TV Review: Carnival Row (S1, Ep. 1: “Some Dark God Wakes”

When I first saw the trailers for Amazon’s new original series Carnival Row, I admit I was intrigued. I don’t normally watch or read a great deal of steam punk–which was what this series appeared to be–but something about it called to me. And, since I’ve been impatiently awaiting the arrival of the new television adaptation of His Dark Materials, I figured I might as well give this a try.

I’m glad I did.

The majority of the first episode takes place in the city known as the Burgue and primarily centers on Constable Rycroft Philostrate (Orlando Bloom), who investigates a series of unsolved assaults and murders, and his Fae wife Vignette Stonemoss (Cara Delevingne), whom he abandoned, who has come to the city as well. Together, they each find that the world that they thought they knew is altogether more dangerous and deadly. By the end of the episode, the entire city of the Burgue seems on the edge of multiple catastrophes: political, social, and perhaps even cosmological.

Both Bloom and Delevingne turn in solid performances, and I found myself liking both characters and wanting to know more about them (though it is very unfair that Bloom continues to age so damn well). There are also some very entertaining secondary characters, though most of these (with the possible exception of Jared Harris’s Chancellor Absalom Breakspear) remain at the margins of the narrative rather than its center. However, it’s clear that each of them is a part of the skein that the series is weaving.

Generically, Carnival Row is some strange amalgam of film noir, fantasy, steam punk, and dark fantasy. Somehow, though, it manages to bring all of these together into a fairly cohesive story (at least, as of the first episode). “Some Dark God” does a great deal to set the stage and to introduce us to this world. The Fae are a group that have been exploited by colonial powers for their own benefit and, abandoned by their former allies, they are brutally oppressed by a sinister group known as the Pact. The episode reveals just enough of this backstory, as well as its political and social ramifications in the Burgue, to leave the viewer wanting more.

Of course, it is not lost on me that the film has a great deal of contemporary relevance, given that one of the central issues is the influx of immigrants from a country that was exploited by colonial overlords and then left to its own devices. At times, the allegory is a little too on-the-nose, and I’m sure that this will alienate some viewers. However, sometimes it’s necessary for fantasy to hold up a mirror to our own flaws, no matter how ugly and unseemly they might be, no matter how difficult they may be for us to really want to deal with. “Some Dark God Wakes” does a good job of that, though I do hope that it gets a little more sophisticated in future episodes.

Indeed, there are some signs of that already since, by the end of the episode, some new wrinkles have been thrown into the mix, and we’re left wondering if, just possibly, there is indeed, as the title suggests, a dark force at work that is greater and more sinister than anyone realizes. I’m always up for some cosmological conflict, and that is definitely one thing that fantasy as a genre and a mode of storytelling can accomplish better than almost any other form of literature.

Overall, I thought that the first episode was a fine introduction to the world that Carnival Row has taken as its setting. It’s just one more illustration that Amazon has committed to building up its fantasy offerings. Fortunately, the first season only has eight episodes, so hopefully that means that it will be able to keep its narrative threads in order.

Stay tuned for my next review of the series, coming soon!