Since Game of Thrones ended in May, HBO’s streaming rivals have been racing to capture their share of the viewers who still crave shows packed with fantasy spectacle, intrigue, and sex. Amazon seems especially focused on winning over genre fans: its Prime Video service is currently spinning up an epic-fantasy lineup that promises series based on The Lord of the Rings and The Wheel of Time. It’s starting its run with the original show Carnival Row, which will release its first eight-episode season on August 30th. It’s a gorgeous, well-written, and unrepentantly political series, but it’s at its absolute worst when the writers try too hard to make it feel like Game of Thrones.
Carnival Row is set in a world that resembles what the 1800s might have looked like if the great European powers established colonies and fought proxy wars in the realms of the fae rather than in India or Africa. Six years before the series starts, British Empire stand-in The Burge retreated from the fae nation of Tirnanoc, leaving it in control of The Pact, a group inspired by the World War I Central Powers. The defeat caused a refugee crisis, with desperate fae fleeing to The Burge where they’re largely resigned to a life of menial labor and discrimination.
The story primarily follows Burge investigator Rycroft Philostrate (Orlando Bloom of The Lord of the Rings and Pirates of the Caribbean franchises) and fresh-off-the-boat faerie Vignette Stonemoss (Cara Delevingne of Suicide Squad). The two met and fell in love during the war, bonding by sharing a copy of Philo’s favorite scientific-romance novel, and both were left deeply damaged by their parting. A romance novel also sparks an impossible relationship between two soldiers in Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’ Saga comic book series, but while the concept isn’t original, Bloom and Delevingne’s powerful performances bring life to the haunted, soulful Philo and fierce but brittle Vignette.
During their courtship, Vignette and Philo discuss the transcendent power of stories in a way that’s reminiscent of Tyrion’s awful electioneering monologue in the final episode of Game of Thrones. But the metatext feels earned here because of the nuanced work series creators René Echevarria (The 4400) and Travis Beacham (the writer of the original script Carnival Row is based on) are doing to explore empathy and discrimination. Carnival Row avoids simplistic narratives where the persecuted fae are good, racists are bad, and the best path for everyone is liberal inclusivity. Instead, they delve into the systemic problems that trap people in bad circumstances and the intense difficulty of enacting change.
The racial narrative weaves throughout the show as Philo investigates a series of murders of fae that his superiors would rather just ignore. Burge Chancellor Absalom Breakspear (Jared Harris of Chernobyl and The Expanse) argues that his country must accept refugees because they’re culpable in creating the fae’s plight. But even he uses the show’s colorful collection of racial slurs and seems to have a hard time telling his fae bodyguards apart. Other politicians use the same rhetoric as Donald Trump or Boris Johnson to argue that the new arrivals are taking jobs from citizens and changing the character of the country. The Burge is largely dominated by Caucasians, but it has some people of color in its elite ranks; at one point, Parliament member Sophie Longerbane (Caroline Ford) invokes her own dark complexion and asks whether discrimination against the fae will eventually be seen as the same as that against other humans. In a twist, she concludes that it won’t because the fae “are nothing like us” and deserve their second-class status.
Carnival Row also doesn’t simplify its setting by making discrimination against the fae the world’s only social problem. Women still have little power in this world, and homosexuality is a crime. While the fae are mostly used as a metaphor for refugees and racial discrimination, there’s also an undertone of queerness led by the casting of Delevingne, who is bisexual and genderfluid, playing a bisexual faerie. That subtext is brought home by a subplot involving a gay doctor who secretly performs abortions and operations to help the half-blood children of humans and fae pass as human.
But the best version of Carnival Row’s exploration of discrimination involves a plot that effectively combines Pride and Prejudice and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. When socialite Imogen Spurnrose (Tamzin Merchant) learns that the biggest house in town has been purchased, she plots to catch the new owner’s eye. When the buyer turns out to be a fae named Agreus (David Gyasi), she hatches a Jane Austen-esque plot to save her family from financial ruin by having him pay her to ingratiate him into The Burge’s high society.
That’s a particularly difficult task since Agreus is equally blunt with bigots who view his arrival with disgust and with condescending liberals who want to hear about the homeland he was happy to leave behind. He’s a toughened pragmatist who’s made his fortune in part by helping humans oppress his own people, and he has little patience or sympathy for fae who are trapped in worse circumstances. His plot has almost nothing to do with the main storyline, but the dynamic between him and Imogen, who grows from one of the show’s most hateful characters to one of its strongest, is so compelling that their scenes stand out even as the rest of the show descends into murder, magic, and mayhem.
It’s also one of the few plots that comes to a satisfying conclusion by the end of season 1. While Philo’s intrigue-heavy investigation starts strong and involves some genuinely surprising twists, it fails to stick the landing as it ends up tangled in the show’s mediocre political drama. Both Sophie and Absalom’s wife, Piety (Indira Varma of Game of Thrones and Rome), are meant to be masters of manipulation, but they just come across as pale imitations of Littlefinger and Cersei Lannister, respectively. Their schemes involve a battle for control over Piety and Absalom’s slacker son Jonah (Arty Froushan) who is easily the show’s blandest character. Both he and Sophie are thrust into increased prominence in the season finale, which could make them an even bigger drag on the show’s already-announced second season.
But even when the story lags, the visuals never do. Shot in the Czech Republic, the show is filled with wonder-inspiring setpieces like chase scenes along the roofs of The Burge, battles between men and mythical creatures in the snowy mountains of Tirnanoc, and assaults by the scythe-like zeppelins of The Pact. The costumes and makeup are stunning, giving depth to the portrayals of the fae with touches like different styles of horns and the scarification that marks faerie priestesses and mystics.
There’s plenty of sex in Carnival Row, often made more spectacular through glowing wings faeries can use to take their intimacy to new heights, but there’s none of Game of Thrones’ notorious sexposition. Instead, Carnival Row’s writers trust viewers to keep up with their world-building, regularly dropping terms like “Haruspex” and “mimasery” with almost no explanation beyond the immediate context. That tactic avoids clunky exposition that can bog down genre works, and it also makes the world feel mysterious and largely unexplored, even after eight episodes. It’s a clever technique that could keep viewers engrossed in Carnival Row’s mysteries for seasons to come and hopefully give the writers the freedom to continue forging their original identity.
Carnival Row launches on Amazon Prime Video on August 30th.