The first season of Prime Video’s gritty fantasy series Carnival Row felt like a small part of a much bigger world. Not every decision had crystal-clear logic to it, but there was always more below the surface — a fae in a refugee village wore Eastern European-influenced clothes, more distinctive than your typical TV fantasy robes. As season 1 wound its mystery up, the world around it seemed to simply exist, with all its conflicts and conundrums. Maybe the drama went a little off the rails by the end, but it mattered that it had rails to begin with.
In its second — and, crucially, final — season, it feels like the world isn’t being tempered at all. And in the first two episodes, very little sticks: Philo (Orlando Bloom) and Vignette (Cara Delevingne) are back and together, each rebelling in their own way from the Carnival Row ghetto. Jonah Breakspear (Arty Froushan) is acting chancellor of the Burgue, trying to hold onto power and working with Sophie Longerbane (Caroline Ford) to further their political agenda. Elsewhere, Imogen (Tamzin Merchant) and Agreus (David Gyasi) are still on the run from her brother, and find themselves at the hands of something even more dangerous: The Pact, a fearsome alliance of countries at war with the Republic.
Without the backbone of a mystery, the first two episodes of season 2 feel a bit overstuffed and aimless as they set out to make a brave new world of Carnival Row. Following the season 1 finale’s annexation of the fae and faun creatures to the Row, tensions are flaring and everyone is itching for a fight. But there’s not much sense of where the writers will funnel that energy, either from what the characters are up to or where the plot is going. Season 1 was built on a sturdy framework, while the new batch of episodes is paced like it’s being dreamt up as the story goes along. Even the long-awaited introduction to The Pact and its way of life ends up feeling rushed. The ending is looming and Carnival Row is covering as much as the show can, with its players as far flung as they can be.
Without the framework of a procedural, the seams of Carnival Row feel apparent. Philo’s arc always had one foot in a passing narrative and the other in a “Chosen One” archetype, and the mishmash of them certainly confused his storyline by the end of season 1. In the early parts of season 2 that balance is still struggling, but with a grimdark world on top of it and no investigations to drive him in episodes 1 and 2, he falls back on being a fantasy revolutionary. As he casts about for a larger purpose, the edges of what made his story distinct from the rest of the fantasy fare get sanded away. His identification with the fae has gotten much neater, and it makes his battle feel a bit more generic. When that gets set against the expanse of Carnival Row season 2’s expanded world, it threatens to swallow Philo whole.
And with everyone starting from their respective corners of the Burgue, the sprawl works against Carnival Row. No doubt as the season goes on their stories will become more intertwined, but the first two episodes don’t flicker with the friction of an incoming story collision, or how much world there actually is between the players. What once felt like just a representative cut of the world now feels like it’s potentially a sinkhole for the show to fall into. In its first season it seemed like the show could run for years and years, methodically building out the wider world of the Burgue and beyond. But cut down to just two seasons, Carnival Row feels like it’s buckling under the weight of that world.
The first two episodes of Carnival Row season 2 are streaming now on Amazon Prime Video. New episodes drop every Friday.