For all of its rich promise and bright, shining possibility, humanity is, by and large, a very dark and unenvious proposition as a species.
While it is tempting to think of us in glowingly positive terms, something that the likes of Disney, Hallmark and just about every romantic genre would like you to do on a near-constant basis, the reality is that we are a people prone to misusing each other, others, power, basic humanity, family, love, friends and the rich culture of those of whom we exercise control.
It is not an empoweringly inspiring and richly-reassuring view of Homo Sapiens but it is one that Carnival Row, created by René Echevarria and Travis Beacham based on a script by Beacham entitled A Killing on Carnival Row, embraces wholeheartedly as it takes us deep into the underbelly of humanity and its often stained, unhappy relationship with itself and others.
Sound bleak? Wholly depressing and uninviting?
On paper it is, eight episodes of being reminded at almost every step that light and love are mere blips on the radar of the swallowing darkness that is the human soul.
Having said that, there are some transcendent elements and moments in Carnival Row that leaven the bleakness that this steampunk-resplendent show provides in gritty spade loads, reminding us at critically important moments that you can’t abandon all sense of hope and love just yet.
You do, however, come very, very close.
Set in a Victorian-esque world which is in the full throes of imperialistic expansion and exploitation, Carnival Row is a grim mix of the great age of empires (only “great” naturally if you are one of those doing the expanding and exploiting), pre-Nazi era breakdown of the breakdown of the established order and magical mythology in which the Fae or fairies, faun, centaurs, goblins and others live amongst humanity.
Rather than being some pleasing mystical union of humanity and creatures of myth and legend, the existence of the mostly downtrodden and poor Fae in The Republic of the Burgue, a fading empire that is at perpetual war with its brutal usurper The Pact, is an uneasy and often violent one in which the very worse of prejudices and bigotry rules supreme in a society that is acutely conscious that it is not as rich and powerful as it once was.
In other words, The Burgue, and the parliamentary republic which governs it, has a monumentally existential chip on its shoulder, aware that its empire is long gone and that its attempts to keep a hold off it is taking far more backward steps than forward.
Rather than stare knowingly into the centre of its diseased and mournful heart, the people of The Burgue (for the most part, anyway) turn outward in fury, attacking and oppressing the people in its midst who are only there because of its own grave past misdeeds.
The Fae who are largely confined to the seething, noisy decay of Carnival Row in a visually-blighted part of the city – for the purposes of the show, however, the level of detail and world-building is breathtaking, an approach that delivers up a world that feels grand and stone-made monumental even as its soul withers and dies – and who are almost always the servant-employed or criminally-engaged underclass, are only present in the beleaguered Burgue because it invaded their homelands in the eastern continent of Tirnanoc, across the seas from Mesogea, the lands upon which the Burgue and other human countries sit.
It’s a tale as old as time sadly; seeking more land, resources and meaning, invaders surge like vermin, well-equipped and technologically-superior vermin it should be added, across peaceful lands not their own, displacing vibrant cultures, disturbing the rich and storied order of things and forcing people with a distinct sense of place and time to go on the move, their futures uncertain but highly unlikely to be good.
It is in this post-empire, society in the throes of fascist revolution and rampant disaffection that Carnival Row exists, a rich sprawling whodunnit meets grimy but enthralling political thriller that may meander a little too much at times but which is on the whole a highly satisfying if disturbing exploration of how the “sins” of the one can beget the sins and desperately consequential actions of another.
The two protagonists in this bleakly turgid, blaming everyone but itself world are Rycroft Philostrate aka Philo (Orlando Bloom) and Vignette Stonemoss (Cara Delevingne), a human detective in the Constabulary who police the sorry though impressive-looking mess that is The Burgue and a refugee fairy who have connections that go far beyond the acceptable order of things.
They live, after all, in a society in which humanity is the great and shining light and the Fae its miserably, corrupting darkness, a place where the mixing of the two is a physical fact but an existential and moral abhorrence (to most people at least who prefer to unthinkingly swim in the turgid rivers of ignorance and ill-feeling than see each other for who they really are and benefit from this mutually-beneficial awareness).
There are outliers in this world, people who break these heavily-delineated barriers between human and Fae – to go further to give examples would be to venture deep into spoilers of a show that is layer upon richly-rewarding layer and thus impossible to review in any kind of specific depth – but they are often insufficient to stand against the darkness that beats at the heart of Burgish society.
What can be said is that Carnival Row is captivatingly clever in the way it approaches a raft of issues that have long sabotaged humanity’s climb to unstinting and unyielding greatness.
It pulls back the curtain of a world that looks inclusive and progressive on the surface, all steam-driven trains on rails and strong, wave-breaching sailing ships, mighty armies and refined if noisy politically democratic discourse, to reveal a society which is lost and uncertain, no longer of its ill-gotten place in the world and more prone to repeat the sins of its rapacious past, the one that brought the richly-cultured Fae into its midst, than to seek a new, more progressive path.
This willingness to expose the leaching, destructive ugliness of imperialism, enslavement, racism, cultural appropriation and exploitation which turns vibrant cultures into tacky objects of museum-imprisoned curiosities and hatred and fear of the Other is a powerful driver in a story which is at its heart both a tale of the very worst of humanity and a sweeping, enduring love story that threads through this darkness with its light though not powerfully enough to affect anyone beyond the two people caught willingly, and unwillingly for a time, within it.
Philo and Vignette are the beating, often broken heart of Carnival Row, two people from vastly different worlds who now inhabit the same one, who, in their quest to find again what they once had, must grapple with their pasts, with the struggle to accept who they are and want to be, and whether being honest about that will be their doing or undoing.
Their eventual willingness to go to the dark, blighted places of the heart and soul and find what they once lost and need to find again to be whole stands in stark contrast to the rottenness and brokenness of The Burgue, personified in the unholy alliance between Jonah Breakspear (Arty Froushan) and Sophie Longerbane (Caroline Ford) which comes to represent all that is wrong with the world even as Philo and Vignette, lost and flawed as they are, come to show what can be right about it if only people will be open and honest and accepting of the great truth of themselves, other around him and the world they beget by their thoughts, deeds, feelings and actions.
Carnival Row is sprawling and drawn out, contemplative and heartbreakingly, often unsettlingly and relentlessly bleak but it is a fascinatingly substantial and thoughtful exploration of the soul of humanity and its inability to see that its actions beget other consequential actions that can, properly handed with contrition, compassion and an openness to fundamental, transforming change, lead to the very best of things, or ignored and mishandled, create more misery, chaos and the very worst and ultimately damning of things from which nothing good can come.