I would argue that writing a good ending is one of the hardest parts of being a writer. The ending of a story has to be the final culmination of all that came before: loose ends need to be tied— but not TOO tidy! Any writer can tell you that it’s difficult. And landing a story poorly can leave your reader or viewer feeling let down, disappointed, or angry. It’s why we still talk in hushed voices about the Game of Thrones TV show.
Sadly, after the first season being one of the best shows I’ve ever seen, Carnival Row season 2 is disappointing to the point of being hard to finish; the ending of the season is the disappointing end to a disappointing ride.
This review is full of spoilers.
The Row has Some Cracks, But Looks Great
There is so much to enjoy about the world and world building of Carnival Row. It is, even in a second season where the slums of Carnival Row becomes more of a concentration camp, beautiful. Costume design to architecture to cinematography— this is a beautiful and fascinating place.
There are some new “critch” in the Row, though— and there are some missing. There are new ones that I think are goblinoid? They’ve shown up without any explanation and the centaurs appear to be almost entirely gone— also without explanation. It makes it a question, were the centaurs too hard to costume? Were these new goblins easy to do? (And what are they?!) It might be knit-picking, but I also notice a lot more this season that the fey wings are cloaks, not individual wings.
These costuming issues never effect the main, characters, of course. They all look impeccable.
The Pact, World Politics, and Interracial Love
This season expands the world out from the Burge and it’s Carnival Row. We see more of the fey homeland, which we got to see some of in season one, but we get to see a lot more of a major city and some of the lands of The Pact.
The Pact, in short, is communist Russia in deserts instead of tundra. The time in the Pact feels somewhat rushed, but overall captures attention well.
Irony of ironies, communist Pact-land is a place where interracial love, such as the love between Agreus and Imogen. Just as the Russian Revolution was terrifying to the rest of the world, this revolution holds terrifying possiblities for the Burge. It introduces a few new characters of interest, including the leader, but Carnival Row uses the interracial love legality as one of the only possibly redeamable parts of the overthrow of the Pact– a government which was considered unambigously evil before. So the Pact lands go from unambigously evil to somewhat ambigously evil. Where there could have been so much more room for discussion and grey, the show’s writers choose to rush this part– including Imogen’s disenchantment with the new country.
But Politics Mean Nothing
One of the most intriguing parts of the show from season one was political intrigue around the Breakspeare family— including the relationship between Jonah Breakspear and Sophie, the head of the opposition in parliament.
Where the show appears to be ramping up political intrigue throughout, it suddenly falls flat.
Sophie, who appeared to be particularly racist in the first season, uses all of her clout to raise the funds to buy controlling portions of businesses that would benefit from the reopening of the Row– and all with some affection for her maidservant. When this comes to light, she is sentenced to be executed by Jonah for treason and because he believes (and possibly correctly) that she does not love him and has only been using him (which is unclear).
And this could have been the rise of Jonah as a tyrant– which could have been an interesting part of the show– but the writers decided to kill him within a few minutes of Sophie’s execution by the show’s real big bad, a monsterous shapechanger.
Almost everything about the politics of the show suddenly becomes vapor, meaningless.
What was Sophie really doing? Who knows. Doesn’t matter much with her dead.
Would the Burge have become a totalitarian state under Jonah? Oops– killed that plot point too.
What about Sophie’s maidservant and her brother who was trapped on the Row? Never see them again. Everything about these storylines becomes almost immediately unimportant and feels like a slap in the face for anyone who took an interest in them.
Where the Row Shines
It’s easy to stick with the faults of the show. It misses a lot of shots it takes. But there are some phenomenal parts and phenomenal acting.
Tourmaline becomes the new haruspex, a dark magic soothsayer. Magic that is passed on, resisted except for the temptation of its helpfulness— it makes for one of the best side plots of the show.
This side plot is only beaten by one: Millworthy. A man who goes from minor entertainer to tutor of the entitled Jonah Breakspear to a leading advisor of PRIME MINISTER Jonah Breakspear to de facto prime minister— and back to minor entertainer (with his kobold performers returned). Out of everything, and possibly with the excellent performance of Simon McBurney, this subplot hits the best across both seasons.
I don’t want to go into too many details about these plots because, if you choose to watch the show, it’s for these two characters.
Carnival Row Misses the Plot(s)
And now we come to the final big points, where I was let down so much this season that it hurt to watch.
This show centers on Philo and Vignette; their stories are where the real faults in the show are evident— where it really falls flat.
Let’s start with three basic truths that we know from last season and from the beginning of this season:
There is a prophecy that might be interpreted that Philo will be the great leader of the Burge. Vignette is the ever rising revolutionary of the Row. And these star-crossed lovers were supposed to get together.
TOR has a great review of this series and blames the failings of this central plot cluster on the acting of Bloom and Delevingne, but I don’t thing that’s fair. When there’s a bad script, there is only so much that an actor can do. (Though I will say that Bloom had a weird squinty/pained look for the majority of the season that he didn’t have before that felt forced.)
Philo begins the season apparently trying to embrace the prophecy, even going to a state dinner with the intention of revealing himself and his parentage to the nobles of the Burge– but that one interruption essentially makes him go, “Well, nevermind, guess I shouldn’t.” He struggles to find any meaning in his own plot, including resisting solving crimes while solving them and having an out-of-place madness in which he sees another version of himself. Eventually, he gets to be the big hero by killing the shapeshifter monster that killed Jonah– all while saving Tourmaline (while Vignette stands by). And then he’s apparently given the opportunity to be the first “critch” prime minister– but refuses it because he’s only half-critch. While this could be seen as noble in some ways, there is a deep dissatisfaction with the fact that Philo ends the series by answering Millworthy’s “What are you going to do now?” with, more or less, “Dunno, the writers forgot to give me something meaningful.” Especially since there is no sense from parliament that they are going to take his oddly long speech to heart; instead of using his power to make inroads against the racist policies of the past he just shrugs off any further responsibility.
Then you have Vignette. She starts the season as a rising star of the Black Raven and, when the leaders who are jealous of her increasing power are killed (secretly by the same shapeshifter), she takes her places as its leader. Kind of. For a little bit. But then she doesn’t. And then she does. There’s a lot of “Who am I? What am I really doing in this plot?” this season. And then, suddenly, Vignette is like, “Oh, by the way, I love Tourmaline instead. Not for any particular reason– but remember that we used to be a thing? We’re a thing again.” No real lead up. No real depth to the relationship. Vignette’s character feels like she doesn’t have much more to do than go with the winds of change between the various forces playing her like a puppet– and be angry that Philo would dare stand against some of those winds by working with the cops (who, though awful racists, are at least trying to figure out who/what is killing everyone).
And the cherry to this awful twist of plots for the two main characters is that Tourmaline love triangle. Part of this is expressed in another review, stating that Vignette doesn’t ever really do anything for Tourmaline– including not even saving her from the shapeshifter (that’s Philo). Another part is that from season one the plot was clearly that Philo and Vignette were supposed to be together– no matter the odds. Instead we get a mediocre romance in which Vignette and Tourmaline end up married in their homeland. It comes off as disingenous because they don’t really do any effort to make this romance look or feel real. And Tourmaline really deserves better than to be a lukewarm side-romance-plot if they were going to go through with this change.
Carnival Row is a show I had absolutely fallen in love with from the first episode of the first season. I had spent years looking forward to the second season. But it was a struggle to keep interest after the first couple episodes. But I finished it. It’s a climax that ends with a shrug (not a whimper or a bang)— even to itself. According to CBR, this is due to an almost entirely new writer’s room for the second season; it looks like these new voices really missed the stories they were telling.
But what did you think?
Am I wrong? What were the parts of the season that are better than I’m giving it credit for? What are the parts that stuck out as awful? Let me know in the comments!
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