Carnival Row Pilot Review: Some Dark God Wakes

*Mild spoilers*

Carnival Row begins with a bang. Reminiscent of Black Panther, brilliantly rendered stone-like figures stand in relief to illustrate a history told by text. These figures showcase the aspirations of creators René Echevarria and Travis Beacham, the Amazon imprint and a host of directors (Thor Freudenthal, Jon Amiel, Anna Foerster, and Andy Goddard). The opening text plunges us into a story of woe that, as one of the very first live-action images – a grinning, bloodied corpse transfixed on barbed wire, shows this is not a fairy tale for children. The opening text monologue also introduces us to The Burgue, The Pact and the Fae creatures- main players in this fairy drama.

courtesy of Amazon

This first episode promises and delivers unstinting brutality. Cara Delevigne’s harrowing escape through a forest, chased by slavering wolfdogs and brutal Pact soldiers does well to convey the gravity of the subject matter if not a serious threat to a main character. The special effects are done well and Delevigne’s first flight looks believable in the grayed-out world of Tirnanoc.

Delevigne is a true stand-out here as Vignette Stonemoss, showcasing a wan, feral ferociousness that bespeaks both her character’s brutalizing circumstances (loss of love & country and constant fear) and a tenderness underneath that which she can’t quite conceal. Death is strangely beautiful in Carnival Row. This is a rare perfect casting of Delevigne, whose elfin, ethereal looks have been under served by efforts like Tulip Fever.

In a scene reminiscent of the European Refugee crisis, those looking for a new life on friendlier shores find a watery grave instead, interred with their avaricious exploiters. All hands lost at sea, save one.

courtesy of Amazon

After this disaster, we are properly introduced to the Row, all prologue is over, and the story begins. On the Row, creatures of all sorts walk the streets with unfamiliar packages in hands. Merchants sell eels wrapped in newspapers, officious policemen walk beats on the cobblestones with nightsticks swinging, and over all hangs the bustle of a living city infused with new blood. Dinghy Victorian-Era pleasures litter the sides of the busy arteries, whorehouses, bars, strange shops, and butchers. Showcasing Faeries, Giants, and Fauns, Carnival Row is a lore lover’s dream come to life!

The Row is expansive, but it still shows promise of being familiar enough to produce the intimate feeling of claustrophobia and familiarity that only well-done contextual drama can produce. The time period displayed here seems 19th century- all waistcoats, trains and top hats, carriages, and gas lamps. Comparisons to Penny Dreadful are perhaps unfair but make sense. The trained eye will spot several similarities in the two shows. Both share a fascination with the macabre and the sexual politics of creatures of lore mingled with humans.

The dialogue is great throughout- a credit to both the script and the actors. People speak casually and formally by turns in Carnival Row without the affectation of cleverness that can ruin the immersive experience of TV and film.

CarnavalRow_Ep105_D20Photo: Jan Thijs 2018
courtesy of Amazon

This episode does a great job of introducing us to a new world without over-explaining everything through lengthy exposition. Characters can breathe and reference the past without lengthy backstories. This reluctance to rely on exposition extends to the creatures as well, which are, however, ultimately unexplained.

The political allegory of welcoming vs. fearing refugees from the epicenter of a conflict a major political party started and then equivocated on is on the nose. But in our unsubtle times, perhaps allegory needn’t be sophisticated. Seems likely that this allegory will serve better as a backdrop than the main subplot. The fraught relationship between the Pix and the police is more obligatory than arresting or interesting, but it is hardly a bad thing for depictions of systemic abuse to be common enough to become somewhat commonplace.

Orlando Bloom plays Rycroft Philostrate with taught, gaunt bleakness. Gone is the youthful energy of Will and Legolas and in its place is world-weariness and secret pains.

courtesy of Amazon

The world of Carnival Row is presented as bleak, cold and dimly-lit by streetlights at night and the Sun in the morning. Warmth and color are mainly found indoors,  with characters interacting within enclosed spaces they can more easily control with the still primitive (to us) tools they possess. This is a great touch that adds to the Victorian-era feel.

“Some Dark God Wakes” introduces us to Jared Harris’ Chancellor Absalom Brakespear, Karla Crome’s poet turned prostitute Tourmaline, Tamzin Merchant’s flighty, entitled Imogene Spurnrose and David Gyasi’s brooding Agreus Astrayon. These characters seem ripe for further exploration; and this episode does a great job of giving us a reason to care about these then and how they interact with each other. A criticism here is that Philo’s detecting seems to be perfunctory, plot-by-convenient occurrence and luck. Hopefully, further episodes will see advances in the storytelling.

courtesy of TV Line

As shown in the trailer, Bloom and Delevigne’s reunion is electric together and Delevigne’s flood of emotion just works, especially for an actress that doesn’t often get plaudits for subtly.

Unseelie Jack’s brief monologue is terrific in the same vein as the brief Shakespearean monologue in Westworld S1 E1: “By my most mechanical and dirty hand…” There is a hidden depth in this concept of a vague monster brought by the refugees. Carnival hints at a tale that tells the story of the dark and hidden things of human nature- once thought laid to rest- that re-appear to sow violence and discord when a population chooses to fear the other. We shall see if this is borne out in the rest of the series. Unseelie Jack’s slapdash attempt at self-exculpation uncomfortably echoes the increasing spate of white nationalist violence – attempting to get “them” before they get “us”, in the mistaken belief that in a world of plenty there may not be enough. I suppose it is only right that fairy tales still teach lessons.

Even to adults.

Grade: ★★★★

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