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You might not have fairies at the bottom of your garden but they are all over your TV. We’ve had, among other shows, Fate: The Winx Saga, Cursed, and The Magicians and now, the second (and final) series of Carnival Row.
The success Prime Video’s lavish, dark fantasy about a world in which humans and Fae folk live uneasily side by side, partly depends on whether Cara Delevingne can convince as Vignette Stonemoss, a bisexual desperado pixie partisan. Although the eccentric former “party girl” sometimes makes the news for the wrong reasons, here the headline is that she completely sells the role, even pulling off — to these non-Irish ears, at least — a passable Irish accent.
In the first series, which arrived in 2019, Fae folk fleeing a homeland turned into a hellscape by warring humans wound up in a human country, the Burgue, the capital of which is, essentially, a steampunk London. Vignette was one such refugee and when she reconnected with an ex-girlfriend Tourmaline Larou (Karla Crome) — they all have compound cod-Shakespearean-Dickensian names like this, I’m afraid — she discovered that Rycroft “Philo” Philostrate (Orlando Bloom), the human lover Vignette thought dead, was still alive and was now a policeman.
Meanwhile, a serial killer stalked the Fae (they comprise a number of different species), ratcheting up the tensions between the incomers and the natives. But all this was just the A-plot; there were several other storylines and one criticism was that the whole thing was too busy. Another was that it relentlessly hammered home its social justice messages: it wasn’t really about fairies and fauns and humans, you dimwit. Carnival Row was about colonialism and refugees and racism.
At the start of the second season, the Fae — including Philo, who we now know is a “half-blood” — are confined to the Burgue’s fairy quarter, the titular Carnival Row. It’s effectively a ghetto, and in the first episode, Vignette leads a daring raid on a Burgueish supply train to steal essential medicines. Living under the fascist jackboot of the humans means cutting through barbed wire and avoiding sweeping searchlight beams, Second World War escape movie-style, to get out of the Row.
After the raid, the body of one of the train’s guards is discovered lashed by barbed wire to a pillar 10 feet off the ground. The perpetrator must have been able to fly to have got him up there. Only a fairy could have done it. Even though Philo is now shunned by his former police colleagues, one of them recognises that his detective skills could be useful and tries to get him back on board. Again, that’s just the main plot. There’s an awful lot of other stuff going on. The criticisms levelled at series one apply here too.
But whatever problems it has, it looks like a million dollars. Actually, considerably more than a million dollars. Its shoot in the Czech Republic, interrupted by the pandemic, is reported to have been the most expensive ever in that country. Carnival Row is not going to win any awards for subtlety, but it must be in the running for production design and costume Emmys.
This second season is the last. Perhaps Prime Video winced at the cost and felt that with its ongoing Wheel of Time and Lord of the Rings shows, fantasy fans were already well-served. It’s a shame because if the numerous writing staff (there are 18 listed; Game of Thrones had nine) had ever calmed down enough to stop delivering A Message, the world in which Carnival Row is set is sufficiently detailed and interesting to support new stories and there is certainly more mileage in fierce fighting fairies.
As it is, it feels like a rich tapestry coming apart at the themes.
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