Carnival Row’s final two episodes are something of a suitably gripping and satisfying finale, even if the eventual destination is somewhat predictable.
At the start of Episode 7 we see Philo in prison thanks to the suspicions around his involvement in the dark asher murders, and of course his own murky origins. So as predicted he is reunited with Vignette, who is in there thanks to her freak out in the previous episode. Vignette saves Philo from a beating early on and their love affair is fully rekindled. I can’t say I didn’t see this coming, but at the same time being as invested in this relationship as I am, it was good to see it come back around. Philo is fully embracing his Fae origins at this point as he is given the chance to get out once his land lady feels guilty and retracts her statement to the police. He heroically refuses, and has the theory that whoever his father is might actually be the one behind the murders.
Imogen’s plot carries on, becoming the second most compelling plot strand of the whole saga. She reveals she doesn’t like anyone she knows to Mr. Agreus, and you can finally see the hidden depths and longing come to the surface for the character. It also turns out that Mr. Agreus used to have a job where he was responsible for hunting down escaped fae slaves for his rich human masters. This gives sudden depth to this haunted and previously quite flat character. The fae made his fortune by turning on his own kind. This turn of events made me care that much more when Ezra turns nasty and objects to the Imogen and Agreus affair, which goes full blown when they fall in love over a lamp, a technological marvel in this world.
Chancellor Breakspeare momentarily pauses when he hears Aisling’s name as a previous murder victim. Then he arranges for Philo to be transferred out of jail. Suddenly things start to make a bit more sense. Subtlety has gone straight out of the window, and the secrets about to be revealed could be less obvious with a flashing subtitle saying “Sign Posting” over the whole scene.
The final episode of the first season begins with Breakspeare confronting Philo over his part in the murders. Jared Harris is back on form as an actor, and the reveals that take place indicate that maybe the previous poor performance was actually intentional. Essentially Breakspeare has been acting a role his whole life because he once was in love with a fae named Aisling, whom he never quite got over. The product of that dalliance was Philo, and Breakspeare is enraged as he believes Philo may have killed his own mother and his long lost love. Philo protests with his belief that his estranged father may be responsible for the murders, and the two of them have an uneasy reconciliation. I can’t deny that I was moved considerably when Breakspeare urges Philo not to give up on Vignette, to ensure that he sees this love through to the end and has the life he missed out on. Philo is set free to go and finish the dark asher case once and for all, and Breakspeare promises to free Vignette from prison.
Vignette meanwhile escapes from prison by faking a suicide and gets away, but is then caught and captured by a third party, giving Philo a somewhat predictable impetus beyond solving the case that has haunted him. The evil witch played by Alice Krige has become the dark asher’s latest victim and Philo inspects the body and it somehow talks. The dead witch reveals that the master of the dark asher is indeed Chancellor Breakspeare’s shady wife Piety, a former student of hers who was always too keen.
Meanwhile the Chancellor is stabbed by an assassin from the puck uprising in the streets, and before he can recover is smothered by Piety, who now wants Jonah to assume his rightful position as the new lord of all the city. It’s all very dramatic and exciting, events heaped on top of each other, the performances matching up along the way and I can’t deny it’s the most fun I have had with a finale for a while. I mean, I had to go back and watch again just to track the detail that Jonah is actually biologically Longerbane’s son from an old affair.
Eventually Philo goes down into the sewers, finds Piety’s black magic chamber and the captured Vignette and somehow defeats the dark asher creature. There are some nice creature effects here, the initial encounter with the creature finds it standing motionless clearly missing a liver. Philo sneaks past it in a very tense scene, and the creature then snaps out of it and gives chase. Vignette is of course the one that stabs and ends Piety’s reign of terror, essentially rendering the creature powerless. Although the mechanics to get here were kind of obvious, I wasn’t bored and this whole sequence was very well done.
So now some words about the reveals and the whole reason behind this conspiracy. Although I was invested and compelled along the way as revelations came out and people were literally stabbed in the back, when it comes down to it, the whole plot has been about a cover up of a secret illegitimate child who is in line for the throne. It’s not that the execution was bad, because standing back and looking at the season as a whole, it really was more good than bad. It just feels a little bit old hat, feels like it has been done before and seen before, although admittedly not in this incredibly rich and detailed world. The ultimate secrets of the plot and the conspiracy around it feel very much like something from a screenplay written ten years ago. Some last minute polish of the sacred inspiration for this tale could have made all the difference, and changed something from just good to excellent.
During my time with Carnival Row’s first season, I found myself wondering in its lowest moments whether or not I would bother with a second season. At the end of the final episode, Imogen and Agreus have fled The Burgue fully in love and fearing further violent reprisals from Ezra and a society that will condemn their relationship. Jonah has taken power, even being aware of the conspiracy that led to the death of his two fathers. Vignette and Philo are together, Philo accepting his status and walking wilfully into a ghetto where the fae have been cordoned off by the police. To top this all off, the battle between the species is ramped up as the fae are all rounded up and travel is restricted due to the assassination of the chancellor being the work of the underground puck cult.
The ending of Carnival Row feels very much like a show about to possibly unleash its full potential. Now that they are done with whatever plot made up that initial blacklisted screenplay, they are free to explore the world and the characters we find within. There is very much a feeling that Carnival Row could become the must see fantasy work on streaming television. There is limitless potential here for endless stories, and I cannot wait to see what happens next.