Carnival Row’s midpoint of the season takes everyone by surprise, starting with a rather slow episode 5 that gets shocking by the end. More than anything, we finally see our big bad for the final season: the Sparas. It’s a creature who looks like Ugly had a baby with Dracula, then decided to model it off of every video game’s final boss. A gruesome winged monstrosity that’s grotesque from head-to-toe.
Now, the problem I see happening with Carnival Row’s midseason is that the themes that were so powerfully prevalent about classism seem to go awry in these episodes. It crescendos in the episode 5 cliffhanger, but then, sort of fizzles along the show’s take on the police who’ve done nothing but instigate rebellion with the Black Raven.
The problem I’m worried about for the second half of the season is that the series seems to be a little too focused on the romance arcs of its main characters. Imogen, who just wants to be with Agreyus, and then of course Philo and Vignette’s love-hate romance. It’s weird seeing this come together and then fall apart again-and-again despite the show’s very short 2 season length.
Honestly, I’m worried that the series might just do away entirely with the politics and social uprising themes of the series in lieu of… doomed romantic partnership arcs? Because lately, I feel like the show’s starting to lose the point of why we’re here.
We break it down in our episode reviews below.
Season 2 Episode 5: The Martyr’s Hand
This episode is tricky because it starts feeling like a filler-episode then becomes more than what anyone bargained for in the best of ways. In this episode, we see Milworthy manage wartime train supplies and Tourmaline toil with magic. Separate story arcs that sort of tie into the main turmoil of what’s happening regarding worsening relationships between humans and Fae.
In terms of both character development and respective acting kudos, Simon Milworthy is proving himself to be the show’s most likable character given that he’s a wise actor kind of stuck in the midst of politics not out of choice. Meanwhile, Karla Crome is starting to prove herself as the best supporting character in the cast. Providing guidance and wisdom, while often being annoyingly sort of neglected by both our main protagonists.
Speaking of which, this episode focuses on Philo and Vignette again in what’s becoming an annoyingly circular storyline. Philo wants Vignette freed from jail despite her giving herself up just last week in her character’s gone rebel leader arc that’s taken a different turn. Why the audience should care at this point has become anyone’s guess, as this couple has gone from loving-to-hating each other multiple times already in the series, let alone, this season, to the point where I regret rooting for them in the first place.
To be clear, things aren’t safe for Philo. This episode sees an assassination attempt on his life in retaliation of… the other botched assassination attempt he helped foil last week. I’ll admit, the plot is getting a tad redundant. Repeating the humans are racist (cops anyway) theme, but also, that pixies are also evil. Or try to be… though often repeatedly fail at that given how many times they’ve failed at accomplishing just about anything.
Meanwhile, the trial for Vignette is underfoot, whom last week we saw gave herself up after the failed attempt against sergeant Dombey’s life. Seeing her locked up makes sense from a story plot perspective, as she ends up next to a very surprising cellmate. Someone Vignette can bounce ideas off of making for some well-placed context regarding the problems with their society. It’s beautiful seeing contrasting viewpoints collide here for the sake of the show’s theme, with emphasis of how men, out of fear of losing power, are heavily to blame for these broken institutions that’ve run Carnival Row’s world thus far.
While this is all happing, Sophie Longerbane reveals her grand play in this episode against Chancellor Jonah/step brother and the powers that be. Jonah, in turn, delivers on his marriage proposal. Which you’d think would work except that it’s become clear their strategies no longer align as opposing party leaders. Without spoilers, let’s just say the most compelling parts of the episode are when bullshit gets called.
Finally, this episode brings to attention the big bad of the show this season: the deadly Sparas. Without spoilers… the creature’s introduction is both brutal and gruesome. Like a creature straight out a nightmare, this monster is some sort of flying bat hybrid that drains its victim in a… let’s just say unique way. How it ties together in the story is something I really didn’t expect, as the creature throws a monkey wrench into everything we’ve seen thus far, thus making it an actually fitting villain.
It makes for a solid cliffhanger that changes almost all of the rules. I’m excited to say the least about what happens next as a result of this badass introduction.
Season 2 Episode 6: Original Sins
In this one, Imogen and Agreus still debate over Ragusa. It’s the choice of Freedom but working as communists, or continuing to live out as aristocratic capitalists rejected by society. Wealthy, but on the run. Quickly, we learn that comrade Leonora, their captor, wrote her own manifesto while imprisoned. Today just so happens to be their 50th anniversary.
The big issue is does the couple stay or go? As a plotline, it feels somewhat forced, especially when Leonora brings back into light Ezra Spurnrose, her hostage, forcing Agreus to make a choice. He’s now responsible for his life having spared him. Imogen meanwhile, greatly hates her brother for ruining her ‘happiness’ (if you can call it that) but due to family obligations, they take him. Where this all leads and where it’s going seems to be the main thread of their storyline; however, I do worry and wonder when it’ll actually tie into the plotlines of the A story actually set in Carnival Row.
Meanwhile, we get a flashback to the fall of Tiranoc. The war and Darrius and Philo flanked. Apparently, we soon learn that this was not the first encounter Philo had with the horrifying Sparas, as he encountered one at the war, who spared him for being part pixie. Yet again, we see Philo’s conflict: Fae or Human. As he made a difficult choice back then… that haunts him to this day.
It’s important to know this as, the aftermath of episode 5 sees all the critch now out of the prison. Which effectively is resetting all of the events that happened thus far. Worse, are the big name deaths (I’ll omit for spoilers) that it caused, which the government is blaming Philo for and is torturing him in jail. Hence, him reminiscing about the mistakes of his past.
Where Philo faces his inner demons, it’s again all tying to that he’s still struggling to accept that he was a Fae. Because sure, Philo wanted to help his people in the war, but a lot of his actions were hiding out of self-preservation. Worse, is that he’s blaming himself, recounting many times in his head: “Helping the police-hurts-the-fae.” It’s a powerful theme that actually hits rather metaphorically for our modern times when you acknowledge how parts of this season were likely written during the race riots we’d experienced early pandemic.
On the opposite end, meanwhile, we see Vignette on the lam from the law and finding herself in Tourmaline’s place. Though she wants to escape, it’s so obvious, she’s bonkers for Philo and wants to return to save him… making a lot of this plotline feel redundant, as the lovers have essentially switched roles. Though I’ll leave it at that.
At the same time, Millworthy, meanwhile, feels like the sane man in an insane scenario, as his world collapses around him. When given the opportunity to seize power… we’re not entirely sure what he’ll decide. Finally, the Sparas is supposedly the thing meant to kill Tourmaline in her visions. As a shapeshifter, it’s conveniently also the most problematic thing facing every character thus far as it’s potentially setting everyone up and has absolutely disrupted the entire world of Carnival Row.
Which leaves Philo at yet another ultimatum by the episode’s end regarding what to do.
Honestly, the best thing about this dual episodes was the conclusion to episode 5. Which built for a great cliffhanger. The problems, however, sort of lie in the repetitiveness of the plot. Why? Well, we just did a complete dance between Vignette and Philo going to jail, getting out, and then being chased by the cops. Twice.
I’m also kind of getting bored of the relationship arcs on the show. I think it should focus on the politics and changes of the people. Focus more on the failures of parliament and how police suck, and more importantly: address racism head-on by giving the thus far, many victims of the series, a platform of empowerment. Lately, it’s feeling like the stupid is running the stupid (with that stupid mostly being the government) and I don’t see why anyone thinks this type of government or social order functions.
Worse, I’m concerned that the characters do not seem to be growing. And that concerns me. Though episode 5’s second half accomplished a lot in terms of addressing the issues of what’s what’s at stake. So I’m willing to look at the rest of the season with some glimmer of hope.