Carnival Row Season 2 TV Review

Orlando Bloom and Cara Delevigne deliver an epic, if truncated, conclusion to Travis Beacham’s steampunk series

Last Updated on February 23, 2023

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K4viq5Eut5w&ab_channel=JoBloStreaming%26TVTrailers

Plot: With humans and fae folk divided and freedom on the line, each hero will face impossible dilemmas and soul-defining tests in the epic conclusion of Carnival Row

Review: When Carnival Row premiered almost four years ago, I gave it a solid review based on the episodes I had seen. With quality production values and vivid mythology, I found the steampunk-inspired story to be intriguing. Most critics were not so kind, and, despite a quick second season renewal, the delays brought about by the pandemic also meant the sophomore season would be it’s last. While the final season of Carnival Row is two episodes longer than the first, the gap in between has allowed this season to broaden its scope and deliver a fairly epic conclusion to the story of the fictional country known as The Burgue and the war between humans and the supernatural beings that reside in the titular slum. With Orlando Bloom and Cara Delevigne doing solid work, Carnival Row manages to go out on a high note with an ending that closes the story but not the book on this fantastic world.

Initially developed as a spec script by Travis Beacham, writer of Clash of the Titans and Pacific Rim, Carnival Row was originally going to be directed by Guillermo Del Toro. After four years in development, the first season introduced the world of the Fae, Pucks, Haruspex, Kobolds, and more. Echoing the class and racial struggles of the Irish and other minorities in the 19th century through the lens of fantasy, the first season presented a murder mystery wrapped in the love story of Rycroft Philostrate (Orlando Bloom), an inspector and secret half-fae and his former lover Vignette Stonemoss (Cara Delevigne). The first season ended with the death of Absalom Breakspear (Jared Harris) and his son, Jonah (Arty Froushan), ascending to be chancellor of the Burgue. This season, Philo and Vignette find themselves at odds as he pursues justice the legal way. At the same time, she becomes more embedded in the burgeoning rebellion group known as the Black Raven. With most of the cast returning this season, plus the introduction of Joanne Whalley in a critical role, Carnival Row changes its tone a bit and is a substantial improvement.

While the struggles of the minority races of the Row are key to this story, the political machinations of The Burgue and its neighboring countries become a much larger plot element. David Gyasi’s Agreus Astrayon and Tamzin Merchant’s Imogen Spurnrose escaped from The Burgue last season, and their travels factor back into the events involving Philo and Vignette. Still, it is Karla Crome as Tourmaline who gets the biggest boost in screen time this year. After her connection to Alice Krige’s Aoife Tsigani last season, Tourmaline now has a much more powerful ability this season and a more intimate relationship with the main characters. All of the plot elements this season are built to drive the residents of the Row, including Vignette and the Black Raven, to a massive showdown with the oppressive government in a sequence of events that play out like a fantasy equivalent of Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York. Chock full of violence, nudity, and bloodshed, Carnival Row doesn’t have quote the same spark as a Scorsese project, but you can feel what the filmmakers were aiming for.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qBDy-Z-hDJI&ab_channel=JoBloStreaming%26TVTrailers

Orlando Bloom and Cara Delevigne give their all to this series as they did in season one, but the energy feels quite different. With ten episodes to complete this story, both actors have invested in telling a valuable story with a full arc for Philo and Vignette. That means that each episode flows naturally into the next one, each chapter building towards the large-scale clash of warring factions in the final episodes. This also means that the writers, led by Erik Oleson, leave everything on the table and do not shy away from killing characters or taking the plot in a direction it may have gone years from now had this story not been truncated to just two seasons. It can sometimes feel jarring, but because there were years to get this ending right, the course correction happened before cameras rolled, preventing the ending from feeling as rushed as Game of Thrones’ final year did.

Yet, despite the improved special effects and pacing, Carnival Row still lacks something unspoken that would have warranted more of an investment from viewers. As solid as Bloom and Delevigne are, the finale still cannot overcome a bit of abruptness. The two extra episodes this season, as compared to the first, do allow for some breathing room, but the ending does not close the book on these characters. The finale episode works as the closing of a chapter, and this story is given a satisfactory conclusion, but it does not feel as satisfying as it could have. The first season was an underbaked introduction to this fantasy world, and the second season finally gets things heated up before ending the tale just as it was getting going. Had Carnival Row continued for another season or more, I could have seen it building a substantial fanbase. Instead, this series ends just as it was starting to get good.

Carnival Row was always going to be a tough sell to audiences with the largest selection of choices in history, but it still provided a distinct visual world we do not see as often as we should. The production values have never been the weak part of this series, and the weaker elements in the character development and scale of the narrative have all been improved this time. Unfortunately, a missing spark of energy keeps this series from inspiring the viewer the way a great fantasy tale should. At least until the final episodes. Carnival Row finally finds a way to rouse its audience, but only by bringing this story to its conclusion. Maybe there is potential for this world to be revisited with a new cast of characters, but should this be the end of our visits to The Burgue, it is a solid way to end things.

Carnival Row premieres its second and final season on February 17th on Prime Video.

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About the Author

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Alex Maidy has been a JoBlo.com editor, columnist, and critic since 2012. A Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic and a member of Chicago Indie Critics, Alex has been JoBlo.com's primary TV critic and ran columns including Top Ten and The UnPopular Opinion. When not riling up fans with his hot takes, Alex is an avid reader and aspiring novelist.