In the wake of the conclusion of Game of Thrones, it seems that every major network is trying to create the next Game of Thrones to capture the pop culture zeitgeist in the same way that show once did. In that search, networks are attempting to replicate that same magic instead of trying to create something new and original. Amazon appears to be the biggest proponent of not only creating the next Game of Thrones but pushing forward as much new fantasy content as possible in the attempt to throw everything against a wall and see what sticks. Whether it’s their upcoming Lord of the Rings series or The Wheel of Time, Amazon is going all in on the high fantasy action, yet like a kid that has to eat their vegetables before dessert, so must we watch Carnival Row.
Taking place in a world similar to our own, Carnival Row centers on the eponymous location, a 42nd Street of sorts where various races of fantasy creatures try to make ends meet by any means necessary. Some turn to prostitution or become indentured servants, but most, if not all, are refugees. Because of this, the native humans are openly hostile towards them, with law enforcement often turning a blind eye to the crimes against them. Rycroft Philostrate (Orlando Bloom), however, is one of the last few cops in the city that cares about the refugees. The first episode centers on him tracking down a killer that murders faeries every three weeks.
Within the first five minutes, the race allegories are on display in full force without any subtleties whatsoever. Derogatory terms are thrown out at the faeries, a pair of rich siblings are appalled that a Puck bought a house next to theirs, and hate rallies are held to purge the mythical creatures from the city. It comes across as amateurish with how simply it delivers these moments.
The world itself is meant to be dark and compelling, but instead, the world-building comes across as sloppy. “Some Dark God Wakes” tries to create a world built upon war and various nations vying for political supremacy, but none of it matters once we get to Carnival Row itself. The murder mystery plot takes full control from that point, making the episode feels imbalanced. We do get a few random subplots introduced here and there, but they appear and disappear so quickly that it’s hard to even recall which characters were involved in them. There are a total of two scenes with Arty Froushan’s Jonah Breakspear, the son of the Prime Minister, and his illicit comings and goings from Carnival Row, but other than a brief mention it has no bearing on anything that happens during the episode.
Carnival Row feels very confused about what it wants to be. Does it want to be a procedural involving mythical creatures? Is it a story about the underclass and the oppression they endure? Is it a political drama with all of the warring countries established in the beginning? Is it a love story between Orlando Bloom’s character and the prostitute he sleeps with? Based on the first episode, it’s not clear if even Carnival Row knows what it’s about.
As for Bloom himself, he delivers a fair enough job as Philostrate but offers nothing substantial for audiences to latch onto. He’s a war veteran who’s gruff and not afraid to throw a punch, but his heart is in the right place. He wants to protect the weak and the refugees who can’t help themselves. We’ve seen his character a million times before, and outside of a minor revelation about his character towards the end, Bloom comes off like a discount Russell Crowe or Jason Statham.
Thankfully, Cara Delevingne, who plays the faerie Vignette Stonemoss, delivers a far stronger performance and will hopefully be the driving force of the show going forward. Whenever she’s allowed to act, she gives Vignette a depth that is sorely lacking in the other characters. She wants to help other faeries in any way possible, even if it means selling her soul to do so. Compared to the rest of the cast, who range from being bland to forgettable, she’s a solid foundation that the rest of the show should build off of. Although, it’s doubtful the show will go in that direction moving forward, especially with the final scene establishing a new plot thread with little connection to any established character.
“Some Dark God Wakes” is a poor first episode for a show that already feels like it’s on its back foot. Between characters that offer nothing substantial to attach to and themes that have been done to death, Carnival Row‘s first episode does not entice viewers to further stream it. It feels like a store brand fantasy epic without any nutritional value.