Carnival Row Season 1 Review


In the world of Carnival Row, Amazon Prime Video’s latest entry into the fantasy epic genre, the darkness is rising. You probably didn’t notice it before if you’re human, so it’s presence now feels new. But in actuality, the darkness has always been around, and has been pretty active for a long time. If you aren’t human, you’ve always known this, since for many years humans have been busy colonizing nonhuman lands, exterminating nonhuman sentient species, and exploiting whoever’s left alive.

We aren’t given much backstory on the whole extermination and exploitation thing, and since Carnival Row is an original story rather than being based on a more detailed original source, such as a book series, we’re left to fill in a lot of blanks. The metaphors are pretty on the nose, so on the surface that’s not hard to do.

When you stop to think about it, even by the end of the season, the entirely fictional geographical and political worlds of Carnival Row are left exceedingly vague for a show that’s supposedly about political issues which affect refugees. For example, we’re never shown a map, despite shipping routes and battle strategies being discussed repeatedly, providing ample opportunities for the characters to casually flash one.

And I never did figure out who the Pact were, the enemy who drive Vignette, our heroine, from her homeland. I just mentally inserted “Evil Empire” whenever I heard their name. In the long term, their sole purpose was to create refugees, so they didn’t matter enough for me to bother with learning anything more. After that, in a twist of fate, the Burgue, who were supposed to be the refugees’ friends, become the “Evil Empire”.

As the series begins, the exploitation and extermination of nonhumans has gotten so bad that refugees have little choice but to seek asylum in one of the human lands, the Burgue, where they are hated and exploited even further. The Burgue were willing to fight the Pact over the nonhumans, and die for them, for reasons that are never explained, but they don’t want to live with them or share resources.

All of this hatred and exploitation brings out the worst in absolutely everyone, but leads to some beautiful Steampunk meets Harry Potter meets Wicked cinematography. Suffering can be good for art, after all.

All of this suffering also leads to various forms of pagan and bestial darkness rising from the depths of the nonhuman souls in Burgue. Alas, we eventually discover that no one has evolved beyond their animal nature. In the end, we are all nonhumans.

But some nonhumans are more nonhuman than others, like the females and the actual animals, who are equated with each other and extra exploited. Explicit animal sacrifices abound in this show, and are shown with loving, glossy gruesomeness. Sex belongs to men and all on camera sex happens between men and women. Men choose women for sex, while women chastely kiss each other or are told their lust toward men is unseemly. Even the men they’ve been sleeping with humiliate them for their passion. Repeatedly.

Manliness is explicitly, verbally equated with the right to rape and murder. It’s stated that it’s a need that’s within men, a need that gives them no choice but to become violent when they aren’t given a safe way to satiate it. Thus, male violence becomes society’s problem, rather than a lack of individual control, because men’s needs are stifled by the trappings of the modern world. This is also explicitly stated.

If only we’d just send them all permanently out into the wilderness that they’ve already destroyed, it would all be fine. Since we can’t do that, they have the right to do whatever they want with our bodies, the next best thing to killing animals and trees.

I’ve reviewed shows like this many times before, and it’s grown tedious. This is why I try not to recap shows made by men anymore. But, as both Altered Carbon and Dark prove, female show creators also have their own internal biases and external pressures, which lead them to include misogynist tropes and visuals.

Carnival Row has many female characters, but few women in positions of authority behind the camera. They snuck in a female director for 1 episode who also was given codirector credit for a 2nd episode. I suspect they let her direct an episode simply because they realized at some point that they were going to be given flack for the lack of women with any real control.

The writing follows the pattern of female inclusion that’s a hallmark of the 21st century. They put a lot of women in front of the camera, then tried to figure out what to do with them. As is typical, most of the women are glorified or actual prostitutes, selling their bodies and souls for whatever they’re hoping to get from men.

Next in the 21st century playbook is to promote your leads as if they’re equal, when the man likely was paid twice as much as the woman and the story is really his story. We’re also apparently supposed to pretend that he’s not 10 years too old for the part.

Her story is an afterthought meant to fill in around the edges of his and to satisfy typical complaints about female characters. When you look closely, it’s easy to see the checklist the writers were working with. A typical 21st century female lead must: Be strong. Be smart. Be funny. Wear pants. Have a career and friends of her own. Pass the Bechdel test. They just forget that they also have to make these things add up to a character with depth and whose character and storyline make sense within the story.

(I forgot to add be pretty. That goes without saying. An actress doesn’t get her foot in the door for the lead without a certain body image.)

I call this the Wonder Woman Syndrome. Entire plotlines and characters randomly appear and disappear, never to be heard from again, since they are only included to show the audience that the woman meets the checklist requirements. Then the writers shift focus back to the male characters, where it was meant to be all along, while the female characters go back to being whores and maids. Wives and girlfriends if they’re upper class. With the obligatory female villains and witches for color.

Wonder Woman is quite openly being used as a template for many films and TV series these days, with its slick, subtle form of misogyny. Her name was in the title! She was in every scene! We let her speak! We didn’t kill her at the end! We gave her scenes with other women and a backstory! She was pretty, smart, funny, strong and she had a career! She was good, so she didn’t tart around with any other men but the male lead, even after he died! See, we made her just the kind of sex fantasy doll we role model you all want!

She might as well have been a Stepford Wife. (Watch the original Stepford Wives, not the remake.)

I hope women eventually wake up and realize what an incredibly low bar that is, and pay attention to what else happened to Wonder Woman and the other women in the film, and how her male costar was treated as compared to her. Because we need to stop being happy with crumbs. The entertainment industry needs to do better, and they think that the praise for that movie and its box office success make that type of misogyny okay.

Carnival Row is proof. They think we are so desperate to watch female characters we’ll watch anything and be thrilled with the results.

While Carnival Row spends a large amount of time on its xenophobia theme, it doesn’t make much effort to take a moral stand on that or really any issue. Under the guise of presenting all sides of the issue, characters who are by all rights victims mouth the opinions of their oppressors. Perhaps Amazon didn’t want to come down too hard on their potential customers, in much the same way that Disney, Marvel and the Russo Brothers played both sides of basically the same issue, fear of those who are different, in Captain America: Civil War, not long before the 2016 presidential election. That turned out to be a wasted opportunity and Disney is now part of the problem that led us to where we are today, instead of part of the solution. But then, anyone who knows about their employment practices knows that.

Amazon’s show depicts people arguing, hating and killing, just like any other violent TV show, with an icing of speciesism instead of racism spread over the top and no meaningful commentary to justify the addition. That gets them credit for being topical, but they’re actually exploiting the issues by including the side that insists that even though they sleep warm and cozy in their beds every night, with their lives virtually unchanged, their “suffering” is equal to that of the refugees who flee their homelands because they have no other choice.

We are shown otherwise morally ambiguous, xenophobic characters who can easily be made the hero by viewers who naturally fall on that side of the fence. Though more open minded viewers may see those characters as obvious villains, believe me, if I name a male character as evil, I will get comments insisting he is a hardworking hero with good reasons for his behavior.

The show is carefully written to provide that outlet for those viewers. I’ve been writing recaps long enough to recognize those characters when I see them. The male, hard working, somewhat prejudiced, somewhat harassed working class hero or supporting character meant to appeal to right wing conservatives is a stock character like any other. Carnival Row has at least 4.

The sheer number of stock characters who never stray from their type to become more complex is a function of the overall laziness of the writing. These writers have never met a cliche they didn’t love. I’ve watched the entire season and there wasn’t a single major plot development that I didn’t see coming at least a few episodes in advance, sometimes from the first time the characters were in a room together. While I’m good at predictions, I’m not that good. If a lowly amateur recapper has your number, it means you’re not trying very hard.

Carnival Row is a ridiculous waste of talent. The cast, led by Orlando Bloom and Carla Delevingne, act their hearts out. There are a few vaguely intriguing characters, but almost all of them are dead by the end of the season. The backstories of the older generation were more interesting than what we saw on camera (Jared Harris, Indira Varma, Alice Krige, Ronan Vibert, Simon McBurney, Erika Starkova and Gregory Gudgeon). I’d pay to see Indira Varma be given something interesting to do in her own series. Piety’s trip up the mountain might do. Especially if Sophie’s mom turned out to be her sister.

All 8 episodes of Carnival Row season 1 are currently available on Amazon Prime Video. The show is created by Travis Beacham and René Echevarria. It’s already been renewed for season 2.

Grade for the season: B-, mainly for the world building and likeable casting. The writing and white male patriarchal offensiveness deserve a C or lower.


Spoilers for the Entire Season Below This Line

In my review, I didn’t even go into how offensive Orlando Bloom’s character, Philo, is. There’s a plot point that’s dropped that most people probably don’t think through. He buys out Vignette’s contract from her passage on the Deliverance as an indentured servant, but then never tells her that she’s free. She thinks she’s still on the run, so she joins the Faerie mob, the only job open to her other than becoming a prostitute.

Why doesn’t he tell her the truth? Because he likes the feeling of owning her and because he can call in the debt, should he ever need something to hold over her head. In the past, their relationship wasn’t equal. He was part of an occupying army who were there to protect the indigenous population. She was part of the indigenous population. He promised he’d run away with her, then lied and left instead, using the excuse that her friend told him it was what was best for her.

Now it’s been publicly revealed that he’s a mixed race member of the indigenous group as well, so he no longer has his racial purity to make him socially superior to her. He also no longer has his job. When he bought her contract, he had an inkling that this could happen, because of the direction the murder case was taking.

The last thing that he has to hold over her head is that piece of paper. He’d never enforce it, of course. But he also won’t tell her about it until someone else does first. It’s enough that he knows in his heart that he owns her. And since she can never fly free as long as she thinks she’s on the run from the man she was indentured to, she can also never leave him anyway. He’s hobbling her for his own purposes, keeping her wings clipped the way his were clipped as a child.

I like the actors’ chemistry, but I’ll never be able to root for them as a couple for this reason. He let her join the mob. He knows what life is like for a refugee and what her choices would be when she escaped. He can’t plead ignorance. The mob is for life.

He denied her true freedom to bolster his own tiny ego. That’s not romantic. He treated Portia like a prostitute and he treated Vignette worse.

I think we’re supposed to find Philo’s loyalty to Darius touching, even though Darius is a terrible person who will obviously sell out anyone and everyone. He hadn’t sold out Philo yet because so far Philo was more valuable as a cop. But what does it say about Philo that he doesn’t react to Darius’ attitudes or see who he really is after all this time?

It’s clear that this is the same old story of the female character, Vignette, who’s always a hero, but never able to do more than help her people in small ways, and the male character, Philo, who has to be forced into becoming a hero, but is the chosen one. The prophecy said he’d be greater than his father, which means he’ll lead his people to a new promised land, or to equal rights in Burgue, or some such. Only the great straight white p*nis with a bit of human in it is able to become the savior for the Fae.

If only Haruspex (Alice Krige) and Piety (Indira Varma) hadn’t died. They were the most interesting characters and relationship, but they were female, so of course they both turned on each other and were murdered, while a younger, hotter version of a witch was brought in to have sex with Jonah. Sophie will undoubtedly be dead by the end of the series, while Jonah will end up with Tourmaline, helpless bisexual hooker with a heart of gold.

Everyone caught the last minute senseless murder of Fleury, Tourmaline’s friend and fellow hooker, right? She was sacrificed to prove that the soldiers will kill any Fae who flies. They couldn’t send a nameless male Fae up into the air for that.

They definitely couldn’t send a named male Faerie up in the air for that, since the only 2 I can think of who got any screen time, the one legged war victim and the mobster 2nd in command, are both gone. There’s a slant that’s hard to miss toward Pucks, with their horns, being male, or old women who, in the misogynist mind, are no longer truly female, and Faeries being female and sexual. Just one more way in which this show is pretty to look at, but misogynist and cliche to the point of being boring.

If you want to watch Orlando Bloom as a fantasy hero, go back and watch the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie. If you want to see Carla Delevingne as a romantic hero, watch Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. It’s better than anyone gives it credit for. Alice Krige should of course be seen as the Borg Queen in Star Trek: First Contact and as Nancy Johnson, OA’s mother, in The OA season 1. Jared Harris was masterful in Fringe and is about to win an Emmy for Chernobyl, if there’s any justice in the world. Indira Varma was in Game of Thrones and the delightful Jane Austen meets Bollywood film Bride and Prejudice.

2 thoughts on “Carnival Row Season 1 Review

  1. Found this page after searching Carnival Row Bechdel Test, because I wondered if anyone else had shared my observation on how bad the female roles in the show were. I loved the show overall, particularly the world-building, but I was disappointed by how universally male-centered the female roles are. Thinking back on this, I suppose that – strictly speaking – most of the episodes might actually pass the Bechdel test by the letter of the rule, but definitely not in spirit. Pretty much every single conversation between women centers around Philo or Jonah – either directly or indirectly – and even when it doesn’t, it’s always a conversation that deal with the consequence of his actions, or will lead into a story beat where he comes in to “solve” the problem. It’s…really bad.

    That being said, I think you are being overly harsh in some of your criticism.

    You castigate Philo for not telling her about paying to free her, but you’ve got the chronology wrong. She joins the Ravens before he has purchased her freedom (so the two events have no connection) and the first time that he gets an opportunity to talk to her about it she literally threatens to expose his own secret. Not exactly the moment for a tender “btw, I made it so you’re free” conversation, It’s also meaningless at that point – he has just cleared her of one crime, but before he can tell her, she has already committed another, making the gesture meaningless.

    Even if the gesture had some meaning, I think you put a very negative spin on his decision. I have difficulty seeing how he could have brought this up without it coming off as him trying to buy her gratitude/good graces. At the point in the show when this could come up, they have several heart-to-hearts where she clearly signals to him that she wants nothing whatsoever to do with him. Having him go “oh, btw – I purchased your freedom” in those conversations would have been wrong on so, so many levels. It would have him literally holding that piece of paper over her head at a time when she wants to break away from his influence and fly free. It would have made her owe him yet another debt of gratitude at the worst possible moment. I think Philo – and the showrunners – made the right decision there.

    I’m also not sure why you find Darius so offensive. The guy does literally nothing else in the show than getting bitten, showing the consequences of that and sitting in a cell. He even says to Philo that he needn’t feel guilty and visit him every day – doing so is clearly shown to be Philo’s choice. At no point does he threaten to sell him (or anyone else) out – he doesn’t even let on that he knows Philo is a half-blood until Philo himself makes the “mistake” of telling Portia. He uses a slur about Fae once, but that is in a conversation where he points out the he himself would now be considered a “critch” – and a dangerous one to be put down at that. I don’t see how anything he does or says makes him terrible other than the fact that he is kind of a nonentity. They could have left him out entirely without it impacting any storyline in the show at all. Kind of a waste of a good actor, but I presume they have plans to give him a bigger role in Season 2.

    The ending sequence where they shoot down Fleury – that was offensive though. Which comes back to my biggest problem with CR – despite liking it overall – all of the women characters in the show act and behave as required to drive the plot forward for the male protagonists (Philo and Jonah). It looked for a while as if Sophie Longerbane might rise above that, but with Jonah’s sudden shift into being Chancellor and suddenly being smart (despite showing no such indications prior to that moment), I very much fear – as you say – that she may be turned from being one of the players in the show, into being yet another female satellite circling the two main protagonists.


  2. I must have cut my whole discussion of Darius as the personification of toxic masculinity when I decided to write a review instead of recaps.

    I’m sorry I can’t respond to you in detail. It’s been too long since I watched this show for me to remember who did what when. I will say that a huge aspect of Philo’s character is the effect keeping secrets for his entire life has had on him. He’s ultimately a good person, but the need to keep his secret has forced him to always put his own needs above everyone else’s and twisted his sense of right and wrong.

    He pretends that he’s making decisions based on someone else’s advice, or because he had to, when it’s really to keep himself from getting too close to someone or to keep himself from looking like the bad guy or simply to avoid risk. Keeping secrets has made him generally risk avoidant and made him want to always appear to be the good guy.

    So he never tells Vignette information that he should, like that he’s leaving or that he’s paid her debt, and yes, he can always find a reason to explain why he didn’t. But the fact that he doesn’t has serious repercussions for her life, because she continues to make decisions based on her lack of knowledge. It does matter that she still thinks she’s ultimately a slave. That always matters. He should be willing to handle whatever discomfort would be thrown his way in order to make sure she has the information she needs to make decisions about her life.

    But, I think the issue is that he also likes the power that keeping secrets gives him. The secrets he’s kept from her have kept her tethered to him in some way, instead of setting her free from him to live her own life. Even if he’s the only one who knows of the connection, it’s still there. He’s someone who has trouble letting go of people, as I believe Darius pointed out. Keeping Vignette emotionally tied to him when he left her, and now essentially owning her, are secrets that give him control, unlike the secret he’s kept all his life, which made him have to hide in fear. Now he’s made someone else feel the loss he felt as a child, and feel the fear he’s felt.


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