Carnival Row has a lot going for it, in theory, such as Indira Varma, Cara Delevingne’s eyebrows, and a weathered, beaten-up Orlando Bloom playing a character named Rycroft Philostrate as, basically, Gritty Legolas, whom I shall henceforth refer to as Gregolas. And it undeniably has an aesthetic, even if that aesthetic is just the same old Victorian-Edwardian steampunk fantasy thing that connotes a little bit of strange but not too much strange—it’s Blade Runner for fantasy, you know, it’s the go-to visual aesthetic of the genre. It’s not a switch, it’s a dial, and fiddling with that dial is the whole of artistic direction at the moment; if you turn the dial all the way to one side you get Pennyworth, and, having crossed a minor ocean in between, if you turn it all the way to the other side you get Penny Dreadful. The twopenny spectrum, if you will, of the contemporary fantastical imaginary.
So Carnival Row is Penny Dreadful with the markers mirror-flipped: rather than a gang of secret strange in a sea of mundane, this time it’s a gang of mundane in a sea of strange. This is not a club of misfits vs. a straight world; here we mostly follow a head of state and his family, including his secret illegitimate son who is a cop, and the various people they bother. Plus, some largely unrelated idle-rich society types worried about the subhuman who threatens to come to tea. Here the protagonists are the establishment; it is the public that is strange.
Like in Jeannette Ng’s (excellent, and not to be associated with this dreck just because I mentioned it here) Under The Pendulum Sun, fairyland is a country over the sea, which can be travelled to and traded with. Unlike in Pendulum Sun, here there is no real strangeness to that country as a place. It’s a territory like any other, except some foreigners might have wings, horns, hooves, or horse’s asses. They are an entire eastern continent of fae being invaded, plundered, and colonized by the humans of various small nations from the western continent, such as the Burgue, the Quiviro-Cibolan Pact, and Leonice, which has led to a flood of working-class fae immigrants into the Burgue.
(I’ll revisit those names in a moment, but just to add here, that according to the map—there must always be a map—the eastern continent also features a “Naga” country so I’m really, uh, looking forward to that in a future season, writing as I do from magical cinnamon elephant island some distance south of both this lazy hic sunt Nagaland and the actual and contested state of Nagaland.)
So the theme here, as has been drawn in crayon, is that racism is bad, and now we are to be slapped in the face with this revelation, as if it were a wet trout. The humans do imperialism and colonialism, and consequently slavery and racism, and ultimately anti-immigrant human supremacism to the fae. The show understands that these are bad things, and I suppose that’s a baseline relief because you certainly can’t take that understanding as a given in your speculative fiction. Where the show fails in its treatment of racism, and it most assuredly does fail, is in the same old place as every other half-assed fantastical racism story: in fantasy’s chronic inability to understand what race is, never mind whether racism precedes or succeeds it, and how fantasy “races” make it worse, not better.
So, fine. This show wants to talk about racism, and we shall.
The actual colour line—I mean the one from the real world, the one that all fictional representations of racism are based on—cuts across the casting of both human and fae societies. There are black, brown, and white fae, just like there are black, brown, and white humans, though not in even numbers and not treated equally. In the Burguish parliament, for instance, representatives of both the ruling party, which invaded the fae continent, and the opposition party, which is now against fae immigration, are 85% white men.
When Sophie Longerbane (Caroline Ford) takes leadership of the opposition party, she specifically cites how her mother’s family, refugees from war in the southern “Pharaonic Coast”, were discriminated against because of the colour of their skin. So there is a history of human racism in the Burgue, too. But Longerbane also suggests that such human racism is a vestige of the past, now resolved; to her, only racism against the fae is both present and justified, because the differences between human and fae are more than “skin deep”.
The show attempts to reiterate on several levels that Longerbane is wrong here. First, she is shown to be hypocritical and manipulative, not interested in anything except chaos and incest. Second, she is the villain of the piece throughout, being ultimately responsible for much of the dastardly plot. Third, she is one of three prominent non-white women in the show, all of whom are foils for the core story of the great white father and his two large white sons, and how it’s okay to love pixie women if they’re white, but not human women if they’re not.
But none of that matters in this case. The show doesn’t understand that in the world it has made, Sophie Longerbane is correct, by definition. By reifying fantasy “races” with more-than-trivial differences in phenotype between them, such as trows, centaurs, werewolves, winged fae, and horned fauns, the show has indeed created a world where humans and fae are truly, genuinely different, in ways that real-world “races” could never be different and were never different, despite the best efforts of the white skull-measurers and human zookeepers.
We know that to say in real life that such and such a human “race” is dangerous and violent is racism; the show seems to think that to say that werewolves are dangerous and violent is therefore also racism. Darius actually does need to be isolated from other people, because he can’t control his transformations or his actions in wolf form. This isn’t bigotry, this is quarantine and merely sensible. That Darius, the only named werewolf character, noted for hypermasculine uncontrolled violence and being in prison the whole season, is played by a black actor (Ariyon Bakare, who also played one of the two Dukes of Hell in Good Omens) in a Magical Negro counselling role to a white protagonist, now that is racism.
To belabour a point probably familiar to many readers of fantasy—but also one apparently unfamiliar to the writers of high-profile fantasy television—this is the reason that fantasy “races” in themselves are a racist trope: because there are no actual “races” in the world outside of what racism imposes, but fantasy races not only exist as wildly variant biological realities but are racially distinct, definitive, usually culturally segregated and possessed of racial characteristics, the full kit and caboodle of imperial-era Burguish British thought. As an act of imagination, it is essentially to ask: what if racist thought was correct, and the world really did work like that? What if there were giants over there and monsters over here and secret wise immortals up there and primitive beast-people down here? What if people actually worked the way that Buffon or Jefferson or Linnaeus or Cuvier or Blavatsky thought? And what if they were not only correct, but what if they didn’t go far enough?
In the real world, lifetimes of antiracist work have gone (and are still going) into undoing the damage of questions in this vein, but the only reason that is even possible is because the racists were, and continue to be, factually wrong about race: because race itself was a dark fantasy, a story told to justify domination and exploitation. It already is and has been for centuries the premise of abominable but utterly ubiquitous ideology in the primary world, and it’s dangerous to be unconscious of that when writing a secondary one.
Why create a fantasy world in which race is real to talk about how racism is bad? The leaden thunk of this dulled question echoes others, like why create a fantasy world of strictly binary and essentialized genders to talk about gender, as so often happens? And so on. The answer is simply that when you attempt to critique oppression without understanding how it works, you can never get beyond basic, counterproductive articulations of your misunderstandings. So you might imagine that antiracism is the good white guy punching the bad white guy (this is how Gregolas is introduced, sigh) or that you can tell a story about racism with a cast of white protagonists who are tormented by black and brown people.
Gregolas is at first presented as the Ally Cop, a human; we swiftly learn that he is a secret fae “half-breed” passing as human, which is illegal in the Burgue, because his wings were clipped off when he was a baby. Excellent eyebrow-haver, Vignette Stonemoss is a regular fae with wings, and represents the authentic white fae culture that Gregolas cannot claim, so he has sex with, lies to, and abandons her. Eventually, they reconcile, obviously, because a show so unimaginative in its basic premises is very predictably unable to escape yr basic colonizer romance. But see, this one is not quite as bad, the show would insist, because the colonizer is “half fae”, and therefore even more virtuous than he was as the ineffectual Ally Cop, because in this world, virtue, like destiny, is in bloodlines and not in actions.
The two large adult sons—Gregolas/Rycroft Philostrate and Jonah Breakspear—share a great white father, the Chancellor of all Burghers and imperialist rex, but Gregolas has a (virtuous, noble, poor, downtrodden) white fae mother and Jonah a (scheming, evil, rich, oppressive) brown human mother, so guess which one grew up protag and which dickweed. And while the brown ambition-monster tiger mum Indira Varma is at first the mastermind of all that is evil, it turns out that behind her is the ultimate instigator, brown chaos succubus, Sophie Longerbane. It’s evil brown women all the way down. Race has transcended race; while rushing to show that humans are wrongly racist toward the fae, the show simultaneously posits that white women must rescue white men from brown women. This is what can happen if you draw a fantastical colour line separate from the real one but don’t understand the reality of that operation in your writing, in your character choices, in your very casting.
There is also a prophecy concerning a chosen one, and Gregolas is, of course, the chosen one also. Because why would there not be, and why would he not. These are the prefabricated Lego(las) blocks of Received Fantasy, and the work of the modern fantasist is merely to assemble these Lego blocks into a familiar structure or—innovation!—into a slightly less familiar structure. I swear to the Martyr, I groaned out loud at the chosen one thing. Can we not? Is it not enough?
I did like the cult of the Martyr, and its replacement of the crucifix with a noose. It was a rare successful instance of Carnival Row’s casual tweak-the-familiar approach, I thought, because it successfully evoked the Christianity it was referencing but also made it strange, and reminded us how strange and disturbing and violent the familiar crucifixion itself is. But perhaps I only thought so for having never been a Christian. It seemed from a distance that it worked, but perhaps this is the same distance from which everything in this show must have seemed to work, to someone.
On the names: I quite enjoyed the old-fashioned character names in this show—cue people arguing that Breakspear is a silly made-up fantasy name—but place names in Carnival Row are what’s truly bizarre. The imperialistic Quiviro-Cibolan Pact are vague red-scary nazi humans, even though their cities are named Quivira and Cibola, which in our world are a racist Spanish imperial myth of “cities of gold” somewhere in North America, which they used as an excuse to plunder Native American and indigenous Mexican settlements. There appears to be no relationship between the history of those names and the Pact as depicted in the show at all, where they are scary steampunk white people with weaponized werewolves and blimps and whatnot. This is not a show that cares what “Cibola” might mean to anybody else; it’s not even a caricature like “Naga”, just a word severed from its roots and ready to be attached to anything. So perhaps the Naga will not be naga after all, but some kind of fantasy New Zealand. The show is fond of such references: Leonice, where Indira Varma comes from, presumably evokes Lyonesse; the ghost of Hy-Brasil appears more definitively as High Bresail. There’s even two adjacent fae countries called Asha and Embla, because presumably that sounded cooler than Adam and Steve, idk.
None of this feels like a serious attempt to build a coherent secondary world out of the mythologies of ours; it just feels like somebody threw darts at a long list of mythological names off Wikipedia and sometimes changed a letter or two. It feels like somebody’s half-assed “worldbuilding” for a drunk session of a role-playing game. So given that the bar has been appropriately lowered to this point, my proposal is that the inevitable season two balances this out by introducing a new island nation somewhere out of the way. It could be that unnamed island south of Mourama, I like that one. Just people it with black or brown people, ordinary fae or humans, call that island Albion for no earthly reason whatsoever, just as irrelevant set dressing—and we’ll call it even.
This has been a pretty negative review, so I’ll add that I didn’t hate this show. It, and many of the people in it, are very pretty, and many of them are wonderful actors doing their best with the material. It’s also really good to see original fantasy work on TV rather than terrible adaptations or unasked-for remakes. I don’t want to leave you with the impression that the show is unusually or particularly racist, either: it isn’t. It’s just the usual, in every way and at every level. That’s the problem.