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SYFY WIRE Carnival Row

8 reasons to watch Carnival Row, and to keep watching until the end

By Brian Silliman
Carnival Row

To get this out of the way right from the start — Carnival Row is not "the next Game of Thrones." It was never going to be, and it never had any intentions of being so. Carnival Row is very much its own thing, and to get the full power of the Row, you've got to watch the full season. Trade in that broadsword for a fashionable bowler hat, if you please.

When people talk about "the next Game of Thrones" they probably aren't talking about the next gargantuan fantasy epic that is loosely based on the War of the Roses. What is more likely is that people are checking to see if this is going to be the next big thing in televised fantasy, a show that has the world talking and tweeting, whether or not those people care for swords and sorcery.

Carnival Row is an original tale created by Travis Beacham and Rene Echevarria, and it does its own Victorian-esque/steampunk/fairy-wing thing. Every time you try and classify the show so you can put it in a box, it will defy you. Don't try and label the Row, just enjoy it. Enjoy all of it, I should add.

You won't get all of the copious pleasures that the first season has to offer if you only watch an episode or two. To really get into this brand-new world (one not based on any pre-existing book), then you've got to be in it for the long haul. Eight episodes is not that long of a haul, either. Some may balk and say, "If you have to wait four or five eps for a show to get good, then forget it."

Well, so it goes, I guess? Last time I looked, Game of Thrones didn't storm out of the gate — it took at least nine episodes (and the lead character's head) to really get people to notice. Just in case some extraordinarily beautiful design and some of the most ridiculously fun names heard this side of Grindelwald aren't enough of a reason for you to get streaming, here are just eight reasons why you should stop worrying and learn to love the Row ... all of it.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the authors', and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.

The story (told in eight parts)

The tale of Season 1 is not entirely linear, and it doles out its reveals very judiciously. During the first few episodes, you may wonder what the puck some of these storylines have to do with one another, but eventually they all tie together... and they tie together in some fantastic, and unexpected ways.

The final two episodes of the season will answer almost all of the most pressing questions, and they are full of payoffs. So much of the story is based firmly in character (which we'll get to), so when characters discover things, we discover them too. The full tapestry of Season 1 is only revealed at the very end, and it's only then that we can see the intricacy of what we've been watching. This also gives the season the lovely gift of being rewatchable in the extreme.

The full tapestry of the season is beautiful. We are guaranteed to be getting a second season, and that's good because there are many questions left unanswered. Still, many questions are answered here — many more than I expected. What begins as a somewhat routine murder investigation spirals into something entirely different, and you will find out why.

Carnival Row

Philo and Vignette

Most of the advertising about the series focused on the possibilities of a fraught and star-crossed love story between Rycroft Philostrate (Orlando Bloom) and Vignette Stonemoss (Cara Delevingne). Human and Fae, both from different worlds. Do they belong together? Do we care?

Both actors do quite a good job, but in the early episodes they were probably the characters that intrigued me the least. I didn't dislike their somewhat violent and resentful romance, but I wasn't hot for it, either. That changed.

The arcs of both Philo and Vignette in the first season are insane, and once again, you only get the full power of these arcs if you get to the season finale. This is where you'll really begin to root for Philo, and it's also when you'll want him and Vignette to be together forever.

Philo's history is doled out very slowly... but once you (and he himself) has all of the necessary information, the game has changed. This adds to the show's rewatchability factor, too. Going back and rewatching the first episode after having watched the entire season is like watching a new show. Seeing Philo gently ask an attack survivor some questions (in a great bit of acting from Bloom) has an entirely new significance.

Episode 3

The third episode of the season, "Kingdoms of the Moon," made me realize that I was fully in the tank for this series. This is why I recommend watching up and through this episode at the very least.

The entire hour is mostly a flashback to how Philo and Vignette met, while the soldiers of The Burgue (Of the Burgue!) were fighting The Pact in the realms of the Fae. It's a "love in a time of war" episode, giving you the real story of how these two met and fell in love for the first time.

It's a gorgeous episode to look at, to listen to, and it adds a ton of information to the already immense world-building that's already gone on. We learn that The Pact has some kind of serum that can turn them into werewolves (?) and that the war involved hot air balloons — because of course it did.

This is where I began to care about Philo and Vignette being a thing. This episode is where Fetch happens. Delevingne especially shines here, and you learn something about her and her people that will devastate you a couple of episodes afterward.

Carnival Row

Imogen and Agreus

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single faun in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

Imagine the horror when the prim and posh Imogen Spurnrose discovers that her new neighbor is none other than... a faun! He's not a servant, either, and he wears a hat when he walks outside! Dear lord, there goes the neighborhood.

There goes the neighborhood, but in comes the drama, and with it comes a hefty helping of... hmm... there's no way around writing it: Passion. Deep, loving, throbbing passion. Oh lord above, the passion between Imogen Spurnrose and Mr. Agreus makes you think that you're watching Pride and Faunjudice. If I had a heart, these two would make it grow three sizes.

Tamzin Merchant and David Gyasi smolder in these roles, as they go from being cold neighbors, to reluctant allies, to friends, and ultimately... hot hot hot. I'll say no more for the sake of spoilers, but this is the real love story of the first season. Again, I don't want to spoil anything, so I'll just say... there is a scene. You'll know it when it happens.

Does Carnival Row do an about-face and change into something utterly different every time this storyline picks up the baton? Yes. Do I give a puck? Nope.

Runyan Millworthy Carnival Row

Runyan Millworthy, or who is Sylvia?

I still don't really know what this guy's deal is, but I do know that he's played by the great Simon McBurney. That's all anyone should need. 

This gentleman pops up in Episode 2 as some kind of flim-flam man, presiding over a pop-up outdoor theater where a group of Kobolds dress in little costumes and masks. Yes, it's outdoor panto with Kobolds, presided over by McBurney, a man well known for crafting all kinds of adventurous stage works in real life with Theatre Complicité. If that doesn't excite you, then may I ask you to please breathe into this mirror?

Everything about Runyan Millworthy fascinates me, from his costume (including a little hat that is very That's So Dumbledore), to his makeup, to his odd twists of fate. Here's another instance where the show has you wondering how the hell this guy ties into the larger story, and it does reward you. It is almost certainly holding some details back, but so much the better.

I'm ready for so much more of the talented Mr. Millworthy in Season 2.

Absalom Breakspear Carnival Row Jared Harris

Futile power plays (and Jared Harris)

Do you want some political intrigue with your fairy wings and faun horns? You got it. The politics of this fictitious world are very much an ongoing story point in the season, and Jared Harris' Absalom Breakspear (ha) is right in the center of it all. His wife is also a big part of it (more on her in a moment), and the Breakspear Dynasty's political turmoil is fascinating. More often than not, it's also very, very real.

This show is not subtle about the parallels that it draws to real-world events. When you watch arguments break out in the political scenes, the haughty parilamentarians may just as well be arguing about modern, real-life issues of immigration, fascism, and racism. The fact that they are hemming and hawing over fairies, fauns, and the like? Just a matter of perspective. Same issues, different cast. Human begins gonna human being, and that means political struggle... with selfish pursuits of power at the heart of it all.

Jared Harris is a gift to the show. I'm repeating myself blatantly at this point, but the true reasons for why Absalom Breakspear is so important (and why an actor like Harris was sought out) will become incredibly clear in the final two episodes. Watch the whole thing.

Piety Breakspear Carnival Row

Indira Varma

The great Indira Varma is a fiery force as Absalom's wife, Piety Breakspear. Varma's presence alone makes the entire season worth it, as she is always (always) welcome in any show, I don't care what show it is. Digitally place her in every episode of Friends and you'll instantly have a better show. She is a highly underrated actor, and she rarely gets enough to do even when she does show up — the Dorne subplots on Game of Thrones weren't anyone's favorite, but that fault does not lie with Varma. If anything, the former Mrs. Vorenus made them worthwhile.

Piety plays into the political side of the story, but she's got a lot more going on. Like Harris, it's only in the final two episodes that you realize why they had to cast Varma in the part. To receive that payoff, you've got to watch the whole thing.

Varma's Piety twists and slithers her way around a number of the show's plotlines like some kind of Fae snake, and it's great fun to watch. Her first appearance in the pilot sees her just observing the political arguments from an upstairs gallery (where all of the real drama happens), and this is another instance of something having far greater significance when watched a second time.

The first time I watched it, I thought, "Indira Varma is in this, awesome." The second? I was watching Piety Breakspear, and imagining the gears turning in her head.

Carnival Row map

You will be satisfied, but you'll also want season 2 immediately

I was left highly satisfied by the end of this first season, but at the same time I wanted Season 2 immediately. I'm insanely greedy like that. Big character moments resolve, but they also turn. They are ready to face new challenges. 

The plot that drove much of the season has been dealt with, but far darker things are afoot. Characters like Jonah Breakspear (Arty Froushan) and Sophie Longerbane (Caroline Ford) prove why their stories have been a part of the proceedings, and then there's the small matter regarding the vast amount of world building that we may have heard about, but haven't explored yet.

What exactly is The Pact? Other than dressing like Cossacks, using werewolf serum, and coming from Quivera and Cibola (we think), what is their deal? We hear about a place called Ignota (or "The Ignotan Continental Interior" according to the official map), so, like, what's the deal there? The map also has a place called "The Naga Imperium," can we see that? Also, what's the deal? Is there more to Tirnanoc than just Anoun, and if so, what's the deal? What's the deal with airline food?

It's a testament to the world that the show has built in 8 episodes that I genuinely care about all of those things. If I had cut wings and run after just a couple of episodes, then I would not have the raging love for the Row that I have now. Don't run from it. Embrace it.

Carnival Row Season 1 is streaming on Amazon Prime right now. Watch the whole thing.