TV Review: Carnival Row: “Unaccompanied Fae” (S1, Ep. 6)

As all of you know, I’ve been growing more than a little impatient with Carnival Row and the snail’s pace at which it has, so far, seemed content to move. Thankfully, things have started to heat up in the sixth episode of the season, marking a turning point (or several) in the overall arc of the story.

In the episode, Mr. Agreus and Imogen attend an art auction, at which the Puck thoroughly humiliates some of Imogen’s enemies by outbidding them for a priceless piece of art, Rycroft is eventually arrested and accused of the murders, Vignette is imprisoned for attending a museum exhibit closed to Fae, and Jonah Breakspear and Sophie Longerbane form the beginning of an unusual political partnership.

To my mind, this episode marks the first time in the entire season that we’ve finally begun to feel some forward momentum with any of the storylines. Of course, Rycroft’s is the most significant, as this marks the moment when his own “friends” turn against him, both those in his personal life and those in the police department. It’s a useful reminder–if any were needed–about the brutally and violently xenophobic nature of the Burgue and its inhabitants. One begins to wish that there really were some dark god wakening in the bowels of the city, and that it will eventually rise up and destroy the humans who have already caused so much misery.

It also marks the first time that I began to feel myself become genuinely interested in the Imogen/Agreus storyline. Mostly, I suspect this is because there now feels to be at least a modicum of chemistry between them, both the characters and the actors. Though I’m still struggling to see exactly what the point of this relationship is–i.e,. how it connects to the other stories, if at all–but I will say that this important moment marks one of the few times that I found myself actually caring about what happened between the two of them.

And, of course, there is the poignant scene where Vignette discovers that her beloved library has been dismantled and reassembled in a museum. It’s a moving scene for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that it reveals how it feels to be one of the colonized, forced to watch one’s sacred trust debased and rendered into nothing more than a commodity. To me, this might just be one of the most interesting moments of the series in terms of its critique of colonialism. One can hardly blame Vignette for her outburst of rage at the Burgue residents who so casually come in to view this sacred space, and the outrage is only made worse by the fact that she’s arrested.

I’m still a little frustrated by the Jonah/Sophie storyline. I’m honestly not sure why they haven’t made the two of them a more central part of the narrative, since there is a.) obvious chemistry between the characters and the actors; b.) Sophie is an amazing character and c.) it would help to up the political stakes of the story. One gets the sense that their relationship, and its political consequences will come to play a greater role in season 2.

Overall, I thought this was a much stronger episodes than most of its predecessors, and I cannot wait to see what lies in store in the ones to come.

TV Review: Carnival Row: “Grieve No More” (S1, Ep. 5)

I’m slowly but surely making my way through Carnival Row, and I’m now over halfway done with the first season. Rycroft continues to investigate the brutal deaths, Vignette makes inroads with the Raven, and Imogen schemes with Agreus to earn his money in exchange for her introducing him to society.

I have to admit, I’m getting a little frustrated with this show. The various plot threads are still ambling along, and none of them seem to have any particular destination in mind. That’s fine for a while, but when nothing seems to ever really move forward, it becomes increasingly difficult to care about these characters in the way that we’re presumably supposed to. For the life of me, I still do not care about Imogen and her family’s struggles against poverty, and the Puck Agreus’ motivations remain as inscrutable as ever (and, much as I like David Gyasi, his overly-mannered delivery is becoming almost unwatchable).

Part of the problem is that Carnival Row keeps throwing in more character arcs as it goes along. Whereas before we were basically supposed to be interested in three separate strands: the chancellor and his family; Vignette and Rycroft, and Imogen, now we’re supposedly supposed to also care about the showman and his kobolds as well as a Puck who was fired from the Absalom’s service (who appears to be in the midst of a religious conversion). I’d like to be able to give the series the benefit of the doubt and believe that these stories will end up somewhere, but I’m increasingly finding that a difficult proposition. If, however, the show can do the heavy lifting of making these plot arcs a central part of the final resolution, then I will be very impressed indeed.

Don’t get me wrong. The episode was enjoyable as far as it went. It’s nice to get a little more detail about Rycroft’s background–including some important revelations about his birth and a particularly haunting flashback depicting the amputation of his wings when he was a baby–and the acting continues to be top-notch. There are glimmers of an interesting story with the stuff surrounding the Breakspears and the newly-emergent Sophie Longerbane, but there’s so little detail given to them that it’s hard to really get invested (which is truly a shame, since it appears that they’re wasting the considerable talents of both Jared Harris and Indira Varma).

Of course, this doesn’t mean that I’m not going to finish it out. After all, I’ve only got three episodes left, and I still don’t quite see what the end game is, and I have the sinking feeling that I am going to be left disappointed by the ending (especially since there is already a season two announced, so most likely it will end on a cliffhanger). To my mind, the greatest challenge facing this series is the inescapable conclusion that there is a truly fascinating concept, and maybe even a truly great series, yearning to be born from a rather mediocre one.

Maybe by the end of the season it will succeed, but I’m not holding my breath.

TV Review: Carnival Row: “The Joining of Unlike Things” (S1, Ep. 4)

Warning: Spoilers ahead.

I finally got back into watching Carnival Row last night, so I wanted to share my thoughts on the fourth episode today before I attempt to watch the fifth tonight.

Having established the backstory between Vignette and Rycroft, the story switches back to the present day. Rycroft continues his investigation of the mysterious deaths plaguing the city, and he learns that the deaths might have been caused by an undead amalgam of various Fae creatures. Meanwhile, Vignette must contend with the politics of the Raven and in the process is responsible for the death of another member of the gang. Meanwhile, Imogen plots to attain the financial assistance of Puck Agreus, and Absalom Breakspear finally manages to regain his son.

The episode marked some significant developments in character development and helped to move some parts forward, though not quite enough for my taste. I’m still waiting to see why exactly I should care about Imogen and her impending destitution. Marchant does the most with what she’s been given in the script, but I can honestly say that I find this particular storyline the most tedious to get through. Similarly, while I find the Puck Agreus fascinating as a character, as of yet the show hasn’t developed him enough for me to either understand exactly what his arc is nor why I should.

Now, in terms of both Rycroft and Vignette, things are a little better.

One gets the sense that Vignette’s forced killing of one of the other members of the Raven is going to have significant consequences on her development as a character. Unlike almost everyone else in the Burgue–Fae and human alike–she has managed so far to cling to some vestige of her moral compass. This, however, seems to be changing. Vignette is a bit of a loose canon, devoid of the things that once allowed her to understand her place in the world. And, of course, it’s pretty clear that she still loves Rycroft, and one gets the feeling that he may hold the key to her ultimate salvation.

For me, the highlight of this episode was twofold. One, the advancement of the Chancellor plot, in which the Absalom’s son is finally recovered from his captivity and the son’s realization that his mother was responsible for his kidnapping. The means in which this is revealed–he recognizes the sound of her heels clicking on stone–was, I think, one of the finest scenes the series has yet produced. And, of course, Jared Harris is always a pleasure to watch; I just wish the show would give him a bit more time to stretch his wings and help us to understand what makes him (and his wife Piety) really tick.

The other highlight was Rycroft’s encounter with the creature that is probably responsible for all of the murders, as well as the revelation that it is in all likelihood a golem fashioned of dead Fae. The scene with the haruspex, in which he has to provide his seed in order for her to work the magic to create a similar creature, is both disturbing and oddly sensual. This is one of the few times that we’ve seen the workings of magic in this world, and hopefully this means that we’ll see more in the future.

My major complaint with Carnival Row remains the same as it has from the beginning. While I can see some connections among the various disconnected storylines, the series hasn’t done a great deal so far to bring them together into any kind of coherent whole. For the most part, it can’t quite seem to decide which of them is the most important, and so it’s a little difficult to get emotionally invested in any character other than the primary duo of Rycroft/Vignette.

Overall, this was a satisfying episode, though I am starting to wonder just how much of the many mysteries that it has put into play it is going to satisfactorily solve by the time that the season ends.

TV Review: Carnival Row: “Kingdoms of the Moon” (S1, Ep. 3)

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!

TV Review: Carnival Row: “Aisling” (S1, Ep. 2)

Warning: Spoilers for the plot follow.

After the bombshell ending of the first episode, in which a former singer was brutally slaughtered by some unknown being from beneath the city, this episode of Amazon’s Carnival Row slowed things down a bit. Rycroft continues on his search for this new killer, while Vignette has to confront the true ugliness of her (truly terrible) employers and ultimately flees into service with a smuggling group. Meanwhile, both Imogen and Ezra (Vignette’s terrible employers) struggle with impending bankruptcy and the presence of a wealthy Puck next door, while Chancellor Absalom contends with the kidnapping of his son, unaware that his wife Piety is responsible.

Bloom and Delevingne continue to turn in solid performances, though it’s still very unclear how they feel about one another now that they have been reunited and, for that matter, what it was that separated them in the first place. They only have one scene where they are together, but there are a few sparks there, an indication that Vignette’s avowed hatred of her husband may not be as sincere as she claims, and it’s clear by Rycroft’s actions (such as paying off Vignette’s bonds to her employers), that he still has feelings for her. I sincerely hope, though, that Carnival Row starts revealing more about their backstory, as know almost nothing about either of their backstories, either individually or as a couple. That’s a bit of a problem when they are, in theory at least, your two main characters.

Varma’s Piety is also still something of an enigma. We now know that she’s staged her own son’s kidnapping, though her motives for doing so are as opaque as ever. One suspects that she bears her husband some significant amount of animosity, and their brief and testy exchange after their son’s kidnapping suggests it may be due to Piety’s exalted family status. I’ve always felt that Indira Varma is a supremely talented actress who always has the misfortune to be cast in roles that underuse her (such as her role as Niobe in HBO’s Rome and as the vengeful but ultimately ineffective Ellaria Sand in Game of Thrones), and I hope that doesn’t prove to be true here as well.

This was, in many ways, a bit of a slow-burn episode, revealing a bit more about the workings of the city of the Burgue and shedding a little more light on the politics and magic that undergird this world. However, it doesn’t really solve any of the enigmas put in place by the first episode, and though I enjoyed the episode (and very badly want to enjoy the series as a whole), I sincerely hope that matters kick into a higher gear going forward.

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!