in S2], to bring more of a global perspective.”
Beacham deliberately populated the Burgue with different races of humans, the better to articulate a particularly ugly aspect of human nature: we always want to identify some other group as an outcast Other, even if we ourselves were once a member of a group facing discrimination. In the real world, Irish, Italian, Jewish, Japanese, Hispanic, and Middle Eastern immigrants, among others, have all taken a turn as despised targets of prejudice and anti-immigration sentiment. The humans of Carnival Row are no different, uniting in resentment against the influx of beings they deem less than human, and hence undeserving of fair and equal treatment.
“The arrival of new people to hate always makes the old [hated] people a little bit more likable,” said Beacham. The fae work in lowly occupations, often as indentured servants to work off the cost of their passage to safety. As a ladies’ maid, Vignette must bind her wings and is forbidden to fly, or be out at night. Of course, that doesn’t stop the humans from frequenting faerie brothels, drawn by the exotic novelty of sex with a winged creature.
Given that season one ends with Philo solving his case, what can we expect from season two? According to Beacham, at least some of the characters will be venturing beyond the Burgue to broaden the scope of the series. Apart from the opening scenes and the standalone flashback episode set in Tirnanoc, we haven’t seen much else of this world—and we know almost nothing about The Pact. “We’re definitely going to start seeing this wider world, locations that have only been mentioned, to bring more of a global perspective,” said Beacham, although the titular Carnival Row neighborhood will still be prominently featured.
Carnival Row has been touted as a possible successor to HBO’s wildly successful Game of Thrones. At one point, a character actually declares, “Chaos opens opportunities,” an involuntary echo of Littlefinger’s famous line from GoT’s third season. But that seems to be mere coincidence, and Beacham has been crystal clear that he is not attempting to write the next Game of Thrones. “I wrote Carnival Row seventeen years ago,” Beacham tweeted. “If you seriously think I was trying to write the next Game of Thrones back in 2002 then you’ve clearly STOLEN MY TIME MACHINE!”
Carnival Row is now streaming on Amazon Prime.