Carnival Row Season 2 Review: A Faltering Story That Doesn't Live Up To The Rich, Fantastical World

It's been a long wait since the first season of Amazon's "Carnival Row." The show premiered in August 2019, and since then, Amazon has released two epic fantasy series connected to well-loved, already-existing source material: "The Wheel of Time" and, of course, the juggernaut of them all, "The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power."

Even without these projects diverting Amazon's attention, one can't help but feel that the studio let "Carnival Row" — which boasts an impressive cast led by Orlando Bloom and Cara Delevingne — fall by the wayside. And one can't also help but think that when the show's creator, Travis Beacham, left the series just months after season 1, there might have been some strife within the production that ultimately wouldn't bode well for the series.

Season 2, which is also the final season of the series, reflects these setbacks, although Beacham's intricately created world full of fae and humans remains more or less intact. But even the most impressive worldbuilding can't save a series if the characters and the plot can't live up to it. The last 10 episodes of "Carnival Row" have some moments, but the series becomes a slog that even repeated shots of entrails can't save.

Welcome back to the Row

If you need a refresher on where things stand at the beginning of season 1 as I surely did, here's where we're at: In the Burgue, the Victorian-esque nation run by a parliament of racist humans, fae folk (primarily winged pixies like Delevingne's Vignette and ram-horned pucks, although there is a quick nod to a centaur at one point) have been corralled into the Row and unable to leave. Former Detective Inspector Philo (Bloom) is in there as well. Philo, as we found out in season 1, is half-fae (and the son of the now-dead Chancellor, played by Jared Harris) and embraces his heritage by announcing as such and letting himself be thrown into the Row with his love, Vignette, and her former love, Tourmaline (Karla Crome).

Vignette and Philo aren't the only star-crossed lovers on the show — Imogene (Tamzin Merchant), a woman of high Burgish society, and the self-made puck, Agreus (David Gyasi) end up falling hopelessly in love and, in the first season finale, left the Burgue (and Imogene's brother) via ship to find a place where they can love each other freely. Throw in two human children of politicians who have risen to power when their fathers died as well as a thespian who finds himself reluctantly embroiled in the highest level of politics, and you've got a rundown of the major players.

The second season widens the map of this world, with us spending time not only in the Burgue, but through the journey of Imogene and Agreus, to the country of The Pact, which is now fighting a civil war after years of battles with the Burgue. The geopolitical machinations of the various countries play a large role in the second season, and the series deserves credit for taking a big swing on creating such a large-wending tale. It's here I should also mention that the scenescapes and set pieces on "Carnival Row" are breathtaking, with the Burgue's buildings along with the airships that fly above it painting a vivid portrait of the Victorian city.

I am a sucker for epic fantasy, and the mise en scène of this show is everything I could ask for. But even someone like me, someone who wants to like this series and get lost in it, struggled to get through certain episodes. The pacing of the season manages to be both too slow and too fast, with overly long monologues and exposition followed by abrupt developments careening its characters and the plot into complex territory.

A great monster sadly can't save a series

That's not to say there weren't enjoyable moments. There's a humanoid creature we meet about halfway through the season that is suitably terrorizing, not least because it has a series of orifices on its arms and belly that look like a series of teeth-filled vaginas that can disembowel victims with alarming precision and alacrity. (This season, like the one before it, also loves to show us the entrails of various people and small animals, a piece of worldbuilding that I admit I could do without.)

"Carnival Row" is far from a perfect show, but it deserves credit for having its multiple storylines touch on consistent themes. One of those themes is how women — human and fae alike — are shackled by the dictates of society. This throughline is one of the stronger points of the show, and some of the related choices the series makes in its final episodes are satisfying in that regard. These choices, however, are sadly not enough to make up for hamfisted character moments. There's one scene, for example, where Philo — beaten up beyond sensibility — starts talking to another, imaginary, version of himself about who he is and why he does what he does. The conceit, after making Philo's internal struggles overly obvious, disappears in the next episode and never returns.

I fear that the second season of "Carnival Row" will disappear from pop culture much like Philo's cheeky doppelgänger does in that aforementioned episode, in part because Amazon is clearly not investing much in promoting the show and in part because of the series struggling to find its footing. The audiobook release about Vignette and Tourmaline before Philo entered their lives called "Tangled in the Dark" remains the best installment in this universe. If you're like me and a fan of this world but not as big a fan of the plot and/or some of the characters, I highly recommend you pick it up. And who knows? Perhaps what the show failed to find on television it can further explore in book format, assuming Amazon is interested and willing to do so.

The first and second seasons of "Carnival Row" are now available on Prime Video.