Carnival Row Season 2 Premiere Review – “Fight or Flight” and “New Dawn”

Carnival Row season 2 premieres on Prime Video on February 17, 2023.

The first season of Prime Video’s Carnival Row ended dramatically, with most of the main characters either dying or being pushed into some form of exile or disgrace. The absence of many of the anchoring plots and actors is keenly felt in the premiere of the urban fantasy show’s second and final season, which just doesn’t seem to have enough strong pieces left to build a new foundation.

Set in a steampunk world where the lands of the fae have been conquered by fantasy versions of England and Russia, Carnival Row’s first season was built on three pillars: mystery, romance and political intrigue. With the brilliant investigator Rycroft Philostrate (Orlando Bloom) losing his job after it was revealed he was secretly half-fae, the first two episodes of the show have to do a lot of narrative lifting to rebuild the vaguely Lovecraftian noir that kept season 1’s plot moving. There’s a case so baffling it seems only the disgraced Philo might be able to solve it, and hopefully it ends better than the underwhelming conclusion of season 1.

Season 1 went heavy on the romance, following both the complicated love story of Philo and the faerie Vignette Stonemoss (Cara Delevigne) and the even more satisfying Jane Austen-style courtship of the socialite Imogen Spurnrose (Tamzin Merchant) and the rich fawn Agreus Astrayon (David Gyasi). Unfortunately Imogen and Agreus are barely in “Fight or Flight,” the first episode of the season 2 premiere, and the relationship between Vignette and Philo is strained due to their disparate views on the best ways to help the fae confined to the Carnival Row neighborhood of the Burgue.

Carnival Row’s political intrigue was never especially interesting.

Carnival Row’s political intrigue was never especially interesting, even when it was driven by the impressive acting talents of Jared Harris and Indira Varma, and their younger successors aren’t just out of their depth in character. Following the death of Harris’ Chancellor Absalom Breakspear, Absalom’s milquetoast son Jonah (Arty Froushan) has inherited his father’s position but none of his gravitas.

Jonah is a puppet of the opposition leader Sophie Logerbane (Caroline Ford), who also inherited her position in the carnage at the end of season 1, but she has so little credibility as a master plotter that she can only stand up to weaklings and straw men who can’t see past her obvious schemes to take their money and power. Attempts to build some form of nuance into her character by showing her kind treatment of a puck servant do little to give her even a shadow of the depth Harris had after years of perfecting his portrayal of tortured masterminds, or that Varma showed playing ruthless women in Rome and Game of Thrones.

COVID-19 caused a nearly four-year delay between seasons.

Most of these issues come from the decisions made in ending season 1, but COVID-19 also caused a nearly four-year delay between seasons, which makes it hard to fall back into Carnival Row’s dense lore. With only one season to wrap everything up, the premiere feels like a jumble of new plots and abruptly ended old ones.

As a result of Absalom’s assassination, the fae have been locked into Carnival Row with a cage of barbed wire that provides one of the premiere’s most haunting visuals. That left faerie courtesan Tourmaline Larou (Karla Crome) with nothing to do, so the writers have jammed her into a cliche plot where she might be possessed. Tourmaline was a great source of comic relief and an excellent foil to her more serious friend and former lover Vignette in season 1, but that levity is gone as the Row has become a miserable, plague-ridden prison. The show could always be serious in its commentary on the treatment of refugees, but the pain is laid on a little too thick in season 2.

What little there is of Agreus and Imogen continues to be a highlight. Having left the Burgue behind, the couple find themselves navigating political unrest that challenges both of their expectations of the way class, wealth, and money work. Introducing an entirely new setting, their plot has the most promise, but it’s hard to argue season 2 is worth watching just for their limited scenes.