How ‘Carnival Row’ fills the ‘Game of Thrones’ hole
After HBO announced the final season of Game of Thrones, every other network and streaming service scurried to pick up their own fantasy epics to fill that dragon-sized spot. Netflix is taking a swing with The Witcher, TNT is taking on The Broken Earth novels, and Amazon is going neo-Victorian fantasy with Carnival Row.
René Echevarria and Travis Beacham’s Carnival Row, directed by Jon Amiel, imagines a world where fairies and man live together, but not in peace. In the first few minutes of the show, we’re told of the brutal takeover of the homeland of the fae (fairy people) by humans.
Said war left fae refugees to flee to the city of the Burgue, living on the Row (a ghetto-esque area of town), but they’re still treated as trash. The xenophobia isn’t helped thanks to a string of murders of both man and fae.
Detective Rycroft “Philo” Philostrate (Orlando Bloom) is on the case, but soon enough he realizes it’s more personal than expected, causing his secrets to come out into the open. Philo’s fae lover thought he was dead (Cara Delevingne’s Vignette Stonemass) but finds out Philo’s alive and is ready for revenge.
For those needing their fantasy fix after going through Game of Thrones withdrawal, Carnival Row offers the drama, action, sex, and romance with a strong story, gorgeous sets, and a whole lot of intertwining subplots. Amazon has been looking for its next big series after hits The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and Jack Ryan, and they just may have found the perfect entry into the fantasy game.
Of course, Carnival Row isn’t without its flaws. Cara Delevingne came over from modeling (a notoriously tricky transition) and her terrible Irish accent doesn’t help one bit. It’s not just Delevingne; most of the pixie characters are very one-dimensional. It’s the human characters that really bring strong performances. Plus, even though subplots intertwine, the preponderance of side characters makes it easy to get lost.
Those needing a new bingewatch can breathe a sigh of relief, because Carnival Row does meet expectations for the most part. In fact, Game of Thrones fans may be interested in the multiple similarities between the fantasy epics. Game of Thrones may be more medieval and Carnival Row more Victorian, but they share strong qualities key for making a great fantasy series.
Grand scale of massive sets and varied creatures
With such a giant story to be told, the sets and characters need to be just as grand as the scale. Game of Thrones takes place across the massive, diverse landscape of the continents of Westeros and Essos, showcasing the Seven Kingdoms, their residents, and those outside of these lands. Game of Thrones wouldn’t be the fantasy epic it is without them.
Carnival Row focuses mostly on worldbuilding in the Burgue, showcasing highly differing areas of the city and their contrasting residences. Burgue’s ghetto is home to fae refugees trying to stay out of the way of their human counterparts, while the posh side of town is full of snobby rich people who get uncomfortable when a rich puck (the series’s name for fauns, or goat people) with a human servant moves in next door.
The diverse roles of these characters bring to light how messy the story’s conflict truly is. By the time you get Philo’s backstory about how he met Vignette, you couldn’t care less because the other plotlines are so interesting. As messy as the side plots can get, they’re so much more interesting than the main story in showing just how far-reaching the problems of the war are.
Fantasy that comes off realistic
Like all great fantasy, Carnival Row aims to create a believable alternate reality. The city of the Burgue is an attempt at a 19th-century London, just with fairies and other mythical creatures. Unlike the disaster that was Netflix’s Bright, Carnival Row takes this concept in stride and alters history properly so the world’s developments make sense.
Game of Thrones combines its otherwise realistic medieval setting with dragons, direwolves, and White Walkers. The Victorian era marked the start of Europe’s Industrial Revolution and the unofficial start of the modern era; Carnival Row feels like it’s within our history.
Even historical dramas struggle with creating a believable past time period; Carnival Row’s ability to conjure the past while adding supernatural elements is that much more impressive.
Plenty of sex scenes (without sexual violence!)
Apparently in the world of Carnival Row having sex with a fairy is a very particular fetish, to the point where there’s a fae-only brothel. If you thought Game of Thrones was kinky, get ready for some even stranger sex scenes. Almost every sex scene is interspecies, with various combinations of humans and mythical creatures.
The good news is unlike Game of Thrones, there are no sexual violence or brutal rape scenes. Carnival Row may have a lot of sex, but all of it is consensual. Even the prostitutes get a bit of backstory. Fans of “sexposition” can count on that, as Game of Thrones unofficially made that a standard for adult-oriented fantasy shows.
Walk away with a favorite side character
Of course everyone had a favorite main player in Game of Thrones, as shown by the millions of “#Team____” posts during its final season. But ask Game of Thrones fans about their favorite secondary characters and they can easily name one. Proper fantasy worldbuilding means side plots that are just as interesting as the main storylines.
As you can tell by its ads, Carnival Row’s main plotline follows the relationship between Philo and Vignette, and the murders occurring in the Burgue. By the end of the first episode, you’ll see every other entertaining card the show is holding. The subplots are much more interesting than the main plot (in case we haven’t mentioned it enough):
- A rich puck moves into the nice part of town and his human neighbors are uncomfortable with his presence.
- A storyteller hires some fae to perform with him on the street, then must help them avoid deportation.
- A high-ranking government official and his wife (played by GoT actress Indira Varma) even have to take down a rival government official who kidnapped their son.
You’ll quickly fall in love with the side characters and how they’re trying to cope with the setting’s many conflicts. The variety of plotlines across different parts of the city illustrate just how far-reaching the effects of the main conflict are on everyone in Burgue.
Just like how no one (except us) saw Bran becoming king coming at the end of Game of Thrones, the twists in Carnival Row are just as surprising. By the middle of the season, you’ll become so invested in getting answers that you’ll fly quickly through the rest of the episodes. A classic Jack the Ripper-esque murder mystery even gets added in to the mix, so you’ll want to get to the bottom of that case as well.
In a show with so much exposition to drop in its first episode, it’s a miracle Carnival Row’s writers were able to keep anything hidden at all. A key part of the plot is hidden in Philo’s backstory, which you have to wait to discover. Plus, the best side plots don’t come to fruition until several episodes in, when they pay off with a bang.
Miss the excitement of Game of Thrones on Sunday nights? Amazon knows your pain and is ready to give you your next helping of fantasy drama. All nine episodes of the first season of Carnival Row have been available since August 30th only on Amazon Prime. Because we’re betting on this show being huge, we made a Facebook group for fans to discuss the show. If you like it, you’ll be pleased to know the second season was approved just last month.