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Carnival Row Discussion: 'Some Dark God Wakes' is a messy steampunk fantasy
Rejoice, FANGRRLS, for the Amazon Prime gods have given us new fantasy content to salivate over.
We're talking fairies. We're talking centaurs. We're talking Victorian-era costumes with steampunk attitude. It's enough to make us truly believe in magic.
The premiere of Carnival Row — a fantasy epic starring Cara Delevingne and Orlando Bloom — introduces us to a rich world of colorful characters and a darker mystery that threatens the fragile fabric of life in a place called the Burgue. Get ready for tropes and eye-rollingly basic dialogue and rattail braids, gang.
We're Jessica Toomer and Alyssa Fikse, and we'll be your guide to this messy, imaginative world.
Spoilers for Season 1, Episode 1 of Carnival Row within.
Escape From Tirnanoc
Jessica: Guys, we’re back on our fantasy nerd bullsh*t once again and I couldn’t be happier about it. I’ll admit I have no qualms about both dragging this show through the mud and fangirling over the things it does well, like giving us Cara Delevingne in a pixie cut and a gorgeously-tailored fur coat. From the looks of this first episode, Carnival Row is basically Peaky Blinders meets Lord of the Rings, but with fairies instead of elves. There’s a war going on in Tirnanoc (the fae’s homeland) between The Pact — a bunch of creepy dudes who have werewolf hunting dogs — and The Burguish soldiers. I can’t tell who’s a good guy and who’s a piece of sh*t yet, but boy is life messy in this 7th century AU.
Alyssa: I will be the first to admit that fae sh*t is my sh*t. The Sarah J. Maas books are basically the only reason I survived the 2016 election season, so this is the kind of story that I am more than willing to suspend my disbelief for. However, within the first three minutes, I already have questions. First of all, I realize that the canopy of razor wire would definitely be a deterrent for flying, but I feel like flying a couple of feet above the ground would still be faster than running. And when creepy werewolf dogs are after you, I think it best to choose your speediest option. Also, why make Cara Delevingne do an Irish accent? She’s doing her best Saoirse Ronan impression, but none of the other fae that we meet are “Irish,” so this just seems unnecessarily complicated. However, her name is Vignette Stonemoss, she’s a revolutionary, and I would die for her already.
Jessica: The accent is … whew, boy. But then we hear her utter her fae-given name and it kind of makes sense? I mean, I couldn’t see this knife-wielding smuggler sporting some posh lilt. Honestly, the dialect of this entire cast is suspect, hence the Peaky Blinders reference. I needed subtitles and I needed them bad. But, we soldier on because … well, we volunteered for this sh*t, Alyssa, and there’s really no backing out now. I will say I’m so impressed with the worldbuilding here. If you hadn’t gently corrected me before we had the chance to make edits to this recap, I would’ve gone through life thinking this was based on a book series, a comic book volume, a fanfiction work. Something. The backstory and history of this narrative is so rich, it’s almost hard to keep up with. Luckily, this show knows what we want most so we get wolf chases and shipwrecks and Orlando Bloom in a bowler hat pretty quickly.
Alyssa: It really is a lot right out of the gate, but I agree that the worldbuilding is pretty solid. The character designs are fun, and while it’s hard to pick up on all the names (slurs?) for the different creatures, you really get a read on what Carnival Row is right away. So yeah, Vignette is making her way from her homeland to The Burgue because she’s got a friend there, but she’s also got a broken heart. While she’s in the belly of the ship, we see her clutching a picture of a long-haired Orlando Bloom (who among us hasn’t?) while bemoaning her lost love. It’s all very sad. And then it gets even sadder when the ship goes down and all of the fleeing fae are locked below and everyone but Vignette dies. Rough.
Jessica: If there’s one sure-fire way to make us feel for the main character, it’s having a nosy-ass fae force her to recount her heartbreak before poking holes in her ship and nearly drowning her. We get it, guys, Vignette’s had a hard time of it. Still, seeing how she’s processed by Burguish policemen was interesting. The show offers up some not-so-subtle references to our current immigration crisis and how we view immigrants and refugees. Vignette and her people are fleeing violence brought on by other nations fighting over their native resources and yet, they’re treated worse than vermin when they seek sanctuary within the society responsible for their suffering. If that doesn’t give you a bad sense of déjà vu, I don’t know what to tell ya.
Alyssa: Yeah, there is nothing subtle about the immigration metaphors on Carnival Row. The incoming creatures — a.k.a. Critches — are forced to live on the fringes of society while politicians argue about them, using them as pawns and straw men in equal measure. Life in The Burgue seems pretty miserable, but Victorian England was rough for most too, so I guess even if you add in some fauns and centaurs, the class warfare and difficult going remain the same. And walking the mean streets of The Burgue is Rycroft Philostrate, Philo to his friends and enemies, Orlando Bloom to the rest of us. Before we get into this walking tortured detective trope, I must say one thing that rankles: Orlando Bloom has been in the public consciousness for about 20 years now. He’s 42. Cara Delevingne, his love interest, is 26, which is about the same age that Keira Knightley was in the later Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Man, Orlando Bloom being allowed to age while his lady counterparts stay the same is so cliche and it bums me out.
Jessica: Could not agree more. And I have no clue how old Vignette is supposed to be — I get the vibe that fae age differently — but I’d bet money they try to pin the age difference on the fantasy aspect of the show. Look, I get Cara Delevingne has the perfect facial features to play a woodland fairy, but don’t try to close the age gap by saying her character looks young, but is actually 943 years old. Just, don’t. All that said, Orlando Bloom is looking fine as hell here. Maybe it’s the Victorian-era suit, maybe it’s the pocket watch, or maybe it’s that f*ckboi haircut, but Will Turner has aged into a rugged, haunted Sherlock Holmes and I’m digging it.
Alyssa: It’s true. My Legolas posters from middle school/high school still feel relevant. Philo is dealing with his fair share of bullsh*t in the Burgue. He’s one of the only good cops (more social commentary!) and he’s looking into a string of murders. The rest of the department doesn’t care because the victims are all Critches, but our grizzly detective with a heart of gold is on the case. He’s looking for a man with muttonchops with dogged tenacity because that’s what heroes do. What he isn’t doing is dealing with his residual trauma from the war. He prefers to work and f*ck the pain away, because “It’s war. It was hard. I made my peace with it.” Listen, I am not looking for a totally new character ground with this show, but there is a lot of telling instead of showing done with these characters. And for a show that has done pretty damn well with the worldbuilding, that feels like a real miss.
Jessica: I can’t tell if it’s the actual dialogue that’s so stilted (see above) or Bloom’s delivery, but as yummy as he is to look at, Philo feels too stiff and, well, boring for me to truly swoon over, especially when he’s supposed to be matched with Vignette — this hot-headed fae who feels so completely driven by emotion and acted so earnestly by Delevingne. He’s rugged and manly, sure, but I kept hoping to see a bit of sass and humor from him, especially as he investigates this villain, Unseely Jack, who’s been chopping up the Row. Maybe I’ve just been watching too much Mindhunter lately, but I need more Tench, less Holden from Philo moving forward.
Alyssa: “I need more Tench” is basically my reaction to every single show, so you are correct. So, Philo is walking the mean streets looking for a baddie and poor Vignette is forced to be a lady’s maid as collateral to the man who owned the ship that went down. This cartoonishly racist and awful brother and sister duo have the feel of Civil War-era Southern gentility despite their English accents and I hate them. However, Vignette is also reunited with her friend Tourmaline (played by Jess from Misfits and I am ALWAYS happy to see Misfits alums pop up), a fae hooker with a heart of gold, and I love her. So, you know, you win some you lose some.
Jessica: “Fae hooker with a heart of gold” is the only spin-off premise I’ll accept in 2019. Tourmaline is a real one — and not just because she rocks electric blue hair and f*cks politicians’ sons for a living. She also keeps it 100 with her friend, revealing to Vignette that the love of her life lied to her, abandoned her, and has let her believe he was dead for the past seven years. It’s enough to make a fae lose it — if those constricting corsets haven’t pushed her to the brink already.
Alyssa: I certainly would lose my mind in a corset prison every day. Add on top of that being ghosted by the love of her life and I am impressed that Vignette had the presence of mind not to go totally ballistic. We love a strategic queen. What we don’t love is a conniving politician. While our star-crossed lovers are slowly working their way back into each other's orbits, the men at the top squabble and scheme over who gets to run the Burgue, a place that no one seems to like much but is desperate to control. One chancellor, Absalom Breakspear (seriously, the names on this show lol), is publicly progressive but more conservative in his personal life, and his son Jonah’s sex shenanigans are putting a dent in his campaign. I’m not quite sure how Jared Harris, prestige TV actor du jour, ended up here, but I am very glad that he did.
Jessica: How else were we to know that Jared Harris can convincingly act opposite a CGI bear, Alyssa? Such are the small, unexpected gifts of Carnival Row. While I’m not totally convinced the writers haven’t just thrown a bunch of letters in a Victorian-era, fantasy-themed name generator for these characters (it’s a very specific name generator that I’m sure exists somewhere on Tumblr) I am sure that even on a show about centaurs, fae, and other magical creatures, I have no stomach for watching old, powerful men shouting at each other in bathrobes. While the Chancellor tries to appeal to the masses for the fae-folk, Philo is hunting the murderer on Carnival Row who turns out to be a sailor on leave who’s seen some dark sh*t and needs to tell someone. I’m guessing a therapist just wasn’t available, so Philo becomes his shrink as the guy spouts off some nonsense about some kind of darkness living below the city, one that’s going to eventually swallow up The Burgue. It’s all predictably spooky, but I can’t help but feel it’s a bit anti-climactic. I mean, really, could anything be more dangerous than walking the muddy streets as you dodge piss buckets all day? Isn’t Victorian-era hygiene the real evil here?
Alyssa: Listen, the chase scene featured Orlando Bloom sliding down a roof that gave me real "Legolas doing BMX tricks on a shield in Two Towers" vibes, so I didn’t hate it. But yeah, I could see how solving the murder in the first episode and it’s just some rando feels like a cop-out. Still, we aren't given much time to dwell because not only is Breakspear’s wastrel son Jonah kidnapped after some levitation sex with Tourmaline, Vignette manages to find Philo and put a knife to this throat. Delevingne is Acting(™) in this scene in a big way, and honestly, I believe her. There is a lot of pain there, and even though no one is clarifying what went down beyond “YOU BROKE MY HEART,” at least this exchange gave Vignette a reason to ditch her rattail braid. It’s 2019. We’re getting fresh cuts and cutting sh*tty men out of our lives. Even when they look at you with heartbreaking tenderness and look like Orlando Bloom.
Jessica: Nothing and no one is worth a rattail braid. Not even Orlando Bloom. Remember that. Besides seeing Vignette fully embrace her life sans hairpiece, I’m interested to know what’s lurking beneath the city. That feels like the true threat this season, a mystery that might bring Philo and Vignette together to solve. Is it pizza rat preparing to strike again? The OG Pennywise? The more ridiculous the better, IMO.
Alyssa: SAME. I was definitely getting Cthulhu vibes from that octopus faced creature, and I’m here for it. While I feel like so many fantasy shows don’t utilize weird creatures enough because they’re trying to be serious (looking at you, Game of Thrones), it seems like Carnival Row is all in on creatures. We’ll see if the humans can become interesting enough to match.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the authors', and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.