The long-delayed fantasy series wanders itself into a bad end in Amazon’s alleyways.
One of the biggest downsides of making such gorgeous, sprawling fantasy television epics is the agonizing wait between seasons. This is acutely felt at Amazon, in particular, as they seem to have cornered the fantasy television market. Fans are already gnashing for a new season of big-budget offerings like The Wheel of Time, and Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. Of course, no show has suffered more for the delays than Carnival Row Season 2. Season 1 aired in 2019, an interminable wait for any dedicated viewer.
Creators Travis Beacham and René Echevarria’s vision made for a rich and immersive first season, playing off themes of colonialism and xenophobia, class warfare, feminism, and identity. It saw Detective Philo (Orlando Bloom) reunite with lost love Vignette (Cara Delevingne) in the alt-Victorian, quasi-steampunk city of The Burgue, where humans and fae folk live not-so-peaceably among one another. We also follow the story of society lady Imogen Spurnrose (Tamzin Merchant) and wealthy faun Agreus (David Gyasi). The end of Season one saw both sets of lovers united, Philo and Vignette now trapped in the ghettoized Carnival Row, while Imogen and Agreus fled The Burgue to find a place where their love could be accepted. Just behind the parallel love stories were layers of political intrigue and machinations.
Where season one set a bombastic pace and gave fresh revelation with every episode, season two meanders a bit. That’s not to say that there isn’t good stuff here. In particular, Imogen and Agreus’ flight and their conscription into a communist nation, and the political maneuverings of Runyan Millworthy (Simon McBurney), advisor to the Chancellor (who happens to be Philo’s younger half-brother), stick out.
With Philo struggling to come to terms with both his half-fae heritage and accept his father’s legacy, he seems to exist in a grey area. He remains unsure if he owes his loyalties to the Fae (and, by extension, Vignette) or the human world. While season one ends with Philo accepting his heritage, the decision does not rest lightly in Carnival Row Season 2. With Vignette now an operative of the vigilante group The Black Raven, their loyalties often put them at odds. Even Vignette’s romantic ties to Philo seem more nebulous this season, with her old friend and lover Tourmaline (Karla Crome) finding herself with a strange new ability that seems somehow connected to a remarkably gruesome creature.
It’s a shame that Carnival Row Season 2 seems to hit many of the same beats while often floundering to keep the story fresh.
The most interesting part of the season, however, doesn’t lay with Philo and Vignette, but with Imogen and Agreus. They give us a glimpse of the larger world outside of The Burgue. Imogen’s initial horror at the concept of manual labor soon gives way to the thrill of freedom she never knew in her home country. Rather than being treated as delicate and untouchable, Imogen comes into her own when seen as just another Comrade. Of course, none of this can last, and the couple soon find themselves stuck between two warring nations.
It’s a shame that Carnival Row Season 2 seems to hit many of the same beats while often floundering to keep the story fresh. And while a second-season slump isn’t terribly unusual (especially in fantasy dramas), this is the end for Carnival Row. It wasn’t renewed for a third season and thus has no further chance to flourish. So instead, it suffers this lackluster end to an otherwise original and memorable series.
Carnival Row Season 2 takes one last trip with the fae on Prime Video beginning February 17.