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Carnival Row Returns, Gritty and Magical as Ever

Emma Stefanksy

Dec 14, 2022

It’s been a long journey to get there, but the second season of Carnival Row—announced way back in the summer of 2019—is at long last on its way, set to return on Prime Video on February 17. And, as these exclusive first-look images reveal, it’s back in all its horned, winged glory. 

Adapted from what was originally a feature script by Travis Beacham, Carnival Row—a Dickensian murder plot set in a world where magical humanoid beings exist alongside and are persecuted by humans—felt like a throwback to the charming, grungy sci-fi and fantasy of the mid-2000s in its first season. “It really was a deep, well-thought-out world that had infinite possibilities for the kinds of stories that you could tell inside of it,” season two showrunner Erik Oleson says of Beacham’s original script. “That’s of course a challenge when you have limited screen time, et cetera. But it really is unlike anything that I had seen. People might assume they know what it is, with the mash-up of steampunk with a Victorian-era detective with magic and creatures and everything. It was just so ripe for the picking.”

Oleson says he was invited to be a part of the show from the beginning, but had to finish out his contract with Marvel and Netflix to run the Charlie Cox–led Daredevil—which was canceled before its prospective fourth season during the company’s shift to Disney+ (though a new season is reportedly in the works). When the second season of Carnival Row came calling, Oleson answered: “It’s not every day as a writer you get a call to dive into an epic fantasy show with 1,500 crew members and a cast of hundreds. You can do anything. I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, okay, I’ll be on a plane, let me grab my passport.’”

The upcoming—and final—season of Carnival Row moves its enormous cast of characters through an entirely new series of gauntlets as well as the complex politics of a world that, despite its fantastical trappings, closely resembles our own. Human-passing half-fae Rycroft “Philo” Philostrate (Orlando Bloom) has rejected the police force, an openly racist institution that patrols the Burgue, a Londonesque city-state reluctantly housing a population of fae folk refugees escaped from their war-torn homeland. His sometime lover, gossamer-winged Vignette Stonemoss (Cara Delevingne), falls in with a local anarchist group bent on freeing the fae from their human tormentors by any means necessary. Her erstwhile girlfriend, Tourmaline (Karla Crome), has been saddled with surprise psychic abilities, her visions of violence corresponding with a new string of crimes targeting the citizens of the Burgue. 

Moneyed faun Agreus (David Gyasi) and his human partner, Imogen (Tamzin Merchant), are midway through fleeing the violent intolerance of their homeland when they find themselves beset by an entirely new threat when they’re forced to enter the Pact, the Eastern European–styled enemy of the Burgue that has been overtaken by a set of anti-bourgeois freedom fighters who call themselves the New Dawn. Meanwhile, conniving human politicians Jonah Brekapear (Arty Froushan) and Sophie Longerbane (Caroline Ford) continue their psychosexual war for control of the Burgue, manipulated at every angle by the sly Runyan Millworthy (Simon McBurney), while former soldier Darius Sykes (Ariyon Bakare) attempts to live peacefully as a shapeshifting wolf-man. 

If that’s complicated to read, it’s even more complex to watch—a feature, not a bug, for a show like Carnival Row, which buries the deeper philosophical stuff under a thick layer of detailed costumes and production design. “There is this terrifically deep, lush world of amazing costumes and production, all that stuff,” Oleson says. “But the idea that the show should have something meaningful to explore was where I always start on any television season. And for this season, it was asking questions about what makes us who we are. Is it what we are born? Or is it what we do? Is it the stuff that’s determined before we’re even on the planet by DNA? Or do we get a vote in how we look at ourselves and define ourselves with the choices that we make, the actions that we take, and the way that we treat each other?”

The characters of Carnival Row are beset on all sides by warring political factions, whether it’s the parliamentary machinations of the Burgue, the warlike violence of the Pact, or the single-minded hatred of the New Dawn. Oleson saw the political angle of the show as another way to explore, in a heightened way, what makes us who we are. “Ultimately, I think that any form of government is built on human frailty,” he says. “How we see ourselves and how we treat other human beings is independent of how we are governed. [You see that in] Imogen and Agreus fleeing a racist, Western republic, and landing in a seeming utopia of egalitarian communism, only to discover that it comes down to how people push for power. Human beings are going to treat each other the way that they are going to treat each other.”

Like many shows in the post–Game of Thrones TV landscape, Carnival Row has plenty of visual splendor—but much of the new season is centered on quiet, intimate moments between two or three people. “I’m a sucker for the big spectacle, yes,” Oleson says. “But more importantly, the quiet moments between really great actors that I’m just pinching myself that I get to work with, and they bring to life a scene that I wasn’t sure was going to work.”

Oleson says the work on this season was a collaborative process, drawing inspiration from the stars themselves: Bloom’s willingness to play a character whose loyalties shift with his identity; Delevingne’s enthusiasm for exploring her own sexuality; Crome’s dual writing-acting talents; the live theater history of McBurney, for whom they wrote a Shakespearean sonnet, in dialogue, at the end of the show.

“Any writer is attracted to the ability to use parables to talk about the real world,” Oleson says. “And when you have such a lush, rich world you can talk about important ideas off the nose and in inventive, cool ways and bury them beneath popcorn adventure and epic romance.” 

He hopes that audiences are satisfied with where it all ends up, and has one teaser to offer: “We finish with a bang.”

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