The debut of Carnival Row last week seemed like a promising new beginning to the series. Season Two seems to be taking a different approach compared to its original, examining the social and racial injustice regarding the lesser-class ‘critch’ citizens (children of the Fae) who are being forced to live in sectioned-off encampments in the city.
Living in inhumane conditions, a deadly plague has hit the impoverished denizens of the Row, depressingly killing both women and children. As a result, last week saw the Black Raven, a Faery-led rebel group, break up a meeting of aristocrats in an aggressive plea for aid.
For the sake of TV drama anyway, this moment coincided right when Philo was trying to make his claim for the chancellorship in that very same room. Chaos ensued, Heads rolled (or in this case, were nailed to the Row’s barrier wall!), and all in all, things are in absolute shambles in the show. This is where things pick up for the season.
In episode 3, we see Philo get back to what he does best as an unofficially sanctioned investigator. Vignette, meanwhile, seizes her moment to take command of the Black Raven now that there’s a power void and the rebellion has become aimless. Agreus, meanwhile, is a mess who’s desperate to cling onto what little he still has control over, just as Tourmaline apparently realizes she has a gift of premonition now. So much happens and more in Carnival Row. We break it down below in a mostly spoiler-free fashion.
Season 2 Episode 3: The Martyr’s Hand
This is the first episode I thought was filler in that it’s mostly worldbuilding and setup for what’s to come. There are moments of repercussions due to last week’s actions, though it ultimately, leads to Philo’s resumption of his role of investigator. This time, while being ostracized from his former police mates (who see him as a dirty Critch).
Short of allies, we see Philo’s old friend Darius return to the cast just in the nick of time. If you remember, Darius is the ex-soldier turned marrok (werewolf) who’s now, no longer being imprisoned because no one cares about him now that all the Fae have been rounded up.
Now, episode 3 sees Orlando Bloom playing detective. Which served as last season’s biggest narrative device and in this case, serves a similar function. Philo’s investigation looks into the world of these terrified refugees. People reeling from the shocking deaths last week of Dahlia and Bolero. Using shock to push the message, the rebellion leaders’ heads were left at the walls of the border as an ominous reminder from the aristocracy: do not uprise, else meet the fates of the Black Raven leaders.
Thematically, I think Row does a good job this season reminding us the fatality of social classism. The series has always been about a tale of refugees and the problems with the haves vs. have nots, and this season, does a good job of showing the deadliness of the problem with lots of shocking deaths and brutally abusive police. It’s hard to watch for modern TV standards, who’ve sort of pivoted away from violent shock, though I do think it’s important because sometimes you need a show like this to remind us that society… isn’t great. In fact, it’s probably the reason I like this show as it’s unafraid to go places we’ve begun tip-toeing around lately—given the horrible refugee crises lately in places like Syria but I digress…
Now, much of this episode also sets up story points for the Black Raven. They’re stirred up pretty badly, and seeking order, causing Vignette to make your typical: Us-versus-them speech about survival to gain approval amongst the Fae. This is of course, not something Philo wants to hear—given that he and Vignette are officially together now. With Philo, also wanting to stay middle ground in the upcoming humans versus fae conflict the series has been building up to. It’s something that Vignette isn’t happy about, as her boyfriend refuses to embrace life fully as one of the Fae.
On the opposite side of the wall, the Inner Sanctum is still in rough shape from the ‘assassination attempt’ last week. In the midst of this chaos, is the leader of opposition party/series antagonist, Sophie Longerbane. She shows up to infirmary in The Slums of The Row. A political gesture at first, the event becomes a sort of story that completely turns… Becoming heartbreaking, and even, sadly sweet, in a solid slight turn-of-face for the character.
Mind you, last season we learned Sophie was behind everything. How the murders in the Row all began due to a letter she forged about a rumor that Philo was the Chancellor’s bastard son. Why she did all this becomes clearer in this episode, as her sympathy for the Fae comes from her servant/only real friend, Jenila, revealed in this episode, to have been abused by her father. The context I’ll leave open for those who want to watch, but it finally seems like we’re getting a sense how all of these power plays Sophie has been doing, are just a means to get them both her and Jenila’s control of their lives.
Meanwhile, Tourmaline, Vignette’s best friend/would-be lover/ex-sex worker, seems to have inherited the power of foresight. An ability bequeathed to her, by a certain ex-witch. How this works and what we see I’ll omit for spoilers but it does gives her a much more compelling storyline, as she goes along investigations at moments as sort of a sidekick to Philo. She even meets his old werewolf friend, Darius. It’s pretty obvious that there’s a romance arc budding here.
While all this is happening, Runyan Millworthy proves yet again to be a honorable man. The ex-puppeteer turned educational mentor turned hand of the aristocracy and secret spy for the Fae, seems to have his role somehow grow even more in the series. As he’s the biggest insider for the Fae, though is playing a deadly game.
Finally, this episode sees Ezra Sprurnrose make a noted return to the series, which was honestly a sort of unwanted surprise. It seems he can’t let his sister Imogen go and seeks to find her again… by any means necessary. The problem is: Imogen and Agreus aren’t in the best situation either, being caught up in an unrelated civil war as captives!
Overall, again like I said, this is the setup episode. The next is the leg-up in the storyline.
Season 2 Episode 4: An Unkindness of Raven
Wheras episode 3 set up the world, this one was an utter breakdown of it. Filled with shocks and gruesome depictions of harassment and trauma. What’s hard to watch: the violence depicted as it’s very reminiscent of Game of Thrones’ early seasons. Shock for the sake of shaking up the system, though in my opinion/appreciation, it is at the least hitting important thematic topics most forms of entertainment seem to be afraid of addressing.
This episode does a daunting job of addressing both communism and racial class. As Agreus and Imogen, still stuck in Ragusa, have to deal with a significant loss in status while living amongst the communist revolutionaries. What works is that because Ragusa is a classless democracy of workers, it emphasizes work culture. With a solid understanding that once everyone is seen as equal—prejudices can be let go. Freedom here, is the ability to love as you please regardless of status or race, or in this strange case, hooves.
Still, Agreus struggles, fearing for Imogen’s life after witnessing the murder of his own. Agreus is truly conflicted in finding peace as he’s being tested… his values and hypocritical nature, because he himself is an opportune capitalist. A self-made man who took part and shipped indentured servants, who profited off enslaving his own kind. The block leader rightfully calls him out on this, with Agreus, being insulted about his ethics and fragile standing… how everything he’s accomplished is out of attempts to feel normal through his wealth, to hide that people just don’t see him as equal status for being a Faun.
Back at the Row, The Raven’s make a big play in retaliation. Philo and friends arrive to intervene, really showcasing the promising moments of what’s to come this season, in what’s easily the most entertaining chase sequence thus far in the series. All of this action? It’s all pointing to the fact that the investigation is heading in the direction of a ‘Fae killed the other Fae’ situation, and that whomever is responsible for this murder, is trying to instigate class warfare and intentionally pissing off The Black Raven to cause war.
Finally, Tourmaline and Darius get closer just as Philo and Vignette call it quits (for now, let’s be honest, these two are the whole reason most people watch).
As someone who really didn’t care for this show… I actually really like it now and am excited to cover this final season. A lot of people seem to be critical about the show’s themes, and that its premise only scratches the surface, but I actually think they do a good job as I haven’t seen anything this allusive to class warfare and refugee struggles in quite some time. For entertainment? It’s engaging and given what I’ve seen from Rings of Power and Wheel of Time, I’d put the show in the same realm of status.
It’s all just allegory fantasy, folks.