Continuing watching Carnival Row has revealed that this may well end up being one of the most frustrating shows to turn up in a while. It has it’s best episode so far comes in Episode 3, and then its worst by a mile in Episode 4.
The third episode is mostly a flashback. Right from the start the pace is slowed down and more considered, as I was hoping for. Directed by Anna Foerster it has an epic cinematic sweep as we find ourselves back during the great war in the snowy land of Fae. Here we find Philo as a Burgue soldier as part of an army journeying to a fae mimasery in the mountains. We learn a bit more about the politics of the war that started all of this. A faction of humanity known as The Pact is visciously killing and set on wiping out the fae resistance. The Burgue is a kind of mediator here, not on board with the rampant extermination, and set on protecting this place. However the fae are mistrustful of all of humankind regardless of their intentions.
The Philo we find during the war is more idealistic and wide eyed compared to the version we see in the city. He meets Vignette at the mimasery as she is the steward of the library. The two of them bond over books although Vignette is distrustful at first. Philo gifts her his favourite book “Kingdoms of the Moon” and Vignette is moved and begins to let her guard down. She then later saves Philo’s life from an attack by Pact werewolves. Here Orlando Bloom and Cara Delevigne’s chemistry really blossoms, and it continues to be the thing that hooks me into this narrative. The two of them share a sex scene which feels a little bit sudden, and somewhat overly explicit for the sweet nature of their relationship this far. However this misstep does reveal that Philo has strange scars which seem to indicate a big reveal about Philo’s origins to come later. They don’t wait or build this up for some reason. By episodes end it is revealed that Philo is actually originally a fae who had his wings cut off as a baby and doesn’t remember his parentage.
Further relationships we are already aware of from the start of the show are given further clarity. Vignette’s relationship with the eventual prostitute Tourmaline is given a background and major hints at a possible romantic entanglement somewhere in the past. It makes sense why she is so invested in the forbidden romance between Philo and Vignette in the present of the show, as she was there right from the start. The brief scene in Episode 2 where Philo visits a former war colleague in prison is also given an explanation. It seems that the poor man is imprisoned in the Burgue as he is turning into a werewolf every full moon. Why isn’t entirely clear but it seems a by-product of being in Fae. These scenes are all great and wonderfully performed by the actors involved. Episode 3 is less concerned with throwing information at you and lets the character relationships take centre stage.
When Pact war airships eventually attack the mimasery, the result is epic and thrilling as destruction is rained down upon our heroes. The tension ramps up as the soldiers try and save as many fae as possible and Philo and Vignette are separated and thrust towards the inevitable. It seems that Philo was convinced he was going to die, and so relayed a message accordingly to Vignette. Vignette was then dragged away consumed by grief with her surviving fae companions. Although this part is not entirely convincing, it does suitably move you and when the action is suddenly transported back to present day Burgue for the closing minutes, everything feels that much more vital.
Episode 3 was everything I wanted Carnival Row to be. It was sweeping, cinematic, moving and the overall quality of the writing and direction had taken a major step up. It was, I thought, the point where I had finally fallen in love with the world they created. Which is why it’s so frustrating that Episode 4, co-directed by Anna Foerster and returning Thor Freudenthal, is the worst of the show so far.
It starts strongly as we open at an orphanage in the Burgue and another gory murder reminding us of the evil out there threatening the fae. Philo investigates and is led down into the sewers and here the Guillermo Del Toro influence feels strong as he first encounters the huge tentacled horror responsible. His following of the clues and this encounter leads him to some very strange places. The weird priestess from the last episode comes back and provides further portents of doom saying the beast is brought about by the “joining of unlike things” essentially meaning humans and fae. Philo is pointed in the direction of a far more insidious witch played by the great Alice Krige, who we previously saw involved with the chancellor’s wife. He is subjected to some weird mojo involving his seed, and a strange fish in order to create the thing he hunts, and he leaves just as confused as the audience.
Vignette’s adventures with the fae mafia known as “The Raven” ramp up but largely fall flat. After she is tasked with stealing the police flag as part of her initiation, she is given further, more devious, tasks by the lead badass fae named Daria. The problem with this whole subplot is that the actress playing Daria is either making some weird choices with regards to her performance, or she is just a bad actress. This is the flattest performance I have seen in a while. Daria never once convinces and just sounds like she is reading from a script with no understanding of nuance or menace. As a result, The Raven never feel as dangerous as they are made out to be. A whole scene where Daria threatens Vignette due to her connections with policeman Philo just feels like filler. Thanks to Cara Delevigne, who seems somewhat traumatised by the whole ordeal after she has to kill one of them, we eventually get some inkling of the menace and danger we were supposed to feel.
The Spurnrose family are sadly back with Imogen squabbling with her brother Ezra about his mishandling of the families fortune. Imogen invites their “Puck” fae neighbour to tea almost as an act of rebellion, and it’s great to see her get her comeuppance when the guest turns on her for her arrogance. To be fair, this plot does take a more interesting turn by the end of the episode where it seems that the neighbour has his own agenda the Spurnrose family are not aware of. Sadly none of the performances in this thread are really good enough to get you all the way invested. Imogen is a really underwritten character with no real substance, and Tamzin Merchant struggles with what she is given.
The kidnapping of the chancellor’s wayward son strand carries on and surprises and infuriates in equal measure. Chancellor Breakspeare (Jared Harris) is convinced that the man behind the kidnapping is his political rival Longerbane. During a debate in parliament, Breakspeare loses it and confronts Longerbane, and for some reason…Jared Harris is awful in this scene. I don’t know how this happened as Harris is one of our finest thespians, and yet his shouting and raging is laughable.
The plot goes on and reveals that Longerbane may well have the same family issues as Breakspeare when the law comes for him. Longerbane is poisoned by Breakspeare’s duplicitous wife, and she fakes a confession about missing Jonah’s whereabouts which she of course already knows. Jonah is rescued and then he hears the sounds of heels on a floor and remembers the same sound when he was kidnapped and blindfolded. So he is on to his devious mother (no I’m not kidding).
Episode 4 is partly saved by the Vignette and Philo relationship. They briefly come to some kind of understanding, though still tragic, when they see each other at a market. This encounter however brings suspicion on to Vignette by her new friends at The Raven. It leads to a scene where Philo has to swoop in and save Vignette at the last minute which was the kind of dashing romantic hero intervention I was hoping for. By episode’s end Philo has seemingly made a decision about which world he belongs to by reconciling with his on off landlady human hook up. This won’t last hopefully.
“Kingdoms of the Moon” is one of the best hours of TV I have seen in 2019 and “The Joining of Unlike Things” is by far the worst. There are choices to do with writing and performance in the fourth episode that feel clumsy and amateurish, and depending on where this show goes next, it may well now die in my affections or prove me wrong and turn it all around. Carnival Row could really go either way at this point. I’m still invested, but I am now very wary.