Warning: This post contains major spoilers for Carnival Row season one.
A Victorian world full of pixies, fauns, dark magic, and undead Frankenstein monsters sounds as removed from life in 2019 as possible. And yet, Carnival Row‘s first season was unrelenting in reminding us of some of the biggest issues we face today. Rather than abstain from being too timely or only dealing with universal questions about the nature of life, the series actively forced us to think about our treatment of refugees and how society can lose its moral compass when it gives in to fear. That didn’t prevent the show from offering an escape from our problems, though. It merely did so by way of its classic and compelling love story. Carnival Row‘s love story was not only the series at its best, it also made the show’s message about the modern world more meaningful.
The season began with citizens of a war-torn country fleeing their home by an oppressive imperial regime. It ended with a supposedly “moral” nation locking those same persecuted refugees in a concentration camp. It was impossible not to think about the horrors that accompany every nightly newscast watching both moments unfold. Jonah gaining political power by exploiting the fear of “others” felt all too real too. “Make The Burgue great again” by telling your citizens the different-looking people from across the border are the real cause of all their problems. Then hope they ignore the wealth and indifference of its nation’s elite who are really to blame.
If you were hoping to lose yourself in an immersive world of the Fae so you could forget about life in 2019 for a few hours, Carnival Row refused to let you do so. Its timely social commentary felt more like sci-fi than fantasy. But where the treatment of The Burgue’s Fae immigrants slammed us right back into the uncomfortable reality of our own world, the story of Philo and Vignette let us break free of it.
Their story was consistently moving, starting with their tearful reunion in the premiere when she put a knife to his neck after learning he was still alive. That same raw emotion was there when she plead with his jailers to let him go, and when he voluntarily joined her in the Row’s encampment. Two star-crossed lovers yearning to be together might not feel as original or fantastical as a Dark Asher stealing livers from its victims, but there’s a reason you still believe in the chance Romeo and Juliet might survive a play that opens with the promise of their deaths. A good love story never feels dated; investing in two people who have fully invested in each other, including all of their joy and all of their pain, will always offer an escape from our own lives. It’s the purest form of storytelling—to love, to lose, to regret, to return, and ultimately to endure together.
The tale of the pixie with the beautiful voice was merely an interesting murder mystery at first and not much more. But when we learned she was Philo’s mother, her death became something far more heartbreaking. She wasn’t a random victim whose life we were removed from. She was a woman named Aisling who once loved and performed, and she made an incredible sacrifice to protect her son. Knowing all of that made her death truly matter.
Carnival Row‘s commitment to telling those personal stories—whether it was Tourmaline, Imogen and Agreus, or the doctor and the priest—made the show touching and accessible. And it also made its social commentary more meaningful. Philo and Vignette weren’t anonymous faces being locked up in that concentration camp, they were real people whose story we invested in because we could empathize with them. We could feel them fighting against a world that didn’t want them together, even if it makes us recognize how little we fight for all the Philos and Vignettes in ours. Every person told by a “better” country they aren’t welcome, and each refugee who sits behind a cage despite committing no crimes, has their own story that should command the same empathy. Carnival Row wants us to remember that, even if we wanted to forget it.
The show started and ended with two scenes taken from our world in 2019. In between, it let us escape our reality with a classic love story that will be as accessible tomorrow as it was yesterday. And that made what Carnival Row had to say about today mean so much more.
Featured Image: Amazon/Legendary