Warning: Some spoilers for the episode follow.
The third episode of Amazon’s original series Carnival Row marks rather a departure from the episodes preceding it, as it takes us back in time to learn of how Vignette and Rycroft first met and fell in love. Though they forge a powerful bond in the midst of terrible war and suffering in Vignette’s homeland, ultimately Rycroft chooses to lie to her about his death, in the hopes that in doing so he can spare her heartache and perhaps save her life. She, of course, not only sees this as a profound betrayal of their love, but also points out to him that, had he but trusted their feelings and love for one another, they could have spent the preceding years building a future together rather than suffering loneliness and (in her case) despair.
In my opinion, this was the strongest episode so far, precisely because it remained focused on the two main leads and their burgeoning relationship. In fact, I wouldn’t have minded seeing at least one more episode treat us to this backstory, since it’s clear that the two leads have a great deal of chemistry and that the story is, in some ways, at the heart of the series as a whole. I’m sincerely hoping that the two of them end up getting back together, which seems to be the endpoint of their respective stories.
Indeed, the episode’s revelation that Rycroft is in fact half-Fae substantially raises the stakes of the story, since we now know that he has something to hide. For the first time since the series began, we really get to see a bit of what makes him tick. Of course, we’ve gotten some glimpses of that in earlier episodes, but now we know why he has such an enduring sympathy with the Fae, even though doing so puts him in marked opposition to many of his fellows among the police.
The episode also reveals a tiny bit more about the Pact, the enemy of the Fae that has, so far, lurked at the corners of the narrative. Though that doesn’t change a great deal here, we do nevertheless learn a bit more about them: that they are also not human (and may in fact be of the same blood, even if those that we see appear quite human) and that they are technologically advanced enough to have airships and machine guns (indeed, their appearance near the end of the episode is quite chilling).
We also get a tiny glimmer of understanding of how the humans and the Fae regard one another. It’s clear that the latter are significantly older than the former, even if humanity has managed to attain more technological marvels than their non-human counterparts. One gets the sense that it is the Fae’s antiquity that at least in part explains humans’ antipathy toward them, for it’s well-known that humanity loves to destroy what it can’t (or won’t) properly understand on its own terms.
Overall, I thought this episode marked a significant improvement over the ones that preceded it, in large part because it focused so much on two characters whose arcs have clear stakes. In fact, I think that it’s multitudinous plot lines are one of the series’ weaknesses. It’s fine for an a sprawling story like this to have many different characters and points of view, but you have to give us enough of them to grow and develop and make us care about them, and I’m afraid the series just hasn’t done that so far. For that matter, it really hasn’t given us much of an understanding of the precise political stakes of what’s going on, mostly because the Chancellor Absalom (the always-excellent Jared Harris) has had so little screen time to stretch his wings.
Hopefully, the next five episodes will tell us a lot more about the way that the political winds are blowing and provide answers to at least some of the questions that these first few episodes have raised. If not, then I have the unfortunate suspicion that I am going to grow very bored of this series, and that really does seem a shame, considering it’s very intriguing premise and strong cast.
So, here’s to another episode!