Wally’s Review of Carnival Row

I don’t understand how this can be such a hot mess.

It had such potential! It had such a good trailer! It had such a good aesthetic! It has such a good cast!

And yet.

Carnival Row is one of those fantasy stories that’s about a modern social issue but with marginalized people played by non-marginalized people in prosthetic makeup. Actually, that isn’t fair, Cara Delevigne is bisexual and a lot of the fae characters are played by nonwhite actors, but I’m standing by that statement and I’m doing it for a good reason, which is a spoiler, so be warned if you’re really invested in watching this piece of flaming garbage, because I’m going to get to it in a few paragraphs.

The first episode starts out okay: We’re introduced to the Burgue, which is possibly Fantasy England or possibly just Fantasy London, it’s not clear, a city in which fae refugees fleeing their invaded homeland live as second-class citizens in a culture that broadly doesn’t want them there. Interesting! We Jared Harris and his government arguing about whether the fae should be allowed rights at all. Relevant! There’s a serial killer on the loose who the police are taking no notice of because he’s only targeting fae. Slightly on the nose, but cool! Cara Delevigne washes up on the shore after a shipwreck, having tried to rescue a bunch of fae refugees and failed, and has to become a maid in Tamzin Merchant’s house. Lots of potential there! Her ex-boyfriend Orlando Bloom is the only good police officer and is trying to solve the killings. Hard to take seriously, but fair enough! Indira Varma is there and is Jared Harris’s wife. Maybe she’ll finally get a decent role for once in her career! The murderer turns out to be some random dude who Orlando Bloom finds randomly at the end and then subsequently jumps off a building, who may or may not have been possessed by some great evil, which never becomes relevant again. Kind of weird, but okay! Cara Delevigne finds out Orlando Bloom faked his death seven years ago so he could stop dating her and goes to stab him but doesn’t because of heterosexuality, I guess. Bit strange! A lady is murdered by a lovecraftian entity and it’s pretty obvious that this will be the Main Plot. Okay! Let’s go!

I won’t torture myself or you by going through every individual episode, but basically the plot is Orlando Bloom Tries to Solve A Crime in a World of Racism. It’s in the second episode that the problems with the show become really evident. Jared Harris is suddenly incompetent. Orlando Bloom’s nice police friend is suddenly also racist and mean, but only sometimes. Tamzin Merchant’s slightly dopey brother is suddenly a would-be rapist. Indira Varma is suddenly evil and has kidnapped her own son (this is the only good plot twist in the show, and then they fuck it up later). Characters are suddenly doing things that don’t make sense because it’s convenient for the story, and the writers just think that characterization is malleable with no explanation as long as it gets the plot from point A to point B.

Before I go into slamming the show’s crap attempt at doing social politics, I want to point out the one singular good storyline in the show, which is Tamzin Merchant’s plot with her fae neighbour. It’s a sort of typical ‘he’s rich and upper class but upper-class society doesn’t want him because he’s black a satyr, and she’s old money but her family’s poor so she agrees to get him into high society in exchange for him helping her brother financially’ situation, which of course leads to them falling in love, having hilarious wall sex after he shows her how electricity works, her brother finding out about it and them running away on Chekov’s Boat to be together in a world that wants to tear them apart. Even though it’s super predictable, the writers do a good job of crafting this storyline and the characters in it, they’re all interesting and legitimately compelling to watch. Also completely irrelevant to the larger narrative, which is part of a larger complaint.

This show acts like an ensemble. It’s not. Then it seems for a bit like it’s the Orlando Bloom and Cara Delevigne Show. It’s not. It’s the Orlando Bloom Show, which is increasingly obvious as the show goes on and every storyline just gets slowly subordinated in service to his. His storyline is A) not that interesting, B) extremely predictable and C) the main problem that the show has with its racial politics. And since attention to racial politics is probably why I got tapped to write this little review, let’s talk about that.

Orlando Bloom is half-fae. You find this out in the third episode, which is the backstory episode and also the worst episode in the season–though it does have the funniest sex scene I’ve ever seen on television, so there’s that. He tells us that it’s bad to be half-fae, because humans hate you for being fae and fae hate you for representing colonial oppression (somehow). In one sentence, Orlando Bloom goes from the already not very interesting trope of “The Only Non-Marginalized Person Who Isn’t Shitty” to “The Most Marginalized Person in the World,” which might be fine if he wasn’t being played by a straight white male actor playing a straight white male character who passes as human so well that even when other fae see the scars from his wings being cut off they don’t know what they are.

It’s not that non-marginalized people can’t play marginalized characters, especially when the marginality is something that doesn’t exist in real life, but really? Cara Delevigne, a bisexual woman playing a bisexual woman, couldn’t have been the half-fae one? Or her friend Karla Crome, playing a bisexual black woman (I don’t know if the actress is bisexual), Or Tamzin Merchant’s boyfriend, a black man playing a black satyr? Orlando Bloom being half-fae allows him access to a marginalized identity that he doesn’t have any real right to, even in the show, and it just serves to make him the Super Special Chosen One (there’s a prophecy and everything).

Okay, it’s a TV show, and Hollywood works in a certain way, and Orlando Bloom is one of the most famous actors in the show. I could forgive all of that. I could forgive all of that if all the show’s actual villains (not the racist police or racist society, those are just window dressing), weren’t people of colour seeking to victimize sad innocent white people, mostly men. Indira Varma turns out to be behind the murders, because she’s covering up that her husband cheated on her thirty years ago with a fae and had Orlando Bloom, and then she’s killed (by Cara Delevigne, and I could literally go on for thousands of words about the trope of the female villain being killed by the female hero), paving the way for her mixed-race son to replace his dead father as Chancellor, because that’s how democracy works. And what does he do? He immediately formulates an evil plan with the true villainous mastermind, That Lady Who Only Appeared in Episode Four (of Eight), who is also mixed-race and also his sister that he’s banging because of edginess. And they make all the fae, Orlando Bloom especially, live in a ghetto/concentration camp.

Also, just as an aside, I feel like Klaus would have something to say about all the twisty plans and convoluted scheming happening in this show which manages to simultaneously be incomprehensible and also so totally transparent that I’d figured out every plot in the show by halfway through episode four and then had to sit there and wait patiently for the cast to catch up, which they mostly did by arbitrarily realizing things when it was convenient for the writers for them to do so.

Anyway, the racial politics of this show that’s supposedly about racial politics are fucked up. All the women of colour are evil except the one who’s only there to get the two main characters together, one of the two men of colour becomes evil (as the plot demands) and the second is completely incidental to the narrative. The show has a lot of incidental diversity, people of colour in the background, lots of women, a very small number of queer people, so kudos to that, but it straight up fucks all that up in the way it portrays its actors who are marginalized people.

The writing of Carnival Row is shit, the characterization is inconsistent and bad, its social politics are the exact opposite of what it wants to be, and it doesn’t understand what’s interesting about its own world. There’s so much more I could say about this trash fire, but it’s honestly not worth the fucking time. As a gay werewolf, I felt really let down by this show and I just don’t want to talk about it anymore. And as an aside, the werewolf rep in this show sucked.

About the good only thing I can say about this show that’s positive is that the acting is good and you get to see Orlando Bloom’s bum a few times. Other that, the whole thing can just fuck right off.

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